Thursday, March 06, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:3, for Ash Wednesday, "Blessed are the poor in spirit", Beatitudes 1

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today on Ash Wednesday, we begin the journey following Jesus to His cross and resurrection, taking stock of our sin and our need for repentance or turning away from sin, and witnessing the perfect love and sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. To aid our meditation during Lent, we’re going to study and meditate deeply on the Beatitudes. A few months ago on All Saints’ Day I preached on the whole set of the Beatitudes, and described them as “Christ-colored glasses” through which the believer in Jesus sees how they stand before God. They are not descriptions of the Christian life only and not about Christ—and neither can we understand them as only descriptions of Christ and not reflecting on the Christian life. Instead, they show Jesus as the source and strength of the Christian life and how it takes shape from Jesus’ own life.
Since this is the first in the series, let’s briefly introduce them. There are nine “Blessed Are..” sayings altogether, and the first eight form a set, because the first and eighth are both in the present tense, and they are the only repeated blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The rest of the blessings are spoken in the future tense, “they shall…”. What is the significance of this? It shows the now, but not yet character of the kingdom of heaven—that we are already part of the kingdom now—even though it is not fully realized yet. It shows Christ’s kingdom breaking in and changing the world already now, but also that the completion of these blessings will be in the future state. Finally, the 9th Beatitude rounds out the set, switching from talking about “blessed are those who…” to “blessed are you…”. This drives home the point that Jesus is speaking about and to His followers, His disciples—namely you and me!
The first Beatitude is “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Present tense—“theirs is”—as we’ve already noticed. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”, and how does this relate to Christ? That it says “in spirit” points us to understand this not as a measure of how much money is in your bank account, i.e. material wealth. A clue to the meaning of “poor in spirit” emerges from our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…” Jesus fulfilled this prophecy as one who came to preach to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners. In what way are we poor toward God? And we are going to hear what this good news preached to the poor is.
By virtue of sin, every one of us is spiritually in poverty, and we lack the holiness and the spiritual blessings of God. We’re beggars before Him. That is objectively our situation, and He is the only one who can fix it. In the spiritual realm, we have nothing of value or worth to bring before God. We recall Isaiah 64:6 that breaks the awful truth on us, that all of our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. It has struck me that it’s not our unrighteous deeds that are like filthy rags, but our righteous ones! In other words even the best we would have to offer is unacceptable. Truly, on our own, we’re dressed in beggarly rags before God, and poor in spirit means we have nothing to claim to our name or credit. Needy hands turn to Him. A needy heart and a needy soul cries out for His good news, His spiritual blessing and nourishment.
On Ash Wednesday we come together with needy hands and hearts, and acknowledge our poverty before God. Our sins and even our attempts at righteous living cling to us like so many dirty rags, smelling of pride, of impure motives, of boasting and power struggles, of false humility that looks for watching eyes, of hypocrisy and countless other sins that contaminate our daily lives. And by no amount of “best efforts” on our part can we cleanse ourselves of our sin. Instead, we lower our faces and say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). We hear and accept the solemn judgment spoken to Adam and Eve after the first sin, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). We all can see the evidence of sin working its wages in death all around us, and its humbling to fall before God and realize that there is nothing we can do to get out of this dilemma.
But thanks be to God that “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). And God’s compassion comes to us in Christ Jesus. So how is “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” a Christ-colored lens by which we see our own life? How do we gain the blessing of the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus, of course, became like us in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15), and so in this way Jesus is not “spiritually poor” or impoverished, in the way that we are empty before God. But 2 Corinthians 8:9 tells us, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Or Philippians 2:7–8 tells us that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Hebrews 2 quotes Psalm 8 about Jesus, saying that He was for a “little while made lower than the angels”, but was crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.
Each of these verses teach us how Jesus voluntarily became poor, became a servant, took on human form, and was made lower than the angels. In taking on human flesh, He became like us in every way, except without sin. And while He remained at the same time fully God and fully man, He restrained from the full use of His divine power and glory. As Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 11:28–29, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus assumes our human flesh so that He through gentleness and lowliness can assume the heavy yoke and burden of our sin. He becomes poor so that He can make us rich, He becomes obedient to death so that we might have life.

In Christ Jesus, God has compassion on this mortal frame of dust, this frail, weak, and poor in spirit humanity, and He bears it into Himself. He takes our mortality, our sinfulness, and our spiritual poverty, and dies for it, so that we can have the forgiveness of sins. That God can make us spiritually rich with overflowing blessings through Him. That we might have the kingdom of heaven. Because the kingdom of heaven is God’s alone to give. And He gives it graciously, undeservedly, freely, to us in Christ Jesus. And by faith in Jesus Christ, we are already brought into that kingdom now! And the life of blessing in Jesus Christ is already now. This is the Good News preached to the poor, this is the Good News of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus came proclaiming and came giving to all who would hear Him and believe. Let our praise rise in return to Him for all the greatness of His grace toward us! In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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