St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
“Heaven’s Great Reward”
In the name of + Jesus.
Jesus’ first major public speech turns the world up on its head. He speaks a challenging word for anyone who’s ever encountered a challenge, because when challenges mount up we feel like we’re being cursed. When the doctor utters the fateful word “cancer,” when the boss calls you in and tells you to pack your desk, when you hold vigil overnight for the last hours of your loved one’s life, these are not times when we would say we are being blessed.
The world certainly doesn’t see it that way. No one responds to bad news with, “Blessed are you!” They offer condolences or platitudes, but never a full-throated and hearty blessing. That’s absurd.
But here is Jesus teaching things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (vv 3–10).
The world (and perhaps also you) don’t see the blessings in what Jesus calls blessing. The world declares, “Blessed are the rich; blessed are those who celebrate; blessed are the bold; blessed are those who pursue their own justice; blessed are the vengeful; blessed are those whose hearts are stained with selfish ambition; blessed are those who sow dissention and division; blessed are those who win victories.”
All of the things Jesus identifies the world (and perhaps you) see as a curse. Being poor? No thank you. Being meek—do you really want to let people walk all over you? Making peace? And compromising everything I hold to be good, beautiful, and true? And persecution? Better send someone to Washington, D.C. with picket signs and get our rights back.
But Jesus speaks a word different from the world. There is blessing in being poor. Why? For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. There is blessing in mourning. Why? For they shall be comforted. The meek are blessed in Jesus’ eyes, for they shall inherit the earth. And if an injustice has been done to you, you are blessed--for they shall be satisfied. And the merciful, they will receive mercy. Likewise the pure in heart shall see God. And the peacemakers are named sons of God. And finally, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, like the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven (vv 3–10).
Jesus’ introduction to the Sermon on the Mount isn’t some Pollyannish wishful thinking, a way to convince yourself that life isn’t so bad even when it crashing down around you. It’s not the crucified criminals in The Life of Brian singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life with obvious irony and absurdity.
Rather, Jesus’ speech is what actually brings the blessing to those who are cursed. In fact, every beatitude Jesus utters is because He Himself bore the curse for you on the cross. So when you mourn, for instance, it is preparing you for comfort. The comfortable don’t know what it’s like to be comforted; they cannot be. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are prepared to receive righteousness as a gift, by faith. Those who pursue their own righteousness are never satisfied.
This is the way it’s been since the foundation of the world. And, it’s true for you, too. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (vv 11–12).
There’s one thing that stands out to me about Jesus’ beatitudes. I don’t know if it did for you, too, but there’s one phrase that’s repeated. And not coincidentally, it’s at the beginning and end of Jesus general declaration of blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v 3); Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v 10). Jesus’ blessings are bracketed by the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven.
In Matthew’s Gospel (as well as in the Bible in general), when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, He’s not talking about a static location, as if God’s kingdom is located somewhere on a map. The kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel is dynamic. It means, “the gracious activity of God in Christ.”
What this means is that Jesus did not come for those who are blessed in this life, according to the ways and means and measures of the world. He came to those the world names as cursed. And His gracious activity—His gracious divine activity—is precisely for those who need it.
And now we’ve just defined the saints. On All Saints’ Day, we remember everyone who received the gracious activity of God in Christ, to remove the curse and bring the blessing. We especially turn our thoughts toward those who have been freed from the curse of the flesh’s sinfulness, who now reside in a nearer presence to Jesus--all the saints, who from their labors rest.
But at the same time we also remember that all saints also includes you.
Let me reiterate: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (vv 11–12).
Today we rejoice that the blessing of heaven—which is to say, the blessing of Jesus—is the cause of joy and gladness. Even under persecution, suffering, and false witness. If you have experienced any of these, you’re not the first. But Jesus’ speech turns the curse into blessing. And He exchanges it for you at the altar—where heaven and earth meet in the gracious activity of God in Christ’s body and blood.
Your Reward Is Great in Heaven
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard