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Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries

 

The Key to Gaining the Kingdom  audio

Matt 5:1-15 

What does the word blessed – or bless-ed mean to you? I remember it was the closest thing to a swear word that my mother used to use: – “Those blessed ants are back in the kitchen!” More seriously though, it’s used to describe saints – “Blessed Saint Patrick”, “The Blessed Virgin Mary. If an ordinary person is described as blessed we generally mean they’re enjoying good fortune; God has been kind to them; they’ve received the rewards for their good life.

But what does Jesus mean when he describes this list of people as blessed? What did his hearers understand by it?

As we so often find in English the one word can mean various things, depending on the context. But in Hebrew and Greek there were two different words used for blessed. The first was used when you were talking about God doing something good for you. e.g. “The Lord bless you and keep you” is a prayer that God will look after you and bring you prosperity” But the other word that’s used speaks of a state of blessedness, or being at rest, at peace. It’s a bit like the idea of “Shalom”.

We see this sort of thing pictured in Micah where we read: “1In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, … 4they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:1-4, NRSV) Can you sense the feeling that goes with that promise? Sitting in the shade under your own vines and fig trees, in peace; enjoying all the bounty of the land; drinking refreshing wine; eating fresh figs on a beautiful summers day. This is the idea behind this second word for blessed. It has the idea of someone recognising an existing state of happiness or good fortune. In English we tend to add a verbal hyphen, to make the word bless-ed.  So when Jesus uses the term “Blessed” he’s indicating a quality or state that’s already present. He’s not saying if you do something you’ll get something. It isn’t that if you’re meek you’ll inherit the earth. He isn’t encouraging a particular sort of behaviour. Rather he’s pointing out the genuine spirituality and joy of people who have or will be given some blessing. This is so different from our normal protestant work ethic sort of thinking isn’t it, where it’s all about causality, about reward for performance?

So let’s think about what Jesus is saying in the first three of these nine beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Who is Jesus talking about there? In Luke’s account it’s just the poor. Is this Matthew spiritualising what Luke heard as a more earthly description of material need? Or is Matthew, being so grounded in the Jewish Scriptures, hearing a prophetic voice. Are the poor in spirit those who’ve humbled themselves before God? Listen to what Is 66:2 says: “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the poor and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” To his hearers this would have been the natural understanding of “The Poor”, so Matthew includes “in spirit” to help us non-Jews understand.

So Jesus is saying that it’s these blessed ones, these people with a humble and contrite heart who make up the kingdom of heaven. But what’s the kingdom of heaven? Well, it has to do with the rule of God. His kingdom is the place where his rule holds sway. The Lord’s prayer asks that God’s kingdom would come, as though this kingdom is yet to appear, or is slowly unfolding, Yet Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God is here, or that the kingdom of God has come upon you  (Luke 11:12)

For many of his hearers this would have invoked thoughts of the return of the Messiah to establish Israel as a nation ruled over by God alone. But here Jesus says the kingdom is present, not in the freedom fighters but in the poor in spirit. They already possess the kingdom. What’s more, if they possess the kingdom then it’s not an earthly, physical kingdom, but rather a spiritual kingdom.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

 This is perhaps the hardest of the sayings to deal with. How are those who mourn bless-ed? Surely in this fallen world those who mourn are the opposite of being blessed. Where mourning occurs there’s always suffering involved.

So how are we meant to understand this saying?

We live in a world where suffering is avoided at all costs. We pay huge amounts of money to pharmaceutical companies to avoid it. We have a medical system that’s set up to take away pain and suffering wherever possible. We don’t talk about death because it’s too painful to think about or because we’re afraid to face our own mortality.

Yet we know that suffering is one of the great educators. The child who burns their hand on the stove will be very careful next time. The person who has a health scare suddenly becomes much more focussed on their diet or their exercise.

Pain and suffering changes our priorities. Just ask those asylum seekers who’ve walked away from their homes with nothing but what they could carry because the danger of staying was too great. 

We mourn for all sorts of reasons. We generally associate mourning with death but it’s equally connected with loss of other sorts: the loss of youth; the breakdown of relationships; moving away from familiar surrounds to a new home; illness and disability of one sort or another. It’s a long list. But Jesus tells us that those who are among the bless-ed also experience the comfort of God in the midst of suffering.

Let me read you one of those perplexing wisdom passages from Ecclesiastes 7:2-4:

2It is better to go to the house of mourning

           than to go to the house of feasting;
           for this is the end of everyone,
           and the living will lay it to heart.
             3Sorrow is better than laughter,
           for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
             4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
           but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

I have to say I don’t particularly enjoy funerals. In fact they were one of my least favourite duties as a vicar. I’d much rather celebrate a baptism or a wedding. Funerals are not happy times. But there’s something different about a funeral for a faithful follower of Jesus. In among all the sadness there’s also a rejoicing at the assurance of eternal life; there’s an awareness of God’s presence with those who mourn; there’s the comfort of God’s people surrounding those who mourn, to hold them up and keep them strong in the face of loss.

But there’s another type of mourning that I haven’t mentioned. That’s the mourning over the evil we see in the world around us, particularly the evil we see when people are treated unjustly. We look at the injustices in the world and are reminded that God is watching and he will bring about justice in the end.

Finally the faithful also mourn over the evil in their own lives as we acknowledge our failure to overcome temptation without God’s help. It’s the bless-ed who experience this sort of mourning and it’s to them that God’s comfort comes as we accept his promise of forgiveness.

Before we go on, I wonder, can you see the connection at this stage between the first and second saying. It’s those who are humble and poor in spirit; who understand their need for salvation; who gladly receive it as a gift to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. And it’s those who mourn, whether over some loss, or some injustice, or over their own failures, who receive God’s comfort.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

We need a bit of technical help here, again with a word translation. The earth is a translation of the Hebrew word for land and “land” can mean a number of things. It could mean land in general. It might also mean the whole earth, the place where people dwell. And it has been used to describe the general theatre of history. “When people first walked upon the earth.”

But clearly, here Jesus is referring to the Land of Promise; the place here God will dwell with his people. In fact Jesus appears to be quoting Psalm 37:9-11: “9For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. 10Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. 11But the meek (or the humble) shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.”

Think about the people who are listening to Jesus as he says all this. They’ve been taught since childhood that the land was promised to them by God as an everlasting inheritance. Yet for their entire life they’ve been under the rule of an occupying army. Just like today, it appeared that it was the mighty who would own the earth. The meek would always be the slaves and underdogs. It seemed like there were only two alternatives. That of Herod and his followers who were happy to compromise in order to maintain some semblance of power and that of the Zealots, the rebels who were building up to a major confrontation with Rome. Of course that confrontation would come in about 35 years’ time and result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

But here Jesus is saying, “No, the world doesn’t understand. In God’s economy it’s the meek who’ll inherit the Promised Land.” So does he mean the physical land of Israel as some Christian fundamentalists believe? Was Trump right in moving his embassy to Jerusalem? Or is the promise of inheriting the land a spiritual promise? Well, Paul seems to move that way when he writes in Romans 4 that the promise to Abraham was that he would inherit the world and then in Romans 8 where he says: “21The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23… while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” He sees not just the Promised Land but the whole creation as being the new place of God’s blessing. 

So who are these meek who will inherit the earth. Again, the word can conjure up a number of ideas.

First there’s the idea of humble obedience to God’s word, or God’s guidance. It’s the person who goes where their instructed. It’s important to realise that it doesn’t have any connotation of weakness, simply willing obedience. So, for example, it was used of an trained war stallion who has all the strength required to fight a battle but who responds instantly to the control of its master.

Meek can also refer to the way we relate to other people. In the Greek context it could refer to someone who walks the golden mean between recklessness and cowardice. So it might refer to someone who responds to injustice in a measured and controlled degree, not losing their temper, but not letting the injustice go unstopped. So in our context to protest strongly against the unethical treatment of asylum seekers or the mistreatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters would be to act with meekness.

So again there may be a movement in Jesus’ thoughts here: from those who are humble and poor in spirit; who understand their need for salvation and to whom the kingdom of God belongs; to those who mourn, whether over some loss, or some injustice, or over their own failures, who will be comforted in God’s kingdom; to those who follow God’s guidance and direction to act ethically and moderately to bring about justice in this world as they wait to inherit the new earth in God’s heavenly kingdom.

It’s something of a contrast to the normal idea of a victorious Christian life isn’t it? That’s not to say that the Christian life isn’t a victorious one. It’s just that the victory has been won by Christ but we’re still living with the struggles of a fallen world waiting for the new Creation to be ushered in.

And can you see the difference it makes if we understand that our blessedness arises not from what we do but from God’s action in sending Jesus to redeem us? These are words of comfort, not of condemnation; not given to us as an incentive to do good works. Yet at the same time they’re words that inspire us to see that God has called us into a kingdom where different rules apply, where different standards of life and behaviour apply. We’re called to understand that we’re those who humbly rely on God to bring in his kingdom, who look to God to comfort us when we suffer, and who are placed here to serve him as his obedient servants; to stand against the injustices we see, because this earth is ours; because he’s chosen us to be his stewards.

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Phone: 0422187127
 
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