Who has the good life? Any serious thinker about the human condition must address this question. For the last two decades, the biggest movement in psychology is what’s called positive psychology — research on happiness, well-being, and flourishing – a research area that deals precisely with this question.
The most famous sermon in the history of the world — The Sermon on the Mount — had the most famous beginning of any sermon ever, although it’s widely misunderstood. Jesus begins with the word “Blessed,” which is where we begin this week to answer the question, “Who has the good life?”
To start today, I’m going to change the text slightly in the passage I’m going to read, and I want to see if you can pick out what part of the text I’m reading that’s not actually in the Bible?
Jesus went through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and the smart people came to him, and the beautiful people and the rich people, and he said unto them, “Blessed are you, you smart, pretty, rich, well-dressed people, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
Anyone pick out the inaccurate part?
Here’s what the writer of Scripture actually wrote. This is right before the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, [up there is coming down here] and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Matthew 4:23-24
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. Matthew 5:1-2
“When Jesus saw the crowds.”
Question: who’s in the crowd?
I’ll tell you who — needy people, poor people, hurting people, people who smell bad, people who don’t behave well.
The demon-possessed are usually not noted for their good behavior. You may not know that, but that’s just the truth.
In these crowds, people are having seizures and falling to the ground in pain.
Lepers are there. No one would touch them or want to be near them.
People who drink too much, people who can’t hold a job, people who can’t fix their lives, people who have no money for medicine, people who are on the edge, people who have no hope.
How will Jesus tell the good news to this motley crew?
Well, the most famous sermon in the history of the world had the most famous beginning of any sermon ever, although it’s widely misunderstood.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I want to start with the word blessed, the first word of this great message.
It’s often a cliché in our day. We say it when someone sneezes.
In the South, people say it about people they don’t even like — “God bless her heart.”
“I hate her guts” is what that means.
In the Bible, this word blessed actually addresses a question that haunts the human race — Who has the good life? Who is well off?
Any serious thinker about the human condition must address this question.
The biggest movement in psychology for the last two decades has been what’s called positive psychology — research on happiness, well being, and flourishing that is precisely about this question. Who has the good life?
And everyone has an idea.
There was an ad for a car not long ago that ran — “Chase happiness in a car that can catch it.”
When I lived in Southern California, there was actually a magazine called “The Good Life.”
Based on its contents, the good life is mostly about fine dining and weight loss, which is kind of a paradox when you think about it.
I have a friend who’s from England, and he moved to California where the sun always shines.
When he’s sitting with his wife in the backyard of their home, they’ll ask each other (it’s a little family liturgy), “How are you doing?” and they’ll always say, “Livin’ the dream.”
That’s California. “How are you doing?” “Livin’ the dream.”
Who’s livin’ the dream?
That’s a good question to consider when you come to this word blessed.
We’ve turned it into a cliché, but it’s actually a brilliant way to start a message.
Who’s livin’ the dream?
He says blessed — those who are livin’ the dream — are the poor in spirit.
So what does it mean to be poor in spirit?
You have to understand, in Jesus’ day, it was not a good thing to be poor in spirit.
That phrase might read like this:
Blessed are the spiritual zeros.
Blessed are the spiritually bankrupt.
People who know nothing about the Bible.
People who cannot make heads or tails of God.
People who would shrivel up into a ball if you asked them to pray out loud.
People who think Joan of Arc is the wife of Noah.
People who think the Epistles are the wives of the apostles.
People who think spiritually they have nothing to offer.
It’s often associated simply with financial poverty.
The poor in spirit in Jesus’ day generally would have been the poor, and Jesus says, “Blessed are you” — Livin’ the dream.
Well, it’s not because they’re poor in spirit, I’ll tell you that.
It’s because now, through Jesus, the possibility of life in the presence, the power, the favor, the love, the guidance, and the strength of God Almighty has come right down to them.
Forgiveness, grace, strength, wisdom, healing, joy, and acceptance are now available to you. It no longer matters what the world says about you.
Dallas Willard wrote:
Those poor in spirit are called ‘blessed’ by Jesus, not because they are in a meritorious condition, but because, precisely in spite of and in the midst of their ever so deplorable condition, the rule of the heavens has moved redemptively upon and through them by the grace of Christ in their ever so deplorable condition.
You see, Jesus is contrasting his beatitudes against who the world says is eligible for the good life.
Who does the world apart from God say is living the dream?
Human culture apart from God always has its own list of who’s blessed, who’s living the dream.
We could write the beatitudes for the Bay Area:
Blessed are the talented.
Blessed are the CEOs and the VIPs and the MBAs and the PhDs.
Blessed are the fit.
Blessed are those who went to college at Stanford or Harvard.
Blessed are the wealthy.
Blessed are those who hustle.
I’m not making this up. There was a post from a car ride company recently praising one of their drivers who went into labor and kept picking up fares on her way to the hospital to give birth.
That’s life in the Bay Area — Blessed are those who pick up fares when they’re going to the hospital to deliver.
Then all of the people who are not on that list think, “I’m not eligible for the good life. I’m missing out.”
And Jesus is saying, “No, the world has it wrong.”
Which is why we all have to ask this question for our lives… because you will base your life on something —
Who’s well off then?
Who’s blessed then?
Who’s livin’ the dream then?
Well, Jesus has an answer to this question.
Blessed is anyone who is alive in the kingdom of God.
Blessed is anyone who is daily interacting with God in God’s great venture of bringing up there down here — “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Blessed is anyone who has surrendered the burden of ego.
Blessed is anyone who no longer has to carry the weight of the world’s outcomes on their shoulders.
Blessed is anyone who can even for a moment be truly grateful to God.
Blessed is anyone who finds their safety not in the illusion of avoiding danger… because they have so much money or so many connections or so much power, but in the reality that nothing can separate them from the love of God.
Blessed is anyone who has put God in charge of their life.
To be in the kingdom means to be blessed no matter what else happens. Your future is secured. Your present is redeemed.
What Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes, these words of blessing (that’s what beatitude means), is that even the people regarded as the most deprived, the most insignificant in the world, can now be blessed by living in the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
Then the next one: “Blessed are those who mourn…”
Blessed are those whose spouse has deserted them.
Blessed are those who have lost their job. Maybe it was even their own fault.
Blessed are you who consider yourself a miserable failure as a parent.
Blessed are you who wanted to be a parent but cannot.
Blessed are the chronically depressed.
Blessed are the clinically anxious.
Because mourning and anxiety is a good thing?
Because now to you Jesus comes along and says, “You, too, come into my kingdom. I will be with you. You will not be alone. You have a future. You may be at the end of your rope, but you’re not at the end of my rope.”
“Blessed are the meek…”
Now understand no one in the world apart from God puts meek people on the good life fast track.
No company has a “meek employee of the month” award.
No one lists meekness on their Match.com profile.
Jesus is saying, “Blessed are the charisma-challenged. Blessed are the inept self-promoters, for you will inherit the earth… as up there comes down here.”
And so it goes on through the list of beatitudes.
None of the conditions listed in the Beatitudes are thought of by our world as tickets to the good life.
That’s why Jesus mentions them.
The idea of the Beatitudes is no human condition excludes blessedness now that Jesus is in the equation.
He himself was the great misfit, the great outcast, the great failure, so that all of the misfits, outcasts, losers, and failures would find their way into his kingdom.
Alright, in the time we have left I want to talk about how in Jesus’ community we help each other to see ourselves as we really are.
Rule number one in Jesus’ community is no pretending. We come just as we are to God and to one another to be loved and to be healed.
A little over 80 years ago, there was a hopeless drunk who became known to history as Bill W.
He hit bottom.
His addiction to alcohol had put him in jail.
He had lost his means for making a living.
He had been hospitalized four times.
His doctor told his wife Lois that she had three choices. Either she could have him locked up, or she could watch him go insane, or she could let him die.
Bill knew this was true. He was desperate. He was hopeless.
Then one day, he met a man who invited him into a little fellowship of people who were followers of Jesus.
They were part of something called the Oxford Group.
They were trying to recapture the way of life of the early church.
They devoted themselves to practices like:
Brutally honest self-examination
Confession to each other
Seeking to give themselves in humble service
Trying to spread this message to other people
Out of that invitation, Alcoholics Anonymous was born.
A lot of people aren’t aware of this, but AA received from the church, from the Scriptures, from Jesus, the gift of these practices — a way of life through which people by the hundreds of thousands receive the power to live a life of sobriety that they could not live through their own will power and their own efforts.
And I want to tell you, one of the reasons why AA is so powerful is anytime someone talks, they begin with “My name is Matt; I’m an alcoholic,” and the other people in the circle don’t respond by saying, “I’m shocked and appalled.”
They say, “Hi, Matt.”
A great Christian thinker, a student of this movement, writes:
The wisdom of AA is contained in its celebration of an addict’s recognition and public acknowledgement that he is an addict. Such a recognition and acknowledgement is deemed an achievement and is celebrated by being ritualized and reiterated.
It turns out that genuine, humble, costly, real-time, radical public admission of my inadequacy, my inability to change, my inability to control my own life, to resist sin, is part of what God uses to make change possible, to make a healing community possible.
And so often this gets missed in the church.
I learned something interesting about AA meetings recently.
AA groups often meet in church basements, and in AA they have a saying for everything.
One of their sayings that haunts me is this:
When you come to the church you can go downstairs and be changed or you can go upstairs and stay the same.
Downstairs there’s no pretending. Downstairs everyone is a train wreck without God, and downstairs everyone is blessed.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
See, we’re in this series on the Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we saw Jesus’ good news is he’s bringing up there down here.
This week, the good news is we’re going to bring down there up here.
God wants the church to be as real and as raw as AA. No pretending.
I asked Lisa if she would share with you her thoughts on AA and the church.
Video: Lisa Herrington
Here’s the deal. I want to live without pretending.
I pretend so often to be nicer than I really am. Can I say that?
I pretend to be modest when I’m a recovering praiseaholic just waiting for my next binge.
I pretend to be brave when I’m really a coward.
I get grumpy. I withdraw. I envy. I covet other people’s gifts or success.
Thank God I’ve never had any issues with sexuality or lust (that’s a lie).
You see, there are churches where no one has sinned for 20 years, and everyone is dying.
What kills the church is not sin. What kills the church is pretending there is no sin.
So we need to be a church that’s open about our sin. We need to practice together the celebration of inadequacy.
Now throughout history in churches this often involved a confession of sin, but so often, even in churches when they do that, it doesn’t strike them the way the word alcoholic strikes someone who’s an alcoholic.
The recognition and public confession of inadequacy is itself an achievement to be celebrated.
So I want to invite you right now — turn to the person next to you and just say these words: “Without God my life is a train wreck.”
We need to celebrate inadequacy.
Don’t hide it. Don’t pretend like we’re something else. Don’t pretend like we’ve been Christians long enough that we don’t have to worry about that anymore, that we can rest on our spiritual laurels.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Then in Jesus’ community we learn to see others the way God sees them.
This is what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes — teaching people how He sees them.
When Paul came to understand this, he put it like this: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” The old translation is “We regard no one according to the flesh.”
What is that?
That’s just the system of evaluation everyone uses.
What do they own?
How do they look?
Where do they live?
Who do they know?
In the year 2000, a couple of Silicon Valley engineers had an argument over the attractiveness of a woman, and they started an attractiveness rating website they called Hot or Not.
It inspired a similar site at Harvard called FaceMash that eventually got renamed Facebook.
Within a week, Hot or Not was getting two million hits a day.
You could post a picture of yourself, people would rate how attractive you are, and then the ratings were rank ordered and posted publicly.
And everyone knew what was behind this — “Blessed are the hot. Woe to those who are not.”
Well, when I become one of the poor in spirit, the meek, entering into Jesus’ community, I repent of my captivity to that kingdom of the flesh, the kingdom of self, the kingdom of the world, and I ask God to retrain my eyes and my mind to see every person as a child of God — the object of Jesus’ cross-embracing love.
A friend of mine says if you look at ads today they will tell you who the unblessed are — the fat, the misshapen, the bald, the wrinkled, the ugly, the awkward, the uneducated.
These conditions are experienced in our day as unconditional personal condemnation.
People feel this deeply, even though they know it’s kind of silly to be so worried about their bodies. And just to say “How silly of you” doesn’t bring Jesus’ good news to them.
You see, we need Jesus’ gospel, for we live in a silly world. Sin is silly. If the gospel did not reach us in our silliness, who could be saved?
So this week, practice looking at people differently. Ask God to help you with this.
I was at the airport recently and ended up sitting across from someone who had a condition that had badly and permanently disfigured his face.
At first I felt awkward and turned away, and then I thought if that was my son or my brother or my father, how would I want people to relate to him?
So we had a conversation, and all I can tell you is I was so humbled by his kind heart, and his intelligent mind and his loving spirit.
This week, look past the skin. Look past the résumé. Look past the clothes. Look past the flesh.
Ask God to help you see what he sees in people.
Jesus goes even further.
He brings the possibility of blessing now to the addicts, to the brutal, the boastful, the bigots, to the drug lords and the pornographers.
It’s no wonder people said of Jesus, “This man is a friend of sinners and eats with them.”
This is a passage from a book called The Divine Conspiracy. It’s so powerful I just want to read it to you.
If I, as a recovering sinner myself, accept Jesus’ good news, I can go to the mass murderer and say, “You can be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens. There is forgiveness that knows no limits.”
To the worshiper of Satan. To those who rob the aged and weak. To the cheat and the liar, [to the betrayer and the adulterer] the bloodsucker and the vengeful: Blessed! Blessed! Blessed! As they flee into the arms of the kingdom among us.
These are God’s grubby people. [That’s us: God’s grubby people.] In their midst a Corrie ten Boom takes the hand of the Nazi who killed her family members. The scene is strictly not of this earth.
Any spiritually healthy congregation of believers in Jesus will more or less look like these ‘brands plucked from the burning.’ If the group is totally nice, that is a sure sign something has gone wrong. [I think we’re okay there.]
For here are the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised of this world, whom God has chosen to cancel out the humanly great. Among them there indeed are a few of the humanly wise, the influential, and the socially elite. They belong here too. God is not disturbed by them. But the Beatitudes is not even a list of spiritual giants.
We’re the inept. We are the celebration of the inadequate.
But that’s not all we are.
You may have noticed that Matthew says there are two groups listening to Jesus’ talk.
At the beginning he says:
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
In other words, there are the crowds (Jesus saw the crowds) and there are the disciples (His disciples came to him).
The crowds are people who are interested in Jesus. They’d like his help with their problems. They admire his ideas.
The disciples are people who used to be part of the crowd but have now committed themselves to following wherever Jesus goes and doing whatever Jesus says.
The disciples are just as stained, just as needy, just as poor in spirit.
What they’ve said is, “I must have what this man offers, so I will do whatever it takes. I will learn whatever he teaches. This is the greatest opportunity I have ever had, and if getting in on this means I miss everything else in life, I will do that with joy.”
And they become his students, his disciples.
Every once in a while, someone leaves the crowd and becomes a disciple. Someone stops just admiring and starts to follow.
Blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed… and that could be you.
That’s the journey we’re on. There’s no journey in the world like it.
I hope you come back next week. We’re going to continue on in Jesus’ amazing teaching.
Next week is blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart and blessed are the peacemakers. You don’t want to miss it.
Let me pray for you and then Michaela and the team will lead us in a closing song.
Blue Oaks Church