Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:3

It was a beautiful clear day in Galilee when the cool morning air was filled with the fragrance of the spring flowers blooming on the mountainsides and in the nearby fields.  Jesus and his disciples leave the crowded, hostile, busy towns of Capernaum and Bethsaida.

In time, Capernaum will close their eyes to his miracles and reject the claims of the Messiah.  Soon, the religious leaders will reject him, laugh at him, jeer him and threaten him.  His own relatives will be  ashamed to be identified with him.  The time will come when neither he, nor his followers will be welcome in the towns.

But in spite of those who will oppose and reject him, there were hundreds, even thousands of those simple men and women, a lot like you and me, who were hungry for the truth, tired of the religious hypocrisy, the prideful sham of piety, the straining of gnats.  Here was one who spoke as one who had the voice of God and uttered living words which touched them at their deepest needs and offered them real hope.

To these, Jesus speaks, as far as Matthew is concerned, the first message of his ministry.  One which is determined to wipe away the religiosity of the day and reveal the true kingdom.

It’s here in Matthew 5 that Jesus begins to unfold his words of life and salvation.  The text begins, “Now, when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.  His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”

Everyone in the world today, it would seem, is seeking after happiness, looking for all the pieces, trying to accumulate that last essential thing that will make them happy.  However, it seems that those who seek it the hardest are those who find it the least often.

What is it that you’re looking for right now?  The one thing that would finally, ultimately make you happy?  Is it a new possession – maybe a new car, or a bigger house?  Perhaps a relationship – somebody who would bring you companionship and fulfillment?  Maybe you’re looking for security – more money in the bank, a retirement to fall back on?  It is the one thing, that, if you were to possess it, you are convinced it would make you happy.

Our whole materialistic world rushes headlong in this pursuit after happiness.  Advertisers convince us that happiness is found in driving the right car and drinking the right beverage and using the right deodorant.  And of course we need a home theater system, a cutting edge cell phone, an ipad or tablet that will organize our lives and give us the ultimate in entertainment, and an investment company that can guide us into wealth and prosperity.

And yet, the more knowledge we receive, the less wisdom we possess.  The more economic security we ensure, the less secure we feel.  And the more worldly pleasure in which we partake, the less satisfied and content we really are.

And there is this little voice inside of us that says there must be something of meaning in life, there must be something in which we can find real happiness, and some real meaning and real joy.

This happiness we speak of this morning is not the kind that depends upon external circumstances – it is not the kind that is determined by what is going on around us.  It is a happiness that comes from the real source of joy.

Here in Matt. 5, in words we have read over and over, Jesus says, “Blessed are they,” or as some versions translate it just as accurately, “Happy are they.”

·         Nine times, Jesus says, “Happy are they,” and he draws a map for us – a map to find true happiness.

·         It’s not a map that we would intuitively follow  ourselves – things that are obvious, things that make sense: those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are hungry and thirsty?  Those don’t sound like a map to anywhere but unhappiness, even misery.  We are being led on a journey into unknown reaches, across unfamiliar paths.  These are the kinds of things we avoid, not seek out.  And so, we must trust Jesus that he knows what he is doing, where he is leading us.

But the promises he makes are for things that have ultimate importance – citizenship in God’s kingdom, comfort, an inheritance, righteousness, seeing God.  If you’re looking for these, you won’t find them on the wide-paved roads with lots of traffic – these are at the conclusion of the difficult path and the narrow gate.

And understand, it’s not just a promise for pie in the sky by and by.  It’s a promise now, it’s for the abundant life now.  It’s not just for some future prospect, some distant happiness, but it is real meaning for the present.

There is a fascinating thing happening in the grammar here in Mt. 5, that is not readily apparent in the English:  There is no verb – “are”, but bluntly – “Blessed: the poor in spirit ones,” or “Happy: the mourning ones.”

It is as if Jesus is making a statement about the qualities these ones possess.  And I really believe that when we find in our lives the qualities that Jesus describes here in Matthew 5 in the first 12 verses, that we are going to find automatically and simultaneously, happiness.

Happiness is invariably a by-product.  It is something we receive while we are in the pursuit of something else. 

And those who seek it frontally – who think they will find it in money, or pleasure, or possessions, invariably fail to find it.  It is only found as we seek something else.  It comes as a serendipity, a fringe benefit, a gift that we receive when we seek what is most important – and later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will point us in that direction: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these other things will be yours as well.”

So here in Mt. 5:3, Jesus begins to tell us about these happy ones.  What are these words, what is their meaning that would be so important that Jesus would begin his teaching with them?  That before he preaches any other message, here Jesus predicates everything else he will say with these words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

I want to suggest to you this morning that the real meaning of this term, “to be poor in spirit,” means to be broken.

·         There are a variety of personalities that come to Christ.  We all come with different sins, different needs, different burdens.  And yet, at the base of every sin, every personality, pride rules.

·         A concise, thumbnail definition of pride is the choice of self over God or others.  And before God can begin to work within that life, pride must be broken, self must be crucified.

·         It is only as this pride is broken, only as we become poor in spirit can any progress be made in our lives, and anything else that Jesus says can take on meaning for us.  Only as we die to self, can we come alive for Jesus.

This quality of brokenness is seen in several powerful examples in the Bible:

We see it in Isaiah the prophet as he describes his encounter with God that will change his life.  It’s one thing to compare yourself with other people – we can always find someone we look better than.  But when Isaiah stands in the presence of God’s throne and looks in the face of pure holiness, he falls on his face and  cries out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  And before any of us are going to come to God today, we must see ourselves against the backdrop of God’s holiness – how sinful we really are.

We see this brokenness in Paul, over in Romans 7, as he wrestles with sin in his own life and says, “O wretched man that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death.”

It’s seen especially in David’s prayer in Ps. 51, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”  But listen to what David says about what God desires: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:16-17).  It’s not another animal sacrifice that makes God happy, but a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.

Those of you familiar with the OT will probably recognize the name of Ahab as the wickedest king that Israel ever had.  The Bible tells us, “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD.”  But then there is an interesting account there in 1 Kgs 21 in which the prophet Elijah confronts Ahab with his sin and at least in this one time in his life, does what he should have done: “he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.”  And it caught the Lord’s attention:  “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day”

Because this wicked, evil man humbled himself in brokenness over his sin, the Lord changed the course of history.  Now, if God responded to that man’s brokenness in such a powerful way, imagine what power God has to work in your life this morning when he sees your brokenness and humility.

The key to God’s power, and the key to our lives, the secret to this elusive “happiness” that Jesus promises lies in brokenness.  That’s why Jesus begins the sermon in the way he begins it, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

It is significant that this verse concludes with Jesus’ promise that those who experience this kind of brokenness will receive the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God (he uses both interchangeably) refer to God’s rule here on this earth.  You’re not going to find that kingdom on any map.  It has no territorial boundaries, no geographic location, you won’t find it on Google maps or set your GPS to guide you to its coordinates.

The kingdom of God is, in its most basic sense where God rules in the lives of people.  Every person who has pledged allegiance to God, who has put himself under the lordship of Jesus Christ is a citizen of God’s kingdom.  If God rules in your life, you are a part of God’s kingdom. 

In another real sense, “kingdom” and “church” are often used in a parallel, interchangeable way with each other in the NT.  God’s present manifestation of his reign and rule today are in his church.  It is the gathering of those who belong to God, and who work together to expand his kingdom by sharing the good news of the kingdom.  Every congregation is an outpost for his kingdom in this world.

But certainly, in an ultimate sense, the kingdom refers to heaven, where God’s reign and his rule will be absolute.  And it is significant that we realize that the only way into the kingdom is to become poor in spirit.  And that the door of heaven is closed to those who would try to come with their pride and arrogance.

I really believe that this is the threshold at which more people fail than any other.  Peter echoes these words of Jesus in his letter to the early Christians:  All of you, clothe yourselves in humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6).

It is so important that we see this passage as the door through which we must pass to enter into this kingdom.  And it is at this door that so many people balk or look for a way around it.  But with God, brokenness is non-negotiable.  It is the one quality which God looks for first in a person who would desire to come to him.

Every other commandment in Jesus’ call to obedience is contingent on these first words of his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The bottom line is, that Jesus is calling us to see ourselves as God sees us, in need of healing, in need of a Savior.  When we are self-sufficient, in need of nothing and no one, we have no need of God.  But it is a mask that fools only ourselves.  To be broken is to be genuine, to be authentic, to be transparent.  It is the only way we can begin to experience God’s richest blessings.  Only then can Jesus say, “Blessed are you.”

Illust. – Potato peelings

The restaurant server introduced herself, brought water with lemon, and described the specials. Now it was time to order.  When it was my turn (I like to go last), I ordered the lamb. After scanning the menu, I always order lamb.  "You want your potatoes mashed, fries, or baked?" she asked.  "I love mashed potatoes," I said. "But only if they're real … not powdered. Could you tell me if …"  "I'm not supposed to tell you that," she responded. "Rules."  Instantly I felt challenged.  "Let's you and me think about this," I said. "What if we were all—and we actually could be—your very best friends. Then do you think you'd tell me if the potatoes are real or not?"  "Yeah, I probably would," she said. "Hmmm … here's what I'll do for you. I'll just whisper this once." And she lowered her voice. "I've worked here for four years. I've never, ever, seen any potato peelings on the floor."  I ordered the baked potato.   (Gordon MacDonald)

Are there peelings on the floor of your life?  Evidence that you are genuine?  Not the nice, shiny face you show up with in public on Sunday mornings, but the real you – the one that has struggles and losses and baggage.  That’s the person God sees.  Jesus isn’t asking you to become broken – you already are.  He wants you to see yourself as God sees you – broken and in need of a Savior.  As long as you try to fool yourself and others that you’ve got it all under control God can’t really do that much – pride is a barrier he can’t break down - but when you are broken, that’s when God can begin to work in your life.