So, each Sunday for awhile, I'm intending on putting one of my past sermons on my blog for whoever's interested in reading it. To make this feasible, as well as emotionally doable, I'm not going to try and edit or change them in any significant way. I may or may not agree now with everything I wrote then, but I'm going to leave them alone and let them speak for themselves!
In looking through my list, I've decided that I'm going to start with a sermon series I preached in 1994 on the Beatitudes, while I was pastoring in Highlands, NC. I am drawn to this in part because for me, the teachings of Jesus, such as we find in the Beatitudes and the larger Sermon on the Mount in which they are contained (Matthew chapters 5-7), are at the heart of the Christian faith.
And in the case of this first sermon, dealing with the first Beatitude--"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"--I can't help but of the newly elected Roman Catholic leader, Pope Francis. In his recent statements and interviews, he seems to embody the humility and meekness that is at the heart of being 'poor in spirit'.
So I would like to dedicate this first sermon on my blog to Pope Francis. May he have a long and successful Papacy!
September 25, 1994; Rev. Carl W. Lindquist
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 5:1-3)
When Mary Beth and I traveled to the Holy Land 18 months ago, one of the most beautiful places we visited was a mountainside high above the coastline of the Sea of Galilee, near the ancient village of Capernaum. From this vantage point we could see the entire lake and the surrounding countryside, with its bright, contrasting hues of blue, brown and green. It was on that very site, called the Mount of Beatitudes and now consecrated by the presence of a most lovely chapel, that Jesus is believed to have delivered his most famous teaching, what we call the Sermon on the Mount.
It is of course no accident that Jesus gave this ethical teaching where he did, on the mountain. For from the perspective of our Resurrection faith, we can see the similarities between Moses and Jesus. Moses, the greatest of all the prophets of Israel, received God’s Law on the mountain of Sinai and brought it down for the people to hear and obey. Now Jesus, the new Moses, who was the fulfillment of the covenant of Israel, was giving a new law for a new covenant and a new Kingdom.
Over the next few weeks, we will be taking a look at this timeless biblical passage, that has probably been more historically influential than any other, and we will be trying to gain insights into its true meaning and its relevance for us as late-20th century Christians.
Imagine, if you can, the scene on that hillside, almost 2,000 years ago. People from all over Israel were excited about a new rabbi (what we would call minister) who was traveling around, preaching, teaching, and performing marvelous works of healing. His headquarters being in the fishing village of Capernaum, it was no wonder that crowds of interested seekers came there to see and hear him in person. And so they gathered in the open fields on the hillside outside the village, and Jesus came with his handful of specially chosen disciples, and he sat down and taught them all what has become the most famous and beloved body of teaching in all of history, the Sermon on the Mount.
And the first line of the Sermon is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This simple sentence, the first of what we call the Beatitudes, contains within it a whole world of meaning and truth. Before we go further into the meaning of this particular Beatitude, let’s look for just a second at the Beatitudes in general.
These eight elegant and timeless statements take their name from the first word, “blessed.” They are the gateway to the Sermon on the Mount, and they are God’s answer to man’s greatest question, namely, how do I find the summum bonum, the highest good, the greatest treasure of life? Last week, we saw that the greatest treasure and possession of life is true joy and happiness. That is what we all seek. And in the Beatitudes, Christ is pointing us toward true blessedness and joy.
This is a blessedness that is not temporary, but permanent, that is not fleeting and merely feeling but a matter of objective reality, not based on mere fortune and circumstance but dependent on God’s grace and our choice. This is a blessedness that is a part of the kingdom that Christ inaugurated.
And so Jesus began by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
So what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”, and why does that bring any kind of blessing? After all, isn’t poverty a bad thing? And doesn’t this sound a bit like a case of “the blues?”
This quite literal translation of the Greek here, ptwcoi tw pneumati, will be more understandable if we listen to two alternate paraphrases. The Phillips Modern English translation of this text says, “How happy are those who know their need for God.” And the Living Bible reads, “Humble men are very fortunate!” Here we find the answer to our search for meaning in this first Beatitude.
To be “poor in spirit” means to realize, first of all, that we need God, that we are dependent upon God alone, and that without God, we are ultimately nothing.
That seems so commonsensical. But there has always been a great temptation to try and live without God. This is what the Bible means when it talks about “living by bread alone.”
We humans are composite creatures, made up of a dual nature, both a physical nature and a spiritual nature. As to our physical natures, we have eyes, ears, nose, hands, and feet. Our bodies have certain natural and legitimate desires and appetites: for food and drink, for sexual intimacy, for social fellowship. These elements of our physical nature are God-given and intended for our good. At the same time, they can be distorted and abused, bringing sorrow and ruin to our lives.
But we human beings are more than our bodies, more than just animals. We are actually living souls, created in God’s image, with a mind, sense of morality, emotions, an ability to know the past and look into the future. And we have in our souls a longing for God, that is as real as our hunger for food and intimacy. This is our spiritual nature.
There has been a great temptation in our modern world, with its great materialistic advancement and prosperity (as well as its even greater arrogance about what it thinks it knows) to become so preoccupied with meeting the needs of our bodies and their desires that we have seriously neglected the equally real needs of our souls. When this happens, we become fat physically and materially, while spiritually we become desperately weak and sickly.
In this very secular age in which we live, it is easy to live oblivious to the reality of God. There has been over the last fifty years in our own country a concerted effort on the part of a virulently secular minority to try and drive the acknowledgment of God out of our public life, and it continues today. The Asheville paper only last week carried news of a lawsuit recently filed to try and force the removal of an historical display of the Ten Commandments in a local courthouse.
Some misguided souls may think we have outgrown God, that, as the Death of God theologians in the sixties used to say, “our need for God is dead.” But that is such a foolish idea. For our human nature has not changed since Jesus walked the earth. We are still spiritual beings who need God, and unless we recognize that need and do what we must to meet that need, we are going to pursue all kinds of alternative divinities to fill the vacuum in our souls left by the absence of God. Dostoevski put it well in his classic work The Brothers Karamazov, when he said, “Without God, one doesn’t believe in nothing, rather one will believe in anything.”
As creatures made in God’s image, it is a simple fact that we cannot achieve true satisfaction and joy and ‘blessedness’ until we care for our souls and come to know God. For only God can resolve the deepest longings and desires of our souls. Nothing but the true and living God completely satisfies, because the soul was made for God, and without God the soul is restless and in secret torment.
What Jesus is telling us here in this first Beatitude is that unless we realize and understand our need for God and our dependence upon God, we will never be truly happy in this life, not to speak of the life to come.
To accept our need for God involves humility, doesn’t it. The proud person thinks of themselves as just fine in their self-sufficiency. That is why humility has always been recognized as the foundational virtue of the Christian life, because without some sense of humility we don’t even bother to worry about God.
Humility is a tricky virtue, though. A certain clergyman, burdened by a sense of his unworthiness, went into the church to pray. Falling to his knees, he prayed, "O Lord, I am nothing! I am nothing!"
The organist was passing by, and overhearing the pastor praying, was moved to join him on his knees. He too cried aloud, "O Lord, I too am nothing. I am nothing."
The janitor of the church also happened to be passing by, and awed by the sight of the men praying, joined them and prayed, "O Lord, I also am nothing."
At this, the organist nudged the pastor and said, "Now look who thinks he's nothing!"
To be truly humble means that you recognize yourself to be what indeed we all are, mere finite creatures, severely limited in so many ways, sinful beings who in our weakness easily succumb to ever-present temptation.
To be humble means to realistically see both the good and the bad that lies within us. Yes, we do have some pretty incredible talents, abilities, and aptitudes, and for that we can thank God who created us. But we also have an inclination to self-centeredness and pride, to greed and hatred, to self-indulgence and violence, to wanting, not to trust and love God, but rather to BE God, to take his place as omniscient and omnipotent.
Because we are so inclined toward evil, we need God. The humble person recognizes all of this and submits themselves and their will to God in trust, obedience and faith. The proud man places himself at the center of his world (becoming self-centered), but the humble man is happy to place God at the center (becoming God-centered).
In what must be the ultimate biblical example of pride and humility, Jesus told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
And so, on that beautiful mountainside crowded with people, hungering to hear a word of truth, Jesus taught them, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some of them listening that day heard these words and heeded them, becoming his followers. Others turned away in indifference or refusal.
And so we today hear the Lord speaking to us. What will we do with Christ and his teaching? Will we humbly follow him, or will we proudly turn away?
May God help us to recognize our need for Him, to do that which will open our souls unto the Master, and to always keep us humble, submitting ourselves unto Christ in faith and obedience. For then the promise of God is that His blessing will come near unto us and will fill us with “the righteousness, peace, and joy of the Holy Spirit. “
O Lord, even as you bless us with so many wonderful material blessings in life, also keep us ‘poor in spirit,’ humbly aware of our constant need for your grace, love, and tender mercy. So may we store up treasures in heaven and be rich toward you. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.