Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Radical Living: Part Two--Paradox

He looked at the crowd that gathered. So many faces, most of them curious. He was the latest attraction. He turned and walked up a mountainside, knowing that his friends would follow. This got the attention of the crowd, which slowly began to walk up the mountainside with him. Finally, he turned and sat. His friends sat around him, waiting. They knew he had something to say; they could see it on his face. He looked down the mountainside at the crowd of people gathering. He knew each face, every name. He knew them before they knew him. Finally, he looked back down at the twelve men seated on the grass at his feet, leaning in. He smiled, and said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

There was an audible gasp from the crowd within earshot. Voices began murmuring down the mountain. What had he said? What did he mean?

"For theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Another gasp. More grumbling.

So began the Sermon. He didn't open with a joke or a funny illustration. He didn't introduce himself. Because the crowd knew who he was. He opened his mouth and launched into a detailed definition of how to be happy. How to be blessed. And it was the "how" that shocked the crowd.

To be happy, you must be poor in spirit, you must mourn, you must be meek, you must hunger and thirst for righteousness, you must be merciful, you must be pure, you must make peace, and you must be persecuted.

His first ten sentences seemed to defy logic. The common laborer dreams that when he becomes rich and famous, when he eats the finest foods and drinks the sweetest wines, then he will be happy. Everything else is drudgery. But Jesus disagreed with that approach. Not only disagreed, but completely contradicted it.

The word "blessed" (whether said with one or two syllables) can carry with it a few implications. Some versions of the passage translate this word as "happy." The Amplified Bible notates it as, "happy, blithesome, joyous, spiritually prosperous--with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions." This type of blessing doesn't seem to be a future-tense, "when you get to heaven you'll be blessed" kind of blessing. It sounds pretty present-tense.

And this present-tense blessing falls on the most unlikely of people: the "poor", the mourners, the meek, the "hungry", the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

Why aren't we happy? Why don't we see the blessing of God in our lives? Lots of reasons.

It could be that we aren't poor in spirit. The poor in spirit realize that they have nothing to offer God that he doesn't have already. They understand that without God they are incomplete and destined to fail. In Isaiah 57:15, God says "I live in a high and lofty place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite." When we understand that we are not self-sufficient, we are able to lean wholly on God, who will open up to us the "kingdom of Heaven", both the one "at hand" and the one in the world to come.

It could be that we don't mourn. If there ever was a culture that avoided sadness, it's ours. We medicate ourselves to dull our spirits, chemically or behaviorally. We fill our hands with every kind of amusement to keep us from thinking about the realities of our lives. And when we mourn, society tells us to deal with it, by ignoring it or destroying it through therapy. We ignore the suffering and turn our backs to the persecuted. The sight of the poor and the hungry cannot stir our compassion, but it arouses our distrust and contempt. There is a time to mourn--so says the Teacher. And the joy of the mourner, according to Is. 61:1-3, is that God will "bind up the brokenhearted" and "comfort all who mourn" when they turn to him.

It could be that we aren't meek. The culture glorifies arrogance and calls it self-assurance. It lifts up selfishness and calls it a drive for achievement. The adage "nice guys finish last" still lives on (although the quote was "nice guys finish seventh"). Who wants to be a "nice guy" when you could be a winner? And this isn't a new thing. This idea has been around forever. So when Jesus said that it would be the meek who would inherit the earth, it flew in the face of personal experience. Yet in Psalms 37:10-11, David writes that in a little while, "the wicked will be no more" and "the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace."

It could be that we don't hunger for righteousness. When you're hungry, I mean really hungry, everything else in your life becomes secondary. The hunger fills your mind, and no matter what you're doing, all you can focus on is the need that must be met. The people on the mountain understood hunger and thirst. But to hunger and thirst for righteousness was something unusual. How can you live so that righteousness is your driving desire? Later in his ministry, Jesus said in John 6:35, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." When our desire becomes righteousness, we only find our fill in Christ.

It could be that we're not merciful. It's so easy to talk about our rights. When someone wrongs us, we delight in making them pay. When someone wrongs us and asks forgiveness, we enjoy twisting the knife by refusing to accept it. We demand what we think is our due. In the second chapter of his letter, James tells the believers of Israel, "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgement!" (v. 12-13). Like the servant in the parable who has been forgiven a great debt, we take joy in demanding whatever petty coins we think we're owed.

It could be that we're not pure in heart. God, who is pure and holy, cannot stand impurity. When we don't root out the impurity of our life and deal with it, He cannot meet with us the way he wants to. And we can't "climb his Holy hill" unless we have "clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps. 24:3-4). Until we get rid of the habits and choices we refuse to let go of, we will never be able to truly see God.

It could be that we're not peacemakers. If ever there was a crime the modern church was guilty of, it's this. Peacemakers are those who calm quarrels; church people tend to start them. We forget that a soft answer turns away wrath, because we're too busy trying to be right. We focus on convincing everyone of the validity of our opinion (even on something as stupid as what music to listen to or what version of the Bible we read) that we make enemies of our brothers. How can we work out the "ministry of reconciliation" that Paul describes in II Corinthians 5, making peace between God and man, when we're too busy arguing amongst ourselves. How can we be called "sons of God" when we bear no resemblance to the original "Son of God" who was the "Prince of Peace"? This is why Paul tells the Romans to, as best as they can, "live at peace with everyone", if at all possible (12:18).

It could be that we do our best to avoid persecution. Comfort is not a virtue for the Christian. Jesus said over and over that his followers will have trouble in the world, because they are no longer part of the world's system. Yet convenience and comfort are the two goals of our culture. Why suffer? Why bother? Just relax. Keep your head down. Mind your own business. Don't ruffle any feathers. Does this sound like Christ??? Absolutely not. He was persecuted, insulted, and lied about during his entire ministry. But he took it with joy, because that proved he was doing his Father's work. And he tells us the same. When we are persecuted, mocked, lied about, and insulted because of righteousness and because of him, we are blessed, because true followers of God will always encounter opposition. He even warns in Luke's book that if you aren't persecuted, you should be worried--because false prophets were always popular.

It should be noted that the persecution he described is due to righteousness, not obnoxiousness. If you're insulted because you're being an arrogant ass, there is no reward there. Because proclaiming judgment without mercy and rebuke without love is not proclaiming the Gospel. That's the other side of this issue. Sometimes Christians charge onward, looking for a fight, believing that their insensitive and insulting approach is somehow going to credited to them as righteousness. And I don't believe this is true. Because there is no mercy, meekness, or poverty-of-spirit in that approach.

Jesus finished this section by making two unusual analogies. He referred to his followers as salt and light. Without belaboring this point too much, let's examine these statements. Three common characteristics jump out at me. First, both elements instantly affect everything around them. If you light a match, darkness is chased away. If you add a teaspoon of salt to a dish, you can taste it. Secondly, both salt and light are used for a purpose. Salt is used for seasoning, healing, and preservation. Light is used for sight. These properties are really fundamental in the "identity" of the two items. Finally, the less these properties are exhibited, the less useful the elements become. Dim light is hard to read by. Low flashlight batteries provide little help. That's why Jesus said, if salt loses its saltiness, it's only good for being thrown on the ground and walked on. You know what you call salt that's only good for walking on? Sand. Functionally, they become the same thing.

So what is Jesus saying with these analogies? First, you who believe have a purpose. Your purpose is to tell others about the One who gave you life. Secondly, if you do this, you will affect the people around you. Sometimes they're react positively, and sometimes they won't. But they will be affected. And that's your job--to change the surroundings. Finally, if you don't do your job, you're not fulfilling the purpose God gave you, and you will make little difference in the world. Pretty harsh? Perhaps. But I don't think it's too far off, either. You can't be stingy with your light, by hiding it under a bowl. Or only bringing it out on Sunday mornings. You have to let it shine, or else, you might as well not even bother.

Making a difference or taking up space. It's the difference between salt and sand.

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