Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Matthew 5:4

The first three verses in the Sermon on the Mount contain some of the strangest, most paradoxical words that have ever been spoken.  At first glance they would almost seem to be self-contradictory.  Jesus says, “Blessed are… or, Happy are the poor in spirit… Happy are those who mourn… Happy are the meek.”

Let’s recall that in Matthew 1-2, we read about the birth of Jesus.  In the third chapter is the baptism of Jesus.  And in Matthew 4 is the temptation of Jesus.  But in Matthew 5, we hear for the first time, as far as Matthew is concerned, the message of Jesus.

As we noticed last week, Jesus begins his great Sermon on the Mount with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And what is this message that is so significant that Jesus should begin his teaching on earth with it?  What about it is so important that it should stand as the gateway – the threshold into the kingdom?  And as we asked that question last week, we also suggested the answer – that we must be broken.

It is only as we realize our own spiritual poverty, our spiritual bankruptcy – it is only as we come to the full realization of how totally helpless we are, how desperately  in need of God we are – when we are really broken, that we can enter the kingdom of heaven.

It is the threshold where more people fail in their Christian lives than any other. 

And I believe with all my heart, that until we realize the message of Matthew 5:3 – the message of brokenness – that everything else Jesus has to say to us will remain meaningless in our lives.

This morning, we want to look at the second of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

I’m not sure any of the beatitudes sound stranger or are more difficult to understand.  It’s like saying, “happy are the sad,” or “happy are the unhappy.”

I know the world thinks this is ridiculous.  The one thing the world tries to do is to prevent mourning – to escape the pain of reality – to avoid problems.

The whole orientation of modern life is geared in this direction – the escapism of alcohol and drugs, our addictions to food and sex and work – our addiction to television (aptly called “the narcotic against reality”).  We tranquilize our lives in an effort to suppress the feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness – the deep seated feelings that, rather than seek to escape we should face and deal with.

God created us with the capacity for those feelings, and some of those feelings we try to escape are really messages – warning lights that something is wrong – that we are not living our lives the way God intended.  We need to start asking the hard questions:  If we are empty – WHY?  If our life is meaningless – WHY?

What a great many of these feelings and problems are trying to tell us is that there is sin in our lives that is keeping us from God. And by our escape from these problems, we are trying to minimize, trying to redefine sin in our lives so we don’t have to deal with it.

There is a fascinating little section of a poem written by Alexander Pope, in his Essays on Man, that goes like this:

Vice is a monster of so dreadful mien,

That to be hated needs only to be seen.

Yet seen too oft’, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

And isn’t that the way sin is in our world today?  We see so much of it, that maybe at first we hate it – it disgusts us.  But then we come to pity it – we tolerate it – and then, finally, perhaps unintentionally, we come to embrace it. Sin is not simply an inert, passive cyst, but a consuming, malignant tumor.

As we noticed last Sunday, the first principle Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is brokenness.  The idea that he wants to convey to us is that we must be willing to die to self and to sin before we can come alive to God.

And so many Christians really don’t feel that kind of power.  They haven’t experienced the dynamic Christian life.  Their lives seem stale and sterile, unproductive and unfruitful.  And many times it is because they have never been broken – they have never died to self.  And as long as they are filled with self, they can never be filled with Jesus – and until we are filled with his Spirit, we will never know that dynamic and power that ought to be ours.

But to be broken is really not enough.  It’s not until we are broken that we can come alive, but simply to be broken, to be emptied, without something to follow really doesn’t help very much.

Everything that Jesus says in these beatitudes needs to be taken together.  We can study them separately, but to gain the kind of understanding that helps us to live the life that Jesus commanded at the end of the chapter when he said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” we have to build upon his thoughts as he built upon them.

That’s especially true with these first two of the beatitudes.  Brokenness and mourning must go hand in hand.

Let’s try to understand together, then, what exactly this mourning is that is so crucial to our spiritual lives.

It is helpful to have an understanding of the word itself.  It is one that has some powerful images in the Bible.

·         It is the same word that is used in the Greek translation of the OT in Gen. 37, that describes the emotion Jacob felt when he learned his son Joseph had been killed.

·         It is also the same word used concerning the grief that David felt when he learned of the death of his son Absalom in 2 Samuel.

·         It is the kind of sorrow one feels at the death of one who is very near and dear.  It is the kind of sorrow that is so deep that it causes an uncontrollable weeping from within.

Perhaps we can best explain Jesus’ meaning here in Mt. 5:4 by noting what Jesus is not talking about.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn…”

·         He’s certainly not saying that the person who complains and whines all the time will be blessed.  He’s not blessing the pessimist.

·         Nor is he talking about those who mourn because their pride has been injured, or some selfish ambition wasn’t achieved – nor those who are suffering because of the consequences of their sins and are sorry they got caught.

Many people have wrongly understood this passage to mean that you can’t be a good Christian unless you’re good and miserable.  This country went through a period of time in the late 19th century during which it was thought that to be really pious you had to go around with a sad look on your face.  Some of their ancestors are still around.  And the first thing I think of when I see someone looking like that is, “whatever they’ve got, I don’t want.”  And I’m afraid that many people have the idea that to be a good Christian that’s the way you’ve got to look.  And they don’t want it – well, neither do I.  And that’s not what Jesus is teaching here.

Jesus provides an immediate corrective for that in the next chapter, Mt. 6, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”

I love what Paul writes to the Philippian church – while he is sitting in prison – “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice!”

And so, Jesus is not saying that the Christian is some morose, woebegone, tired looking, beaten down kind of creature.  That’s not what he is saying at all.

Let me suggest this morning that Jesus calls into blessing and comfort the man or woman who comes to the painful, gripping realization of their own sin.  The one whose grief floods their soul because of their own sin against God – the one with a tender conscience who is terribly saddened by the ugliness of their own sin.

It is those whose sorrow causes them to bring their lives into compliance with God’s will.  Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 7:10, “Godly sorrow produces repentance which leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings only death.”  It’s not enough just to be sorry, but to have the kind of sorrow that causes us to change our lives.

This is the kind of mourning which Jesus is speaking about in Mt. 5:4 – the kind of mourning or sorrow that leads us to repentance.  We experience comfort when our life, that has been out of sync with God’s will, is brought back under his will and his lordship.

We experience that comfort that comes when we finally are released from guilt, forgiven of sin, throw off that burden that has weighed us down.  Comfort comes when God takes all that shame and guilt and says “you are mine, and you are free.”

Let’s look back at the poem by Alexander Pope:  “Vice is a monster…”

I wonder this morning just how much we really hate the sin we see in our lives and in the lives of others.  Do we realize how much it cost God in sending his son to die on the cross?  Does it bring sorrow in our hearts… or a casual shrug of the shoulders – “that’s just the way I am” ?   That may be the way you are, but it’s not the way God created you to be.

Jesus is telling us that we should be so profoundly sensitive to sin that it causes the kind of mourning that cries out to God for redemption. 

You hear it in David’s reflection on his sin with Bathsheba – the heartache it caused, the inner turmoil he struggled with, and finally the relief when he confessed it before God.   Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”— and you forgave the guilt of my sin.  (Psalm 32:1-5)

That kind of mourning was so evident in the life of Paul when he cried out, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?”

There is an interesting progression in Paul’s life that is evident in his letters:  Notice in the Galatian letter, one of Paul’s first letters, he refers to himself as “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”  When he wrote his Corinthian letter a few years later, he would say, “I am the least of the apostles.”  And a few years later, when he wrote the Ephesians, he says, “I am less than the least of all the saints.”  And then near the end of his life, when he is writing to Timothy he wrote, “I am the worst of sinners.”

There seemed to be in Paul’s life an increasing awareness of the awfulness of sin – even in his own life.  Does this awareness crush him and burden him, and cause him to be defeated?  No!  Immediately after he said, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” he wrote, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

It’s when we come to this realization – this mourning – that Jesus says we will be comforted.  Rather than crush us, it brings life and power, because we begin to realize the magnitude of the gift that has been given.

Do you recall the discussion between Jesus and the Pharisee named Simon who invited him to dine at his house?  Jesus told him a parable about two men who receive forgiveness – “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”  Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.  (Luke 7:41-43)

It is a fact that the one who thinks little of his debt thinks little of the price of forgiveness.  The one who realizes the enormity of his debt is overwhelmed by the cost to the one who paid it on his behalf.

It is to the person who, in brokenness – realizing the awful enormity of his own sin – who is able to die to self, is the one for whom Jesus can pour new life into those dead bones.  That’s God’s promise to those who mourn, and it’s his promise to each of us this morning.