Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. Today’s Gospel reading is the first in a series of four Sundays on which we listen to Jesus’ familiar words from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Today Jesus speaks blessings upon his disciples in the passage we have come to know as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude comes into English from the Latin word for “blessed.” The nine blessings we hear today are the “doorway” into the rest of the Sermon on the Mount (Gibbs). Only after receiving Jesus’ gracious blessing can we live the life of holiness and obedience to which he calls us.
Over the years I have heard several sermons in which preachers refer to the Beatitudes as the “Be Attitudes.” In other words, “Be like this, and you will be blessed.” That’s a cute preaching gimmick, but unfortunately, it turns into Law words that Jesus intends as pure Gospel. The Beatitudes are Good News! They are not so much about what God wants you to do for him as they are about what Jesus has already done for you! And so I hope that as we meditate on the Sermon on the Mount in the coming weeks, we will be able to enter by way of Jesus’ words of blessing.
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” (Matt. 5:1-2). Jesus’ disciples listen to his teaching and believe it by faith. If you would be blessed, you must hear and believe the words of Jesus. He alone has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Faith comes by hearing the message of Christ (Rom. 10:17). And Jesus’ blessings come only by grace through faith. Jesus still speaks today through the reading, hearing, preaching, and singing of his Holy Word. Jesus opens his mouth. Will we open our ears?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The kingdom of God, or the reign of heaven, does not belong to the rich and mighty, those who boast of power and seize what they want. Violent men like Herod try to seize the kingdom, but it eludes their grasp and slips through their fingers while prophets like John the Baptist are beheaded in prison and the Savior of the world dies on a cross (cp. Matt. 11:12). No, heaven comes only to the poor in spirit.
Who are the poor in spirit? If we take a cue from Luke’s Gospel, we may say they are simply the poor (Luke 6:20). And while it’s true that often the economically challenged are depressed and poor in spirit because of their lack of opportunity and resources, Dr. Jeff Gibbs rightly says that Jesus speaks of the “spiritually poor.” In other words, the poor in spirit are the ones who recognize the poverty of their sin and know they have nothing to offer God. As we confessed earlier in worship, we are poor, miserable sinners. Neither wealth nor good works will get you into heaven, but only the riches of God’s grace. To be spiritually poor, you must recognize and confess your sin, crying out for God’s forgiveness. Jesus comes to preach Good News to the poor—to declare your sins forgiven and forgotten (Matt. 11:5; Luke 4:18).
But pride gets in our way. I once knew of a man who boasted that he was always right. He never needed to apologize to anyone for anything he did or said, because whatever he did or said at the time was correct. How sad to be a person who can never say, “I’m sorry”! How tragic to fail to see your need for forgiveness! If you are a person who never says, “I’m sorry”, then you will destroy your relationships with family, friends, and—ultimately—the Lord. For “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). Only the poor in spirit enter the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). This verse is a favorite at funerals and on All Saints’ Day. Believers who mourn the death of Christian loved ones will be comforted because of the resurrection promises of Jesus (John 11:25-27). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we do not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
But we do not mourn only because of death. We mourn over the very cause of death: sin. “The wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23a). And so we mourn the tragedy of the world’s wickedness—above all, our own sin. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation…, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor. 7:10, NIV). Godly sorrow is contrition, that is, sadness over sin. We mourn the ruin of our relationships with God and other people because of our sins. But we are comforted by the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins and gives us life. We are comforted by the Comforter himself, Jesus Christ our Lord, our only Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). And so we are blessed.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). This statement is utter nonsense in the eyes of the world, where “might makes right” and the majority feels entitled to trample the rights of the few. According to Nietzsche, the one who rules is the ones who has “the will to power.” But Jesus insists, “Blessed are the meek, the humble, the lowly…” The meek do not take the earth by force. They receive it as an inheritance from the Lord—as a gift. It is their birthright as the children of God.
Notably, the meek inherit the earth. The Christian hope is not merely to die and go to heaven, although that is partly our hope. Rather we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed). The Christian hope is a new body reunited with our soul, new heavens and a new earth, and the renewal of all creation (Revelation 20-21; Romans 8). Ironically, the very ground where the meek are oppressed and distressed in this life is the same place where we will enjoy life with God forever. How truly blessed we are when God brings about his great reversal!
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). When I was young, I used to think that hungering and thirsting for righteousness meant laboring hard at good works. But that is not the case! Righteousness is the same thing as salvation. It is justification: being declared right with God. We hunger and thirst for righteousness because we cannot produce it, earn it, or win it! Righteousness must be given and received. We hunger and thirst because we need to be fed and filled by another. His name is Jesus! In Holy Baptism, he offers living water so you will never be thirsty again (John 4). In the Lord’s Supper, he offers himself as the Bread of Life so that you will never be hungry again (John 6:35). When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you will be satisfied because the Lord Jesus will satisfy you with himself!
“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). When you fear your sins and cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” he does exactly that! He has mercy on your sins. Jesus came to save sinners, not condemn them (John 3:16-17). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they have the merciful one as their Lord.”
And the disciples of Jesus become like him in showing mercy to others. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14-15). Forgiveness is “for giving.” We cannot horde and keep it to ourselves. Forgiveness overflows! Grace abounds! If you harbor a grudge, it will be bitter poison to your soul and destroy you. If you cannot say, “I forgive you,” then you will wreck all your relationships. And so we pray, “Lord, have mercy on us all!” And help us to have mercy on others.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Once again, who is pure but the one covered with the blood of Jesus? Before Christ comes, there is no good in us—no spark, no inner light (Rom. 7:18). Human beings are not “basically good” (Ps. 14). We are evil (Matt. 7:11). “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matt. 15:19-20a).
So the Lord must give us a new heart! “Create in me a clean heart!” the psalmist prays (Ps. 51:10). God must remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), a heart beating and pumping with the love of Jesus. And when he does, he opens your eyes of faith to see the invisible things of God. Someday, you will see God himself, face-to-face. How blessed is the Day of his appearing!
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). This is my favorite verse in all of the Beatitudes. Blessed are the peacemakers. In the coming weeks, we will hear more of Jesus’ teachings about anger, retaliation, and revenge. For now it is enough to say that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). Now he calls us to bring peace to others: peace in our families, peace in our neighborhoods, peace in our schools, peace in our workplaces, peace among nations, and peace in our church (2 Cor. 5:18-21). When we make peace, we are called sons of God because that’s how we reflect the character of our heavenly Father and show his Son Jesus to the world.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). Do not doubt if persecution will come. It is not a matter of “if” but “when.” Each day Christians around the world are harassed, deprived of their property, tortured, imprisoned, and killed for the name of Jesus. This is especially true in Communist and Islamic countries, although it is just beginning in the West.
But do not be afraid! According to an early church historian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian). Strictly speaking, God’s Word is the Church’s seed. But the blood of the martyrs certainly waters the seed! Believers have nothing to fear of death. Whether you die in prison or warm in your bed, your last words and dying breaths remain an opportunity to bear witness to the Lord who loves and saved you.
“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” (Matt. 5:11-12). Blessed are you! Now, at last, the Beatitudes become personal. Instead of speaking about “them,” Jesus speaks to “you”! You are blessed, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ!
You are blessed because you are the disciples of Jesus. He speaks his Word to you. He pronounces blessing upon you. He opens his mouth and teaches you (5:2). Even if you are poor in spirit, mourning, or meek, you are blessed. Even if you are hungry and thirsty, in need of mercy and a purified heart, you are blessed. If you are a peacemaker or persecuted, you are blessed. You are blessed because Jesus died on the cross to forgive your sins. You are blessed because Christ Jesus rose from the dead to give you life. You are blessed because Christ will come again to give you heaven and earth. You are blessed because Jesus calls you his disciples… and calls you blessed. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.