“About 12,000 Jews died that day, only a few of the Romans… many died within the temple itself. General Pompey took the fighting right into the temple with his army and saw all the sacred things which none but the High Priests could see. They saw the golden table, and lamp stand and all the pouring vessels as well as spices and the temple’s sacred money. He didn’t touch any of it because he respected religion. He showed himself to be a man of principle. The next day he ordered the priests to cleanse the temple and to offer the required sacrifices to God. He made Hyrcanus the high priest because he had been his ally and stopped the people siding with Aristobulus, the Jewish king, during the war.”
– paraphrasing Josephus ‘the antiquities of the Jews’
The year was 63 BC and Roman General Pompey had just marched on Jerusalem, the sacred city. After fighting off the Greeks a century before, the people of Judah had been an independent people, narrowly avoiding the empires which rose and fell around them. You might have heard the story: Mattathias the priest refused to sacrifice to Zeus and led the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid rulers. Our Jewish neighbours celebrate this story with the festival of Hanukah.
But that was 100 years ago, and this is now. Those days were over. The Romans were the new Empire on the march. By this time they had taken control of most of the land around the Mediterranean: The whole of southern Europe and North Africa. After taking control of Syria in 64 BC, General Pompey marched south into Judea. Jerusalem fell 63 BC.
I read to you from the historian Josephus (first century historian and aristocrat), where he describes the fall of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple. Unlike other pagans, Pompey did not ransack the temple. He permitted them to practice their religion as long as they payed taxes to Rome.
And so begun the Roman rule of Judah. Generation after generation of paying taxes to a foreign land, seeing the holy city defiled with idols, the politicians sucking up to Rome in a bid for power. By the time we get to Jesus in 30 AD Judah is ruled by the sons of the half-Jewish, Roman-appointed Herod the Great (He was the reason Mary and Joseph ran away to Egypt). The local ruler of the place Jesus grew up was Herod Antipas. (He later murdered John the Baptist for criticising him).
Jesus begins his ministry in the midst of a cracked nation. Corrupt leaders, terrorists and zealots plotting rebellion, religious leaders who believe that if only they could be good enough, God would come and rescue them. These Romans need to go. A real king, one from David’s line should sit on the throne! Then the suffering would end. Then there would be peace, then the people of God could worship in freedom!
Jesus begins his ministry. He gathers a huge following. This man, descendent of David (Matthew 1), who the Gentiles (non-jews) bring offerings to (Matthew 2), who would baptise with fire and burn the chaff (Matt. 3), who fought the devil and won (Matt. 4). This man they’d seen perform miracles, healing and casting out demons (Matt 4:23-25)
This man who spoke to them, saying:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17)
What kind of a kingdom is this? Is it the overthrow of the Romans? Will they be defeated like so many others, before the might of God? I mean, heaven is where God dwells, so does that mean that God’s reign is coming to earth?
Jesus was famous. Everyone knew who he was. People followed him all over, they hung on his every word, they brought the sick to him and the afflicted. He told them to prepare themselves because something was going to happen. With this crowd following him, the hopeful and the curious, the optimistic and inquiring, healed lepers, repentant sinners, the people Jesus sought out and the people who sought him out. With this whole new community he goes up a mountain.
We’ve seen this before.
A long time ago.
When God’s people were slaves in Egypt, Moses obeyed God and through him, with signs and wonders and miracles, God brought his people out of slavery. They went to a mountain where Moses saw God and heard his voice. God gave his people the law, and this law made these slaves into citizens. Citizens in God’s land where he dwelt with them.
So, this extraordinary man climbs a mountain and sits down to teach. The great crowd before him. The Holy Spirit in him. The voice of God in his ears. Surly these words will have even greater weight than even the teaching of Moses?
With these words, Jesus is going to shape what life is going to mean for his followers. With these sayings he tells them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. This is a new law, for a new nation on a new mountain:
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“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.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:2-10 ESV)
Wait – what!?
What of the revolution? What of rebellion? Where is the uprising? This is no way to change the world. Last time the Jewish people overthrew a foreign oppressor they joined together and forced the Greeks out. Thats what they needed to do. The meek aren’t blessed. The meek are walked all over. The peacemakers aren’t God’s sons, they are the compromisers, who pay the taxes to the Romans!
If you want to be free, if you really want your people to have liberation, you’ve got to take fate into your own hards.
Thats the way the world works. In 1916, for example, the Irish people rose against the British rule of the country and fought against them. Around midday on monday the 24th of April 1916 about 1000 people took control of parts of Dublin, trying to force the British out. They were defeated within a week and many of the leaders were killed, but the force they used resulted in Ireland becoming an independent state just 6 years later.
Or, if you are more enlightened, think of Ghandi. There was a man who brought real change. There was a man who said profound things. He liberated the whole nation of India, and now 70 years later it is the fastest growing democracy on the face of the planet, soon to become a world leader in business and development. Forget ‘blessed are the poor in Spirit,’ what about ‘We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.’ or ‘A good person will resist an evil system with his whole soul. Disobedience of the laws of an evil state is therefore a duty.’
Those are words which will really change the world. If Jesus had preached that, then maybe Judah would have been reclaimed for the people of God. Who knows, maybe they would have driven the Romans back too.
In fact, if activism and nationalism were our Gospel, what would be the blessings?
Blessed are the freedom fighters, for their names small live on in glory?
Blessed are those shot for the sake of the people, they shall become martyrs for us?
Blessed are the non-violent resisters, for they shall win the respect of the nations?
That seems like a far better foundation for changing the world. With the right amount of international pressure, and united uprising and a few public martyrs? Yes, real change can be wrought.
Thats not what Jesus announces. Jesus isn’t a nationalistic freedom fighter, nor a political activist. He is not a social reformer, he is no enlightened philosopher. He didn’t write a book about the brotherhood of humanity. Jesus didn’t lobby the Romans to defend the rights of his people to practice their religion, nor did he seek a political stage for himself.
No, anarchy, rebellion, uprising are not the blessings Jesus announces. Compare the two and what Jesus promises looks like…. A fairy tale. These look like desperate wishes for weak minds. People who can’t cope with their lives, nor with the suffering of it. Are they the only ones who shall believe in this ‘imaginary’ kingdom? Maybe Marx was right – religion is a drug for the people. It numbs them to their situation, makes it easier to cope.
Sadly, Jesus doesn’t let his listeners escape with that excuse. After his upside-down announcement, he goes on to say:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
So this ‘kingdom of heaven’ isn’t a bid to make the world a better place, nor is it wishful thinking to help feeble minds cope. If it were wishful thinking there would be no persecution. Yet, this persecution is unlike that of a civil rights struggle.
Notice what Jesus said: Blessed are you when you are persecuted on my account. It’s not blessed, being persecuted on account of your cause, though it may be a noble and worthy one!
In these beatitudes, in these statements Jesus is announcing a new kingdom, like the nation of Israel but somehow different.
You see, Jesus is the King. A King unlike any other. A King who’s kingdom exists wherever people who obey him are.
Don’t get me wrong: activism and campaigning, thinking and writing and reforming and lobbying and dialogue all have their place. It’s just that this is not what the Kingdom of Heaven is. Oftentimes these forms of world changing activity are not ambitious enough. They are not ambitious enough because they are still fighting for change in the kingdoms of the earth and so seem to miss out on the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus, quite aware of the Roman-controlled, Roman-shaped world in which he lived, announces a new kingdom, right in the midst of the old one. A new way of being human right there in the middle of the old way. Jesus didn’t come to make the world a better place… He came to make all over it again.
He announces these blessings as if to give shape to the Kingdom of Heaven. In them we read the real richness of Christ’s teaching and purpose. These blessings point to a new kind of kingdom and what life is like in the heavenly realm Christ is speaking into existence.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Answer me this: If I were to move to sub-saharan Africa, say to Ghana right now, taking with me the money I receive from the church each month, what sort of life do you think I could have? How much land could I buy? What could I develop? I could even start a successful business. In comparison to my fellow countrymen, I would be…. What? Rich?
Ok, imagine I decide to move to Manhattan. Absurd, I know, nobody wants to live there, but imagine the thought takes me. Again, I have the money I get from the church. What, exactly, could that get me? I could probably spend one night in a fairly average hotel, or maybe rent a box room for a couple of weeks. If I tried to live on Manhattan Island as I am, it would not go well for me. I would be, by comparison… What? Poor?
I think poverty of spirit is a little like that. It’s relative. The question is: Relative to what? If I compare myself to some of my friends who, don’t get me wrong, I love them to bits, but if I compare myself to my friends I come off looking pretty good. I don’t get wasted, I don’t smoke pot, I don’t cheat, lie or steal. I don’t intend to hurt others. By comparison, I am pretty rich in spirit.
But what if I examine myself relative to God?
What if I saw him, and beheld something of his goodness and mercy and justice and love? What am I, compared to him?
I am thankful that the poor in spirit are blessed, because without that, I know I haven’t got a chance.
In this first blessing, I think we see a principle for understanding this kingdom: That it is about meeting God, knowing him and our relationship with him. It starts with becoming aware that I am ‘poor in spirit.’ Is it possible that even the confession that ‘we are poor in spirit’ speaks of a Divine Encounter, whether we realise it or not? That we have grasped something of this heavenly kingdom?
One does not get THIS close to God in the kingdoms of the world. Only in the kingdom of heaven is this kind of meeting with God called blessed.
The kingdom of heaven is for those who know themselves to be poor in spirit, because they have encountered God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
I will not patronise those who are grieving the loss of loved ones, but I do want to learn from that mourning. It is the distress wrought by loss, of which Jesus speaks. The pain of closeness, taken from us, robbed. I think this comes from meeting God too. That is to say, knowing that things here could be so different, and grieving for that.
We feel this most clearly when we lose loved ones, but I think we grieve for a great many things: Spoiled memories, regrets, failures, faults, broken relationships and missed opportunities.
Jesus proclaims the promise of comfort. He does not tell us there will be an end to our mourning. I think this, like knowing you are poor in spirit, is an intersection between heaven and earth. We mourn because God mourns and he grieves with us for the great pain of Separation between us.
Is it possible to derive comfort from that intimacy? To be comforted by the nearness of God? To find strength in shared grief?
The kingdom of heaven is comfort for those who mourn, because that mourning is a place of meeting between God and humans.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Is this not the most challenging blessing to understand? I actually looked up the word ‘meek’ on the internet (and you should always believe what you read on the internet) and it brought up a variety of literary examples of the word. They were, for the most part, using ‘meek’ as some sort of insult. It is an insult, because the person isn’t self-assertive or self-assured – they don’t boast and are not brutish. They are meek. And this is an insult in the kingdoms of this world. Even in this, I think there is a clue to how we ought to understand meekness in this blessing.
Our temptation is to build our own little empires, be it in our families, businesses, churches. We do this with the best intentions, but in the kingdom of heaven, this is not the way to win the world.
The world is God’s to give, not ours to take. We are blessed when we are meek in regard to God, submissive to him and eager to obey. We are blessed when we do not assert our own agendas but surrender them to God and have him form our priorities.
Or put it this way, an inheritance is a father’s gift to his child. Meekness is confidence in God alone as our father, that he will take care of us.
In this new kingdom, God will be our caretaker and advocate, and he will sustain us. Perhaps this was hard for the Jews to hear too, who were so ready to take the land for themselves. Maybe they forgot that it was when they were meek in God’s sight that he gave them victory in their battles, in the days of Moses and Joshua and David.
The kingdom of heaven is inheritance for the meek, for they understand the sovereign goodness of God in all things.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
The kingdom of heaven satisfies the hungry, who yearn for the ways of the Lord to be a reality, here.
For the Jewish listeners, this might have been very appealing. Many yearned for the day of God’s judgement on the Romans, that he would destroy them like he had before and that righteousness would be restored to the land.
I have a confession: I think the church sometimes opposes this blessing. I mean, I know I do. In the Kingdom of Heaven, those who are desperate for that ‘rightness’ of living in reconciliation with God, ourselves, our church and the world are promised satisfaction.
Yet how often do gossip and pride prevent that from becoming a reality? I’m guilty of that.
I sometimes even discourage those who do hunger and thirst by my own cynicism. Is it possible that I have jeopardised that promise for another believer?
The desire for righteousness is blessed because it is a desire for the world to see and know the righteousness of God. When we desire this righteousness, we desire God even without realising it. I think this blessing, like mourning, has no end because how could we even become bored with knowing God?
The kingdom of heaven satisfies those who yearn for change, because they know that in God there is the transformation for their reality.
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
It’s interesting to note that this is the only blessing which is the same as the human state. It’s as if there is an intersection between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the world wherever there is mercy.
Yet how rare are those intersections? How much mercy do we show our friends, family? When was the last time you saw one of the media giants go ‘you know what? I think we’ve all been a bit too hash on Palin or Obama, let’s show a little mercy.’ It is not a virtue in our world, but in God’s kingdom, it is a blessing. It’s as if when we are merciful, we are reflecting the image of our Creator, as if we’re reconciled to him when we are merciful to others.
Maybe that’s how we can interpret all of these blessings, as intersections between the way of the world and the way of Heaven?
The kingdom of heaven is mercy for the merciful, for they act in the very same way as God does with our world.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
Have you ever noticed how children will be friends with kids you maybe didn’t want them to be? The weird kid? The awkward kid? The one who doesn’t do well at school, or who has the unstable family? I mean, you can see that this kid is bad news but your kid doesn’t and will play with them no matter what.
Maybe you played with kids like that when you were young and it always made you mad that your parents would tell you not to play with your friend.
I think something happens to us when we spend more than a few years on planet earth: Our hearts become clogged and dirty. We lose the purity and innocence of childhood. Sometimes it’s stolen from us, more often than not we give it away willingly and we become hardened, cynical and bitter.
I’m no different. In fact, the other day I remember seeing pictures on facebook of some of the guys from my high-school who used to beat me up. I was angry because they’d actually gotten their lived together. They were in college and they were having a blast. I was mad because I wanted them to lose out, to fail and fall for what they did to me.
If I had a pure heart, I would have seen something different. I would have been joyful for them. I would have seen the hand of God, redeeming their lives without them even knowing it. I would have noticed the marks of Divine Grace in them, giving them what they didn’t deserve.
The kingdom of heaven is being face to face with God, because we have lost the scales in our eyes which keep us from seeing him.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.
In Jesus’ time, and indeed in many places and times over the world, A person’s identity was secured by their father. If your father was a blacksmith, you would probably be a blacksmith. If your father was a farmer you would probably be a farmer. If your father was a builder you would be….?
So, if the peacemaker is God’s son, what is God in the business of?
God is the peacemaker and when we do likewise, we are doing as our father does.
At cornerstone we use the language of ‘reconciliation’. This is the notion of peacemaking, just with a different word. Some travel across national borders to bring peace, other cross the street. Sometimes, it might even mean crossing the hallway in your home. Jesus doesn’t give a scale of significance. Every act of peacemaking demonstrates who one’s true Father is. Our Father is the master peacemaker.
This peace is not merely the ceasing of hostilities, the laying down of arms or a begrudging truce imposed us. We see that kind of peace in our world today, ironically enough in Israel, and in recent history, Northern Ireland and even between the religious factions of India today.
No, this is not the peacemaking of the Kingdom of Heaven. If it was, anything which ended conflict would be acceptable to God. That’s pragmatism: It’s right because it works.
Peacemaking in the Kingdom is the peace of Christ’s rule. It is peace between citizens of the kingdom because Christ mediates between us. It is peace between us and the world because it is Christ who goes before us. It is peace in our souls because it is Christ who is being formed within us, it is peace between us and God because it is Christ who came down to us.
And for us peace is bought at the same cost. If God’s blessing is that we would be sons of God, let us not for a moment fool ourselves that it will mean we escape the agony of the cross.
True, we may not have nails driven through our feet, but we will have to crucify our fleshy urges for revenge, for autonomy, for anonymity and for shallowness.
The Kingdom of Heaven is God’s family, because we have understood the true family business.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And we’re back to the beginning – the kingdom of heaven. Yet how much further could the persecuted be from the poor in spirit? If the poor in spirit are the sinful and broken, the ones who are persecuted for righteousness sake are the ones doing the right things! Surly they are closer to God? Surly there should be some better reward for them?
God doesn’t see it that way. In God’s mind, the one who finds himself next to God, and admits that he is a poor beggar next to richness of God is just as close to him as the one who sees God and seeks to obey, even to the point of being opposed by the forces of this world.
In some way, each blessing is related to knowing God. Somehow, each of these people has brushed against the character and nature of the King, and Jesus announces that these people are blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven.
These words are not a rallying cry for a nationalistic uprising. They are not even advocacy for nonviolent resistance. They are certainly not a ‘crutch’ for the weak.
Jesus is painfully clear: There are two kingdoms, and only one of these promises blessings from God. It is the same one that promises suffering.
But is the suffering worth it? Jesus tells his followers to rejoice in their persecution because their reward is great in God’s kingdom. I don’t know if that means this side of eternity or the other, but the point is to say: Is that promise good enough for you?
Allow me to be a little grim: Sometimes, I don’t think Christianity is worthwhile. There are far more fun ways to earn far more money than to do what I do. I could have an easier life if I walked away from the church because, especially right now, being part of the church is difficult. I could hone some of my skills and become very successful. That wouldn’t necessarily be evil. I’m not even sure I have it in me to become a really bad person, but I would completely miss out on the kingdom of heaven.
I am challenged because so often I look for good reasons to continue in obedience, or in the face of hardship or temptation. The council Jesus offers is the promise of knowing him, in his kingdom. What I really want is a solution. Just like the Jews who wanted an end to their oppression. Just like the Irish who wanted to rule their own state. Even like Gandhi who wanted to see the world changed. Heck, I’d even be satisfied with a mind-numbing religion of wishful thinking.
No, Jesus instead speaks a new kingdom into existence and invites me into it. As if somehow, knowing him is to know supreme goodness and satisfying joy which will cause a man or woman to live through real suffering and rejoice within it.
I wish it were different, I wish it were easier or more convenient. Really, I do! But like the great fire on Mount Sinai, there is the presence of God speaking for all the world to hear. It is the voice which saves slaves and sinners and makes them his very own people. This is the significance of what Jesus says in these few lines of blessing.
We come to the end of this proclamation. Jesus goes on to teach far more but his opening statements are the foundation for understanding everything else he calls us to. It’s an announcement of a kingdom unlike any the world has known. A kingdom where God is near, where he gives freely to those who cannot afford, where he lavishes grace upon those who don’t deserve it and where he rejoices over his children who learn to do life following his example.
Some will hear his words as sweet relief. Perhaps you mourn and you are poor in spirit, and Jesus’ words are hope for you. For others they will hear a specific command. Are you driven towards righteousness and mercy? To comforting the mourners, by Jesus’ words?
Above all else, may you hear the voice of Christ in his announcement:
There is a new way to do life, living in the very presence of God.
This is the way of the rebel on the road to redemption,
The lost on the way to being found
And the lonely on the journey of being known.
The wonder of the Kingdom of Heaven is that God walks with us every step of the way.
Is that the kingdom you are looking for?