Sunday, September 24, 2017

Deliverance: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Who are the Poor in Spirit?
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–3 NRSV)
These are perhaps some of the most familiar words in the entire Bible. The opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the first so-called “Beatitude.” This sermon comes to us from Matthew’s gospel. But you might know that much of this sermon is recorded also in Luke. In Luke 6, Jesus said to His disciples a little bit differently: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” This brings up an interesting question, doesn’t it? What did Jesus really say? “Poor in Spirit” (as in Matthew)? Or, just “Poor” (as in Luke)? Believe it or not, I think the answer is “Both.”

As I said last week, the entire Sermon on the Mount is based upon Isaiah 61. That was Jesus’ sermon text. And with this Beatitude, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 61:1:
The Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.
The Hebrew word for “poor” in Isaiah 61 is anawim. That word can mean either “poor” or “poor in spirit,” and in fact, it implies both. It has the connotation of “economically poor” and “spiritually humble.” It can be translated many different ways: Poor, oppressed by the rich and powerful, powerless, humble or lowly. Given these different possibilities, I’m kind of drawn to the way Eugene Peterson translates this sentence in The Message:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and His rule.
I think that is a pretty good description of the people to whom Jesus is referring. Here is another good description. In his book on the Sermon on the Mount, Robert Guelich says this about the people to whom Jesus is referring:
The poor in Judaism referred to those in desperate need (socioeconomic element) whose helplessness drove them to a dependent relationship with God (religious element) for supplying their needs and vindication. Both elements are present…For Matthew, the poor in spirit are those who find themselves waiting, empty-handed, upon God alone for their hope and deliverance while beset with abuse and rejection by those in their own social and religious context. (Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount)
So then, who is Jesus talking about? He is talking about people who are poor and rejected. People who are at the end of their ropes, people who realize that, on their own power, they cannot go far. He’s talking about people who, in their poverty, seek God. But the most puzzling thing about this Beatitude is not really the identity of the “poor in spirit.” Rather, the most amazing thing is what Jesus says about them. The poor in spirit are “blessed” or “happy” or “joyful.” How is it that Jesus can describe poor people as blessed? In the world I live in, that doesn’t seem to be true.

Many years ago, a man named Charles Darwin wrote a book called On the Origin of Species. Most people know Darwin because of the Theory of Evolution. That theory sprang from this book. But it is built upon his idea that only the strong survive: the “survival of the fittest.” In the late 19th century, many American leaders took that principle, which Darwin applied to species, and applied it to businesses and organizations and governments. Only the strongest businesses will survive. Only the strongest organizations will survive. We shouldn’t help weaker businesses or organizations, because we want the strong to rise to the top. This theory has been called “Social Darwinism.” And to be honest, that theory has dominated our world.
If you are rich, you must have worked really hard to get there.
If you are rich, you must deserve it.
You have proven through your work ethic your ability to survive and thrive and rise to the top!
And conversely, if you are poor, you must have slacked off.
You must not have worked hard enough.
If you are poor, you deserve to be poor.
That is the world we live in. So, when Jesus says the poor are blessed, that doesn’t make much sense in our world! How is it possible that poor people can be blessed? Well, here’s how. Did you know that poor people have always had a special place in God’s heart? God says in Isaiah 57:
I dwell with those who are contrite and humble in spirit… (Isaiah 57:15)
Later that same book, God says:
This is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)
The poor are not blessed because they are morally superior. The poor are blessed because God especially wants to rescue the poor. God knows that the poor often get pushed aside and dominated. Glen Stassen says about the poor:
If you are poor, just one illness, just one divorce, just one addiction, or just one job loss can keep you from paying your bills, get you evicted, or even make you homeless. (Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount)
And when that is your life, you have a tendency to seek God more often. The poor really do rely on God more than the rich and powerful. Because many times, they have nowhere else to turn.

There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a youth minister. When Kim and I first married, we moved to Atlanta for the summer. I was serving as a youth ministry intern at Northlake Church of Christ. We regularly took the teenagers to a government housing facility (the “projects”). The teens would knock doors and talk to the residents about Jesus. I noticed an interesting phenomenon in those excursions. The people in those apartments were so willing to talk about God! They wanted to sit down and visit about Jesus. They wanted to hear the stories. They wanted to pray. They were hungry to hear more and experience God more. On a couple of occasions, we had so many teens that we took some of them to a neighborhood just next to the government housing apartments. This was more of a middle-class neighborhood. In the two or three times we took teenagers to that neighborhood, not a single person wanted to visit. Not once.

Sometimes, when we have it all together, we don’t think we need God. But the poor, the poor in spirit, the needy, the powerless, they know they need God, and they are often much more willing to search for God. The crowds to whom Jesus was speaking that day, they were poor. They knew what it was like to be at the end of their rope. They knew what it was like to be hungry. They had spent their lives being oppressed by the powerful people of the world. And Jesus came with this message: You are blessed, because today I am bringing you deliverance!

So, where does that leave us?

There are some reading this that can really empathize with those crowds. You have experienced real poverty. Or, maybe you are experiencing real poverty right now. You are living paycheck to paycheck. You just pray you have enough money this month to make the house payment or pay rent. Some of us know what it is like to live in a world where only the rich and powerful seem to matter. And, some of us, even when we don’t have a lot, we live like we do. We want people to think we have a lot. We want to appear rich and powerful, because that seems to be what our world respects. If you fall into that category, please hear the words of Jesus. You are blessed! Your humility and reliance upon God puts you at the heart of God’s kingdom. God sees you. And God came here to rescue you.

There are others that have a difficult time finding a connection to this Beatitude. You may be tempted to think: “Well, God is calling me to be more poor in spirit.” No, remember, that is not what this sermon is about. God is not trying to guilt you into a new kind of behavior that will somehow save you! You are saved because of Jesus. Period. So, what does this passage say to those who are rich? Brian McClaren wrote in a book a few years ago entitled A New Kind of Christian that we, the people of God, should be “catalysts for the Kingdom.” There has been a debate over the centuries about what the “Kingdom” is exactly. Some have said the Kingdom is the church. Some have said the Kingdom is heaven. I think a better way to think of the Kingdom is “a new way of living.” We shouldn’t think of the Kingdom, then, so much as a group of people with boundaries. Rather, we should think of the Kingdom as God’s reign on earth. When we see “on earth as it is in heaven,” God’s Kingdom is there. When a hurricane hits and people flock to Houston and Florida to help those in need, that is God’s Kingdom ethic at work. When a family is relocated to Tyler because of those hurricanes and people surround that family and love them in the midst of their tragedy, that is God’s Kingdom ethic at work. McClaren said followers of Jesus should be “catalysts for that Kingdom.” Everything we do should push people into that way of living. We ourselves should live our lives based upon that Kingdom ethic. That is God’s Kingdom at work. It is not a group of people with boundaries, it is a way of living!

So, what does that mean for us when we read this Beatitude? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the Kingdom of heaven is theirs.” The poor in spirit are blessed because God loves them in spite of their poverty. The poor is spirit are blessed because, lacking the constraints and stress that often accompany money and possessions in this world, they often times see God more clearly than other people. This beatitude calls us to feel the blessing of God in our own poverty. It also calls us to be a blessing to those in poverty around us. We are to be catalysts for the Kingdom of God. We are to help the poor feel the blessing of God. As those made in the image of God, we are to be the presence of God to this world, including the poor. I don’t know how to say it any more plainly than this: God has always worked to rescue and deliver the poor. As God’s people, we also need to make it our mission to rescue and deliver the poor. That is part of what it means to live our lives under the reign of God.

Brothers and sisters, empowered by the Holy Spirit, you can be a blessing to the poor. With the resources from this family, we are blessing the poor. For years, this family has given a monthly gift to PATH. For years, this family has volunteered at Karing Kitchen. Many of you have given time and money to the Benevolence Center and HiWay 80 Rescue Mission. Do you realize that in those ways you are helping this Beatitude come to life? Are there other ways you could participate with God in His mission to bless the poor? I wonder, are there ways you could participate with God as a family? I know a lot of families that spend a lot of time together at ball fields. Those are precious times, formative times. Do you know what else is formative for a family? Serving together. Moms, dads and children helping someone in need. May I offer a couple of suggestions? Right now, in our city, there are families who have been relocated because of Hurricane Harvey. PATH has been working with those families. Why not adopt one of those families? Many of them need clothes. Others need housing. Some need a job. Maybe your family could help. Right now, in our city, are ongoing ministries put in place to help the poor in our community. HiWay 80 Rescue Mission. PATH. Why not find time to volunteer there by yourself or with your family?

Jesus offered His presence to the social and religious outcasts of His time; the poor, the poor in spirit. Jesus invited them into His community. He not only fed them; He ate with them. That is real, grace-based deliverance. Church, God has called us to walk alongside of Him in the business of deliverance. That’s what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God!

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