Monday, April 2, 2012

The Jesus Guide To Happiness(Part 4)... Blessed are those who Hunger and Thirst For Righteousness (Matt 5:6 Amos 5:21-24)

It’s easy to read the beatitudes with what James Bryan Smith calls a false narrative: A lens that we view these scriptures through, that distorts them and can stop us from seeing the liberating beauty and scandalous wonder of Jesus words.

We can view them as a prescription for spiritual blessing, a to do list for salvation, do these things and God will bless you. Have these virtues and you’ve made it, if we do these things then God will like us. Almost like a form of legalism. To tell you the truth I have to continually check myself to stop from falling into that trap.

Rather we need to realise that right here at the beginning of the most important sermon ever given by the most important person who ever lived, Jesus Sermon on the Mount,  is an amazing ‘Grand invitation’. Or what Philip Yancy in his book The Jesus I never Knew calls ‘God’s revolution of Grace’. In the religious thinking of Jesus day, those who were blessed who were seen as part of God’s kingdom was a very closed shop… Smith identifies five things that said you were blessed in first century Jewish thinking , you were in if … You were Jewish, the Jesus revolution was going to go global, if you were  male, we forget the revolution of the Jesus movement that Jesus counted women as equals,  if you kept the law and stayed ritually clean, you separated yourself out from the sinner round you. If you were healthy and well, sickness was a sign of sin and  God’s displeasure and if you were  wealthy, they thought the poor had been abandoned by God.

But in the beatitudes Jesus flips that totally on its head. AS my good friend and song writer Malcolm Gordon says ‘The kingdom is for everyone’, as we say when we celebrate communion, all are invited to come and dine at the table, with Christ.  The poor, those who hunger and thirst, those who mourn, those who are persecuted are welcomed, the kingdom is theirs, its theirs because Jesus is theirs. As James Bryan Smith says “he is the living, breathing, tangible touchable, real-life expression and embodiment of the kingdom.” The beatitudes are a grand invitation of inclusion for all to come.

That’s why it’s good as we wrestle with the challenge of being a missional church that we start by looking at the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. Because they are not a list of virtues that will further split us into spiritual haves and have not’s but they invite us to see again that all are welcomed all, all are loved all belong all are to be invited into God’s  kingdom.

Today we are looking at what Douglas Beyer says is both the most demanding and at the same time the most encouraging beatitude… “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled”.

Most demanding, because let’s face it most of us do not know what it means to be genuinely hungry and thirsty and because it’s hard to understand what it means to be hungry and thirsty for Righteousness.

Some scholars see it terms of personal piety, a desire to be right within ourselves. We are aware of our spiritual poverty, we mourn for what we have done wrong and humble ourselves before God and seek God’s righteousness in our lives: A new way of living a right way of living in right relationship with others and the world. That sort of sounds like Bryant smith false narrative except when you realise that Jesus doesn’t say blessed are you when you’ve got it all right, rather when you hunger and thirsty for righteousness. Jesus tells a parable recorded in Luke 18:10-14 of two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a pharasee, someone who kept all the laws, did the right religious things, prayed at the right time, fasted at the right time, gave the right amount of money to the poor, his attitude was basically, you gotta love me God I’m a good person not like that tax collector over there he’s a sinner. Yes in Jesus story the other man was a tax collector a sinner, who came and admitted he sinned and asked for God’s forgiveness. And at the end of the parable Jesus asked the question who went home justified that day, who went home made right? The scandalous answer was the tax collector; Hungry and thirsty for God’s righteousness. Don’t get me wrong later in the sermon on the mount Jesus will say, unless your righteousness is more than the pharasees you won’t enter the kingdom of God, it has more to do with that heart attitude, thirsting for God’s love and showing God’s love rather than simply keeping a set of religious rules.

Other scholars have said that to hunger and thirst for righteousness is a desire to see the world set right, it has to do with a real desire for social justice. In the reading from the book of Amos we had this morning, Amos is talking to a time when religious observance in the northern kingdom of Israel was at a high, church attendance was way up, people flocked to religious festivals, the band was playing the most up to date worship songs, all the right things would have been done, and Amos says Woe, hold on a minute here guys, God thinks this is vomitus and vile, there is personal religious ferver, but the poor are being mistreated and oppressed, what God wants is not the sacrifices and praise parties, God want God’s character reflected in justice and righteousness that it flows like a never ending stream. In Luke’s gospel Jesus first sermon is in a synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah and talks about the spirit of God being upon him, to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the captives and to comfort those who mourn and suffer, people searching for that kind of justice will find it in Jesus, will find the filling they need to continue their quest.

But another understanding of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, is one we may not readily identify with. In Jesus day there were people who found themselves oppressed and downtrodden, ostracised and genuinely Hungry and thirsty, poor in what is primarily a semi desert land. They were living in a land that was occupied by a ruthless foreign power and they desired and needed justice to simply survive. Steve Tollestrup is the head of Tearfund in New Zealand and at the moment is in the newly independent country of south Sudan. He is there to help the church of south Sudan negotiate a peace settlement. After years of a bitter civil war between north and south, there is emerging an older more bitter struggle between the various tribes in this area. In an article in the economist that he said explained the situation there very clearly, the reporter talked of coming across a group of refugees in the middle of the barren desert land who had had their truck attacked by gunmen form a rival tribe. They were stranded at least two days walk from the nearest town or water source. The leader of this small caravan said the cattle hadn’t been watered since the day before and would start to die, then the children.” They desperately needed food and water but more than that they need justice and righteousness. It’s the underlying hunger and thirst. The kingdom of God was for them. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes he does not spiritualise things like Matthew he simply says blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty now they will be filled.

You can see how this beatitude is demanding “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.’ I happen to think that that encompasses all three ideas that we’ve looked at. The greek word has the idea of not looking for a bit of something or a piece of something but the whole of something… it could read hunger and search for total righteousness. Such a hunger can only be satisfied by God it’s a wholly Holy Hunger. 

It’s also the most encouraging beatitude because of the promise that they will be filled.  If they seek for that righteousness they will find it filled in Jesus Christ. Jesus says I am the bread of life, I am the living water come to me and you will not thirst again. In terms of personal piety, through Jesus and his death on the cross we are justified made right with God. We are filled with his righteousness and Jesus invites us on a journey with him that we call sanctification, growing into right relationship with God, with each other, learning to love each other and even those who would try and be our enemies, a right relationship with the world around us as well, and creation. In Jesus we find the one who cares for the poor and calls us as we’ll see later in the beatitudes to be peace makers and to stand up for righteousness and justice even in the face of opposition and persecution. Jesus who stands with and invites the poor and oppressed and hungry into his Kingdom and walks in their suffering with them and as a righteous God will not see injustice and suffering continue, even if the final justice has to wait till eternity.

Let me draw out a couple of things from this for us this morning.

The first is that it’s all right to hunger and thirst. We need to be hungry and thirsty for God. In western society we have fallen into the trap of trying to quench our thirst our spiritual hunger with physical things, it doesn’t satisfy but like when a body is diseased, it can deaden our appetites. C S Lewis puts it like this he says “we are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because they cannot imagine what it means by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” I once heard a man say that New Zealand was the most dangerous place spiritually he’d ever been, and he had lived in Africa, with the danger of wild animals & in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabi.   Why? Is it so dangerous here? Because it’s so easy we have it so easy, that may be changing. But its also why revival in New Zealand will happen on the margins and dark places of this country, there is hunger and thirst there.

Secondly It’s good to hunger and thirst. We’ve often presented with the idea that our faith says Jesus is the answer, and when we find Jesus, we simply stop we’ve made it. But for me Jesus is the question, the burning question in my life, the one who leads me on a quest. You know doubts and questions are not the opposite of faith. Apathy is, apathy is the lack of a desire to do something or to go on. Doubts and questions are often places where our faith is tested, but if they are part of our hunger and thirst for truth and righteousness they open us up God, to being filled with truth and righteousness. In his book faithworks Christian activist Jim Wallis says that the starting place for the spiritual life and for his life long quest for justice has been his questions… trust your questions he says… who knows the spirit of God may be moving and leading and as Jesus promised seek and you will find knock and it will be opened to you.  

Thirdly, it’s good to hunger and thirst for the right things. It’s important that we have a spiritual hunger. Christians often talk of times in their lives where they feel dry or they experience the absence of God in their lives. It’s a time that is called by contemplatives the desert times or the long dark night of the soul, they are times when their faith is tested and its times when they again develop a thirst and hunger for knowing God more and more. If you’re going through that kind of time, know God is with you and inviting you to press on to know him more.

Lastly, it’s good if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, why? Because we will be filled. The invitation is to respond to Jesus, who is the living water, the life giving bread who made you for a relationship with him. This is the invitation from God in the book of Isaiah

1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.

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