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Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 4

Martin Luther once said:

`Twas a strange thing the world should be offended at him who raised the dead, made the blind to see, and the deaf to hear, etc. They who would deem such a man a devil, what kind of a God would they have? But here it is. Christ would give to the world the kingdom of heaven, but they will have the kingdom of the earth…”a

A short review will help as we discuss the next beatitude.

The world perceives the kingdom of heaven to be a threat to their kingdoms. As the atheists of the first century acknowledged, these Christians turned the world upside down with their message and their lives. The kingdom is God’s world coming to earth. This new world is a world that manifests itself in an entirely different fashion than the present kingdoms. It is upside down; it is foolish to those whore are perishing.

In short, the Beatitudes are instructions for how we are to live in this world; but beyond that, it is also how we turn the world upside down. The Beatitudes reveal how the actions of Christians will transform the world from an ethic of shame to an ethic of honor. They are value statements. When you read them do not limit the word blessed as simply happy, but look at it as honorable.  In other words, to live this Beatitude/Beatific life is an honor. Jesus is saying that if you live in this way you will be honored and exalted in due time. Again, this is the paradox of the Christian message: that when you are poor in spirit you are honored in the kingdom of heaven.

The Beatitudes serve as a poem divided into two sections; each section contains 36 words. In this poem, Jesus is not telling us that if we live this way we will enter the kingdom of heaven, rather Jesus is saying that this is how kingdom-disciples live; those who have been transformed by the grace of the gospel are now called to transform the world.

We established the first beatitude “poor in spirit” as a foundational beatitude to understanding the other seven. To be poor in spirit is to depend on the infinite riches of God in Christ Jesus; it is to reject the self-sufficient way that so many live in our day, and instead embrace a life of supreme dependence upon God’s Word. Our look at the Beatitudes continues in verse 4:

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

[2] And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

[3] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[4] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

The Beatitudes are about Jesus coming as Restorer of His people. Israel has been an outcast and now Jesus comes to restore her; but he is coming to restore a particular type of people– a people who mourn. How honorable it is for those who mourn, for they shall be comforted! This is a fulfillment of Isaiah 61, which says that Yahweh will comfort those who mourn.What is Jesus not saying not saying in this Beatitude? Jesus is not saying that those who are constantly in a state of self-pity and shame and who are looking deeply inwardly for sins and are crying over their transgressions will be comforted. There is a sense in which we mourn over our sins, but this is not what mourning means in the context of the Beatitudes. In this context, those who mourn are those who grieve over the condition of this present world. Those who mourn are those who hope that the world will be made right. Those who mourn have a biblical sense that something is not right in this world and this leads to marvelous expectation for the work of the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn will be comforted because they know that the kingdom of heaven is the only hope for the world. They believe that the Gospel will transform lives and form a new humanity. N.T. Wright says:

But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose in-breaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness…b

N.T. Wright summarizes well this beatitude. Those who mourn are those who seek the shalom of the city; they are the ones who desire to see the present world reconciled to Jesus Christ and who desire the kingdom of heaven to be the ultimate and true kingdom of all the world. Those who mourn wish to see that tyrants will be confronted by the good news of God’s kingdom and be humbled and bow down to King Jesus. This beatitude is a parallel to the prophetic word of the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 9. In that chapter, Yahweh is going to destroy the city, but He will protect and mark one particular group of people: those who mourn over the abominations of the city. These are the ones who will be comforted. This background shapes how we understand this beatitude. The ones mourning are the ones who grieve over the atrocities and the many sins committed against Yahweh and His anointed One. The people in the kingdom of heaven don’t live their lives expecting to escape this  they live their lives hoping to see this world transformed. This is why we are called to mourn, and in our mourning we will find that Yahweh will comfort us with a vision of a transformed world.

Practically, we cannot mourn something we do not understand. We cannot understand the depths of this broken world unless we see this broken world. We are called to act in our mourning. Crying over the lost condition of the world is not enough. We mourn by participating in restoration. We lament the state of things and we know that there is destruction and doom for those who do not turn to the kingdom of heaven in repentance, but we also become active participants in restoring this broken world. The vision is global, but it begins locally. We begin by looking to our own city; to our own neighborhoods and our own families. Is there enough brokenness around us to keep us longing and mourning for God’s kingdom? How honorable are those who mourn; who understand the true significance of how the world has been wrecked by sin, but also how the world will be restored by Jesus Christ. They who mourn will be comforted.

  1. Martin Luther, http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/documents/Table_talk/table_talk.html  (back)
  2. http://godspace.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/nt-wright-the-kingdom-of-god-and-the-need-for-social-justice/  (back)

Not something to be exploited…

The well known hymn of Philippians two has been the source of great consternation to the Pauline scholars. What precisely is Paul saying when he says –as our ESV renders– “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” N.T. Wright notes in the Climax of the Covenant that Jesus did not abandon his divinity in order to become human, rather that verse six should be translated as “who, being in the form of God, did not regard this divine equality as something to be used for his own advantage, but rather emptied himself… (83)”

Sermon: Prayer, Liturgy, and Time, I Timothy 2:1-2, Part I

People of God, we are coming to the end of the Church Year. In two weeks we begin the journey of Advent. Advent is a season of expectation and hope for the Christian. We will walk through the expectations of the First Century saints and see the glory of that expectation fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that many of you who grew up in broadly evangelical churches will find this idea of a church calendar strange. Why the changes in liturgical colors? Why is a calendar even needed? Or why shouldn’t we just allow the pastor to preach whatever he is comfortable with, and allow that to form our themes for the year? These are important questions to consider. And let me say up-front that there is nothing sinful or erroneous about preaching about the crucifixion during Christmas. Or about the resurrection during Lent. But one of the questions I think is worth considering is “what is the nature and purpose of time?” Why is time important?” Is there wisdom is being shaped by a historically driven calendar, rather than a calendar of our own making? I believe there is much wisdom in it, and I think the Church has been wise in following this calendar throughout the centuries. So why is time important?  First, time is important because it shapes us as a people. We are a time-oriented people. Everyone of us has 24 hours in a day. The way we choose to use this time is crucial in developing our character and personality. If we are always late to events we are telling the world that order does not matter. If we seldom meet deadlines we are telling the world that discipline does not matter. And the examples abound. Time is important. Time is ethically and sociologically important. Jesus believed this was the case. He said things like “The time is at hand.” The kingdom was near when he arrived in the first century. Later in Mark 13 he says “these things shall come upon this generation.” If time didn’t matter to Jesus he would have said, “these things will happen upon a non-specified generation.” But Jesus was very clear to his first century audience.

But another reason time is important is because it belongs to Christ and His Church. Jesus is the Creator of time. Before the world began there was no need for time, but when Jesus set the world into motion with His words time began to tick cosmically.

We are part of a culture that sees time as individualistic. As Christians, many times we isolate ourselves from others. We like to do things our own on our own times. So we rationalize that time for us is not the same as time for them. The reality, however, is that time is God’s, and He has specifically given time to His Son, and His Son beautifies, glorifies His Bride by giving her time.

To use a marital dialogue, Jesus is saying: “Beloved, I want to help you to use your time wisely.”

So over the centuries, the Church has listened to her Bridegroom and fashioned herself around a Calendar. There are feast or holy days that we as a Church in Pensacola, Florida celebrate together with other little underground churches in Iran and in China. We share Fourth of July only other fellow Americans, but we share Easter with the whole Christian world. And this is no trivial thing.

I also want to say that it is a good thing to honor our national holidays. God has been good to this country, though this country has in many ways failed to live as God desires. One crucial feature of a Christian is that he possess a heart of gratitude for those things God has given him. Here is my point: We need to honor special days in our Calendar, but ultimately national holidays are to be submissive to ecclesiastical holy days. The work of the Church will carry a place of greater importance in God’s plans. Nations will come and go, but the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church.

I say all these things as we come to the end of the Church Year. But within that Church Year we can take some time to reflect on certain American holidays. We have the opportunity to consider these holidays and use them in a way that mirrors  the Christian gospel. And I can think of no better opportunity to do this than with Thanksgiving. I Chronicles 16: 8: “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!”

We are entering a brief season of thanksgiving. Of course, we must always give thanks, but when a holiday comes along that stresses thanksgiving we think it is a great time to consider this topic. But as we know we tend to replace the important thing for the less important. And we do as a people in this season need to prioritize Thanksgiving over turkeys and touchdowns.[1] Though many of you testify that Thanksgiving with turkey and touchdowns is an even better combination.

So time is of the essence! It helps shape us and it reminds us of our allegiance to Christ and the Church. Liturgy and time go together. One cannot exist without the other.

N.T. Wright says the following:

“Good Christian liturgy is friendship in action… the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared — an ultimately better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about.”[2] Continue reading Sermon: Prayer, Liturgy, and Time, I Timothy 2:1-2, Part I