John 12:1–3—Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Luke 19:41–44—As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Put yourself on the wind swept hill above Caperneum and the Sea of Galilee. You have been following Jesus from town to town as he has been performing miracles to the amazement of many but to the consternation of some. Now Jesus has asked everyone to sit so we hear his timeless teachings on our relationship to God and to one another. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers his followers a way of life that promises an eternity in Heaven. Please join me in exploring these teachings known as The Beatitudes.
The Poor in Spirit
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
Jesus begins the Beatitudes with a statement that throws into question the direction of our striving hearts. Many of us build our lives stone by stone, thinking that our economic well-being will relieve our thirst for something more than the riches and real estate we may acquire through a lifetime of effort. But wealth by itself cannot quench our thirst or satisfy our longing hearts. The poor are blessed because they are less prone to be blinded by the smokescreen of riches that obscures God’s authentic role in this world. The poor are not blessed because they are better. God calls all men and women into relationship with himself. It is just harder for the rich to put their trust in God because they may have decided to trust in the power and position that wealth can bring. “A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:20).
Those Who Mourn
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
When we experience the loss a friend or a family member, we cry out from the bottom of our hearts because we know something irreversible has taken place. We mourn, but Jesus tells us that God comes beside us to mourn with us and to comfort us. We are blessed at these moments because in the midst of our profound aloneness we experience the presence of God. And when we experience his presence, we realize that when we invite God into our lives, we are not alone and will never be alone. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)
Again, Jesus takes a counterintuitive tack when stating who will inherit the earth. In his novel Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s anti-hero, Sherman McCoy, is the “Master of the Universe,” a “god” of Wall Street who exudes antipathy for the nameless swarm of humanity that surrounds him in the city of New York. Sherman is a type that can be found in all the major financial centers in the world. He is trapped in a limousine reality and would have no understanding of what Jesus is telling him and us. When Jesus points to meekness, he is emphasizing humbleness of character. The meek are meek not out of a reservoir of weakness, but through the experience of knowing God and knowing that he is God and we are not:
O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
You are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
You know it completely, O Lord.
Those Who Hunger and Thirst
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)
If we hunger and thirst for something, we will not stop until we get it. What is your desert thirst? What do you hunger for above everything else? Jesus is using physical appetites common to all men and women to point to the one thing that will actually satisfy. Solomon asked God for the wisdom of “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (1 Kings 3:9). By asking for wisdom he was asking God to bless him with the righteousness that can only come from God. Jesus came down to earth to make that righteousness available to all: “Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20–21).
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
As God has shown mercy to us, so we should show the same measure of mercy to others. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus tells of a servant who cannot repay his master a large amount of money. The servant begs for mercy and it is granted. But soon enough, the servant demands repayment of monies owed him, and instead of showing the same kindness when the debtor cannot pay, he has the debtor thrown into prison. When the master is told of this, he asks the forgiven servant, “Shouldn’t you have had the same mercy on your fellow servant just as I had for you?” (Matthew 18:23–35) Think of the master in the parable as God, and think of the wicked servant as each one of us. We have received God’s mercy; in fact, we receive it everyday and we can never pay it back. But we can show it to others every time we have the opportunity. We can represent God in the world by forgiving just as we have been forgiven.
The Pure in Heart
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
If we have the means, we wash away the grit and grime that naturally accumulates during our daily engagement with the world. If we don’t go through the daily rituals of bathing, we begin to feel out of sorts. But outer cleanliness does not necessarily equate with inner cleanliness. Jesus compares the Pharisees to “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27–28). The unclean and diseased heart infects the whole person from the inside out, making it less and less possible to “see God.” Jesus is the ultimate heart surgeon who repairs and restores, beginning with the heart and working out from there.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
We hear people speak of peace all the time, but how can there be peace when, in the deeper recesses of the heart, we are often at war with God? It might be said that human history began with the rebellion in the Garden of Eden. One thoughtless act of defiance led directly to all the enmity, pain, suffering, murder, and mayhem that characterize so much of the historical narrative. Peacemaking, as opposed to peacekeeping, can only take root if we first make peace with God through Christ. Then genuine peacemaking can begin, one person at a time.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
From our earliest days, we expect to be rewarded for good behavior. When the opposite occurs, we feel the pain of injustice to our very core. This correlation of good behavior and reward is so pervasive that we often expect that our life will get better if we follow Jesus. But the weight of the narrative thus far suggests the opposite is just as true. Jesus’ life was threatened by Herod’s troops when he was a young child, he was persecuted and reviled by the religious elite for performing miracles on the Sabbath, and he was even rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus experienced persecution, his disciples experienced persecution, and the church has experienced persecution down through the ages and even to the present time.
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Storytelling is our way of bringing meaning to what might otherwise appear to be random events in everyday existence. Stories answer questions. John Eldredge, who I referenced in the Contours of Story, says the great philosophical question is really quite simple: “How did all of this get here?” or to put it in the words of Tolkien’s heroic hobbit: “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
Have you ever wondered what kind of tale you’ve fallen into? Many of us do not think of ourselves as being on a quest to save the world from the dark and evil forces concentrated in the shadow of Mordor. But could we be wrong? It could be that we are more like the characters in Lord of the Rings than we might image. And it could be that our world resembles Middle Earth more than we might think.
And if we are living within the framework of the battle between forces of good and evil, does that change the way we look at the purpose and meaning of our own lives?
When my son Arthur and I departed the Lodge at Cardigan, we thought we were embarking on an easy journey that would take us to an open mountaintop with inspiring views and then, after that, on to a nearby hikers’ cabin to spend a safe and warm winter night.
The Cardigan summit, though, turned into a battleground. We had walked into a turbulent and unpredictable world putting our safety on the line. We had to draw on instinct and experience to find our way down to the cabin. Without saying a word, we both understood the dangers of the world we crossed through and were grateful to arrive at the place that would provide warmth and rest.
I have thought about this experience long and hard since it happened. I could have dismissed it as just another winter mountain walk, but the contrast of the dangers of the storm and the safety of the cabin were so stark they demanded further reflection.
Many years ago, in another time of great personal challenge, I discovered the Bible. Even though I was in my middle years, my understanding of the world was not built on a strong biblical foundation. I had been brought up in a Christian culture, but that world was not a culture of the cross; instead, the church had been transmuted into a diluted remnant of an earlier, more vibrant expression of the faith. The institution of the church was accepted as long as it did not impose itself too severely on the wishes of the people and their communities. This was the world I knew as a boy and young man; you might call it the world of “Cabin Christians” where the safe and pleasant environment of the cabin is substituted for the difficulties of being a Christian in a more turbulent and unpredictable world.
This is what Jesus prayed for those who will follow him after his crucifixion and resurrection: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”(John 17:14-18)
And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”(Matthew 5:11-12)
On the summit I longed for the safety of the cabin, but I also knew that we would need to depart the cabin soon enough to go back to the world Jesus describes. Jesus was warning his disciples that they would encounter resistance in this world, but he also promised that he would be with them “always to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)
The truth is this: If we accept the great commission of Jesus Christ to go out into the world to make disciples of all nations, we will experience dangers and discomfort. It may even seem like a hopeless battle at times, but do we have a choice? If we accept the call, then we must accept the conditions that might come with the call. Sam and Frodo did not choose the journey to Mordor for themselves; they knew their whole world was at risk. The seemingly safe Shire was not really safe at all. They did not know it, but these two improbable heroes were part of a much bigger story that transformed a mere journey into an epic mission. The odds at times may seem insurmountable, but the mission commissioned by Jesus Christ is all about overcoming the impossible.
The Bible is full of seemingly insignificant people who actually become a “crowbar of history” in ways not evident to them or to anyone else at the time. A great early contender might be found in Ruth, in the eighth book of the Old Testament.
As a young woman Ruth finds herself suddenly widowed, leaving her with a difficult choice: Does she remain with her own people in Moab or return to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi? She choses the harder path, saying, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Ruth puts everything aside to remain with Naomi. She is certain of one thing: the way will be hard and may even lead to death for both of them. But she will not be dissuaded and so, having no knowledge of what lies ahead, the women return to Bethlehem, the village of Naomi’s ancestors.
But if we pull back to see the larger picture, we slowly become aware that Ruth’s decision to leave her own people and go with Naomi is pivotal to almost everything that will follow. Once back in Israel, Ruth eventually finds protection in Boaz, the owner of a field nearby to where they settle and a relative of Naomi’s husband’s family. Eventually, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife and she gives birth to a son, Obed who will be the father of Jesse who will become the father of David who becomes the King of Israel.
And out of a simple act of kindness and loyalty of one woman to another will emerge a vine that will grow through generations and generations, leading directly to Jesus Christ and from him to his Apostles and disciples and from them to each one of Christ’s followers up to and through this very moment.
Of course, Ruth could not have known the impact of her decision to stay with Naomi. And yet her simple act of grace had cosmic ramifications. Ruth just acted; she could not have known what we now know about how pivotal she is, but her own lack of knowledge was secondary to her courageous act of goodness.
Previously, I wrote about Winston Churchill being the crowbar of destiny during the early days of World War ll. His story is epic in scope; one man takes a stand against the powers of darkness and prevails.
While Churchill’s story is momentous, there is another figure who served as an even greater disruptor of the forces of evil. His impact was so staggering that it can only be understood as the greatest battle ever fought.
I am thinking of Jesus Christ who was and is an unlikely warrior king, at least by human standards. He was born in obscurity; he grew up in a small, out of the way village in Galilee and he surrounded himself with followers who were anything but the great men of his time. Here is how Isaiah prophetically describes the one who will come to save many:
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isaiah 53:2-4)
The ruling class of Jerusalem dismissed Jesus by saying nothing good ever came out of Nazareth. At Jesus’ hour of greatest crisis, all of his disciples abandoned him. By historical standards, Jesus died a criminal’s death; he was seen by his enemies as just another troublemaker who needed to be silenced because they counted him as a problem that needed to be eliminated quickly to keep their Roman masters at bay.
The truth about Jesus is that he came to put a stake in the ground for reestablishing God’s Kingdom here on earth. His time on earth might be viewed as a beachhead with many skirmishes and battles still to come. It might even be said, when we view the patterns of history through a biblical lens, that Jesus came to enlist soldiers in this ongoing battle of good and evil. And maybe Winston Churchill, that great crowbar of destiny was enlisted as one of those soldiers who would do his part to hold back the evil forces intent on killing and destroying.