The Heartbreak Gospel
The Heartbreak Gospel
Last week we began our study of the Beatitudes: Jesus' intriguing list of people who are blessed and well-off. Suppose we were to come up with a set of Beatitudes for the 21st Century? What if we made a list of the kinds of people who seem to be well-off—who have it made—by today's standards? It might go something like this:
Blessed are the rich and famous, because they can always get a
seat at the best restaurants.
Blessed are the good-looking, for they shall be on the cover of
Blessed are those who party, for they know how to have fun.
Blessed are those who take first place in the division, for they
shall have momentum going into the play-offs.
Blessed are the movers and shakers, for they shall make a name
Blessed are those who demand their rights, for they shall not be
Blessed are the healthy and fit, because they don't mind being
seen in a bathing suit.
Blessed are those who make it to the top, because they get to
look down on everyone else.
We wanna be happy.
What's so striking about Jesus' Beatitudes is how contrary they are to the way we view people and the world, both then and now. They are counter-intuitive in that they run in the opposite direction of the way we typically think about things. They are counter-cultural in that they go against the grain of society's norms. Of all the Beatitudes, the one that is perhaps most counter-intuitive and counter-cultural is the second one, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
This Beatitude is counter-intuitive because it seems illogical. It's like saying, "Happy are those who are sad." It doesn't make any sense. Who in their right mind wants to mourn? Mourning means tears, grief, loss; we think of funeral homes, cemetaries, empty places at the table, shattered dreams. If "poor in spirit" is the last thing in the world we want to be, "mourning" is the last thing in the world we want to do.
This Beatitude is counter-cultural because flies in the face of everything our society holds dear. I was browsing through the magazine section at Barnes and Noble the other day; they've got hundreds of magazines there. Those magazines were covered with happy people—women with perfect hair and pearly white teeth, men with lots of hair and six-pack abs—and they were all smiling! There wasn't a grumpy person to be found in that magazine rack, even Alan Greenspan was smiling! The cover of Oprah's magazine captured the prevailing theme: "How To Calm Down and Cheer Up," with a special bonus section: "The Bad Mood Cure." Nobody wants to mourn.
The same value system can find its way into the church. When we were living in Denver there was big church overlooking the highway that went right through the center of town. It was called Happy Church—in big, bold letters that no one could miss—Happy Church. That was it's real name. People snickered and scoffed when they drove by, especially seminary students like us, but it was one of the most popular churches in town.
Though our church has a different name, we might fall into the "happy trap" sometimes. Have you ever put on a plastic smile coming in to church, when inside you're feeling sad, or mad, or bad? "Blessed are those who mourn?" You've gotta be kidding! We wanna be happy! We wanna laugh! We wanna be like Owen Wilson, the movie star! Talk about having it made. He's rich; he's famous; he's a party animal; and he's always smiling. If anyone's well-off, it's Owen Wilson, right? But recently he tried to take his own life.
Maybe we'd better take closer look at this second Beatitude, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." If we are going to look more like Jesus, it has to begin with a Change of Heart. Not only do Christ-like people have desperate hearts, but they have broken hearts, too.
To feel the loss
To mourn is to feel and express grief, usually over some kind of loss. Most often it's the loss of a person, but it could also be the loss of a job, or a relationship, or our health, or a season of life. When we mourn something, we don't just feel the loss, we express the loss, we announce it publicly. We're telling the world and ourselves that life will never be quite the same.
The Jewish custom of sitting shiva is an example of what it means to mourn. Traditionally, when a close relative dies in a Jewish family, they sit shiva for seven days. Family members sit on stools or the floor to show that they have been "brought low" by their loss. There will be no housework or normal activity around the house for those seven days. People will often make a tear in their outer garment or wear a torn piece of ribbon on their chest to show that the fabric of their lives have been rent. When guests come to call, they are not to initiate conversation, and if they speak, they are not to speak of the loved one. The purpose of sitting shiva isn't to distract from the grief, but rather to intensify it—to feel the loss deeply and together.
To mourn is to be broken-hearted. Remember we said last week that the heart in the Bible is the control center of person's life; thought, emotions, and will flow from and through the heart. When we say we're broken-hearted, we're saying that the deepest part of us, and every part of us, has been affected. When your heart's been broken you don't just "get over it". You think differently, you feel differently, and you live differently because of it.
When Jesus referred to "those who mourn," he was certainly thinking of people who had lost loved ones or homes or jobs or health. Certainly there were many in that great crowd who had suffered those kinds of losses. But in the same way that "the poor in spirit" looks beyond material poverty, so "those who mourn" looks beyond physical losses. Jesus was thinking of spiritual losses as well— the loss of innocence, the loss of faith, the loss of hope.
Patriot fans experienced this recently when it was discovered that Coach Bill Bellichek had been violating league rules by videotaping opposing coaches to steal their signals. We could argue that other teams do it, but it doesn't change the facts. One local newspaper announced the news with the headline, "Belli-Cheat." For so many years we've admired Bellichek, and rightfully so, but suddenly his reputation's been tarnished; something's been lost that can never quite be recaptured.
Ultimately, the mourning that Jesus is speaking of is mourning over sin. It's the mourning that's described in Psalm 119:136, "Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed." It's the mourning of Ezra the scribe, when he heard that the people of Israel had taken pagan wives and foreign gods.He tore his garments, pulled hair from his beard and his head, got down on his hand and knees before God and said, "I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens." Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus said, whose hearts are broken over their sin, and the sin of the world.
The Bible describes Jesus as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." How do we know? When did Jesus mourn? On two occasions, at least. The first was at the grave of Lazarus, as recorded in John 11. One day Jesus' friends, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was desperately ill. When Jesus heard the news, he went to Bethany to see them, but by the time he arrived, Lazarus had already died. We'll pick up the story at John 11:32-36:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 'Where have you laid him?' he asked. 'Come and see, Lord,' they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'
Jesus wept. Every Sunday school kid's favorite memory verse. It's the shortest verse in the Bible, but one of the most revealing. Jesus knows how it feels to mourn—to lose somebody you love. My guess is it was more than a lump in his throat and a tear rolling down his cheek. The text says he was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled." His grief was so pronounced that even the crowd noticed.
But why did he mourn so? Jesus knew that in a few moments he and they would have Lazarus back again. Why was he weeping? For a lot of reasons, I think. He was weeping over the loss of a close friend, and it hurt. He was weeping for the sadness all around him. He knew they would have Lazarus back for a time, but only for a time. Death was still stalking them, and would continue to rob them of one another. He was mourning the lack of faith on the part of those who had been with him so long but now felt it was too late for him to do anything. He was mourning the hostility and hypocrisy of those in the crowd who were already plotting his death. Everything that was wrong with the world was on display outside that tomb in Bethany - sickness, death, loss, hatred, unbelief. It broke his heart, because this was not what God had in mind for the human beings. So he wept.
The second time Jesus wept is recorded in Luke 19:41-44. It was Palm Sunday, the day of his triumphal entry to the holy city. Crowds of people are lining the road into the city, praising God and cheering his name. But as Jesus comes around a bend in the mountains, the city comes into view, and this is what we read:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, 'If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace - but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build and embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you.
Here it is one of the best and brightest days on the Jesus tour. Everybody loves a parade, right? But Jesus knows what's going on in the hearts of religious and political leaders in that city. He knows the deceit, the cowardice, the cruelty, and the injustice that is going to unfold in the days to come. He knows that some in that cheering crowd will in a few days turn against him and call for his blood. It broke his heart. The city could have known peace. The people could have known joy. The nation could have welcomed their long-awaited Savior. Instead, they were about to reject him and bring disaster on themselves and their children. It was a tragedy, and Jesus wept over it.
I remember the first time my heart was broken like that. I was a youth pastor. One summer I had taken a group of high school guys on a wilderness canoe trip—ten days fishing and exploring the north woods of Quebec. One of the boys who went, Craig, was about 16 at the time. He was a church kid who had fallen in with the wrong crowd and was headed in some bad directions. Somehow we persuaded him to come on the trip with us. He had a great time; we had a lot of good talks and he made some good friends. By the time we got home he was ready to renew his relationship with God and get back to youth group. School started a week or so later. Craig soon began hanging out with his old friends again, and one day someone gave him some marijuana laced with PCP, a dangerous drug. Craig died from taking that drug.
I remember the night I got the news. I was at church. I was so upset I went out to the parking lot and cried my eyes out, pounding the hood of my car with my fist. I was mad at God. I was mad at Craig. I was mad at the kids who gave him the drugs, mad at the dealers who exploited kids like that, mad at a culture that said smoking pot was cool. I was mad at myself for not calling him that week. I was mad at everything and everybody. That night, I lost my innocence about ministry and about this world we live in.
When the gospel of John tells us that Jesus was "deeply moved and troubled in spirit" outside Lazarus' tomb, there's an element of anger in the words. Jesus wasn't just sad, he was mad. I'm not big on bumper sticker theology, but I saw one the other day that gets it right: "If you're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention." When we read about genocide in Darfur, when we read about little children working 12 and 14 hours a day in sweat shops and diamond mines, when we hear about young women being sold into slavery, when we see whole people groups oppressed because of their race, how can we not be outraged? How can we not mourn?
Not just mistakers
It's not just what's wrong with the world that breaks our hearts—it's what's wrong with us. We twist the truth to get out of a jam. We say hurtful things to people we love. We commit adultery in our hearts. We spend on ourselves what we could give to others. We lose our tempers and look down our noses. We spread gossip, and we wallow in envy. We do these things knowing they're wrong, that they're hurtful to others and to us, and that they fall far short of the good things God created us to do and be.
A pastor named Andy Stanley points out the big difference between a mistake and a sin. A mistake is a goof-up, an error, a miscalculation. You regret a mistake. You apologize for a mistake. You might even try to make amends for a mistake. But you don't mourn a mistake. What you mourn is sin: a fundamental flaw in our character that compels us to think or say or do the wrong thing; a skew in our spirit that consistently takes us in the wrong direction. We were made to be generous, but we tend toward greed. We were designed to treasure our sexuality, instead we trash it. We were wired to worship God, instead we worship cars or sports or nature or ourselves. We're not just "mistakers," Andy says, we're "sinners."
To mourn is to face the truth about ourselves and the world, and the truth is that we are a messed up people living on a messed up planet. When we finally realize that, when we finally admit that we're "sinners" and not just "mistakers," all we can do is put our head in our hands, and weep.
We pointed out last week that Jesus was very intentional about the order of the Beatitudes. We noted that "poor in spirit" is where transformation begins: I got nothin, God. But right on the heels of that comes an even more sobering discovery: I got worse than nothing, God, I got sin. The truth is you've got to experience both if you want to be changed.
Owen Wilson's story is sad. You must be pretty desperate to try and take your own life. But what's sadder is that Owen is out and about again. He's decided not to do rehab—he says he doesn't really have a problem. He's just going to try harder. You see, transformation requires more than being desperate; you have to be broken.
So what about being blessed?
So when does the "blessed" part kick in? Jesus said, "Blessed are those who …." Why is it blessed to mourn? Because the Gospel begins with heartbreak. Once we acknowledge something's wrong with us, then we're ready to be made right. When we finally face the truth about our sin, we are ready to be saved from it.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Let me offer you three reasons why we can take comfort today. First, sins can be forgiven. You see, if you're a mistaker, all you can do is try harder. If you're a sinner, all you can do is repent. John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." That's true whether you're coming to God for the first time with a boatload of sin, or you're coming to him for the hundredth time with the same old sin. You can walk out of here today forgiven—as if your heart had never been broken.
Second, there is life beyond the grave. Most of the mourning we do in this life is over death, the loss of someone special. We ought to mourn death and loss, because it hurts, and it's not what God intended for us. But Jesus has conquered death. As surely as he raised Lazarus to life that afternoon in Bethany, he can raise you to life again, and those you love as well, through faith in his name. We don't have to lose our loved ones forever.
Third, a better world is coming. Everything that's wrong with this world will one day be made right. The Bible ends with the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a holy city coming down from heaven. This city will be nothing like the city Jesus wept over—nothing like the cities we live in. In the holy city, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away, and Jesus will wipe every tear from our eyes.
The heartbreak gospel means we don't have to put on plastic smiles when we come to church. We can come feeling as sad or mad or bad as we need to. We can sit in the pew and weep if we need to. In fact, we should sometimes. If we're not weeping, we're not paying attention. Then we can leave here with a smile—a real one—knowing that sins can be forgiven, that there's life beyond the grave, and that a better world is coming.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.