Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 30, 2011
Text: Matt. 5:1-12
The beatitudes are not if/then conditional statements. It is critical that we understand this if we are to have any clue what Jesus is saying here. He is not saying, “If you are poor in spirit, then you will be blessed and receive the kingdom of heaven.” Rather, He makes a declaration: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3; ESV; emphasis added). And this distinction between conditional and declarative statements makes all the difference for whether the beatitudes are Law (do this, and then you will be blessed), or Gospel (you are blessed, because Jesus says so). To be blessed is to share in the joy of the salvation of your blessed Lord Jesus Christ. That means this is justification language. That means that this is grace alone language. You are blessed, not because you do certain prescribed works of the Law, like being merciful and making peace, but because Jesus says so. The beatitudes are a description, not of who you should strive to be, but of who you already are in Christ. Actually, the reality is that the beatitudes are not first and foremost a description of you, but of Christ. And as a result of your Baptism into Christ, they now also describe your blessed reality.
You see, Christ is the Man who is poor in spirit, emptying Himself of His divine majesty for our sakes in His state of humiliation, becoming one of us, one with us, taking into Himself our sin, suffering our punishment, dying our death. And as a result, He has won the kingdom of heaven for us. Jesus is the mourner, suffering unjustly, arrested, mocked, beaten, crucified. But His comfort is in the salvation of His people and His victorious resurrection from the dead. Jesus is the meek One, bearing His cross with patient humility. He hungers and thirsts for righteousness, our righteousness, our justification, which He graciously pronounces upon us and gives us. He alone is merciful. He alone is pure in heart. He alone makes peace for us with God, gives us the peace that passes all understanding, and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility that stands between us and our fellow man. He is the Son of God. And He is persecuted. He was persecuted throughout His earthly ministry, in His arrest and His crucifixion, and even now as He reigns triumphantly at the right hand of His heavenly Father, He is persecuted in the sufferings of His body, the Church. But His is the kingdom of heaven. Therefore ours is the kingdom of heaven. For what is His is ours, since He took what is ours into Himself. The Bridegroom shares all things with His Bride, and vice versa. You are His sin and death. He is your righteousness and life. You are blessed, because you are in Him. So let us not misunderstand the beatitudes. They are not a prescription for us, but a description of Christ, and so a description of us in Christ.
Psalm 1 is often misunderstood in the same way. We chanted it this morning as the Introit. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Ps. 1:1). What other man can this be but our Lord Jesus Christ? It can’t be you. It can’t be me. We are continually in the company of sinners, walking, standing, sitting. We are sinners. The Lord Jesus alone is without sin. His delight is in the law, the Torah, the Word, of YHWH, and on His Torah He meditates day and night (v. 2). We often think of Psalm 1 as the model we should live up to, and of course, we should, but we can’t. It is impossible. We cannot fulfill the Law of God. That’s the problem. We cannot live up to the Law’s righteous demands. Jesus must do it for us, as our substitute. He must do it in our place. He alone can. And because we are in Christ, united to Christ by faith, baptized into Christ, even though we have walked in the counsel of the wicked, stood in the way of sinners, and sat in the seat of mockers, nonetheless we are blessed. We are blessed not on the basis of anything within us, but because we are in Christ, and Christ is the blessed One! Blessed is the man. That’s you. That’s you, because that’s Christ, and you are in Christ.
And so the beatitudes. These must not be understood as the model we should live up to. Of course, we should, but we can’t. And so on our own we are anything but blessed. On our own, we are anything but poor in spirit. To be poor in spirit means to empty yourself of your own glory, to come to the table before God with absolutely nothing, no thought of merit or worthiness, only sin and death. But we consider ourselves pretty good people, at least in comparison with others. I’m a model citizen, a faithful Christian, and decent guy. So much for poor in spirit. God should reward me, I think. I don’t want to mourn. I want to live for pleasure. I don’t want to be meek. I want to grab the bull by the horns and take the earth by my own initiative now. I don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness, but my own gratification. And there’s no room for mercy. I have to look out first and foremost for myself and my own interests. Purity of heart? Everyone has an agenda, including me. Peacemaker? Only because conflict makes me uncomfortable. Persecution? I can avoid it if I’m a friend to the world. Beloved in the Lord, this is a description of your old sinful nature, the old Adam, the you outside of Christ. Repent. You cannot live up to the model of the beatitudes. If these are Law, you are sunk. You are damned. But if the beatitudes are a description of Christ, then they describe you in Christ. And then you are blessed. Then this is the Lord’s proclamation that you are included in the New Testament in His blood. You share the joy of the salvation of your Lord Jesus Christ.
The fact is, the beatitudes are a comforting description of the Christian life under the cross. The Christian life is shaped by the cross of Christ. That means that your life in Christ in this world is full of crosses. You suffer as your sinful nature is daily crucified. As a Christian, you don’t strive to be poor in spirit. You are poor in spirit. You bring nothing to the table before God but your sin and death, and He takes them into Himself, into the flesh of Jesus, and gives you righteousness and life in exchange. And so yours is the Kingdom of heaven. You have the very blessedness of Jesus. In this life you will mourn, because death is all around us, and you yourself face death. But you are blessed, for you are comforted with the resurrection victory of Jesus Christ, and the sure and certain hope of heaven and your own bodily resurrection from the dead on the Last Day. As a Christian you are meek, which is to say, you await the Lord’s coming again with humble patience, enduring the assaults of the devil and the world, and you are blessed, because you know that when Christ comes again, you will inherit a new earth. You hunger and thirst for righteousness now, in a world that has no concept of righteousness, but you are blessed, because you are satisfied with Christ’s righteousness, justified with His justification, and you eat it and drink it every time you come to this altar. So Christ’s mercy, Christ’s purity of heart, Christ’s peacemaking counts for you, is credited to your account, and miracle of miracles, you begin to be merciful yourself, by the Holy Spirit’s work in you. You cleanse your heart with repentance, by confessing your sin and clinging to the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. You reconcile with one another, because God, in Christ, is reconciled to you. You have received mercy, and continue to receive mercy, God’s undeserved kindness. You will see God with your own eyes. You are even now called sons of God by virtue of your Baptism into the Son of God, the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ. You are blessed. And yes, you are persecuted. Here it is not so bad. You have not yet been arrested for your faith. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. But others have. Others are arrested and tortured and executed on account of Jesus, even now, throughout the world. And it could happen here. If the world lasts long enough, it will happen here. It may happen to you. There are already more subtle forms of persecution that you do suffer, including the world’s mockery and intolerance. So be it. Rejoice and be glad. So they persecuted the prophets who were before you. The Lord knows. The Lord knows the way of the righteous (Ps. 1:6). He knows that you live in the midst of so many dangers that in your frailty you cannot stand upright (collect). The Lord knows and He cares. He will deliver you. He will grant strength and protection to support you in all dangers and carry you through all temptations. This persecution will come to nothing. The end is near. Even now, you are blessed. Because Jesus says so. You have the joy of the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The beatitudes are a description of the blessed and holy cross. We could sum up the beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are those who are nothing, because they are filled to overflowing with the things of God.” This is the word of the cross. You are saved by the death of God on an instrument of torturous execution. God’s death is His glory. It just doesn’t make sense to ears of flesh. The beatitudes, likewise, sound as foolishness in the ears of the world. St. Paul says something of this in our epistle lesson: “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). It is the power of God for our salvation. Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice this day. Your Lord has pronounced you blessed. Lift high the cross. Look to the bleeding and dying Son of God. He fills you with Himself. You are blessed in Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.