For those of you like me who grew up way back in the '60's, (and I know I am dating myself here), you may recall that one of the popular catchphrases of that era was the term "counter-culture".
It was a time when many young people began to reject the established values of the older generation. They looked for ways to distinguish themselves from the culture around them: in the way they dressed, in the length of their hair, in the music they listened to, in the values they adopted.
And here in the SotM, Jesus calls his followers to be part of a "Christian Counter-culture". Because if we were to really live according to the principles and values that Jesus lays out for us in the SOTM, we would discover that our lives would look radically different from the rest of the world around us.
And nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the Beatitudes, the 8 statements of blessing that introduce us to the SOTM.
JB Phillips once rewrote the Beatitudes as the nonChristian world would prefer them. He wrote:
"Happy are the pushers & shovers, for they get ahead in the world.
Happy are the hard-boiled, for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are those who complain, for they get their own way in the end.
Happy are the slave-drivers, for they get results. Happy are the trouble-makers, for they make people take notice of them."
But Jesus offers us a very different alternative, in the Beatitudes as they are found at the beginning of Matt 5. Over the past 2 weeks we have taken a look at the first 4 of the beatitudes, which deal primarily with our vertical rel'ship with God: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger & thirst for righteousness"
In these first 4, it seems that Jesus is primarily concerned about our vertical rel’ship with God, getting our hearts right before God
But then the last 4, that we want to focus on this morning, Jesus is focused more on our horizontal rel’ships with other people. So let’s look at these last 4 briefly, because in a sense they all tie in together, they are all part of one whole
5:7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."
Because God is a God of mercy, his kingdom reflects this quality.
It has been said that if God were governed only by his perfect justice, he would give us exactly what we deserve. But in his mercy, he gives us not what we deserve, but what we need. And it is very clear that God expects us to treat others the same way.
To be merciful, as Jesus uses the word here, is to have compassion & concern for people in distress, to identify with their hurt, & to be willing to take concrete steps to meet their need.
When we think of this quality of mercy, we can't help but think of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. Where others had walked past the wounded man lying on the road because they were preoccupied with their own agendas, this man stopped, & took pity on him. At considerable cost to himself, he bandaged his wounds, loaded him on his donkey, & took him to an inn where he would be taken care of.
Showing this kind of mercy required several things of the Good Samaritan: a willingness to get involved, to take risks, to give substantially in terms of his own time & expense. And so to be merciful in this way can sometimes be very costly. Jesus modeled this for us over & over again. When he saw people with needs, he had compassion on them, & he took the time to help them.
Jesus says those who show mercy are also the ones who find it. This does not mean that we earn God's mercy. Rather those who treat others with mercy, by their actions show that they have already experienced the mercy & kindness of God in their own lives. Conversely how can we claim to know God's compassion & love if we do not offer it to others?
2 "Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God" (5:8)
One way to understand this beatitude is to take Jesus to mean those who are inwardly pure or clean, those whose hearts have been cleansed from sin. And that interpretation is certainly consistent with the rest of the SOTM & the NT. We will never see God, or stand in the presence of God, unless our hearts have been cleansed from sin.
But if we're thinking here in terms of how we relate to other people, then "purity of heart" could also carry the idea of transparency, or personal integrity. That is, to be pure in heart means we have nothing to conceal- that we don't go around wearing a mask that hides what we are really like, but rather what people see on the outside of our lives is the same as what is on the inside. That's what integrity really means, that our lives are integrated: that what we do & say before the world around us is a true reflection of what we're really like on the inside.
The opposite of being pure in heart in this sense, is hypocrisy- when we are one person when we are with our friends at church, but a different person at work or at school or at home. But God sees thru the outer pretences of our lives & exposes what is really in our hearts
3 “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God“ It seems to me that we live in a world, where peace has become a very rare commodity. Every night in the news, we see terrorists groups like ISIS inflicting destruction and mayhem all over the world. We see nations like Syria being torn apart by ethnic hatred & unrestrained brutality. Even here in our own country, we see violence being perpetrated towards women & children & even the elderly. And so the idea of peace-making has become more important than ever today.
Peace-making carries with it the idea of breaking down walls of hatred, misunderstanding and prejudice. Of seeking to bring reconciliation between people or groups who are alienated from one another. But ultimately, true peace can only be achieved when we first of all find peace with God. Paul writes in Col 1, that "thru Christ, God was pleased reconcile all things to himself...by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." Jesus was really the ultimate peace-maker. Without Christ in our lives, we are enemies of God, & therefore, unable to find any real peace. But as those who have found peace with God, Christians are then called to be peacemakers:
To help others become reconciled, first to God, but then to others: whether it be their families, or their communities, or to people of different races or nationalities.
Paul says in Romans 12: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Peace-making also means that we are not to stir up dissension, or spread gossip, or do anything which would cause division or disunity within the body of Christ.
The peace that Jesus is talking about, however, is not just peace at any price. We must never compromise the truth simply to appease people or keep the peace. And we must not naively assume that just because we are Christians, & we try to love other people, that they will automatically reciprocate. Jesus once said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. What he meant was that our loyalty to him, will inevitably bring us into conflict with the world around us.
"If the world hates me, they will also hate you" Jesus said... "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also."
4. And that brings us to Jesus' final beatitude, in v10:
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." He goes on to elaborate on this
in v11-12: "Blessed are you when people insult you, 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, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
That kind of persecution is very real in many parts of the world today, where Christians are often called upon to endure severe hardship & even martyrdom for their faith.
For example, I know some of you have met our brothers from a small country in East Africa called Eritrea. Since 2002, it has been illegal in Eritrea to practice any religion other than Islam, except in a few Catholic & Lutheran congregations officaily sanctioned by the government. Many evangelical churches have been shut down, and it’s estimated that today over 2,000 pastors and other Christian leaders have been imprisoned, tortured or killed for their faith. Ande has shared with me some of the horrific experiences he went through because of his faith.
And Christians are experiencing that kind of intense persecution in many parts of the world. And while we are fortunate enough to live in a country that has traditionally been very tolerant of Christianity, that day may very rapidly be coming to an end. Jesus tells us we should not be surprised when we encounter opposition to our faith, but rather we should be surprised when it doesn't come. In fact Luke, in his gospel, adds this warning: "Woe to you when all men speak well of you" Jesus encourages us to rejoice when we are rejected, ridiculed, & insulted because we bear the name of Christ, for then our reward will be great in heaven.
And so here in the Beatitudes, we have described for us the counter-culture Jesus calls us to join. In a world that exalts the rich, the strong and the carefree, Jesus exalts the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn. In the midst of a society where violence, greed and deception are accepted and expected, Jesus calls his people to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful & compassionate, to be pure in heart, to display personal integrity, and to help people find peace with God and with one another.
And Jesus says, if you live this way, you may not be popular or acclaimed by the world. In fact they may say you are a fool. They may reject you and laugh at you, & even try to destroy you. But one thing for sure: they will notice the difference. You will have an impact on the world around you.