This sermon is part of the sermon series "Change of Heart". See series.
Some years ago I experienced something that just about every stressed-out, 40-something American male experiences - chest pains. You know, the kind that hit you in the middle of the night, and get you thinking that it's "the big one." I decided to get myself checked out, so they put me through the usual battery of tests - EKG's, stress tests, etc. At one point they thought they detected something, so they hooked me up for an echocardiogram, which is basically a sonogram of your heart. I found myself lying on a table watching my own heart beat on a TV screen. I gotta tell you, I didn't like it!
There was something vulnerable about it—watching that little mass of muscle beat away, keeping me alive. What if it stopped? What if it missed a few beats? There was nothing I could do to control it. I couldn't will it to beat faster or slower. All I could do was watch it, and hope it would keep going. I felt exposed. My heart up on the screen, and strangers were looking inside of me! The longer we looked at it, the less I liked it, because it only increased the likelihood they would see something they didn't like. Though it wasn't comfortable seeing my heart on a screen like that, it was important if I was going to find out what was going on in there, and if I was going to stay healthy.
Heart on a Screen
According to the Bible, the heart is the control center of a person's life. We normally associate the heart with our emotions, but the Bible usually associates the heart with a person's thoughts and will, as well as their emotions. The heart is that spiritual place within us from which everything about us flows; it is the seat of personality, the executive center of a person's life. In the same way that physical life flows from and through the heart, everything else about us - what we think, what we feel, and ultimately what we do - also flows from and through the heart.
Suppose we were to put your heart up on the screen—not your physical heart, but your metaphysical one; the control center of your life. What thoughts would it reveal about the people sitting near you, about your day at work tomorrow, about your financial situation? What if we could look into your heart and see your emotions, your feelings about that difficult person at work, your feelings about what you did last night? Suppose we could watch your heart as you decided how much money to put in the offering, or where to go on the Internet this afternoon, or how to conduct business this week? How comfortable would you be with your heart up on the big screen for everyone to see? Would you be okay with what you and we saw, or would you see some things you'd like to change?
If we're going to become people who look and live like Jesus, it's going to have to come from the inside out; it's going to have to begin with a Change of Heart. We're going to spend eight weeks looking into our hearts, and the instrument that will equip us to do that is a passage of Scripture known as The Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-12. Each week we're going to pull our hearts up onto the screen, and compare them to the heart Jesus describes in these famous words. We'll discover how each of these attributes played out in Jesus' life, and how they might become a reality for our lives, as well.
The poor in spirit?
The Sermon on the Mount is likely representative of many messages Jesus preached in the early days of his ministry. In fact, Luke records a slightly different version sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. We might think of it as his inaugural address, in which he set the themes and direction for his earthly ministry. The text tells us that Jesus was speaking to his disciples, but he was also speaking for the benefit of the crowd listening in on the conversation.
I recently watched Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and noticed how strategic he was in choosing his location -in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial - and his opening words - "Fivescore years ago …." He was very deliberately drawing on that great president's legacy and speaking words he knew would get the attention of the hundreds of thousands gathered that day.
Jesus was no less strategic in his choice of location and opening words. He spoke from the mountain to recall Moses and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, and his opening words were calculated to capture the imagination of everyone within earshot. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." It's a startling affirmation, but it raises all kinds of questions. Who are the poor in spirit? Why are they are blessed? What is the kingdom of heaven? And how can it be "theirs," or ours?
That word "blessed" is sometimes translated "happy," but that doesn't do it justice. Some years ago a popular preacher wrote a book called, "The Be-Happy Attitudes"—a clever title, but it misses the point. The poor, the grief-stricken, the hungry, and the persecuted are not usually "happy." But they can be "blessed."
The Greeks actually used the word "blessed" to describe the gods, who were self-sufficient and fully-satisfied. The Jews took the word a step further and used it to describe God's life and goodness bestowed on a person or group. So the word "blessed" came to describe the highest type of well-being that a human can experience. "Happy" is much too small a word to use here. To be "blessed" is to enjoy God's approval and the fullness of life that flows from him.
Who are "the poor in spirit"? We know who the poor are, materially speaking. The poor are the "have not's." They don't have enough money. They don't have enough food. They don't have enough health care. Poor is the unemployed father who can't find work and can't pay the rent. Poor is the single mom trying to raise her children in a homeless shelter. Poor is the child waiting in line in a refugee camp, hoping they won't run out of rice before he gets there. The poor are needy, and they know it. They're dependent. Oftentimes, they're desperate.
The same thing must be true of the poor in spirit. They are the spiritual "have not's." They don't have enough faith. They don't have enough strength. They don't have enough understanding. The poor in spirit want to have hope, but all they have is fear. They try to do the right thing, but they consistently fail. The poor in spirit are needy, and they know it. They need God. They're dependant on him. We might even say, they're desperate for him.
Was Jesus desperate?
Before we go on, let me ask a question. Was Jesus poor in spirit? Remember, the goal of our series is that we might have a change of heart, and become like Christ from the inside out. I'm suggesting that these Beatitudes describe eight characteristics of a Christ-like heart. Are we prepared to say that Jesus was needy, dependent, and desperate?
Well, look with me at John 5:19-20a. The religious leaders have just accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath and of blasphemy, because he claimed that God was his Father. Listen to Jesus' response: "Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all He does …." Did you hear that? He doesn't say that every so often he gets in over his head and calls on his Father for help. He doesn't say that most of the time he acts on his own initiative, but sometimes the Father tells him what to do. In no uncertain terms Jesus confesses his absolute dependence on the Father: "The Son can do nothing by himself, but only what he sees his Father doing."
This isn't the only time Jesus says this kind of thing. In John 8:28 he says, "Then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me." His Father doesn't just tell him what to do, but even what to say. In John 12:49 Jesus says, "For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken … So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say." Again Jesus emphasizes this in John 14:10: "Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I speak I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work." In the gospel of John I counted 13 times in which Jesus explicitly and emphatically confesses his total and absolute dependence on his heavenly Father. Jesus needed God - his Heavenly Father - and he knew it.
We see that Jesus was dependent, but was he desperate? Desperate means "nearly hopeless; marked by intensity or despair." Are we prepared to use that word to describe Jesus' spiritual condition? Well, he was desperate enough to go into the desert and fast for 40 days to seek his Father's strength. He was desperate enough to get up early, while it was still dark, slip past his sleeping disciples, and go up in the hills to seek his Father's wisdom. He was desperate enough when he stood weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus to look to the heavens and call on his Father's power. He was desperate enough when he faced the cross to sweat great drops of blood as he sought his Father's direction. All of those things sound pretty intense.
What are the first recorded words Jesus ever spoke? After having been missing, Jesus explained in Luke 2:49, "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" And what were the last recorded words Jesus spoke before he died? "Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit." Jesus lived his entire life, and every moment of his life, in complete dependence on his Heavenly Father, because apart from him, he had nothing, and could do nothing. That's what it means to be poor in spirit.
I'd rather do it myself.
Unfortunately, being poor in spirit doesn't come easily to us. We don't like to admit that we need anybody. It only takes a couple years before a child starts saying, "I can do it myself." Deep down inside, we all want to do it ourselves—to be independent and self-sufficient. I'll be the first to admit it. Self-reliance is the signature sin of the human race. Adam and Eve ate of the tree because they thought it would make them like God, and they liked that idea.
Admitting that we're needy and dependent doesn't come easily to human beings in general, and it certainly doesn't come easily to well-fed, well-educated, upwardly mobile North Americans. This is the land of opportunity, isn't it? We're a "can-do" nation. If you can dream it, you can do it; you just have to believe in yourself. Self-improvement is a billion dollar industry in this country. "Poor in spirit" doesn't play well in the corporate world, on the athletic field, in the political arena. Needy, dependent, and desperate is about the last thing in the world we want to be. But until we are, Jesus says, the Kingdom of heaven isn't available to us.
The kingdom is a life.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." What is the kingdom of heaven? It's not only that wonderful place we hope to go to when this life is over, although the kingdom certainly is there. Jesus isn't saying, "Don't feel bad for the poor in spirit, because they'll go to heaven someday." He's saying much more than that. The kingdom of heaven isn't merely a place we go to someday; the kingdom of heaven is a life that's available to us now.
The kingdom of heaven is simply the rule of God. Wherever God rules, the kingdom is. And where the kingdom is, there is peace and joy and goodness and love and life in all its fullness. That life is available now, Jesus says. Not just to a select few or the spiritual elite. That life is available to anyone, even to the poor in spirit; to those who have nothing and can do nothing. In fact, Jesus says, that life is only available to those who admit they are needy, dependent, and desperate for God.
Are we desperate for God?
Sometimes it takes circumstances bring us to a place of desperation. There's a country music song that's popular because it speaks for a lot of people. It tells the story of young, single mom who's at the end of her rope - financially, emotionally, and every which way. She's " … Low on gasoline and low on faith." She lyrics say that as she's driving, she hits a patch of ice. Her life, like her car, is out of control. So with nowhere and no one left to turn to, she turns to God: "Jesus take the wheel." That's what it means to be poor in spirit.
Sometimes our own mistakes and hang-ups bring us to that place of desperation. People who've struggled with addictions talk about "hitting bottom"—coming to the end of themselves. One of the principles (based on the Beatitudes) in our "Celebrate Recovery" ministry is this: "To realize that I am not God; that I'm powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and that my life is unmanageable." That's what it means to be poor in spirit.
I was speaking with someone recently who was once an addict and had hit bottom himself a long time ago. He described to me how awful it was—how totally lost and desperate he felt. But then he said that those who've been to that place are so grateful—that it really is a blessing. "Why?" I asked him. "Why is it a blessing to hit bottom?" "Because," he said, "it's the beginning of a new life." For him, it was the beginning of a relationship with God, and a life more full and meaningful than he ever could have imagined.
Perhaps you've noticed the painting we have up on the wall here. It was painted by a man in our congregation, Jack. We wanted a series of paintings on the Beatitudes, so we asked him to artistically capture "poor in spirit"; he immediately thought of his son, Jeremy. Jeremy went to Iraq and was pretty much out of reach. Jack and his wife had no idea how he was doing. Eventually they were able to make some e-mail connections, and one night they were awakened by a "ping" telling them an e-mail had come. They ran to the computer, and there was Jeremy, talking to them from a webcam. It was the first time in months they had seen his face; Jack knew right away something was wrong. The life was gone from his eyes. He looked lost. It was his face on the screen, but they might as well have been looking into his heart. "I've seen some pretty bad stuff," Jeremy said. "It's just too much. I don't know if I can do it." "Just turn to God," Jack told him, "He's right there with you." They sent him a Bible and lots of encouragement, and it became for Jeremy the beginning of a journey back to God—a journey he's continued now that he's home.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." It's no accident that this is the first of the Beatitudes. Jesus chose the order just as intentionally as he chose the location and the words themselves. Our journey toward Christ-likeness begins with a desperate heart.
"I got nothin"
It's easy to understand how a single mom, or an addict, or a soldier in harm's way could come to the end of themselves. But sometimes even people who are healthy and happy and walking with God can find themselves in a desperate place. I asked myself when I had ever felt poor in spirit. Two occasions came to mind. The first was my first six months as a pastor, 20-some years ago. I had this church I was responsible for, all by myself. I had to come up with a new sermon every week! I was overwhelmed by people's problems. I truly didn't think I was going to make it. I remember pacing back and forth in my tiny office one Friday afternoon, with Sunday just around the corner, a blank legal pad staring at me. I cried out to God, "I got nothin', God. I got nothin."
The second time was 10 or so years ago, when I found myself in a "dark night of the soul." I couldn't find God. I didn't know what I believed. I literally couldn't continue in ministry. On a rainy afternoon, I wandered the grounds of a retreat house saying, "Lord, I can't fix this. If you don't come through, I'm finished." Those were awful moments—desperate moments. But both of them marked the beginning of something new in my relationship with God and taught me to depend on him instead of myself.
That's what it means to be poor in spirit. It means to come not just to the end of your rope, but the end of yourself. To recognize that spiritually speaking, you've got nothing - nothing to offer God or anyone except your sorry, needy self. That's where true transformation has to begin—with desperate hearts.
I found this a very challenging Beatitude to preach. They all are, actually, because none of them really ask us to do anything. The temptation when you read or preach the Beatitudes is to turn them into virtues. That's what I wanted to do. "Blessed are the humble. Blessed are those who trust." If something is a virtue, I can aspire to it: I can try to be humble; I can try to trust God more. But once we do that, we're right back in the self-help mode: "I can do it. I can fix it." That misses the point. The point is you can't do it. You can't fix it. Being poor in spirit isn't a virtue to aspire to, it's a condition to confess.
This confession may be easier for some than others. Some of us may be in circumstances that leave us no choice but to turn to God. Others of us may be struggling spiritually right now in ways like the ones I described. But others of us, many of us perhaps, are probably fairly well-off at the moment. Materially we've got what we need. We're on top of things emotionally. Most of our relationships are working right. And we know the Lord and have walked with him for a long time. But if we were to bring our hearts up on the screen right now, chances are it would reveal some thoughts, some feelings, some choices that aren't very Christ-like.
How badly do you want to change? How serious are you about becoming more like Christ? How desperate are you, for God?
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.