Blessed: The Poor in Spirit - Matthew 5:1-3
I remember as a kid loving to lay in a chair or a couch, with my legs in the chair and back bent backwards hanging off the side of the seat and look around the room…or do the same thing hanging from the swing set or laying in a lawn chair outside—nowadays, you can do it from a bar hanging in a doorway. I just thought it was real cool to see everything turned upside down. That is, I enjoyed it until I heard the familiar words, “you need to stop that before all the blood rushes to your head.” I don’t enjoy it so much anymore…back bends don’t come as easily as they used to and low blood-pressure kind of takes the fun out of getting back upright as well.
Actually, as we grow up, we tend to not like to have our world turned upside down. For many of us, the only good thing “upside-down” is an “Upside-down Pineapple Cake.” We tend to like the status-quo. We don’t like having surprises come into our lives that turns what we thought would be an easy time, into a challenging time. You know those kinds of events: the separation or divorce of close friends or family members; illnesses or accidents (of a loved one or our own); the death of someone close to us; a job transfer or, worse, a job layoff; unexpected houseguests; a home destroyed by storm or fire; the list of things could go on and on of those ways in which our personal worlds get turned upside down, and we long to be able to simply be able to sit upright and have it all come together again…yet we know it will be righted in exactly the same way again.
As Jesus begins what is probably the most famous “sermon” ever preached, “The Sermon on the Mount,” he starts it off by turning the world of the hearers (in His time and ours) upside down, and those hearing who will choose to follow Jesus, to be His Disciples, our world will never be righted exactly the same way again. Over the next two months, we are going to examine those who Jesus calls “Blessed,” those who have chosen to live as members of His family. These “Beatitudes,” as we often call them, describe the characteristics of those who choose to surrender to the grace of God and live in a God-driven community. In each of these statements, Jesus identifies a characteristic of those living in God’s community, calls them blessed, and then explains as to why they are considered blessed. As we enter this series of “Blessed,” we need to know that unlike some translators that will use “Happy” instead of “Blessed,” we need to understand that what is meant by “Blessed” is not an emotional state, but a state of being—those who are “Blessed” are those who are to be considered “well-off,” “fortunate,” or “privileged.”[i]
We begin where Jesus begins, “Blessed…” Those listening would have had the same thoughts as we might. We know who the “Blessed” are, they are those who are rich, powerful, happy, and strong. However, Jesus begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” Just who are the “poor in spirit”? What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? Does it mean to be “spiritually-challenged”? To be living and acting in such a way that it would seem that God’s spirit is not dwelling in you? If that were the case, then this would not be a case of turning the world upside down, but a case of affirming the world, since many in the world tend to be spiritually weak—focused more on the world rather than a relationship with God.
In Luke, and the “Q” source of Scripture used by both Luke and Matthew, Jesus’ pronouncement is for “The Poor.” Matthew, as he relates the message of Jesus wants to make it clear that Jesus is not simply talking about those living in economic poverty. From the time of the Psalms, “The Poor” has served as an indicator of those who are truly the people of God. Matthew is not suggesting that those suffering financially are not part of this group, but reminding the hearer of Jesus’ words that it means far more. To be among “the poor” or those who are “the poor in spirit,” means to realize that we are in need, that we are not self-sufficient.
Our society, our world, teaches us that we are to be self-sufficient. We should be able to take care of ourselves. We should not be dependent on others. We tend to look at those who are dependent on others as weak and immature. We don’t want to be them, we need to rise above them. We are better than that. We have no need. We are in control of our lives and our destiny. We are to be self-made men and self-made women. Our value and identity becomes rooted and grounded in what we have and can continue to accomplish on our own.
However, Jesus comes in and counters that. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who realize they are not self-sufficient. Blessed are those who realize that they are dependent not on themselves, but on God. Blessed are those who have let go trying to control their own lives and given complete control over to God.” To be “poor in spirit” means to realize that while we may or may not live in actual poverty, that in reality, we are wholly and completely impoverished—we are lacking. We realize that we are dependent upon God—there is no such thing as a self-made man.
Remember the story I have shared with y’all before of the contest between God and scientists. Scientists had perfected the art of cloning and told God that He was no longer needed. God says, “If that’s the case, then let us have a contest to see who can create life first.” God gathers some water and some dirt to prepare to create a man. The scientist then bends down to gather some dirt. God says, “Wait a minute, get your own dirt.”
Jesus says that those who are blessed are those who drop their arrogant pride and sense of self-value and understand that they are wholly and completely dependent upon God—that we cannot save ourselves, that without God active and working and in control of our lives, we are worthless, truly impoverished.
That is what we have celebrated with Ellery today. We gathered and baptized this tiny eleven-week old baby. I have to admit that we have brothers and sisters in other traditions who would call this a “Christening” or a “Naming” and not a “Baptism.” In fact I have had a colleague in a neighboring town from another denomination who has flat out told me that to baptize a baby is not a baptism because they have not made a personal decision for Christ. However, that is exactly the point of our Methodist tradition. We understand that we are wholly and completely dependent upon God’s grace, we cannot even begin to approach His throne without His grace active and at work in our lives. We understand that we are truly impoverished and dependent upon God. Our action, our decision, cannot earn us the grace that is needed to bring us into a relationship with God—God has to act first. Our willingness, and even desire, to baptize infants and children, as well as teenagers and adults, comes from an understanding that God’s grace is already at work in our lives before we are even aware of it…that, as Paul says, “no one can say “‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” To baptize Ellery or any other child too young to affirm their own belief, is to declare that we are “poor in spirit” and in need of God to work in us first. I am not discounting those who finally, as teenagers or adults realize that they are in need of God finally surrender to God’s work in their lives, and are baptized at that point, but the emphasis even then is not on their surrender and declaration, but the fact that God has already been at work in their lives bringing them to that point.
It is not, nor cannot be, ever about us and what we are able to do, but wholly and completely about what God has, is, and will do in our lives. For those of us who have come to that realization, who have chosen to drop our arrogant self-made attitude, as we become those who are “poor in spirit,” Jesus declares that the kingdom of heaven belongs to us. When we submit to being under God’s care and God’s control, when we truly leave our pride behind and surrender to the Lordship of Christ, truly living out what it means to declare him our “Savior AND Lord,” we will discover that we are fully living in God’s Kingdom, the kingdom of Heaven, right here and right now, experiencing eternal life from the moment of that surrender…and that, my brothers and sisters, means that we are truly blessed, truly fortunate, truly privileged to be part of that which the rest of the world has yet, but will one day, come to understand.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.