Happy are the Unhappy
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Bible Passage: Matthew 5:1-9
I spent a lot of time thinking about what to teach after sabbatical and I kept coming back to the sermon on the mount. We spent the past year and a half studying Judges and Samuel.
Do you remember this statement at the end of Judges – “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes”? That is the way of the world. We do whatever we think is going to make us happy.
God created humans. He knows how we best operate. He knows what will make us truly happy. But we are busy rejecting that knowledge.
And this is why I think the sermon on the mount is a great follow-up to Judges and Samuel. The sermon on the mount is Jesus telling his disciples what life in God’s kingdom looks like. This is how you were created to live. This is what will make you truly happy.
He shows us that the kingdom of God is counter cultural. His kingdom is not of this world. And Jesus shows us exactly what that means in very practical terms. But we aren’t going to like it. In fact, the sermon on the mount will offend every single one of us.
We live in a time and place where Christians don’t seem much different from anyone else. But Jesus destroys the notion that such a thing is possible. Above all things, the sermon on the mount is a call to repentance… a call to be different. “Do. Not. Be. Like. Them,” Jesus says.
But before we jump to conclusions about “them”, the people we are supposed to be different from, it is not who we expect. It’s two groups of people. We expect Jesus to tell us we need to be different from worldly people, pagan people. And he does.
But he also tells us we have to be different from the self-righteous people – the arrogant religious people.
And there’s a catch. Jesus presents a moral code in this sermon that literally no one can obey completely. No one except him. And that is what makes it so brilliant.
The sermon on the mount, then, accomplishes two goals – it shows non-Christians that they can’t please God on their own and it shows Christians how to please God through repentance and faith in Christ.
Jesus presupposes our need for faith and repentance. As Galatians 5:6 says, this is what faith expressing itself through love looks like. People who love, know, and trust Jesus will receive the sermon on the mount through a lens of repentance and faith. But non-Christians will be faced with a dilemma.
In his commentary, Dan Doriani writes: “An unbeliever will respond to the Sermon on the Mount either with foolish optimism: ‘I can do this!’ – or with hopeless despair: ‘I can never do this.’ Only a believer, a child of God, can rightly respond to its high standards.”
And with that very long introduction, we are ready to begin reading. This morning, we will start with the first 9 verses of Matthew 5, known as the beatitudes. There are seven we will consider today and an eighth we will consider next week. I’m saving it because I think it is a bit different than the first 7 and has more in common with the next part of the sermon.
1 Seeing the crowds, Jesus 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.
Everyone agrees that the words we just read are beautiful. People from other religions, even atheists, find these words compelling. Jesus speaks blessing into the lives of needy people. On the surface, everyone appreciates what we think Jesus says here.
To be blessed is to have the approval of God… to have God on our side. And it makes sense that Jesus would speak this way about people who display this kind of character.
But there’s something more to it than that. Consider the context. In the story of Matthew, the sermon on the mount comes very early in the ministry of Jesus. The first two chapters tell the story of his birth and childhood. The third chapter tells us about the baptism of Jesus. It’s not until chapter four that Jesus begins his public ministry.
He only recently called his first disciples and began preaching in Galilee. And Matthew tells us that the theme of his preaching was simple and clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
It makes sense, in light of that context, to read the sermon on the mount as a sermon about repentance. The beatitudes are about repentance. They display for us the fruit of repentance, which is the character of the Christian life.
And there is even a pattern that emerges here, which I am excited to show you. We can map it as a circle, starting with verse 3 – the first beatitude:
1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Poverty of spirit. This is humble dependence on God. This is self-awareness of sin. This is the necessary precondition for repentance. This is at the bottom of our circle because this is where we come to the end of self. Only empty people can be filled. I bring nothing in my hands to offer God. That’s what it means to be “poor in spirit”.
2) Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
This isn’t a separate class of people from those poor in spirit. This is the natural progression of the first group. Awareness of sin produces mourning. If I look in the mirror and see something I don’t like, something I have no power to change on my own, what will my response be? Sadness. And this is also a necessary precondition for repentance. We must face the consequences of our sin and the effects of sin in the world around us.
3) Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
This is not a word we use, “meek”, so I’m going to just define it for us. To be meek is to have a proper estimate of oneself. It’s not high self-esteem or low self-esteem. Instead, a meek person lives with an accurate perception of self with respect to God and other people.
According to Jesus, if we want life after death in the kingdom of God, we need an honest assessment of who we really are. You can see how these first three are related. Repentance begins with a work of humility. Bankrupt in spirit… saddened by it… humbled by it…
4) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
We talk about repentance a lot in our church, and I always define it as turning from something and turning to something at the same time. If I start walking towards the back of the room, I get closer to the back door and further from the stage – at the same time.
Turning from sin is turning toward Christ. One can’t happen without the other also happening. And this verse is where Jesus turns the corner of repentance.
This person is no longer focused on self. The focus has shifted away from self and away from sin towards righteousness. We start wanting what God wants for us. Righteousness means right relationships… right living. And as God reveals our need, we start to hunger for the stuff we are missing.
Now this is where it gets interesting. You’ve heard most of this before, probably. And so far, Jesus has us focused on our personal need for repentance. I’ve been forced to look at myself and evaluate my own need. I’m beginning to recognize my personal need for righteousness. But watch what Jesus does next, as we make the turn.
5) Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Do you see what Jesus just did? He moves our focus off of self completely and shifts it towards other people. I can evaluate myself using the first four beatitudes and avoid thinking about other people entirely.
Am I poor in spirit? Am I mourning? Am I meek? Do I hunger for righteousness? I can ask those questions alone in my prayer closet, right? But I cannot answer the question, “Am I merciful” without evaluating my relationships. I have to think about other people. What does it mean to be merciful? In Bible terms, it means moving towards people who are suffering.
And what I want to suggest to you this morning is that repentance naturally leads us toward other people. If, by definition, repentance is making us more like Christ in His character, then we will also become more like him in his mission. If your “repentance” is not leading you to have compassion for other people, then it’s not repentance.
Jesus does the work IN US on the first half of this circle in order to do the work THROUGH US on the second half of the circle. Look at the next verse.
6) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
What does it mean to be pure in heart? It means that the person we see is the real you. It means the outside you is the same as the inside you. There are no hidden agendas… no hidden motives.
In light of the previous verse, it means I’m not moving towards other people for my sake. I’m moving toward them for their sake. I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for you.
And now we come full circle:
7) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
I put number 7 back at the bottom of the circle, because this is where repentance leads us – back to the beginning to walk beside others who find themselves empty before God.
It also makes sense because we never graduate from the need for repentance. Even as we walk beside other Christians in their repentance, Jesus keeps bringing us back to the same place. The chief characteristic of a Christian is a daily life of faith and repentance.
Think about it. Jesus placed hunger right in the middle. How many times a day do I get hungry? At least three times. And how many times a day do I eat? At least three times, usually. Am I ever going to outgrow my need to eat? I may need to learn how to eat less, but the day I stop getting hungry is the day I die.
And that’s the metaphor Jesus used to describe our need for Him. Hunger. Feed. Hunger. Feed. Every day. Repentance and Faith.
In the end, God is always doing as much IN US as he is doing THROUGH US. That’s how God designed it and that’s how He gets all the glory.
Jesus will say some things in this sermon that will make us very uncomfortable. He’s going to call us out… all of us. He’s going to empty us. But that’s always where the work must begin.
And this is just the beginning. Over the next few months, Jesus is going to get very personal with each of us. He’s going to expose us with a standard we could never keep – not to shame us, but to save us.
Happy are the unhappy… for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they shall be comforted, they shall inherit the earth, they shall be satisfied, they shall receive mercy, they shall see God, they shall be called sons of God!