Today’s sermon, entitled “Worst Week Ever,” was delivered at Amherst Presbyterian Church. A link to the audio of this sermon and the prepared text of this sermon are available here in this post. The other reading for this All Saints Day was Revelation 7:9-17. Next Sunday’s sermon will be on Matthew 25:1-13. A related sermon that I once preached (on the beatitudes in Luke) is available here.
Worst Week Ever (Audio Recording)
Another pastor once told me, “There is someone in your congregation this week who has had their worst week ever.” Now if that is you today then I would imagine that you are hardly in the mood to rejoice and be glad. Indeed, if it is your worst week ever because you lost a job, or worse—because you lost a loved one, then rejoicing may be the last thing on your mind. You’re not alone. There are a few weeks that I myself remember as good candidates for my worst week ever. One of those was definitely when I had a full-blown gallbladder attack and I didn’t know that’s what it was. If it is your worst week ever, then that example may seem to pale in comparison to you. But my point is that we all have had or will have these kinds of awful experiences. Some young adults may have not yet really experienced major suffering or losses. But I would imagine that most of us have faced some kind of adversity or loss and most of us will continue to face such things. It could be physical or mental health issues. It might be some issue of justice. It could be a spiritual health issue. It might even be a combination of such things or other things. This week may not be your worst week ever but it may have been recently and it may happen again soon. Jesus ministered to hurting people like us both in deed and word. What he says is rather surprising for suffering people. Listen to what He did and said:
What Jesus teaches you in these beatitudes is offensive to religious elitists because they think you are blessed only if you are happy, exalted, trouble-free, and respected.
Jesus proclaimed these beatitudes to His disciples upon seeing crowds of people who knew suffering. Jesus was not addressing the religious elites who led comfortable lives and made life difficult for others. He confronted them in the passages like those that we’ve unpacked these last several Sundays from later in Matthew. But Jesus has a different audience here: He was teaching His disciples who saw these crowds. I began reading before the beatitudes so that we would see that Jesus had healed the sick, those with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics. These verses tell us that before Jesus healed the crowds, every disease and every affliction could be found among them. If I can allude to the first four blessings for a moment: the crowds were not the religious elite who controlled the Temple, they had no comforts, most of them probably were not land owners, and they were not satisfied by the justice system or seen as righteous people. Let me add a couple more: some of those in the crowds had already been persecuted for righteousness’ sake and many of Jesus’ disciples would yet be reviled, persecuted, or slandered because they followed Jesus. So Jesus was speaking to and about people who knew physical and spiritual suffering and who would continue to experience some form of it in the future. He declared “blessed” many people who felt like they had been under some kind of curse. (But the religious elites would say those who suffer are obviously cursed.)
The suffering of Christians was one of the most persuasive objections to the gospel made by unbelieving religious leaders. These religious elites believed that if you kept the Torah of Moses then you would be blessed and if you disobeyed the Torah of Moses then you would be cursed. They would point to passages like Deuteronomy 28:1-6, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of YHWH your God, being careful to do all His commandments that I command you today, YHWH your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of YHWH your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out [that’s a merism for all the time]” and then Deuteronomy 28:15-19 lists the opposite of all these things if you will not obey the voice of YHWH your God or be careful to do all His commandments and His statutes. Thus many of the religious elites living at the time of the apostles saw the suffering of the Christians that they were persecuting as evidence and even proof that these Christians were cursed by God. So if you had your worst week ever, the religious elites deduced that you’re cursed. (I won’t go into all of the ways that this interpretation is wrong, but I think that is helpful background to understand how shocking Jesus might sound to many people at the time—especially the elites—and, if anything, this kind of thinking is more common among religious Americans today.)
Religious people today also often think that happy, exalted, trouble-free, and respected people are blessed and that if you are suffering it must be because of some secret sin. If they could hear Jesus sitting on the mountain and pronouncing these beatitudes they would object just as strongly as the religious elitists in Jesus’ day. Imagine them listening to Jesus. They’d think: ‘No, the rich in spirit are blessed; those who don’t know grief and loss are blessed; those with a reason to be proud are blessed; those who win in court are blessed or those who seem righteous are blessed; those who don’t need mercy are blessed; those who are good, nice, and fair are blessed; those who are successful are blessed; those who aren’t being persecuted are blessed; those who are loved by the world are blessed; indeed, those who receive rewards on earth are the people with a reason to rejoice and be glad.’ This is the view of one false religion that’s popular among many who claim to be Christians. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton wrote a book about it in 2005. They were unpacking the results of Smith’s research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion.” Some of the religious tenets they identified among those who were teenagers at the time included: that our purpose and goal in life is to feel good and be happy; that everyone needs to be good, nice, and fair; that their god is only useful when they have a problem needing fixing; and that God welcomes into heaven all those who are good. People with these kinds of beliefs aim for a life of comfort, ease, and success. They also assume that you must deserve it if you are suffering. (Thus many people in our culture today would agree that happy, exalted, trouble-free, and respected people are those who are blessed. If they saw these crowds, then they’d think that the people in these crowds were cursed.)
However, Jesus prophetically pronounced a blessing on all of you who suffer but who have a heart that is right with God.
The beatitudes in Matthew all look beyond your external circumstances to your heart. Take, for example, the first one: the poor in spirit. Jesus pronounces similar beatitudes in Luke but in Luke He doesn’t say “blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) but instead “blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20). And in Luke the poor are always the pious poor—they are the righteous believers who had little in the way of things and money despite their hard work. And if you were poor, then you might go hungry. Thus in Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now” (Luke 6:21). There Jesus speaks of physical hunger. By contrast, in Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:6). I’m not suggesting that the beatitudes in Luke contradict the beatitudes in Matthew. The beatitudes in Luke teach us that even if you are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, and spurned, or even if it is your worst week ever, you can rejoice and leap for joy because a day is coming when there will be a great reversal of fortunes. The beatitudes in Matthew agree but take a different approach. In Matthew, Jesus describes people whose heart is right with God in various different ways but many of them are suffering. We’ve mentioned the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Some more examples of those whose hearts are right with God are the meek or humble, the merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. These blessed people are often suffering but they all have hearts that are right with God.
Your heart is right with God as you believe the promises Jesus makes to you in these beatitudes. Notice how each blessing is followed by a prophetic promise to be received by faith in Jesus. Blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit;” prophetic promise: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The translation in your bulletin says, “children of God” but the Greek literally translates as “sons of God.” Jesus said, “they shall be called sons of God” because it was the son who inherited in that culture. And then the eighth beatitude makes the same promise as the first: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, it isn’t just that the first and eighth promises are identical but all seven of these different promises are essentially the same promise or at least getting at part of the same larger promise that at the end we will inherit the earth and it will be the kingdom of heaven. Contrary to American left-behind fiction, the Scriptures teach that the invisible heavens will become visible and the earth will be cleansed – thus a “new” heavens and a “new” earth – because in English we don’t use “renewed” as an adjective but the idea is that there will be a renewed heavens and a renewed earth. This renewal will happen when the kingdom of heaven comes down and reigns on the earth. Hence the promise made to the meek is “they shall inherit the earth.” All this is just to say that these promises will be fulfilled at the final resurrection – those who mourn will be comforted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied, those who are merciful will receive mercy, the pure in heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called sons of God. (Until that day, trusting in Jesus is having a faith that matters when all is well and not just when you are sick or you lose your job, it is having a faith that matters more than your happiness, it is having a faith that matters more than your life, and it is having a faith that matters to the world because it actually makes a difference in the world. And this also speaks to the ninth beatitude.)
Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt 5:11). Notice the change in tone. It is no longer, “blessed are the…” or “blessed are those who…,” but rather, “Blessed are you when.” He says, “when others revile you and persecute you and,” if I can paraphrase it as, ‘slander you’ “on my account.” Jesus makes this one personal by shifting from third person “they” to second person “you.” He also shifts from suffering in general to suffering on His account. The disciples Jesus spoke to on that mountain would be reviled, persecuted, and slandered on His account. And they weren’t the last disciples to suffer on His account. You may not be persecuted on His account—at least in this country—but, at minimum, trusting in Jesus may get in the way of you having a happy, exalted, trouble-free, and respectable life. (And Jesus unpacks this beatitude further with a tenth statement. After all, Matthew has been portraying Jesus as a new Moses who did signs and wonders and then went up onto a mountain to give a new Torah but instead of starting with the Ten Commandments Jesus gave these ten statements of blessing. He prophetically pronounced a blessing on all of you who suffer but who have a heart that is right with God nine times. Let’s summarize the ninth as, ‘Blessed are you when you suffer because of your faith in Jesus.’)
Moreover, Jesus tells you to rejoice and be glad whenever you suffer on His account, He says, “for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets.”
Now rejoicing and being glad are not our natural responses to suffering but they are the right responses to these circumstances. We began this sermon admitting that if it is your worst week ever, you are probably not in the mood to rejoice and be glad. No one wants to rejoice and be glad when these kinds of things happen. That’s why Jesus has to tell you to do it. But don’t think of these two imperatives as a legal burden for you to keep. These two imperatives are how you give thanks. (It may seem strange to give thanks for suffering on account of Jesus but not when you see that Jesus makes you a promise and offers proof.)
After all, the prophetic promise that Jesus makes is that “your reward is great in heaven” (Matt 5:12). He makes this promise to all those who are reviled, persecuted, and slandered on His account. It is a promise that is fulfilled immediately in heaven for you are able to store up treasure in heaven (cf. Matt 19:21). It is also a promise that will be revealed to the world at the final judgment. And if you believe His promise then you can rejoice and be glad with thanksgiving here and now. (But Jesus doesn’t stop with the prophetic promise of great heavenly reward.)
Jesus adds the persecuted prophets as proof that your reward is great in heaven. We noted that the religious elites thought that the suffering they would inflict upon early Christians was “proof” that those Christians were cursed by God. But here Jesus uses the example of the persecuted prophets to prove that those suffering Christians were blessed. It was because those Christians were right with God by faith in Jesus that they were persecuted by the religious elites. Likewise, it was because the prophets were right that they were persecuted by Israel’s religious leaders. No believer who understands the Scriptures would doubt that those prophets don’t have a reward in heaven. In other words, the very suffering that the religious leaders thought proved Christians were cursed is the conclusive proof that Christians are blessed with a great reward in heaven. We can go further and say that the experience of suffering for the Christian—not just suffering on account of Jesus Christ but all of our suffering—cannot be symptoms of God’s wrath and curse. If anything, all of our suffering for righteousness’ sake is proof of God’s blessing and our reward in heaven. After all, Jesus took all the wrath and curse we deserve upon Himself on the cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.