“The Kingdom Turned Upside-Down”

Matthew 5:1-12

We continue reading the Gospel according to Matthew. Today we begin reading the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” A compilation of Jesus’ most famous teachings. 

We were given the setting for these teachings at the end of chapter 4, where after asking some men to follow Him, Jesus began going from temple to temple, telling people the truth that the Kingdom of God was at hand. 

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the poetic little sayings we have come to know as the “Beatitudes.” We read nine blessings that Jesus gave to those who were listening. What exactly did it mean for Jesus to be standing on a mountain and giving out blessings? 

What was Jesus trying to communicate? 

I suspect many of you have heard these nine blessings before and in fact may be quite familiar with them. You probably have vivid pictures in your mind about peacemakers and hungering for righteousness and being poor in spirit. However, if you were to try to explain them to someone who hadn’t heard of them before you might have a bit of difficulty because they don’t actually fit in our day to day language, but they certainly sound nice. 

They must be, Jesus said them. 

They have been given the name beatitudes, from the Latin word for blessings. It’s not complicated, right? God wants us to have certain attitudes and so He started His sermon with the attitudes He wants us to have. On the surface this may look that way, however, if we go back to what was happening at the time these blessings were given, and really look at who the people were that Jesus was giving these blessings to, I believe we may find these nine blessings to be deeply challenging, and if we take time to view them correctly they have the capability to turn our view of God, ourselves and God’s kingdom upside-down. 

Let’s go back and contextualize the Beatitudes. To do so, we need to ask two questions:

Who were the people Jesus was saying these blessings to? And 

What was the occasion or what was the setting?  

These three chapters have historically been lifted out of context and presented as a pamphlet of the ethics of life with Jesus. If you do that, you will misunderstand what Matthew was trying to do. He strategically places this sermon directly after chapter four where the focus was on the kingdom of God.

It’s been a couple of weeks so let’s take a quick look back at chapter four. In Matthew 4:17 Jesus said, 

“Repent, Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

He was picking up where John the Baptist left off. Jesus goes a step further than John with not just “Repent” but “Repent, Turn 180 degrees and change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” 

Matthew then tells us Jesus asks some fishermen to follow Him and they do. He then takes this message all around Galilee and teaches them the truth. His theme was God’s kingdom, God’s government, which was with them right now, and was beginning with Jesus. The most significant fact about God’s government was it was a good government. Matthew tells us that while Jesus was preaching this message he was also healing people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. 

Can you see the picture in your mind’s eye? 

A preacher/teacher was not only giving good news to those in need He was healing the sick and assisting the poor. This was unheard of in this day and age. If you think we have disproportionate levels of hierarchy between the rich and the poor today, it is nothing compared to the society during the time Jesus walked on earth. If you were not male and wealthy you were not worth much. If you were sick and had a disease, you were worth even less. Matthew understood this hierarchy personally. He had sacrificed his relationships with his family in order to be on top. He traded in his family for money, so he could have power and be seen as important in his society. 

By the end of chapter four Matthew reports that more and more people come to hear and to be healed by Jesus. 

There were more than just those from Galilee, crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, others came up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan. They were traveling from far and wide. Enough so that Jesus had to climb a hillside to get above the crowd in order to be heard.

Here we are, Jesus was looking out amongst a crowd of misfits. People who were at the bottom of the societal ladder. They were poor, and sick, both physically and spiritually. They were oppressed by spiritual evil. It was Roman society that was in charge. Sure, the Romans had engineered systems that provided freshwater for the first time to large amounts of people. Yet, they were the most cutthroat government so far to exist. If you were one of the people listening to Jesus, you had been pushed to the absolute margin, living in the slums. You worked day to day, in order to survive. 

There was no such thing as welfare, but this man Jesus was better than welfare. He was healing people for free. 

We now know who Jesus was addressing and what the setting looked like. Now let’s look at what Jesus was saying. 

Jesus was on the hillside, in chapter 5, where He began to speak to His disciples. At this point the disciples referred to here were not the circle of twelve we know, they won’t arrive until chapter 10. The disciples here were those following Jesus, a large crowd of sick, hurting people, who were unimportant, and just scraping by. Nobody cared what these people thought anywhere in the Roman empire. Yet, Jesus addressed the crowd beginning with nine blessings. Amazing! Up until this point, religious leaders would not even talk to them, much less offer them blessings. Think about it!

The things Jesus was promising to them were 

> the Kingdom of God

> inheriting the earth

> they will be the ones who can see and meet God in

a personal way

> they will be the ones who will be called God’s

family, God’s children

It’s a reversal! And it revolves around the word “Blessed.”

What does it mean for Jesus to say this word “blessed” to this group of people, at this point and time in history?

Actually, the idea of putting blessings on people was not Jesus’ alone. Jesus was taking a pre existing way of teaching and capitalizing on it.  The idea of pronouncing blessings on people had been around since King David’s time. Let’s go to the very first line of the first psalm. 

“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked…”

When you said someone was blessed, it was seen as a model of character to emulate. Plus, it meant a right relationship with God and experiencing the fruit and consequences of such behavior, you’re blessed! 

God likes you, God is for you.

This way of teaching had continued in Jewish culture and Jesus was using the culture’s way of teaching to make a point. So everyone listening hear’s Jesus begin His teaching with, “Blessed is…” and they would have immediately thought, “Oh yeah, Jesus, you are about to teach us about the healthy, wealthy and wise, and how God is with them and maybe you will help us find out how to get there with them.”

That was exactly what Jesus does NOT do.

He actually affirms everything about these people – 

> the poor

> the mourning

> the unimportant

> those that long for righteousness to be done in the

world but don’t actually have any power whatsoever to do much about it

What does Jesus say? 

He tells those who are outcasts of society, “The Kingdom of God is first offered to you. You are the fortunate ones.”

The Kingdom of God is here and behold, it is a reversal of the world’s standards, and how you are seen. Behold! God’s Kingdom turns human standards upside-down. 

Many of us have heard messages on the Beatitudes that have something to do with how we should act. When we are meek or hunger for righteousness, then we are able to turn them into ways to increase our status and favor with God, which is of course the very opposite of what Jesus was saying here.  Rather they are a description of the people to whom Jesus was talking to at the time. No where do we read that Jesus was telling people to be poor in spirit or mourn all of the time, or try to get yourself persecuted. 

He was simply giving a great surprise. God was offering these people, who were already, the poor in spirit, the meek, those mourning and not receiving justice, the first invitation to enter God’s Kingdom. 

As we read through these nine blessings, I don’t want you to think of them as separate blessings, but rather as nine blessings that make up one. Similar to one of the stained glass windows over there. There are nine separate pieces of stained glass that when pieced together, make up the entire window. You view each one in light of all the others. 

As we look at these blessings, keep this question in mind, 

“Who are we looking at when we see these nine pieces of stained glass? What picture do they create? 

#1 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Remember the questions we answered as to who Jesus was talking to at what occasion? There was a crowd of lowly, sick and hurting individuals and Jesus was pronouncing the presence of God’s Kingdom. 

Who are the poor in spirit? 

> Economically, they were very poor and because of that they were spiritually downcast, constantly being reminded they had nothing. 

> Or, was it the spiritual poorness Jesus was talking about? The religious leaders never asked them to read in the synagogue or even took time to pray for them. They were not even allowed to be part of spiritual life in their society, they were considered the spiritual zeroes. God had obviously not blessed them. 

Yet, that is not what Jesus was saying. 

Which is it? Religion and economics? 

Hello – how could these be separated? Were these people poor? Yup! Did anyone care what they thought about the Torah? Nope. 

Jesus had captured their position correctly on both accounts. In their society, religion and economics were wrapped up tightly together, they were seen as one package. 

Did you catch that Jesus was telling them that the position they found themselves in was the most opportune position to be in, because the Kingdom of God was being offered to them. 

Throughout the gospels we will encounter this human difficulty. Those who have a lot, and have more to lose, find it more difficult to follow Jesus, than those who have less. 

The next three are kind of puzzling separately, but make more sense if we read them together.

Blessed are those who mourn,

    for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

    for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

    for they will be filled.

Mourn over what? 

What counts for mourning, over the family pet? 

What about being meek? When did you last use that word in your daily conversation? What does meek mean?

The third one seems easier to get, those who hunger or thirst for righteousness. We all know what it feels like to be hungry or thirsty. It is not comfortable. If you are like me you become “hangry.” 

When I get hungry or thirsty my mood changes, and I don’t respond as nicely as I would like to things around me. You don’t just choose to be thirsty or hungry, it’s visceral. Jesus says, for those who have this visceral feeling for righteousness they will be filled. What is righteousness? It’s being in a right relationship between two parties. We may think about a relationship between a man and a woman, who have committed themselves to each other. They should do “right” by each other, be faithful and stick up for each other. Righteousness means you act like you ought to in your relationships. 

Blessed are people who have a deep unmet longing to see righteousness to happen in the world. When they look out into the world, they see wrecked relationships, it bothers them to their core. 

It’s aggravating. 

Jesus says, You are the blessed one, because you don’t settle for what the world settles for but long for righteousness, which God desires, which is on its way, which is part of the Kingdom message Jesus has come to deliver. 

This makes you understand what it means to mourn. Those that hurt and angst over the way humans treat each other, and settle for less than God has to offer. They don’t look out and decide to forget what they see and turn to distractions so they don’t have to think about it. Or maybe they see it and decide to anesthetize themselves with tv, or some other activity to keep their mind off how bad things really are. No, when you mourn, you’re the ones God is with, because one day all things will be set right. Which leads us to the word meek. Meek is to be unimportant. You might be unimportant in your mind. What about Moses, was he unimportant? 

Not really, but he thought of himself as unimportant. 

But Jesus wasn’t talking to a group of Moses. He was talking to a group of people who were treated and felt unimportant every day of their lives, because of their society. And Jesus says, “You’re the blessed ones.” Because you are able to see God moving and able to understand that God has a plan. 

Jesus blesses the deeply bothered people who see the world behaving exactly the opposite of what God desires and yet have no ability to do anything about it. 

Okay, but what do you do?

Blessing 5, “Blessed are the merciful,  for they will be shown mercy.” 

Mercy – no one was looking to this crowd to do major things, they were not able. 

But Jesus claims here that even a small act of mercy, produces mercy. A small foretaste of the kingdom will work like the mustard seed and grow bigger and bigger. 

Blessing 6, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” 

The people for whom prestige and being admired were important, were not being pure in heart. Jesus claimed that what was truly important was to care about those things God saw as important. 

Blessing 7, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

So, if you are bothered, and you are giving acts of mercy to those you can, and God is with you in those acts. You will see those in your lives whom you love, who are in conflict with each other. 

You will not only look, but you will be willing to take action to bring them towards reconciliation. You know full well that as soon as you step into the middle, the potential that one or both of these friends is going to turn on you is high. Blessed are those who know that God loves peace and reconciliation, and are willing to step into the fire to provide reconciliation. Children of God are willing to take a chance for the sake of reconciliation. 

Now, if you have gotten this far in understanding God’s kingdom message, and understand just how messed up the world really is and how difficult it is going to be to reach others with the message of the Kingdom, then the last two blessings make sense. 

Blessing 8, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

For those who are just trying to do the right thing, be prepared for persecution, but also be prepared for the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessing 9, “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.”

Especially when you try to do the right thing in the name of Jesus. Expect insults, expect false accusations, all kinds of evil against you. Jesus said to “Rejoice and be glad.” You are in good company, they did the same thing to the prophets before you.

You have a great award in heaven. 

Purity of heart is such a key piece of this. We are called to the right thing. 

At the end of the story, these blessings motivate us to try to do something. Not in order for us to be blessed, but because we are already blessed in the first place. Because before you even look to try to be blessed and do all these things, Jesus stood in front of this group of messed up people and said, “You are blessed.” 

How many of us here feel unimportant, insignificant? 

How many of us have bodies that don’t do what you want them to do? 

How many of us feel limited as to what we can do because of this.

How many of us feel like you’re not important and people don’t ask your opinion about anything? 

And Jesus says, “You’re the blessed one. I am with you. God is for you.” Why? Because you are the one who will intuitively begin to understand the upside down value system of the Kingdom of God. 

Also, for those of us who realize we do have a lot to lose, we are presented with a challenge. 

We may not know if we want to take on all of this? Receiving the blessings means a punch in the gut at the same time. 

That’s the word of these blessings according to Jesus. 

Let’s return to the question I presented regarding the make-up of the stained glass window. Remember? 

When we put these nine pieces of stained glass together, whose picture do we see? 

When you think of the aspects of these blessings, who do you see? 

Can you think of someone who came from lowly circumstances? 

Who mourned and grieved over the state of this world and over those he met?

He was extremely important, yet he thought of himself as unimportant. 

He longed to see God’s world set right. 

With small acts of mercy he demonstrated his pure devotion to the cause of the kingdom?

He inserted himself into dangerous situations between people who hated each other and was persecuted and in fact 

killed for it. 

The death of Jesus, 

who was the perfect embodiment of these blessings, 

who demonstrated the values of the kingdom, 

Set aside His status, 

represented us, 

and died in our place. 

His resurrection gives us the hope we need if we grab onto Him in faith. 

Jesus is the epitome of these blessings and it is this good news, the Kingdom of God is here, that we celebrate the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.