By Paul Koch –
Every year as the church celebrates All Saints Day, we turn our attention to our Lord’s words in Matthew Chapter 5. These words of blessing have become familiar to us. We have grown use to their rhythm and their simple beauty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…” Over the years we have heard many sermons on these words. We’ve studied them and digested them and wrestled with them over and again. They are a proclamation of blessing spoken by Christ to his disciples as they are surrounded by a great crowd of onlookers on a small mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
And so today we get after it one more time. One more time we will engage the beatitudes of our Lord. Perhaps by now, you might think that there is nothing left to mine out of this text. After all, it is old and well known. Why not focus our attention somewhere else? Why not take a look at some lesser known part of scripture? There wouldn’t be anything essentially wrong with doing that, I suppose. But before we do, I think it might be beneficial to see this familiar reading in the full context that it is given. For in the context of Matthew’s Gospel the Beatitudes play a pivotal role. A role that still functions in our lives today.
Matthew Chapter 5 is the beginning of the great Sermon on the Mount. For the next three chapters, our Lord will exhort his followers to be good and do good to others. It is a sermon of incredible inspiration on one hand, and withering demands on the other. We don’t get a lot of long sustained discourses of our Lord recorded in the pages of Scripture, but here we have a masterpiece. He speaks of his followers as salt of the earth and the light of the world. He reminds us all that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. Then he reaches deep into our hearts and exposes our sin. “You have head that you shall not murder, but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. You have heard that you shall not commit adultery, but I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery in his heart. You have heard it said that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Then he goes on to talk about our prayer life and fasting and where our treasure truly is. He speaks of being anxious about the future, and judging others, and the golden rule.
But all of it, all of the words of encouragement and correction from our Lord begin with these beatitudes. The beatitudes themselves give us a sense of how crucial they are when they give to us both a present and future blessing. They begin and end with a present tense blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And at the end, “Blessed are those who are persecuted…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Is, right now, right at this time. But in between, all the others are set in the future. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” That means as we each begin our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, we begin having received the present and future blessing of the Lord’s proclamation that in his Word we are blessed. This gives you a lot of comfort for the journey ahead. For what plays out in these chapters isn’t all that different from what plays out in your own life, yet the beginning point – the blessing of the beatitudes – changes absolutely everything.
Think of these chapters from Matthew as a sort of description of your life. You gather here at this place. You gather in the gifts and the blessings of Christ. This is not a place of your doing. It isn’t that you’ve become successfully poor in spirit, or been rightfully mournful, or discovered the proper way to hunger and thirst for righteousness resulting in a reward with his blessings. No, you’ve found that poor in spirit, mournful, and thirsting for righteousness is simply what you are. It is the reality of your life lived in sin and the corruption of our age. You come here empty handed, without anything to offer your Lord. And here he says to you, “Blessed.” That’s right, he calls you blessed! He proclaims to you that you are blessed. You are salt and light, his brothers and sisters, children of God, heirs of eternal life. Not by what you have accomplished, not by what you have done, but just the opposite. Being unable to do anything, he has done it for you.
So now what? Well now you head out into the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For you, this means that you head out into your life to live as the children that he has declared you to be. And it is here that we see the saints of God truly at work, for the life of God’s children is not one of ease and comfort simply full of victory and happiness. No, the life of a saint of God is often marked by trial and hardship, suffering and failure. You head out to not murder or commit adultery and to love your neighbor, but what you find is that though you may succeed in doing these things outwardly within your heart there is anger and hatred and lust and a general selfishness that prohibits true love of your neighbor. In other words, you move from the blessing given freely in Christ out into living in that freedom, and here you find that sin still clings to you and you fail and struggle along the way.
This is the beginning of the great cycle that is the Christian life: a cycle that sends us round and round again as we longingly await the return of our Lord. It all begins with his Word to you. A declaration of his blessings outside of any work or merit on your part. Out of his divine goodness and mercy along Christ declares that in him you are blessed, you are blessed right now in the present time and you are given a future promise of that blessing a fulfillment that will come in the new heavens and new earth. And so, you take this blessing, this Word of Christ for you, and you head out into the world to live out such a Word. There the evil foe lies in wait, and he is not alone. No, Satan has a willing accomplice within your own heart that longs to rise up again and stand in opposition to our God. And so the world, the devil and your own sinful flesh cause both doubt and selfish desires.
Now, God’s Word, like the sermon on the mount, reveals your sin. There are those you have hurt and those you have failed to help, there is lust and coveting that fills your soul. Though you have been given such wonderful blessings of God, though he has sacrificed his only begotten Son for you, he finds time and again that you are ungrateful. You live as if you matter more than your God, as if you were the final authority, the final judge of a life well lived. There is no escape no hiding from the light of the Word of God.
And so, you are left without anything of your own to stand upon. You are empty handed beggars, in fact you are rightly called the poor in spirit. You are the mournful and the meek and those who hunger and thirst for a righteousness that you cannot provide on your own. And before you know it you find yourself back at the beginning of the sermon, back with empty hands sitting before the great beatitudes of Christ. As he looks at you this day and declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
See, you gather here in the Word of Christ’s promise. In the declaration of a present tense, real time, this moment, Word of Gospel and with it a future promise of comfort and satisfaction is given. Here I am sent to proclaim to you that for you Christ has died. For you he has risen from the grave. For you he will come again. You are never forsaken nor forgotten for you are the very saints of God. You are the blessed ones.
And so yes, we go through it again, and again, and again. We go from the beatitudes to the sermon on the mount and back into the beatitudes again. We live here and now in the rhythm of this journey, but it will not always be so. No, one day it will come to an end. One day Christ will come and the old will be done away with and you will see with your own eyes the saints you already are.