“Your Blest Life Now” (Matthew 5:1-12)
You’ve probably heard of a TV preacher by the name of Joel Osteen. He’s got a huge megachurch down in Houston, and he’s got a massive audience on television. He’s also written a number of best-selling books, the most famous of which is called “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” What Mr. Osteen does that has made him so successful is to dish out some warmed-over self-help pabulum, and people are lapping it up. He says things like this: “Your best days are not behind you, they’re still out in front of you.” Or “Faith activates God.” Or “You have to learn to follow your heart.” Ooh, deep thoughts! This is kind of a “Power of Positive Thinking” for the 21st century. Osteen is always directing his followers to think positively about themselves, to look inward, and to expect good things to happen as a result. Well, I’m sure Mr. Osteen is living his best life now. He’s got a $10.5 million-dollar, 17,000 square-foot mansion in the Houston suburbs.
Now this motivational self-help stuff wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t masquerading as Christianity. But it is, and that’s the problem. Osteen’s religion is not the Christian faith, not even close. St. Paul says “we preach Christ crucified.” Joel Osteen preaches you glorified. St. Paul says “the word of the cross” is the power of God and the wisdom of God. In Mr. Osteen’s church you will not even find a cross, and he won’t preach about it, either. Quite a difference. But people fall for this spiritual junk food, they can’t get enough of it, and they think this is what Christianity is.
The Osteen religion stands in stark contrast to what Jesus teaches in the Holy Gospel for today, the Beatitudes, in Matthew chapter 5. Jesus offers a much greater treasure than just “your best life now.” Jesus bestows life that is much greater than your circumstances, whether rich or poor, whether living high on the hog or beat up and broken down. Whether you’re prospering by the world’s standards or you’re being persecuted by the world, the life Jesus gives cannot be taken away from you. So rather than seeking after “your best life now,” instead follow Jesus and discover “Your Blest Life Now.”
Your blest life now. I’m picking up on the word that Jesus uses to introduce each of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are,” “Blessed are,” Blessed are,” and so on. Statements like these are called “beatitudes.” They start with the word “Blessed” and then describe the kind of persons who are truly blessed by God, regardless of their circumstances. You find a lot of beatitudes in the Bible, and most famously here at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. So let’s see what Jesus says constitutes your blest life now.
First of all, though, we should note who it is that Jesus is speaking to. It says “his disciples came to him,” and he taught them. His disciples: These are those who have heard the call of Jesus, “Follow me.” Disciples are those who follow Jesus in faith. The Beatitudes are not steps for how to be blessed apart from Christ. Rather, they are encouragements and promises for those who are following Jesus as his disciples. And as a result of following Jesus, your life now may not look too great. You may suffer economic setbacks. You may be ostracized by friends and persecuted by enemies. And so we get discouraged. But Jesus is here to encourage us and to say that even though our life now may be difficult, we are truly blessed by God.
The first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be poor in spirit? This doesn’t sound like someone who is blessed. The world would tell us to have a positive self-image, to think highly of yourself, to rely upon your own inner resources. And that may work to some extent in achieving success in this life. But it won’t cut it with God. When we come before God, we come with nothing in our hands. We realize that we are beggars, this is true. I must confess that I am a poor miserable sinner, and that I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. This is what it means to be poor in spirit.
Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Humble yourself before God, that he may lift you up. For God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. When we follow Jesus in faith, we are forever grateful for God having mercy on us poor undeserving sinners. We get what we don’t deserve–forgiveness, life, and salvation–and we don’t get what we do deserve, which is death, damnation, and judgment. Jesus makes it so. His death on the cross wins our forgiveness, and that forgiveness in turn opens up new life and eternal salvation for us. Jesus’ resurrection and our baptism into Christ assures us of that.
And so while we may not have a lot of money, and we do not put excess confidence in ourselves, we do have a treasure far greater. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven! That is what we do have! All the treasures that our heavenly king has to bestow upon us! “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” I’ll take those gifts over a 17,000 square-foot mansion any day of the week.
“For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Note the “is.” Present tense. The kingdom of heaven is your present possession. It’s yours right now. Jesus says elsewhere, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” “Has” eternal life, present tense! “He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” You’ve already passed from death to life! And no one can take this away from you. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” This promise is already yours! Yours is–present tense–yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Now in that perspective, the rest of the Beatitudes follow. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Disciples of Jesus mourn the sin they see in themselves, and they mourn the damage that sin has done in the world around us. It’s not a pretty picture. Maybe you can see how you’ve messed up your life in one way or another, and it brings you sadness. But Jesus assures us that our sorrow will be relieved in the end. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” “Shall be,” future tense. Now the focus shifts from the present to the future. Hope reaches out to take hold of it. There will come a day–you have Jesus’ word on it–there will come a day when all the damage caused by sin will be reversed, when we will be raised up whole and no longer burdened by sin, and all of creation will be restored. That day is coming, Jesus says, so take hope.
Notice that this and the Beatitudes that follow are cast in the future tense. We “shall” be comforted, we “shall” inherit the earth, we “shall” be satisfied, and so on. There is both a “now” and a “not yet” dimension to our salvation. We have the kingdom of heaven now, but we do not yet see all the wonderful results of it. That is still to come, when Christ will come again and restore all things. But in the meantime, we have his word to hold on to. This gives us hope, so that we do not lose heart.
Because we could lose heart, when we look at our lives now. Life doesn’t always go our way. The world would look at us Christians and say that we are a bunch of losers. Meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers–who does that? This does not describe people who are pushing their way ahead in life. It’s a rather lowly kind of life. But it reflects the character of Christ himself, and it is enough for disciples to be like their master. We are baptized children of God, and children reflect the character of their father. God our Father has had mercy on us, forgiving our sins, and so now we have mercy on those who sin against us. God has made peace with us by the cross of Christ, so now we seek peace with those around us. This is what it is like to be disciples of Jesus and children of God. It’s not always asserting our rights, but it’s serving others in love. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Faith toward God and fervent love toward one another–that is a good summary of the Christian life. And we need the regular nourishment of Word and Sacrament to live this blest life.
Now after a whole bunch of “shall” promises, Jesus comes back to the present tense: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Even when you are being persecuted for the Christian faith, you know that you have all the treasures of God’s kingdom guaranteed to you, and they can’t take that away from you.
Ever since Christ founded the church, his disciples have been persecuted. Whether thrown to the lions in the first century or beheaded by jihadists in the twenty-first, Christians have always been persecuted. Sometimes the persecution comes in milder forms, but it does come. So when you experience hostility for your faith, remember the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Rejoice and be glad! Yes, even when your life now is not the best, remember that you are truly blessed. Remember, and rejoice. For in Christ you are living your blest life now.