Sunday, April 15, 2012

Blessed Believing

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  2Then he began to speak, 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 will be comforted.  5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:1 - 12 (NRSV)

This will be the last series of messages I will have the opportunity to share with you, so for these last 7 weeks I have chosen the Sermon on the Mount.  Contained in this most famous of Jesus’ discourses are seven of the most important patterns for living the Christian life.              
In beginning a new series it’s important to open the road map about where we are going.  So, over these next two months we will look at these vital areas of concern for living life in the Kingdom of God:
Believing in Jesus Christ
Forgiving others
Being spiritually and morally healthy
Persevering in the faith
All of these are contained in Matthew Chapters 5-7.  Of course there is a whole lot more than just these.  Entire libraries have been devoted to the Sermon on the Mount.  But these 7 issues form a pretty comprehensive framework for walking in the life of faith as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I approach preaching from THE Sermon with a great deal of personal caution…this is, after all, not MY sermon….it’s HIS!  These few chapters from Matthew (and the other Gospels) are the words the disciples had stuck in their minds.  Over the course of three years as they walked together and shared with the multitudes of people who followed – this body of teaching is what they remembered and wrote down after Jesus was crucified.  This is what Jesus wanted us to remember…and give attention to how the words impact our lives.
Before we begin exposition of THE Sermon, consider how humbly the preacher has to come to this passage.  I am about to give a sermon that proclaims THE Sermon.  I am about to “stand-in” for Jesus today (How’s that working for you, Russell?).
But lest we forget, this particular text is what Jesus wanted us to remember, and to live-into and pass-on to others.  It would be a catastrophe for any preacher to not preach this Sermon.
Now, if the Sermon is that important, how has the church throughout the last two millennia dealt with it?  What do we say about what the Sermon means, and what we’re to do with it?
There are many volumes of interpretive thought written over the centuries about Jesus’ sermon.  Here are a few:
In Medieval times the general consensus was that the ethical standard Jesus gave in his Sermon was simply a higher level of obedience that clergy and monastics had to observe.  The laity, I suppose, could be forgiven more.  They figured this was a private sermon to the apostles.
But that’s not what John Wesley thought.  Wesley pointed-out in his sermon  on this text that when the sermon was over the multitudes were astonished….  Multitudes!  This was no private sermon, it was for everyone.  It’s still that way!
Martin Luther held that the Sermon’s ethics were like the Ten Commandments (what Moses called “the law”).  “…the law, was to Paul,…God’s impossible moral demands [which] disclose the depths of our sinfulness; and drive us to our knees in repentance.”   They are like schoolbooks, teaching us what’s good and what’s not good.
Other modern day liberal views have seen this as Jesus’ ethical and moral encouragement to humans to “bring-in” the kingdom of God on this earth by civil policies.  This is what’s called the “Social Gospel”.
Another modern day scholar (Craig Blomberg) with whom I agree, suggests the Sermon is characteristic of an “already now/not yet” “inaugurated eschatology”.                                          
(Aren’t you glad you asked?)
In short, that means the kingdom ethic of everybody at peace with everybody else will never be fully-realized until the consummation of the kingdom at the return of Christ.  We’re bad people on this planet, and there will be bad stuff done until Jesus returns.
But, while that’s so, on the other hand, the Sermon’s ethic is still our goal and standard; we are to strive to live as Jesus taught, now, here in this life.  We are given strength to do this by His Spirit.  So, it (the Kingdom) is already now, but not yet!
Today’s text (particularly 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.) is instrumental and foundational to understanding this already now – not yet nature of the Sermon.
And we must not forget that these words of Jesus’ are a sermon…not just a list of clergy rules from the Book of Discipline, or a political manifesto – the sermon is an arrow to our hearts.
A sermon functions on many levels; a sermon:
is a word of healing to the human heart where needs live.
is a word of holiness requiring repentance of the sinner.
speaks words of strength to the timid.
speaks words of enlightenment to the tired, dull soul.
utters words of motivation to listless lazy servants
words of warning to the arrogant selfish child of God
words of hope to the discouraged and oppressed
words of challenge to the petulant
A friend and I were talking recently, and he said to me that Jesus’ Sermon was just “slam-full” of grace.  This is so true, because, just like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the New Testament Sermon of Jesus points to the incredibly overwhelming standard of holiness God requires of his creation.  The Sermon essentially reminds us every moment that we are unable to meet this standard.  The Sermon loudly proclaims that it is by grace alone that we are saved, not of [our] works, lest there be any boasting!  (Eph 2:8-9)
I mentioned to you a few weeks ago that I was going to preach this series as a legacy – I want to leave you with (what I consider) the most important things I have learned in the past 50+ years of following Jesus Christ.  If there is one thing that tops the list it is the whole concept of God’s grace as the answer to everything.
Of all the doctrines of the Christian faith, there is none which makes any sense without grace:
The grace of God is what gave us the cross.
The grace of God is what gives us a hope of heaven.
The grace of God forgives my sin.
The grace of God gave me my first breath, and it is only by the grace of God I’ll draw another.
All I do is by the unseen hand of God loving and guiding me.  Without his grace I am nothing.
When I retire as your pastor in two months, my fondest hope is that when someone asks you what your pastor preached on for the seven years he was here – that your answer will be framed by grace, and not anything of Russell.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT                                        
Here are two critically-important phrases for understanding how to live the Christian life, “blessed are” and “poor in spirit”.  Blessed simply means “to be happy”.  It is a condition of contentedness, a sense that all is well.
“Poor in spirit” has nothing to do with financial poverty…to be “poor” means humble.  The “in spirit” part of the phrase is “spiritually” or our attitude towards God.  To paraphrase it then is:
O how happy are those who have a humble attitude towards God.
Every word Jesus ever uttered is virtually useless to a person who is not humble towards God, ready to obey, serve and give.  It’s what the Sermon means; it’s how we will spend the next seven weeks.
As Jesus looked out over the crowd there on the hillside, he saw in the faces of, perhaps thousands, the one common, expectant hope of all individuals:  every one of them, no matter their station in life, wanted happiness.
They wanted that blessed state of knowing all was well.  It was just that they weren’t interested in having what Jesus said about being “blessed” as having humility towards God.  The sense of contentment they were hoping for centered in seeing the circumstances of their lives improve:
The affluent were craving some kind of fulfillment their money couldn’t buy; the poor were looking to get rich
The blind wondered why God hadn’t given them sight; the sighted were unhappy with all their eyes could see
The old longed for the days when young bones didn’t ache so much; the young were fighting the “system” they figured was designed and run by the old
Every age and arena of life has its dissatisfactions.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes had nailed it – all is vanity!
Is it any different today?  Some roles may have switched:
the old now fight the “system”.
the affluent begrudge social assistance to the single parent who can’t seem to stay afloat financially.
the activists of every race, color, creed or gender-specific movement cry out for a larger share of the power.
We are no different than the crowd that gathered to listen to Jesus on that hillside; they wanted a little share of the happiness he talked about.
Today we seem to push from day to day, event to event, seeking a better balance or just the right experience or new way to legislate fairness in government, in the hopes that, just around the corner, over the next hilltop, there will be The Emerald City in the Land of Oz, and just like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion we’ll live happily ever after.
Only it doesn’t work that way, does it?  With all our searching, striving, planning and diligence, the yellow-brick road just goes on and on; it’s the treadmill to nowhere.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explained that happiness does indeed exist.  He even when so far as to clearly show us where it is to be found; and how to get there.  Of course there’s no person beside Jesus who is better-qualified to draw the map.
Why is that so?  If you recall the children that surrounded Jesus, and the crowds that flocked to him, and the parties and weddings – Jesus always seemed to be in the center of things.  People don’t flock to people who want to talk about their operations and lumbago.  And you don’t read in Scripture of any times when Jesus did that kind of complaining.  His words were of vital concern to all; his words were of blessing, because he was an entirely blessed man.  This brings us to the main thrust of the Sermon – blessedness…happiness!  It really does exist!
There are two questions that will lead you to genuine happiness – that wonderful state of blessedness, contentment that all is well with your life and your soul.
Sit with Matthew 5:1-12 and run through those “blesseds” – ask yourself if this was the kind of man Jesus was – merciful, seeking the righteousness of God, pure in heart, reviled and persecuted by men.  If your answer is “yes he was” all the way through, proceed to question #2:
If you want to be blessed, then you must humble yourself before God…a servant of God who is poor in spirit.
A servant lives to please his master.  That is what Jesus meant when he talked about being poor in spirit – people who are willing to live for God’s rule in their heart and life.
If your answer here is also “yes, I do” then blessedness, genuine contentment is not far off…it will come as you surrender all you are to Him.
This is what we call believing in Jesus, and it is blessed believing!

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