What am I congratulating you for, you are wondering? Well that’s how I start most sermons that I preach at a wedding. It’s what someone will say to you when you’ve passed your driving test. It’s what you say to someone who has just got a new job. It’s what you say to someone when they’ve just had a new grandchild.
We say: Congratulations! You’ve just achieved something that was well-worth doing. You’ve done something to be proud of. Well done!
That’s what the word “blessed” in Matthew chapter 5 means. It’s not the usual word for when God blesses someone. It’s the word people would use to congratulate each other, only this time it’s describing someone that God wants to congratulate. It’s the word that means someone is happy. That is: Truly happy, not just feeling happy! It’s the word that we would use to say that someone is approved, only it’s God’s approval. It’s the word for someone who is really fortunate, only this is nothing to do with luck, but all to do with God’s favour.
Congratulations! No: I’m not congratulating you for anything. But Jesus is. He dishes out 9 sentences that begin “Congratulations to those who…” And we’d all love to congratulated by God, to be truly happy, to have God’s approval, to be one of the really fortunate ones. Wouldn’t we? Well, Jesus paint a portrait here of the person who is blessed by God. So if we want that to be us, let’s look at the portrait, and see if we find ourselves looking in the mirror or not.
An Eight-Part Portrait
If you’ve ever seen books that describe works of art, you’ll know they often print the whole painting, but then they magnify a small portion and print that as a separate picture so that you can look at that piece of the picture close-up. That small portion enlarged is called a detail.
The way Jesus paints his portrait, he gives us 8 details that we can look at. One problem we have this morning is that this is an incredibly rich portrait. Each detail is picking up strands, themes and verses from the Old Testament. Each detail is challenging and really needs us to spend time reflecting on it, thinking about it, and asking God to give us a greater resemblance to the person in the picture. And there just isn’t time to do that in one sermon.
So: Let’s have a brief look at these details, and we’ll each have to take this passage home and spend time immersed in it this week. Don’t examine it; let it examine you!
This person is poor in Spirit. They know they’ve not got anything to offer God. Before God they are poor. This person is sinful, and they know it. And that has bankrupted them. For all their good deeds, all their wonderful character traits, all their upbringing, qualifications and achievements, they are destitute. They cannot buy God’s favour. Their favourite verse of a hymn is: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling; naked, come to you for dress, helpless, look to you for grace; stained by sin, to you I cry: ‘Wash me, Saviour, or I die!’”
This person is a mourner. Life is full of grief for all of us, but this person knows that ultimately, all the grief in the world, the failure of the world to be the place it should be, traces back to our failure to be the people we should be. So for all the things that makes them mourn, they mourn their own sin more than anything.
And so this person is meek. Meek is not the same… as weak. They could do so much. They could change the world. They could advance their own cause. But they choose instead to leave things to God. They don’t throw their weight around, they wait for God instead. Like in Psalm 37: The wicked achieve all kinds of things, but the meek inherit the earth.
And this person doesn’t just mourn their sin; they long to be free of it. They hunger and thirst for righteousness; more than anything they want to be like God. People hunger for riches; people thirst for the acceptance of others; people hunger for security; people thirst for maturity. But this person in the portrait hungers and thirsts for nothing as much as they want to be like God in every way.
Put this person alongside others, and they are merciful. They are kind. Their concern for their own comfort always gives way to helping others out. Perhaps someone needs time; perhaps they need money; perhaps they need prayer; perhaps they need thought. Perhaps they’re in need through their own stupidity. It makes little difference to the person in the portrait who is merciful.
And this is someone who is pure in heart. Look at them in public; look at them at work; look at them relating to their family at home; look at their Facebook presentation; look at them on their knees before God; cut them open any way you want – it’s the same person. No hypocrisy. No double standards. Pure, devoted to God, whichever way you look.
And so this person can’t help being a peacemaker. Not peaceful. A peacemaker. So many people will stir up a conflict. They can smell when theirs dissension brewing, and put oil on the fires. This detail shows the opposite. No matter how costly, this person will help others make up, will try to calm things down, to restore peace. Not cheap peace. Not peace at the expense of truth. But like God himself, like the prince of peace, working for costly, true and sincere peace.
And the last detail Jesus gives us shows us that this person doesn’t always fit in. The world doesn’t always want peacemakers. The world doesn’t always want people like God. So this person is persecuted. They are distinctive enough to attract the opposition.
Not the World’s Idea
Those are the details of this portrait. But I’ve only been able to introduce them, there is much more in this picture than that.
I think it will help us to see the picture he’s painting more clearly if we think for a moment about what the world around us would paint. If you asked British society, a decade into the 21st century, to draw a picture of the person who really deserves congratulation, who should be held up as a model of success, what would they draw?
Not this. Today’s hero is someone who is independent, who can stand on their own two feet. Who plans responsibly for the future. Who is more concerned with tolerance than with what is right. Who is good fun to have around. Who is popular.
Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Congratulations to those who know they have nothing to offer God. Can you imagine a gravestone that says: “1924 to 2011. Lived a great life, but nothing that would impress God”?
Jesus says: Blessed are those who mourn. Can you imagine an obituary that extolled someone for the way they regularly literally wept over their shortcomings before God? “If only more people were like this,” the column read.
Jesus says: Blessed are the meek. Can you imagine a professional – perhaps a sportsperson, a politician, a scientist, or an author. They are accused by the press of all kinds of scandalous things – both in their private lives, and in their professional world. Their career ends with a whimper because they refuse to take the paper to court, they won’t work to clear their name, because they know that God will one day right all wrongs. And can you imagine the press changing its mind, and holding this person up as a role-model for their quiet trust in their God?
Jesus says: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Parents want all kinds of things for their children. A good education. A loving marriage. Two healthy children. A successful career. How many parents would say that they don’t mind if their children achieve none of these things, as long as they strive to have a God-like character?
Get the world to draw its portrait of the person deserving congratulation, of the person who has achieved true happiness and great fortune, and it does not look like the portrait that Jesus paints. The world may like one or two of the details, but not the whole picture. The person Jesus draws is the kind of person that the world is inclined to pity rather than to admire.
But oh this person is to be admired! Jesus paints a picture of an ordinary disciple of his; this is the Christian man or woman he paints here, and that is someone to be.
This person is in the kingdom of heaven. That’s the blessing Jesus starts and ends with. And he’s emphatic; this person, and nobody else, is in the kingdom of heaven. This person may mourn, but they will be comforted. God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his people when Jesus’ returns; and best of all, the sin this person hates so much will be gone forever. This person may be meek, and refuse to advance themselves, but one day the whole earth will be theirs. That desire to be like God, it starts to come true now, and one day it truly will be.
This person shows mercy to others, because they know they need mercy from God, and that is what they will get. The pure in heart actually get to look at God; they get to see his face. That may not be a big deal for some, but for this person that’s the best prospect in the world. Like a reflection we see him now; one day we will see his face. And in being a peacemaker, this person is a chip off the old block. A son of God. Just like their father in heaven.
How true it is: The man or woman in the portrait: This truly is the most fortunate person on the face of the whole earth. For this person is a follower of Jesus Christ, and there is nothing more desirable than that.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if this portrait was a picture of you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you find yourself looking in the mirror as you read these words. Jesus is presenting this as a picture of a normal follower of his.
Now it’s true that most of us can see ways in which this isn’t quite us. Most of us see here something to aspire to. But that is not because we want to reach a standard of perfection so that we can find God’s blessing and favour. God’s blessing comes to the poor in Spirit; making ourselves look like this doesn’t put any spare change in the bank with which we might impress God.
No, we aspire to be more like this painting because we hunger and thirst for righteousness. We long to be more like this because it is such a blessing to be in the kingdom of heaven.
It is a blessing, but it doesn’t always feel like that. It feels like being poor, being sad, being weak, being hungry, yielding to others, and being a punch-bag to those who don’t like who and what we are. That’s what it feels like to follow Jesus, so how kind he is to remind us that we could not be more blessed than to be a follower of him, than to be this person he describes.
Is this you? If it is, Jesus says: Congratulations!