Sermon notes 02-02-20 The Right-side Up Kingdom

Matthew 5:1 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.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I think we all have times when it seems to us that the world is not right, that things are not as they should be. If you pay attention at all to the news and follow world events or even if you don’t look any further than your own life and the lives of people you know, it is hard to avoid the observation that there is a lot wrong with the world. Sometimes it can seem to us like the world has been turned upside down. I know, if you are like me, there are times when you think, “This can’t be the way things are meant to be,” and you wonder how long God will let the world go on like this. It troubles our spirits when we observe all the evil and turmoil and suffering in the world, and we long for a world where righteousness and purity and peace will overcome every wrong.

We rightly long for a better world, a world where righteousness and purity and peace prevail. But in our more introspective moments, in those times when we look within, and we really get honest with ourselves, we realize that the wrong we see in the world is not just “out there.” When we take a hard look at ourselves, at our selfish motives and desires and thoughts and actions and choices, our spirits are troubled with the thought that the problems in the world might just begin with us.

If your spirit is troubled today by our upside down world or your upside down life—in other words if you are feeling poor in spirit because of what you observe and experience without and within—I have some good news for you this morning. Our Lord says that you are blessed! You just heard Jim read the words of Jesus, and I will repeat them, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This is the first of several weeks in a row when our Gospel reading will be a selected portion from the most famous sermon ever preached; our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, which covers three entire chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5, 6 and 7. The familiar passage you just heard from the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount is what is known as the Beatitudes, a word that means ‘blessings.’ In the Beatitudes Jesus speaks over and over (9 times to be exact) of those who are happy or blessed. And in these words of blessing that he speaks very early in his ministry, Jesus sets the tone for what he has come to do and what it will be like to follow him. He has come to completely reverse the world’s values and to defy every natural instinct. In fact Jesus’ teaching seems so unnatural to us that it sounds to us like he came to turn the world upside-down. And Jesus did come to turn the world as we know it upside down, but the world as we know it is in many ways not the kind of world it ought to be. And it is not the way God intended it to be. So maybe it is more accurate to say that Jesus came to turn the world right-side up and to establish his right-side up kingdom.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus introduces a new and radical kingdom. He does so by contrasting the kingdom that currently exists—that is the world as we know it—with the new one that is to come. And Jesus begins contrasting these two kingdoms in the Beatitudes by totaling redefining what it means to be happy and blessed. His re-definition goes against all of our instincts. When we think of happiness and blessing—when we consider what it means for us to feel happy or when we reflect on what it takes for us to feel blessed—we generally think that those feelings correspond with times when things are going our way, when we have what we want, when we are satisfied with our situation, and when others think well of us. In other words, we consider ourselves happy and blessed when things are just the way we would want them to be, right? But Jesus turns that kind of thinking completely on its head. Jesus teaches that the ones who are blessed are those for whom things are decidedly not going their way and those for whom things are not at all the way they would want them to be. Jesus teaches that those who long for things to be different, and those who the world considers to be impoverished, powerless, disadvantaged, rejected and reviled, are the ones who will actually be happy and blessed.

Even for us 21st century Christians those teachings of Jesus are radical, but Jesus’ words would have been even more radical for the people in his time. In biblical times most people believed strongly in the principal of cause and effect.

They believed that if they were good people who obeyed the commandments and worked hard, and tried always to do their best, God would reward them with things like good health and prosperity and happiness. And on the other hand, they believed that God punished bad people, sinners, with things like poverty, disease, and other forms of personal tragedy. They believed for example that if someone was sick, or suffering, or poor, or starving, or persecuted, it was that person’s own fault for sinning. Many believed that God even punished entire groups or nations of sinful people through war, famine, drought, and other kinds of disasters. They believed that persons who suffered did so as the consequence of their own bad behavior because suffering was understood to be punishment for sin. And I think perhaps many of us today would admit that we too are inclined to think in those kinds of ways.

I will confess to you that I still have to fight the temptation to think that God must be punishing me for my sins whenever trials and difficulties come my way. Jesus teaches that it doesn’t work like that in the kingdom of God. He teaches that life isn’t based on the principal of cause and effect. Just a few verses after the Beatitudes in this same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that God the Father makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. In other words God doesn’t restrict his blessings only to those who behave properly. When something goes our way, we are not wrong to feel blessed, but we should not regard those blessings as a reward for good behavior. And when things do not go our way, that doesn’t mean God is punishing us either.

The kingdom that Jesus came to establish operates on a very different level than we are naturally inclined to think. We find the evidence for this over and over throughout the New Testament. Jesus said in Matt. 20:16 that in his kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first. He said in Matt. 20:26 that whoever wanted to be great would have to be the slave of others. The apostle Paul said in 1 Cor. 1:27 that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and he chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Paul also wrote in Phil. 2:6-7 that Jesus was equal to God, but he emptied himself and made himself nothing, taking the nature of a lowly servant. And we read in 2 Cor. 8:9 that Jesus was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that through his poverty we would become rich. After a while, you begin to realize this is the pattern for followers of Jesus. Things are not what we naturally expect them to be in God’s Kingdom. Things that make a person important in our world become unimportant in God’s Kingdom.

And the things that cause us to feel weak and humble and poor, make us better … because our weakness and humility and spiritual poverty take us closer to the heart of God.

Notice again the very first thing Jesus says in the Beatitudes. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Being poor in spirit is to acknowledge that we fall short of what we know we should be. It means we know that we are spiritually not where we need to be, that we are in fact spiritually impoverished, that we need God, we need a Savior. If we could get to where we need to be spiritually on our own, if we could get into heaven on our own, we wouldn’t need a Savior. Christians know we need God; we know we have fallen short of God’s expectations. That’s why we’re here in church and that’s why it can be so easy for people outside the church to criticize the church, saying we are hypocrites because they see our flaws. But if we were not flawed, we would not need to be in church; we would not need a Savior.

This does not mean that we celebrate or exalt or cling to our flaws. We are striving in spite of our flaws to be all that God would have us to be. As good Wesleyan Methodists, we are striving to get to the place where we are able to love God and others perfectly. And the good news is that God is with us and is willing to work with those who are not yet perfect. In fact, God has no other people to work with than those who are not yet perfect! God promises his kingdom to those who know they are spiritually poor, who long to perfectly love God and others, and who turn to Jesus for forgiveness of their sins and freedom from their guilt.

Friends, we oftentimes have good reason to feel poor in our spirits, to feel mournful for the conditions that prevail in the world, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness to prevail where evil abounds. Do you ever long for a better world? Do you ever mourn over the state of things in the world? Do you grieve that there is so much suffering in the world? Do you feel despair in your spirit over the lives and the families that have been destroyed by addictions? Does your heart break over the number of homeless people everywhere; do you grieve for children who have been abused?

Do you mourn over the wars and hatred and division and injustice and exploitation and evil in the world? Does it grieve you that evil seems to be more and more prevalent in our culture? Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness to prevail over immoral behavior that the world often upholds as admirable? Do you mourn over your own behavior, your own failure to live according to God’s standards?

If you so mourn, if you so hunger and thirst, if you have such poverty in your spirit, then Jesus has words of blessing and promise for you. Jesus says that to be blessed or happy is to be included in the coming kingdom, where Jesus will turn things right-side up. The Beatitudes promise that God is on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the peacemakers, those who work for justice, those persecuted for their beliefs. The kingdom of God belongs to those who know they are spiritually impoverished.

This may be the most important point I make: the Beatitudes are not a list of demands or entry requirements to the Kingdom; they are a list of promises and a description of what will be. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness in this world will be satisfied in God’s kingdom where righteousness is fully established. Those who mourn for a better world will be comforted—their mourning will come to an end in God’s kingdom, where all injustice, all sorrow, all suffering, all pain and all sin will be no more. Jesus says that in the coming Kingdom, we will be pure in heart, we will be satisfied with righteousness, we will be merciful, and so on.

Brothers and sisters, none of us are perfect, none of us is without sin, but God has made a way for all of us to enter his kingdom. He sent Jesus Christ to receive our blame, to become our sin, to take it all upon himself and to put an end to it once and for all on the cross. And when Christ rose from the dead, that was the proof of God’s acceptance that the penalty was paid. The resurrection is God’s promise that sin does not have final sway, and death does not have the last word.

God’s kingdom is coming, and there will be a place in it for those who mourn for a better world, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who desire to be pure in heart and who know their need for a Savior. God’s right-side up kingdom will be a place where every good and just and righteous and pure longing of the human heart will be fulfilled and will be satisfied. That is the hope and the blessing and the promise we claim. Thanks be to God!