Did they laugh? Did they shake their heads in disbelief?
Try to imagine what Jesus’ disciples expected to hear as they gathered around. Matthew sets the stage: “His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” (Matthew 4:24-25) Something extraordinary was happening, and you can only imagine the elation his disciples felt. They had cast their lot with Jesus, and it sure looked like their decision was paying off. Now Jesus took the twelve aside to instruct them about what it takes to get ahead in this kingdom he was ushering in.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he told them. “Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Jesus took everything they valued and turned it on its head. We’ve heard these words so often that they’ve lost some of their punch. But think about them. They go against many of the things we value most.
And what do we value? If you watched the Super Bowl ads, you saw. Who doesn’t want to live the life they portray? They appeal to our desire to be at the top of our profession – which we can achieve if we use the right office supply company. They mirror our longing for a life that is carefree, fun and easy – which comes with drinking the right beer or taking the right pill. They tap our desire to be free to do as we please and go where we want – and we can go in style with the right car. They touch our concern for our future and the security of our families – which the right insurance company will help us achieve. Those things are important to us. But Jesus doesn’t offer help with any of those things. He doesn’t offer success or fun or style or financial security. He says those who are blessed are those who are poor in spirit and meek and mourning and persecuted. He turns everything upside down.
Carol and I always enjoy reading our friends’ Christmas letters. We enjoy hearing about the things that gave them joy over the past year and the challenges they faced. One friend related a number of difficulties his family had during the year – the death of some relatives, some challenges in their jobs, that sort of thing. He ended that paragraph of the letter by saying, “But we have our health, and that is the most important thing.” I said to myself, “Yes, yes,” as I nodded my head in assent, but then I thought, “Wait a minute. Is it really? Is our health really the most important thing?” I thought of some of the people who have taught me the most about life and faith and what is really important, and so many of them have taught me from a hospital bed or a room in a nursing home. I remember one man, John, whom I visited in the hospice wing of a medical center. John gave me lessons in how to die and how to live. We would talk about his life, his failures and his triumphs, and he valued them all. He could talk about his life with deep gratitude for all he had experienced and all he had learned. He was sad to be leaving his family, but he was confident he could entrust them to God. John was teaching me about what was really important. He was ready for what came next and trusted that the one who blessed him in this life would be faithful in whatever came next. John didn’t have his health but he was blessed. He blessed me.
Just think about it. It’s those times we’re stripped bare of those things we’ve built our security on that we’re most likely to be filled with the power of God. One of the most memorable worship services I’ve ever been to was the one I attended in Akobo, Sudan. It was in the finest building in the village, a long cinderblock building with a corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor. There were chairs in the front for those of us who led worship, but the congregation sat on the dirt floor – infants and elderly side by side. Before we went into the service, my host, a Canadian missionary, slipped me a bar of soap to put in the offering plate. When he saw my puzzled look, he explained that no one had money. It was useless out there in the bush. When the offering was collected, the worshipers gave what they had: a cup of grain, a hunk of cheese, bars of soap. Later these were distributed to those who had the least. The music for the service was led by a blind boy who played a stringed instrument made from a giant tortoise shell. The worshipers sang and sang and sang. After the service was over, groups gathered in the dusty courtyard outside the church to sing some more. They were poor. The government in Khartoum was persecuting them for their faith. They were blessed.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a noted preacher from Georgia, says that when she was little she liked standing on her head. “…By standing on my head I could liven things up a little. Grass hung in front of my eyes like a green fringe. Trees grew down, not up, and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever. For as long as I kept my balance I could tap dance on it, while birds and clouds flew under my feet…. My house seemed in danger of falling off the yard – just shooting off into space like a rocket… I liked standing on my head because it made me see old things in a new way. I liked it because it made life seem exciting and unpredictable. In a world where trees grew down and houses might fall up, anything seemed possible.”
Jesus shows us a world where anything is possible. Once some disciples of John the Baptist came to him and asked if he was the one from God for whom they were waiting or if they should keep waiting for someone else. Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6) Anything is possible when Jesus turns the world upside down.
His Sermon on the Mount, which begins with these beatitudes, is Jesus’ inaugural address, his state of the union message that describes how things are and what we can expect in this new world he introduces. And everything is upside down:
-Instead of getting ahead by accumulating accomplishments and accolades, you get ahead in this realm by emptying yourself completely so he can fill you. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
-Instead of finding comfort and satisfaction by escaping from the world’s hurt, you go out and find the poor, the sick, the homeless and the outcast. Your heart breaks every time you see a homeless person on the street, with every report of a new death in Syria, every time a friend tells you her child is in trouble. Your heart is continually breaking, but breaking open to God and to others and to the power of grace and love that is the healing balm for all the world. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
-Those who inherit the earth are not those who conquer it and exploit it and make huge profits from it. Those to whom God will give the earth in all its pristine glory are those who are meek, those who don’t try to overcome the world but who let God care for the world through them.
-Those who will be vindicated won’t be those who stand up for their rights as Christians, who go to court to demand equal time in the public square, or who make the headlines because they insist that their prayers be heard in public. No, it’s those who are persecuted that receive the kingdom, not those who try to force the kingdom on others. It is those who will be satisfied.
There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s the merciful who are blessed, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for Jesus.
A minister friend of mine has a prayer hanging in his study. It was allegedly found on the body of a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg.
“I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn to
I asked for health, that I might do great things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of
I was given weakness, that I might feel the
need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped
Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were
And I am, among men, most richly blessed.”
May God bless
you, and turn your world upside down.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 145.
 Ibid, p. xi.