January 29, 2017

How would you finish this sentence: “I will be happy when….”

• I will be happy when I fall in love and get married.

• I will be happy when I can buy a new car.

• I will be happy when I get a new job.

• I will be happy when I retire.

• I will be happy—when they lay me to rest.

When will you be happy? What will it take? What are the chances that it’s going to happen? Jesus has some wisdom on the subject. What he has to say seems upside down. But don’t dismiss him too quickly. 

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

The first thing Jesus does is to change the vocabulary. He doesn’t talk about happiness, although some versions of the Bible use the word “happy” instead of the word “blessed.” “Blessed” is a better word, because of the ways that we use the word “happy.” Happiness is taking the summer off —or getting promoted—or getting a new car—or watching the Razorbacks win. Jesus has something different in mind—something that goes deeper —something that seems strange when we first hear it. He says:

• “Blessed are the poor in spirit….

• “Blessed are those who mourn….

• “Blessed are the gentle….

• “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness….

Now you see what I mean by upside down. Those are not the rules as we know them. The rules as we know them are:

• Blessed are the rich, because they can buy what they want.

• Blessed are the strong, because they can take what they want.

• Blessed are winners, because to the winner goes the spoils.

• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst at the best restaurants, because they will be pampered—and indulged—and filled. That’s the one I like!

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” 

He goes even further, giving us a total of nine beatitudes, but I am only going to deal with the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” because the first beatitude is the key to the rest. If you get the first beatitude, you will be on the right path toward the rest of them. 

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” 

The Greek word that is translated “poor” means abject poverty. True poverty is a cruel thing. It breaks people. They suffer. Confronted daily with their own helplessness, they know the difference that even a small act of mercy can make. They watch eagerly for a gesture or a glance that might promise help. They long for a bit of kindness. They crave a bit of dignity.

Standing before God, the poor in spirit are like that. They bring nothing in their hands that God needs—and nothing in their hearts that compels God to accept them.

• They come in their poverty hoping for sustenance.

• They come in their brokenness hoping to be mended.

• They come in their sin hoping to be forgiven.

• They come in their grief hoping to be comforted.

• They come in their illness, hoping to be healed.

• They do not come bargaining with God, because they have nothing to offer.

• It is precisely their humility—their brokenness—that makes them fertile soil to receive God’s blessings.

And so Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” Blessed are those who come to God knowing they have nothing.

That isn’t our preferred mode of travel—on our knees. We prefer to be in control. We prefer to pay for what we get. We prefer not to be in anyone’s debt. We prefer to walk up and lay cash on the barrelhead.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

We fight hard not to be poor in spirit. We try to get the best grades we can—so that we can get the best job that we can. We work as hard as we can—and do the best that we can. We try desperately to be in control of our lives.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

Our best efforts leave us exhausted. We are exhausted, in part, because we are not poor in spirit. We are proud—so desperate to be in control—so desperate to do it our way. And so we spend so much energy on trivial things. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

Henri Nouwen met Mother Teresa in Rome. He said that the first thing he noticed about her was her constant focus on Jesus. People were asking questions, and she was answering in a way that reflected her total focus on Jesus. Her answers sounded, at first, simplistic and naïve. But Nouwen sensed, not only her own personal strength, but also the subtle power of her answers.

When Nouwen finally had the opportunity to speak with Mother Teresa, he told her of his problems. He spoke of his struggles. He asked her advice. She answered simply, “If you spend one hour a day in contemplative prayer and never do anything which you know is wrong, you will be all right.”

Nouwen says, “With these words she answered none—as well as all—of my problems at the same time. It was now up to me to be willing to move to the place where that answer could be heard.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit….”

The meaning of this first beatitude—and of all the beatitudes—is that God blesses us when we come to God with empty hands— bowing before the throne of grace—ready to receive whatever blessing that God chooses to give us—ready to follow in whatever path God chooses to lead us.

The promise is this. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” Notice that Jesus does not say, “theirs WILL BE the kingdom of heaven.” He says, “theirs IS the Kingdom of heaven.” We do not have to wait for the kingdom. Jesus says that it has come near. We can enter it now.

I am tempted to conclude this sermon by saying, “Be poor in spirit so that you will receive God’s blessing”—but that isn’t what Jesus says. Jesus doesn’t issue an order but, instead, gives a blessing. He promises that, when our need is greatest, there we will find God—and there we will find blessing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”