Bible Passage: Matthew 5:1-12
Pastor: Pastor Berg
Sermon Date: January 29, 2017
Curious, aren’t you? Curious where this sermon is going to go just from the title, right? Maybe you’re not expecting to learn much, but isn’t that because of who the speaker is? It would be presumptuous of me at 38 years old to consider my life a rousing success and even a little more arrogant to think myself an expert on the topic of life and that I could pass all my secrets on to you. Nonetheless, the topic is still intriguing, isn’t it? What if the speaker changed…let’s say someone like a college professor would your willingness to believe also change? It probably would, wouldn’t it? What if that professor was a Rhodes Scholar, a successful businessman, and now teaches at Harvard? All of a sudden, people are ready to listen.
Well, there is a man who offers his take on how to succeed at life. The man’s name is Clayton M. Christenson. But before you get the wrong idea, he’s not out there tooting his own horn. He was convinced by his students and colleagues to publish his little talk. He uses it on the very last day of his business class where they try and determine what management theories make for a successful business. Besides, the topic is one that is near and dear to every single person in the world: How to succeed at life! Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review, described this article as one of the most resonant works they’d ever published. Hundreds of thousands when to their website to read it. I’d imagine that if Clayton Christenson came to Madison on a speaking tour, and people found out who he was and what he was teaching, there’d be more than enough people going to hear what he had to say. Wouldn’t you be a least a little curious about what he’d have to say?
Following his baptism, Jesus began to make a name for himself by teaching and preaching. His message was very similar to John’s, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Jesus went all throughout the region of Galilee, from synagogue to synagogue, spreading the good news, healing everyone who came to him. Naturally, a preacher who could heal the sick and who resembled the powerful preaching they heard from John was likely to draw a crowd. People came from all over the region, from Syria, the Decapolis, Judea, Jerusalem—even from across the Jordan River—to hear this famous preacher. And when Jesus saw the crowd and went up on that mountainside, he delivered what has become his most famous sermon: the Sermon on the Mount.
Back to Clayton Christenson for just a moment. On the last day of class, he had his students ask themselves three questions, only two which concern us today. One, how can I be sure I’ll be happy in my career; and two how can I be sure my relationship with my spouse and family will be an enduring source of happiness? Rather odd questions for a business class—yet at the same time, he’s really asking the question that everyone tries to answer: what is the bottom line on happiness? How can I succeed at life?
The crowd that gathered to hear Jesus, arguably the most famous preacher preach his most famous sermon, must have just about jumped out of their sandals when Jesus started out. He most certainly had their attention when he started his sermon by saying, “Blessed are…” Blessed! Fortunate! Happy! “Happy is the person who…” is really what Jesus was saying. How excited they must have been to hear this great prophet tell them the bottom line of happiness, telling them how to succeed at life. But their excitement must have been short-lived as Jesus stunned them with what followed. Listen again. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, because they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, because they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven. In fact, that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Poor? Mourning? Meek? Can he be serious? This is how I succeed at life? You’ve got to be joking! You can imagine the crowd, even Jesus’ disciples thinking this way, can’t you? This is the exact opposite of how the world works! It doesn’t even make sense! How can mourning make me happy? What a bunch of hooey, they must have thought. And that’s part of the reason that our Savior’s Sermon has been misunderstood. Jesus was not directing his message for general public consumption. He was speaking primarily to his disciples. He wasn’t giving a summary of the whole Christian faith—not at all. In fact, you can’t take much of what Jesus says correctly unless you read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. If you try to take these Beatitudes, these “blesseds” by themselves, what you end up with is a do-it-yourself manual for how to lead a successful life that will fall woefully short. No, what we have here is a message that can only be understood by hearts filled with the Holy Spirit. Because everything Jesus says goes completely against what the world says brings happiness! In the world’s eyes, the Beatitudes are a manual at how to fail at life!
Whether we want to believe it or not, for disciples of Jesus, this world is actually a kind of Bizzaro World, where evil is called good and good evil and everything is upside down. This world heaps praise on and rewards everything our Father in heaven detests, and it detests what our Father loves. A set of beatitudes for this world might read something like this: Blessed are the pushy and arrogant, for everyone gets out of their way. Blessed are those who’ve learned the fine art of putting themselves first, while managing to look like they’re doing the opposite, for they are the ones who receive greater authority—and more money! Blessed are those who dedicate their lives to the cultivation of their appetites, whose motto is “More!” “Fancier!” Better!”—for they are the ones everyone admires. Blessed are the impure in heart, who are proud of their impurity, who parade their impurity on reality TV shows—for it is they who live on the edge for us and push back the boundaries for us; we all owe them a debt of gratitude. Blessed are you when the world sees you as no threat at all, when it likes you and praises you. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward—right here, right now.
And how often don’t we buy into those ideals? How often don’t we get swept away by this Bizzaro world and actually start believing that evil is good and good is evil? How often don’t we act like we hate what our Father loves and love what our Father hates? We do, because in this world it makes sense! Just look at what happened to Jesus when he came and taught and lived differently. What did it get him? Those in power saw immediately the threat that Jesus represented. What was he trying to do, bring the Romans down on our necks and get us all killed? Telling people that the ones on top, the scribes and Pharisees, were closer to hell than the prostitutes! Telling people that all their righteousness was worthless and that what they needed most from God was forgiveness! What was he trying to do—turn the whole moral universe upside down? And so they did the only thing they could do. They came down on him, and hard. They made an example of him. Tried and found guilty―immediately. Spit on. Whipped. Beaten. Crucified. Dead. Buried. That’s the way he wants is, well he gets it. “Blessed are the meek,” indeed. Thank goodness that’s the end of that.
Except—it wasn’t. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead. And that’s exactly what Jesus is telling us today. Jesus is teaching us that this is not normal; it’s Bizzaro World. What the world tells us is not really going to make us happy, but ultimately dead!
No, if we want to be happy, if we want to be blessed, if we want to succeed at life, we may have to be in this Bizzaro World, but we don’t need to be of it. No, if we want to be happy we need to be poor in spirit, we need to mourn. We need to understand that we bring nothing to the table but our own sin. We need to recognize our spiritual poverty, our sinfulness. We need to be sorrowful over our sins and the consequences those sins bring in this sinful world. We need to realize that we are beggars. Spiritual beggars. We bring nothing of value to God. We have nothing to offer him. And when we realize that, Jesus says we’ll be happy, we’ll be comforted! Why? Because ours is the kingdom of heaven! Because through faith, Christ rules in our hearts. Through faith, we receive the forgiveness of sins. When we put our trust completely in God’s power, when we are meek, we know that God will provide for us as he always has. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, doing what God wants us to be doing, putting first what’s really first, God promises to bless us with everything else as well. My dear friends, because of what Jesus has done for us by coming into this Bizzaro World and turning it on its head through his life, death, and resurrection, we are blessed. Because Jesus has sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts and given us the gift of faith, we enjoy all the blessedness he describes!
And even though we still live in this Bizzaro World, we don’t need to live like it. We live in the Kingdom of God right now! We live in a kingdom where treachery and intimidation and selfishness and perversion are banished. This is a kingdom where good is not called evil, it’s called good, where everyone knows that money isn’t the purpose of life, it’s just money; that the won who dies with the most toys doesn’t win, he’s dead; and the one who wins the rat race isn’t a winner’ he’s a rat. Above all, this is a kingdom where we don’t have to elbow our way in by shoving somebody aside, where you don’t climb to the top by stepping on everyone else, where you don’t spend all your time looking out for #1, because you don’t have to. We don’t earn a place or fight for a place or prove that we belong. Have no fear, little flock, Jesus said. The Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. It’s a gift, and it’s yours.
Believe it or not, Clayton Christenson finds the bottom line to happiness in his relationship with his Savior. And while he says it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone, we know better. The key to succeeding in this life is to listen to our Savior’s Sermon. And there he tells us, “You’ll be happy if you completely trust in God’s power.” Happy here, happy for eternity! Sounds like a recipe for success to me!