Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:6, Beatitude 4, Lent 4, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Tonight we reach the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Physical hunger and thirst are easily recognized, and “hunger pangs” in the stomach or dryness in the mouth or throat inform us whether we are hungry or thirsty. The sensations are pretty easy to recognize—although people who talk about dieting say that even these ordinary sensations of our body can sometimes be misread. People say that sometimes when we feel hungry, a simple drink of water can satisfy us. As a parent (or maybe it’s just dads), you are sometimes uncertain whether your baby is crying because they are hungry, or just because they need your attention, or have some other need to be attended.
If physical hunger is felt in the stomach or thirst in the throat, where do we feel spiritual hunger or thirst? What are the “spiritual hunger pangs”, and do we ever misread or misunderstand them? The heart or conscience is where we experience unrest or disquiet when we are guilty or when we witness injustice and unrighteousness. Our heart or soul is what longs for God, and desires Him and His attention, His gifts. As we hear this past Sunday, “My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” But do people always know or realize that God and His righteousness are what we thirst and hunger for? Don’t we often find the wrong answer for our longings, or seek satisfaction from empty pleasures, spiritual “junk food”, or false gods? While there are plenty of bad things we try to “fill up” on, nowhere does the Bible tell there is such a thing as getting “too much” of God’s Word. As one of my college professors would say, “There’s no such thing as spiritual overeating, and while some people are spiritually starved, there is no one who is spiritually overweight.”
Jesus felt physical hunger and thirst when He fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted by the devil. He related His physical hunger and thirst to spiritual things when He answered the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God’s Word is a deeper source of food, and greater satisfaction than any earthly food can provide, and it was God’s Word that sustained Jesus through that period of fasting, but also through His whole life. This past Sunday when we heard the story of the woman at the well, Jesus was again thirsty and hungry, asking for a drink from the woman, and then speaking to her about her spiritual thirst, she was at first unaware of. In the verses we did not hear on Sunday, but that you just heard read from John 4, Jesus’ disciples come back from town with food for Jesus. He tells them that He has food to eat that they don’t know about, and while they are puzzling over what He means, He explains: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Though He may still have hungered, Jesus found satisfaction and fulfillment in carrying out the will and work of His heavenly Father. He did so by bringing a thirsty woman and a village of Samaritans to come to Him, the promised Messiah.
Yesterday’s Portals of Prayer had a good devotion about noticing Jesus’ response to various things. What made Him sad, what made Him rejoice, etc. If we pay attention to what makes Jesus satisfied, what fills Him, it is to get God’s work done, and to live by God’s Word. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness, then Jesus says we are blessed and shall be filled. This is the kind of hunger craving God wants us to have, and wants to satisfy in us. To know and do His will and to hungrily eat His Word. To thirst for and drink from the Living Water, Jesus Christ, poured out in spiritual abundance in baptism, in the washing of the forgiveness of sins, and in the refreshing renewal of new life.
Since God’s Word and the life of the Spirit promises to fill our emptiness, where does that spiritual emptiness come from? I think you already know that it comes from sin. Guilt and shame are like hunger pangs that cry out to God for the forgiveness and holiness that only He can provide. Sin is not how we were made to operate, and when we do sin, our “system malfunctions” and sends out warning cries. If only we can recognize the warning signs and get to God for help. Or rather He comes to rescue us. Sin is the rebellion and opposition to God that turns away from His will, from His commands, and from His Word. Sometimes that hunger comes when we go on a “spiritual hunger strike” and deprive ourselves of God’s Word; like a person starving themselves in the midst of a feast. We only hurt ourselves. We are not in a time and place where there is any shortage of God’s Word or that our access is cut off to Him.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Amos once spoke of God sending a spiritual famine on God’s people, a famine of the word of God. They would no longer hear God’s Word and prophets, and would hunger and crave for what they had once despised. Some places in the world do suffer from a famine of God’s Word—in some cases due to persecution, in some cases from a shortage of missionaries and willing messengers of the gospel, in some cases because of persistent resistance to and rejection of God’s Word. Then it may be harder to find that spiritual nourishment—though not impossible. But we are surrounded by God’s Word, and millions of homes have multiple copies of the Bible, and yet many sit unread. Churches are on near every corner; worship and Bible study opportunities abound. And yet one also must be discerning to see that what is taught is faithful to the pure Word of God, and be watchful for false teachings. But no one should go unfed, and no one should be spiritually starved for the life God is so eager and willing to give.
But what specifically does it mean to hunger for “righteousness?” Righteousness can mean several things in Scripture. Certainly Jesus does not mean here that we should hunger for the self-righteousness or civil righteousness of our own works, which everywhere falls short of the glory of God. So what righteousness? The righteousness of the kingdom of God, in the broadest sense of God’s justice, righteousness and salvation unfolding as Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth? In this case, it would mean the Christian’s hunger or longing for God’s kingdom to unfold on earth, for His justice to overtake wickedness, and for the goodness and peace of His reign to take hold in place of evildoing and strife, of wars and contention. That also would include God’s righteousness transforming our lives as well. The Scriptures certainly echo this longing of believers. Or could the “hunger for righteousness” mean more narrowly the spiritual righteousness brought as gift to us by Jesus’ death on the cross? This is the perfect righteousness of Jesus, His obedience to God, His life of pure goodness, and His suffering on the cross in our place, by which He grants to us His perfect innocence. It’s the righteousness of Jesus that makes it possible for us to stand in God’s sight and in His judgment as forgiven and redeemed, cleansed and made new. I cannot rule out either of these possibilities of what Jesus means. In both the coming of God’s righteous kingdom, and also in the gift of Jesus’ righteousness to believers, we are most certainly blessed and deeply satisfied.
And we’re here to feast on His Word, to drink deeply of His forgiveness and life, and to find satisfaction in His gifts. So we truly give thanks and praise Him for Jesus Christ, that He hungered and thirsted for us. That He hungered for the will and work of His Father to be done—and He did it. Faithfully and obediently going to the cross, destroying sin and death so that we can have righteousness and life. Jesus hungered for God’s Word and found in it rich consolation and strength, even as a man enduring great physical hunger, thirst, grief, loss, and suffering. He lamented the brokenness of the world laboring under sin, and grieved for those harassed and helpless, but was not powerless in the face of such evil. He came to shepherd us and deliver us from it with His mighty hands and His outstretched arms. As Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross, His hunger and thirst were satisfied in knowing that the Father’s work was being done, so that at the end, Jesus could say with all boldness and confidence, “It is finished.” And as Jesus felt the loneliness and forsakenness of death, God’s Word was still His comfort, to cry out with trust in God, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

Just as Jesus’ hunger and thirst were not left unsatisfied, but His soul was satisfied with the rich food of God’s Word and will, He has done this all for us. He lives so that we can live in that blessing and never need to hunger or thirst again. His richness and blessing He freely and mercifully pours out on all who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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