The Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St Paul Lutheran Church, Manito, IL
Rev. James T. Batchelor
I have no idea what kind of nightmares you have, but people who study dreams say that there are some themes that are very common. One of them is being unprepared for a very important meeting… the nightmare begins as you wake up and realize that your alarm didn’t go off. This life and death meeting is about to begin at any moment and you are still at home in your bedroom. In a panic, you bolt across the room and through the door. Only, instead of being in the hall outside your bedroom, you are suddenly standing at the head of the table in the meeting room at work.
All the most important movers and shakers are seated at the table. They are all looking to you to give them the genius of your ideas. Everything depends on this and you’ve got … nothing. In terrified embarrassment, you look down at the floor in the hopes that you can sink through it, but, instead, you see that you are still dressed in your night clothes. Then you look around the room at all these elegant charts and graphs that are part of your presentation and they all look like gibberish. The movers and shakers around the table begin to speak, but you don’t understand a word. The room begins to close in on you and what a mercy it is to wake up and realize that it was all just a bad dream.
As we listened to the words of Jesus’ sermon this morning, we heard Him begin with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3) Those who are poor in spirit are a lot like the people who have that nightmare of being unprepared.
To be poor means to be without resources … helpless … destitute, and so forth. But Jesus didn’t just say, “poor,” He said, “poor in spirit.” Here, He is not talking about being without house, home, food, clothing, and so forth. Instead, He is talking about our standing in the spirit. He is talking about people who are totally unprepared to stand before God. The poor in spirit stand before God and are just like the person in the nightmare. There is God almighty saying, “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” (Job 40:7) And they’ve got … nothing.
In shame, they look down and see that they are still dressed in the filth of their sin. Is it any wonder that God’s Word says that they will try to hide themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17) The really terrifying thing is that this is not a nightmare. It is reality.
How then, can Jesus say that such people are blessed? They are blessed because of what Jesus means when He says, “… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” As we learned last week, the kingdom of heaven is the deeds of God, performed in and through Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. The kingdom of heaven includes the perfect life that Jesus lived in our place. It includes His ministry of preaching and healing. It includes His passive obedience to the suffering and death of the cross. It includes the promise of eternal life that comes in his resurrection. It includes His presence with us now in Word and Sacrament. It includes His final coming on the Last Day to raise our bodies and take us body and soul into His eternal presence.
When Jesus says, “… theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” He is saying that all the resources of the reign of heaven are there for us. Those who have nothing in themselves, have everything in Christ Jesus. The reign of heaven belongs to those who are spiritually destitute. It is there for lost sinners. It is there for you.
When the Holy Spirit works faith in us, He shows us that we are spiritually impoverished, and He then bestows the blessing of the reign of heaven on us. Forgiveness, Baptism into Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit for faith and obedience, the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper, the fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and more are all ours. All because we have the reign of heaven in Jesus Christ.
Sadly, although Jesus blesses everyone with the kingdom of heaven, some will reject it. The world remains a sinful place. Those who have the reign of heaven see this rejection and evil and it breaks their hearts. They mourn over the sin they see in themselves and the sin they see around them. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) When the day comes that they shall leave this world, Jesus will comfort all their tears and take away all their sorrows. Even as he lives with them now in a way that they cannot see, they will see Him and live with Him forever.
Those who know that they are “poor in spirit” cannot help but be meek. They are not meek because they seek meekness. They have not set out on a quest to become meek. They are meek because, as sinners, meek is all that they can be. Meek describes the helpless sinner. Never the less, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5) Because of the work that Jesus has done for them on the cross, they will rule with Jesus on a new earth – the earth that replaces this sinful world on the Last Day.
Those who receive the blessings of the reign of heaven know that Jesus Christ is their righteousness. They know that they are helpless and only the righteousness given to them by Christ saves them. Once they have tasted the righteousness of Christ, they want as much as they can get. They always hunger and thirst for more of the righteousness that is Jesus. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6) Here Jesus promised to satisfy their desire for righteous on into eternity.
As heaven reigns in God’s people, they shall be filled with mercy. Christ’s mercy works in them and through them. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) This beatitude describes the Church of Jesus Christ as a community of people who freely forgive those who sin against them. This beatitude parallels the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. This mercy is not something that we work in ourselves, but something that Christ works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As heaven reigns in God’s people, they have a pure heart. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) We receive the forgiveness of sins when the Holy Spirit works faith in us so that we believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. When the Holy Spirit does that He performs a heart transplant. He removes our dead, unbelieving heart and creates a new heart in us. That is the reason that we sometimes chant, “Create in me a clean heart, O God …” when the sermon is over. When the Holy Spirit works that faith in us, He gives us a pure heart. Those who have such a pure heart will see God face-to-face. For the day will come when God will call us out of this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.
The reign of heaven gives the peace of God that passes all understanding. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9) By virtue of our savior’s holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death, we have peace with God. Those who have that peace readily share it with others. They proclaim the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
The eighth beatitude is a bookend of sorts. It connects to the simple reality that the world hates Jesus and, therefore, it hates those who know that they are poor in spirit. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10) The righteousness in this phrase is not our good deeds. Instead, it is the righteousness of Christ that He has earned for us with His perfect life and innocent suffering and death. The world hates Jesus and so it hates those who have His righteousness. Therefore, the world persecutes those who believe. When this happens, Jesus promises us His blessings. The One who reigns in heaven already belongs to believers in such difficult times.
The persecution of the church is part of the now, but not yet of the Christian faith. The present reign of Christ in this world is a hidden reality. He rules, not from power, but from the apparent weakness of the cross. He shows His true power only to those who believe in Him. It is only on the last day that all people will see Jesus and know that He is both Lord and Christ. Until then, He will bless His church even as she suffers persecution for His name’s sake.
The first and eighth beatitudes sort of bracket the others as bookends. They teach us that the blessings of the beatitudes depend on Jesus. Nothing that we do can earn these blessings for we are spiritually poor. The blessings that Jesus gives us in these two bookends show us that all the beatitudes depend entirely on Jesus.
The summary blessing doesn’t seem like much of a blessing at first. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12) No one enjoys being an outcast, but how else can we expect the sinful world to treat those whose sins have been forgiven. When people in this world make us miserable because we trust in Christ, we have the promise of blessing from Jesus Himself.
It is not our job to earn the blessings of the beatitudes. Instead, Jesus has taken it on Himself to give us these blessings in His love. In order to give us His gifts, He endured our punishment and carried our shame. These blessings come to us freely by God’s grace and not by anything we do in ourselves.
The world in its wisdom would look at these beatitudes and say, “These are the symptoms of those who have that disease known as Christianity.” Those who know they are poor in spirit look at these beatitudes and see the signs of Jesus Christ and His Church. They see the gifts God has already given to us. You can truly rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. Amen