Blessed are All the Morally Ambiguous People! (Kingdom Living #2)
Kingdom Living #2 - Blessed are All the Morally Ambiguous People!
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Sept 27, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Lead Pastor
Good morning and welcome! I’m so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th time, we are glad that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, you were invited, or you already knew the way, we are grateful that you are here today. And our prayer for you is that you would experience welcome, that you would experience acceptance and that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
Blessed are all the morally empty people! - Oops! (Upsetting the equilibrium)
Blessed are the spiritual zeroes!
Blessed are the losers!
Blessed are the lame!
Blessed are those who are at the end of their rope!
Because they will see God!
They will experience his presence.
They will inherit his Kingdom!
After Jesus announces the gospel of the Kingdom of God he demonstrates its presence by healing and teaching about God and the kingdom.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. (Matthew 4:23–5:2)
Surrounded by this mass of humanity with people from everywhere, with every conceivable belief and understanding of God, Jesus sits down on this mountain side to announce the Gospel of the kingdom of God. And this mountain side, scholars believe was a hotbed of political activity. It was a hotbed of terrorism, it was the gathering place of known insurrectionists, who gathered to discuss their plans to overthrow the government, to overthrow the occupiers. To take up arms to take back their country and land from those who had turned their backs on God. It’s from this known hotbed that Jesus explains who gets in and is blessed in the kingdom of God.
Insurrectionists, Terrorists, Thieves, and Losers, Oh My!
On this mountainside, Jesus opens 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 will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:3–5)
Most of us don’t know what to do with the Sermon on the Mount, especially what we call the Beatitudes. Either we located them among the most impressive religious moral teaching alongside of the Ten Commandments, the Twenty-Third Psalm, or the Lord’s Prayer or we believe the Sermon on the Mount is so inaccessible that we just ignore it as some other nice thing that Jesus said that doesn’t mean much to our everyday. Or as I like to say, it’s just “Jesus being Jesus. He’s always saying stuff that no one can make sense of and therefore we hear it or read it and quickly assume it doesn’t apply to us, and therefore we are willing to ignore it.”
As we make our forward, I want to suggest that we actually start with the end of the Sermon on the Mount in mind, which will help us take serious and put into practice Jesus invitation to join him in the kingdom.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24–27)
Here’s a bonus, Nigel Berry, our youth director, already preached a sermon on the end of the Sermon on the Mount this summer, so you can jump ahead by downloading and listening to his sermon as we navigate the Sermon on the Mount.
As we enter the text in Matthew 5:3, let’s try to take in what unfolds here. Let’s start by turning our attention to the scene in which we receive this sermon.
Jesus has gathered a large crowd because of his proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom of God. In the crowd are all sort of folks, folks from every walk of life. The crowd is full of sinners of all types, sizes, and colors–there are tax collectors (modern day terrorists), prostitutes, Gentiles, and the really really religious. As you enter into the text with me, imagine that this audience represents the full spectrum of the human experience. Each of them there with their own story, their own understanding of God, themselves, and how they fit within God’s larger the story of creation. What could draw all of these people together in one place? The Creator God who cares for and is active within his creation. Jesus announces the gospel of the Kingdom and it’s attractive for everyone, the sinner and the religious alike. This is the Gospel friends, a place where we all are welcome and there’s good news for us all!
Blessed are the Losers Because Theirs is the Kingdom of God
Jesus launches his sermon with,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Let’s unpack this.
Jesus starts blessing the wrong people.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit” according to Matthew. (Matthew 5:3)
“Blessed are you who are poor” says Luke. (Luke 6:20)
If Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61 using the Hebrew Bible, this isn’t a typo. The word in Hebrew for “poor” includes both those who are economically poor and those spiritually inept.
Either way, Jesus just lost most of his audience because the really really righteous believed (as many of us today do) that God blesses those who are good and righteous, and do the right thing. This is like hearing a political candidate who’s pandering, but to the wrong group. There's nothing praiseworthy, noble, good, honorable, or positive about being "poor in spirit."
Yet Jesus opens this powerful sermon with “Blessed are the poor. The kingdom of heaven is theirs.” It’s available to them. It’s falling on them. It’s crashing into the Earth where they are, right now, right here.
Whether it’s being poor or being poor in spirit, neither is a good thing. It isn’t something we all should be striving for, in case you were wondering. These are folks at the end of a rope. The spiritual zeroes. The pathetic, lame, and out of it, bankrupt sort of people. Those without a trace of good. What we might call, “The morally empty.” Theirs is the kingdom.
This is not a condition to which we are encouraged by Jesus to try and attain. You can imagine those hearing Jesus, thinking, “What? What does it mean to become poor in spirit, if I could just figure this out, then I would get the Kingdom.” And our authoritative interpreters aren’t helpful here either because sometimes this passage get translated into something like, “Blessed are those who know how much they need God.” It sounds good, we like it, it makes sense, though that’s not what Jesus is saying or conveying. If that were true then it would follow that God’s blessings are only for people who have attained a particular state of humility. Giving rise to people declaring, “Yes, I have the gift of humility.”
One view of the beatitudes is Jesus was laying out threshold boundaries for who was in and wasn’t. One view has us seeing this as a threshold for how we happen upon God’s blessings. But Jesus isn’t teaching here, he isn’t imparting moral understanding here. He’s announcing something that already is, it is already the case that the poor in spirit are blessed and theirs is the kingdom of God.
Sit with that for a moment.
Doesn’t that tweak you a bit? Are you like me and wonder what they did that was “good” that allowed them to receive such an inheritance from God? If you will permit, that internal response you are having might be “the religious spirit” at work. Religion says that in order to receive blessing from God we have to perform something good. Something that allows us to earn his blessing.
The Upside Down World of the Kingdom
What Jesus was announcing was God’s blessing is already available. If we miss Jesus, we are at risk of constructing something Jesus didn’t want or intend, a religious system for winners.
But listen to Jesus more closely this time,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
A harsher way of translating Jesus here is to say, “Blessed are the losers, those who couldn’t figure it out, theirs is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed are the spiritual zeros, those who have no clue, theirs is the kingdom of God.”
STORY: On Tuesdays, I try to write my sermons somewhere in the community. I’ve been learning that it’s important for me to be around people and especially those I hope to reach with the Good News of the Gospels. Since summer, I’ve been working downtown at a coffee shop on Tuesday evenings when I sit down to write my sermons and this week I was at Starbucks. Right when I got to the part of the sermon where I start to explain that the kingdom of God is for the spiritually poor, I happen to look up and I witness my fellow coffee shop dwellers stealing powerbars. They are using the cover of the crowd to liberate two powerbars. It’s rather smooth what they do, they just drop them in their pants. They converse with the barista, check to see if the coast is clear and eat their ill-gotten powerbars. And I’m not sure whether it was the sermon or the spirit, but it struck me that they are the morally ambiguous. They are poor students working in Starbucks on their $1K+ Apple laptops listening to their music/lecture with their $200 Beats headphones, but they can’t buy a powerbar. Then it strikes me. Have I become a Pharisee? I’m looking down on their immoral behavior. What to do now? Do I confront them? Do I pay for their stolen powerbars! Do I keep writing my sermon and ignore it? Do I announce the good news that the kingdom of God is available to them?
Later that night, I met up with Shaun, our worship director. He gigs downtown at Conor O'Neill's on Tuesdays, so we got together and chatted about what I witnessed. We had fun thinking through all the possible responses to their petty crime. One of Shaun’s best offerings was for me to go and apologize for “forgetting” to pay for the powerbars to make it right with the baristas, but I told Shaun that I might actually get arrested for confessing to a crime and one that I didn’t actually commit. We had a lot of fun processing what the kingdom is, how it works, and what Jesus is inviting us to do live as Kingdom People.
I found it really interesting that I would witness this petty thief right as I was writing this particular sermon.
Friends, the moment that we look down on somebody because they aren’t as disciplined, hard working, upright, smart, responsible, moral, God fearing, Bible believing and Jesus trusting as we are... because they made stupid, idiotic, immoral and bad choices, often again, again, and again, at that moment we stop being poor in spirit, and find ourselves rich. We are “rich in spirit” and Jesus is not announcing anything to us.
This is the scandal of the Gospel, and I think we need to understand it as such, the scandal of the Gospel was Jesus was inviting all the wrong people in the kingdom. We want people to acknowledge the wickeness, their depavity, their brokeness and then we are okay with entering the kingdom, but it seems to me that Jesus was saying,
Blessed... for yours is the kingdom of God.
Remember what happened to Jesus after he announced his kingdom agenda in Luke 4, the congregation, people he grew up with, people who knew him, his friends, maybe his family, tried to throw him off a cliff. They tried to kill well before Rome ever had their sights on him.
The Presbyterian Biblical scholar Frederick Dale Brunner says, “To understand blessed is to understand it is a sort of divine, ‘I am with you.’ It is God’s way of saying, ‘I am on your side.’ ”
This is the kingdom.
When we discount, discredit, and rule ourselves out, God says, “I’m not having that!” I’m here. I’m on your side.
John the Gospel writer puts it this way,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)
He came to save and he began this rescue mission by giving a shocking, jarring, and strangely counter-intuitive, exuberant, healing, and comforting sort of message. All the people who think, “I’m out.” There’s no space for me, Jesus announces the truth, God’s blessing is now pouring out on you. Do you deserve it? Nope. But is it available? You betcha!
This is the scandal of the Gospel. Is it another list of things I have to do? Is it more commands that I have to follow to become righteous? Is it a list of requirements of what God demands so that we can be declared forgiven, justified, sanctified, and righteous? Jesus stands in the midst of a mass of humanity and announces fortunate and blessed are the poor in spirit. This is an announcement that God’s love…the Kingdom of Heaven has now become available to all the people who have absolutely no claim to it and don’t deserve it.
Are you here this morning and believe you have gone too far?
Are you here this morning and believe that you don’t deserve love?
Are you here this morning and believe that you don’t deserve forgiveness?
Are you a thief?
Are you a cheat?
Are you a liar?
Are you a failure?
Then the kingdom is available for you today.
John 3 continues,
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18)
Jesus only asks us to believe the message announcement of Gospel, there is space for you in the kingdom?
Join me by reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) this week. Take note of the places where Jesus is announcing good news to folks, and ask yourself why is this good news to them? Then ask yourself, do you need Jesus to announce good news to you? If so, ask Jesus to do exactly that, announce good news over you.