Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Jesus Guide To Happiness...(the Beattitudes part 1)... Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.

On Sunday March 11 2012 I started a new phase of my ministry. I took my first service as the minister at St Peter's Peresbyterian Church, Ellerslie Mt Wellington. It's in my home city of Auckland New Zealand.  I will be posting my sermons and prayers from public worship on my blog as well as reflections and book and film reviews.

I have ti admit that for my first message on the beattitudes I found myself very dependant on Mark Woodley and his great commentary on Matthew's Gospel "God with us" in the Resonate Series.

When I came and preached for a call back in January I chose as my text Jesus call to his first disciples to “come and follow me and I will makeyou fishers of Men”.  I wanted to use that to articulate a vision of our ministry; that it is following Jesus into relationship with God, into Community, a special relationship with each other as God’s people, ministry, doing the things that Jesus did, and mission that Jesus would make us fishers of men. It seems appropriate to follow on from that, at the start of our new life together, by following on from that in Matthew’s Gospel, if I’m aloud to over use the term, to see what it means to follow on, following Jesus…

After Jesus calls his disciples we have a summary of his preaching tour of Galilee and then a record of Jesus teaching his new disciples in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:1 tells us that Jesus saw the crowd and he sat down and called his disciples and began to teach them. He calls those who have chosen to follow him together to instruct them about what it means to be a follower, what it means to be in the kingdom of Heaven. The Sermon on the Mount has been called by some the manifesto of the Kingdom, out lining what the reign of God breaking into the realms of human beings will mean, and look like. Others have called it the job description of a follower of Jesus. Not only did Jesus teach his disciples but we note the crowd was present as well, almost as if they were eavesdropping and had the chance to see what it meant to follow Jesus and see if they wanted to apply to be a follower.

We’re not doing this simply to follow on through Matthew’s Gospel; it’s not just an academic exercise. As a congregation we have a great challenge before us. Like many congregations in the western world we are wrestling with decline and the shadow of closure and the response to that of rediscovering God’s call to mission to our community and world; to change and to reach out and grow. This is where I believe the Sermon on the Mount is specifically important for this time, this place, this context. Dietrich Bonheoffer, imprisoned and executed in Nazi Germany, says that

 “The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”

Over the next eight weeks, with a break for Easter, we are going to start looking at the Sermon on the Mount by exploring the beatitudes that Jesus starts his sermon with: The Blessed ares, and you have to be careful how you say that. And if the Sermon on the Mount is a job description for a follower of Jesus, then the beatitudes are the character traits for a follower. And today we are going to explore the first beatitude… Blessed are those who are poor of spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Mark Woodley sees the beatitudes, and the whole Sermon on the Mount like this. He says “In a practical sense, we must sit at Jesus feet and say, “lord, we’ve tried to be good and happy and loving but we need help-lot’s of help! We need to learn life from you. So we’re going to sit and listen. How would you have us live?” It would be easy to think that Jesus would simply give us a list of things we need to do, maybe a series of tips and “how toos” , that Jesus might simply be a new Moses and give a new set of laws but as Woolley says “Jesus description of life in the Kingdom isn’t about trying harder, gaining power and control and then mastering the spiritual life. It begins with an act of powerless and surrender.” It begins with acknowledging our need for God.

This goes counter intuitive in our world today. We do not equate poverty and weakness, physical or spiritual as a sign of being blessed, or as a reason for people being happy.  WE have a fascination with the lifestyles of people with wealth and a life of ease and trouble free, we see them as blessed. Even the Jews had this understanding they saw such things as evidence of God’s blessing.  In the book of Job his friends saw his wealth and health and family as a sign that he was pleasing God and was blessed and when it all went wrong that it was a sign of God’s displeasure.

 In our advertising saturated world we are all told that all our problems can be solved and we can be made happy again by buying and using a particular product or obtaining a certain standard of living.

 We see people who are happy and blessed as those who have found purpose and meaning, who have it all sorted. They’ve got a good marriage, nice kids, the right job. We use words life self-fulfilment and self-actualisation, to express what humans need to be happy. We don’t see it by acknowledging that we don’t have what it takes, that we are impoverished. 

 In the twelve steps programme, that is used in many addiction recovery programmes, like alcoholics anonymous, the first step to recovery, and wholeness,  to right living is the admission that a person is powerless in the face of their addiction and they need the help of a higher power to free them and make them whole.  Joan Chittister says that Jesus starting point is also what we may need in society today  "Dependence on God” she says “may be what is lacking in a society where consumerism and accumulation have become the root diseases”, and addiction,  “of a world in which everything is not enough and nothing satisfies."

Jesus staring point also goes counter intuitive to how we often view and practise our religion and faith. We can see even Christianity as doing things that will make God like us. That will put us right with God that will merit and earn God’s favour. Henri Nouwen, says to do this is spiritual death.
“without Jesus words of blessing you will go on running helter skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out.”
Jesus says those who are blessed are those who know they are spiritual poor that they are dependent on God’s goodness and grace for life, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They know their inadequacy and so trust God. It is about the grace of God.

The kingdom of heaven says Jesus is not earned or merited it is not a reward, rather it is a gift given. It is all about the grace of God. And when we are aware of our spiritual poverty and our need for God and surrender ourselves to Jesus it opens the door to all the others things of the Kingdom.

Once again Mark Woodly puts it like this.

When we see God’s offer of grace in the midst of our spiritual poverty, it’s easy to mourn for our sins. We are able to face what we have done wrong and how we have wronged God and others and to seek to change.

When we believe that God is sovereign and in charge of the world and our lives and times are in his hands , it is easy to be meek, to patiently trust God for his way and his timing to set the world right.

When we experience the goodness and grace of God, we find that we wanting to know more of God’s character and long for God’s justice and righteousness in our lives and our world

When we experience God’s grace and mercy that we in no way earn or deserve, it seems inconsistent to not treat fellow sinners in the merciful way we have been shown.

In this broken disjointed world of ours where people are separated and isolated by hatred and prejudice, we feel constrained to step into the conflict, becoming agents of reconciliation and peace.

When we realise that Jesus gave his life to save us out of love we’ll follow him even if it puts us at conflict in the world and means enduring being ostracised and even persecuted.

Like sunrise after a long night, When we know our own spiritual poverty and surrender ourselves into God’s hands do we can know the reality of the resources, encouragement and blessings that Jesus offers and promises at the end of each of the beatitudes.

For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

For they will be comforted

For they will inherit the earth

For they will be filled (or satisfied)

For they will be shown mercy

For they will see God

For they will be called the Children of God

When I was contemplating the call to come here to St Peter’s I have to admit that I felt totally daunted by the task that you as a congregation were asking. If nothing changes there is funding for three years if all the reserves are used. I felt inadequate, and as I was praying and thinking about how to respond to you I got another offer. A church that I knew well was looking for me specifically because of the strengths I had. They wanted me to do a job for them as part of a ministry team, that suited me and played to strengths that I had and they had the resources and people to back that up and there were people who would cover for my perceived weaknesses. It was tempting and in our world and church that is so captivated by leadership culture, it is the prevailing wisdom that to succeed you move to work in your areas of strength. But after the Spirit lead us here I had confirmation that it was the right thing through a trusted source. I was reading Leonard Sweet’s book “ I am a Follower” and Sweet was contrasting this wisdom of leadership culture with the gospel. He said that the gospel says that it is in our weakness that God is able to be strong. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul had been praying to God to heal him of what we only know as a thorn in the flesh and final God replies, “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Even in our ministry and mission as we acknowledge our spiritual poverty and rely on God and surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ, we can trust that he will provide and lead and Guide us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

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