What Does the Lord Require?

“What Does the Lord Require?”

Micah 6:1-8                 Matthew 5:1-12


          I was 14 years old when I first heard what we call the Beatitudes…the eight statements of blessings in the beginning of Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount.  My step-mother was teaching them to her 8 year old daughter…it’s better to say trying to get the child to memorize them.  My reaction at that time…and the transformation that followed over many years…is very much like the story told by Dr. Michael J. Wilkins…who is now the dean of the faculty and professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology in southern California.

It’s the story of a young man who had dropped his identification with Christianity.  The young man “had been told that the Beatitudes—with its list of the poor and the sad, the weak and the mild—were a picture of the ideal Christian.  He explained to his mother very simply: “That’s not me.  I can never be like that.”

Along with Dr. Wilkins, I understand this experience.  You might also understand it.  Dr. Wilkins writes…”In my teens I also renounced my Christian identity and church for similar reasons.  I clearly remember sitting in youth group meetings where the characteristics of the Beatitudes were held up as ideals for us to emulate.  I remember snickering in the back row with my buddies as the youth leaders cajoled us to cease being cocky and macho and become meek and mild.  The four of us were three-sport athletes in high school, and the picture of the Christian life that was held up for us from the Beatitudes seemed lamely pathetic.  As I think back, our youthful cockiness and machismo were probably just as pathetic, but the Christian life painted by that church had nothing to offer us as a viable, robust alternative.

Dr. Wilkins continues…”Not too many years after ruling out the Beatitudes for real life, I sat under the brilliant stars in a jungle in Vietnam and their significance overwhelmed me.  I was a member of a cocky airborne infantry combat battalion.  We were a well-trained, exceedingly efficient war machine.  One night as I sat on guard duty after one especially ravaging battle, I experienced the reality of what Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes.  I had killed gleefully that day.  I had ripped the life from other young men without a twinge of conscience.  I saw the bodies of my 19 and 20 year old squad members ravaged by other young men who were our hated enemies, yet probably none of us on either side could really offer any adequate explanation for our animosity.“

“That night I experienced brokenness.  I became poor in spirit as I recognized the depth of my depravity and shuddered as I considered the possibility of my fate before God, if he existed.  I mourned at the evil in me and at the evil that I saw emerge so quickly in all of us. For the first time in my young life, I understood that I was not the invincible captain of my ship.  I could be killed at any moment.  So from that very night I began to realize that there was indeed a very different way to live.  I did not articulate it that night in these words, but meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity and peacemaking all became so much more clearly preferable than the way that I had been pursuing significance and success….”

“I saw for the first time the horror of my life as a human apart from God.  I desperately needed something, but what it was, I had no clue.  I experienced the condemnation of my old cockiness and self-sufficiency, and above all, the condemnation of my arrogant abuse of people in my quest to satisfy my own lusts.  This transition in my life readied me and enabled me to accept Jesus’ invitation….”

That’s the story told by Dr. Wilkins.  Over the years I’ve lived the same transformation.  A couple weeks ago I was blessed to be with a group that stood on the mount where Jesus stood and I reflected…thinking it seems appropriate to look at these Beatitudes briefly…and restate them in more contemporary English so that we all might better understand…and more readily accept and live them.

Since most of us learned the Beatitudes from the King James Version that’s how I’ll state them.

Matthew 5:3   Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (KJV)

If a person has realized their own utter helplessness and put their whole trust in God…two things will enter into their lives.  That person will become detached from things…for that person will know that things cannot bring happiness or security.  Instead the person will become attached to God…for the person will know that God alone can bring help, hope and strength.  The person who is poor in spirit is the person who has realized that things mean nothing and God means everything.

Matthew 5:4    Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (KJV)

The very first word of Jesus’ preaching was ‘Repent!’  No person can repent without being sorrowful…in mourning…for their own sins.  The thing which really changes people is when they suddenly come up against something which opens their eyes to what sin truly is and how devastating to self and others sin can be.  With that eye-opening they are mournful people.

Matthew 5:5  Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (KJV)

The Greek word used in this beatitude means true humility which banishes all pride.  Without humility a person cannot learn…for the first step to learning is realizing our own ignorance.  Without humility there can be no such thing as love, for the very beginning of love is a sense of unworthiness.  Without humility there can be no true religion…for all true religion begins with realizing our own weakness and our need for God.  It’s this kind of meekness that Jesus says will be among those who will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:6  Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (KJV)

This is like the hunger of the person who is starving for food and the thirst of the person who will die without a drink.  With that in mind…this beatitude is really a question and a challenge.  It asks…”how much do you want goodness?   Do you want it as much as a starving person wants food…and as much as a person dying of thirst wants water?  How intense is our desire for goodness?  The person who is blessed is not necessarily the person who has goodness…but the person who longs for it with their whole heart.

The challenge is that many people are content with partial righteousness.  But…this beatitude says that partial is not enough.

Matthew 5:7  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (KJV)

In Jesus Christ…in the most literal sense…God got inside the skin of humans.   He came as a man…he came seeing things with human eyes…feeling things with human feelings…thinking things with human minds.  God knows what life is like…because God came right inside life.  He was not some remote…detached…isolated…majestic God.  He was a human.  The supreme example of mercy is the coming of God in Jesus Christ…and the sacrifice that followed…the sacrifice made for all of us.

Matthew 5:8   Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (KJV)

This beatitude demands true and deep self-examination.  Are our deeds done from motives of service or from motives of pay…in whatever its form might be.  Is our service given from selfless motives or from motives of self-display?  Is the work we do in church and elsewhere done for Christ or for our own prestige?   Is it by God’s grace that we keep our hearts clean…or by human lust that we soil them…we are either fitting or unfitting ourselves someday to see God.

Matthew 5:9  Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (KJV)

The Jewish rabbis believed that the highest task that a person can perform is to establish right relationships between humans.  This is what Jesus is referencing.

There are people who are always storm centers of trouble…bitterness…strife…and chaos.  They are trouble-makers.  On the other hand…there are people in whose presence bitterness cannot live…people who bridge the gulfs and heal the breaches…and sweeten the bitterness.  Such people are doing a god-like work…for it is the great purpose of God to bring peace between people and God and between people and people.  The person who divides people is not doing this.

I don’t know whether that’s how you’ve grown to understand the Beatitudes…but like Dr. Wilkins…I’ve grown to understand them this way…as a guide…as a manual for living the life that Micah said God required…to act justly…to love mercy…and to walk humbly with God.

May we all be blessed to do so.