The Beatitudes, Matthew 5 verse 4
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
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Paul W: I was talking to a friend this week whose father died just before Christmas. My friend is a real man’s man. He has a motorcycle. He goes camping in the snow and he loves to make shelters in the middle of the woods, light a fire, catch a rabbit and cook it over with a piece of bark, in a skewer made of tree bark. He looks like a biker as well. He’s a bit stocky. He’s got a big beard and he’s no nonsense. He’s a Christian friend that I met through another friend while I was at university and now he’s training to be a minister in the URC. After years of helping vulnerable young people to be safe on motorcycles, he now uses his bike to tell people about Jesus.
Right now this friend of mine is struggling. He’s struggling to grieve. His head isn’t in the right frame of mind and he doesn’t know how to show his emotions. He’s feeling lost and empty. Alone and anxious. Confused, guilty and disturbed because it’s a road he hasn’t travelled before. It’s probably not helped when people come up to him and say, “I hope you feel better soon.” “He’s gone to a better place.” As if this helps him in his loss.
We all know what it’s like to struggle. We all know what it’s like to struggle with grief and loss and being parted from a loved one. It is so hard. Sometimes it’s a daily issue. At other times we think that we’ve got over the worst and then something – bam! – happens and it’s back there again. Those feelings are there again. All of these is natural because there’s no timescale for grieving. In Matthew chapter five, just one verse, Jesus says,
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
I wonder what Jesus actually meant when he spoke these words. “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Really? Because it doesn’t sound very blessed to me.
This morning I’d like us to look at perhaps exactly what it does mean. What Jesus is saying here in this beatitude, because I don’t think he was trying to just cheer people up when somebody has lost somebody. I think there’s more to it than that. It links back to what I was saying last week about the things that Jesus said always have a spiritual edge. As we look into this particular blessing today, I pray that God would still our hearts and know that what he was doing throughout these blessings, these beatitudes, was describing blessedness as simply being near God. Being in sync with God. Snuggling up close to the truth. Being committed to following Jesus’ way because these kingdom values will turn the world on its head.
A revolutionary present and future where rich is poor and tears are laughter, but not in the way we know. Let me start by saying that I don’t think there’s anywhere in scripture that there is a blessing where death and loss occurs. It is always a tragedy. Indeed, our own personal experiences of mourning shows that there is no blessing. Even when the person we are grieving is out of pain. That is no celebration for us. We are at a loss because our loved one is no longer here.
Susanne last night sent me some pictures of Billy Graham’s motorcade going on as hundreds and hundreds of people looked on. They are grateful for his ministry, but it’s still sad that Billy Graham has died. Of course it is. We might be stoic ourselves and say, “Well, there are people worse off than me.” Although this might be true, this shouldn’t diminish the hurt or the pain or the concern that we are going through because it is real and it is happening to us. Even at a lesser level. When perhaps we fail to pass an exam. When we miss a flight or that train that we wanted to catch. Perhaps even when we pick the wrong line at the supermarket and feel a grief that the other queue is going faster. All of these can feel like mini losses.
The word that Jesus uses here, the word mourn, is the word pentheo signifying loss and desolation, that hollowness. What are the people mourning? Is it our own personal loss? What about our sins? Now there’s a thought. What if mourning was less about losing somebody, and something more spiritual than that? What if we saw the beatitudes as something perhaps like a ladder where being poor in spirits is like the first rung? What if once we’ve grasped how far we are from God because of our sin, how far that drags us away from a living God? The next step is to grieve over that sin. To lament the distance that we are away from God.
What if that is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” As the friend of sinners, this would make sense. The Old Testament’s psalms have songs of lament. A type of song, type of psalm, used in Jewish liturgical worship which accepts the validity of painful experience and gives voice to it. Laments are the language of suffering and are intense cries. Sometimes the cries are for justice towards a God who seems far off. Who sometimes feels like this spiritual weight is not being pulled. God just isn’t being God in this situation or this circumstance. That the justice that we want and we need isn’t occurring right now.
At other times, such as in Psalm chapter 51, the lament is an outright apology to God. Realizing how much sin and wrongdoing has come in the way of a good, wholesome relationship with Him. In Psalm chapter 51, King David, known as a man after God’s own heart, fell from grace when he committed adultery. As we read in this psalm, we can imagine King David prostrate on the floor, begging God’s forgiveness according to his unfailing love, wanting so much to be put back into a right relationship again. Agonizingly and passionately desiring to undo that which has been done.
Of course that can’t happen. What is done is done, but yet there is God who listens. There is a God who acts. A God who is merciful and hears our cry. As Psalm 40:1–3 says:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
Even somebody in the miry pit. God can pull us out. He can dust us down and He can fill us again with his spirit.
Laments can be individual. They can be communal. A lament enables pain to be expressed in a context of worship and a covenant relationship with God. In other words, the words that are bellowed at God through anger and sadness and frustration and absolute loss means God, I trust you, in spite of the circumstances, and not knowing what on earth I’m feeling inside because I’m all churned up. I know that I’m not quite calm. I ask you to deal with these thoughts, these feelings. I know that somehow you will turn things around, that you’ll do good in this situation because God, I know that you are the source of all goodness, and powerful enough to sort this out.
I’m reminded of the story in Genesis 32, and I know that you’re thinking, “Oh yes, that’s one, Genesis 32,” where Jacob gets up, and he wrestles with God. He says, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” Now I’m not a wrestler, surprisingly, but there’s this sense in wrestling where you have to get close. You have to battle, you have to use all of your strength. You can’t wrestle unless you hold the other person. You can’t wrestle unless you have a certain kind of oomph and gumption to go the whole round. Jacob is wrestling God for a blessing and after God wins the fight after doing a godly cheat and putting Jacob’s hip socket, a lot of joint, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, which means God- wrestler.
What I learned from this is explained with I think, quite real passion by Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life. He says this about Jacob and wrestling with God, “what people see as audacity, God sees as authenticity.” Who has the right to ask God to put them up? Who on earth in their right mind would do a left hook in God’s face because that’s what wrestling with God, I guess, means. Wrestling is a sport where people end up getting hurt. I’m not going to let go until you bless me. The audacity of that man, but yet God blesses this and sees it as an authentic: gripping, holding tight and not letting go until the fight is over.
When we are so passionate about getting right with God, or when we are driven with godly desire to pray for certain justice to take place, then all the shouting, the bellowing, the hollering and the wrestling with God that we don’t get in our English translation of Scripture coming through. When that happens, and people think that perhaps we’re being rude towards God, then perhaps that’s God’s looking to us and saying, “that’s the right attitude.” This overwhelming desire to lie in front of God, powerless, except for his grace and love to intervene is what I think Jesus is talking about when he says, blessed are those who mourn.
James Howell, in his commentary on the Beatitudes, puts it beautifully when he says, “the poor in spirits, the poor in spirit are uncannily able to snuggle up to the very heart of God and we feel what God feels. We feel what God’s children feel, we dwell right inside the mind, the heart of God. We see as God sees and so we mourn, and because we mourn as God mourns, Jesus declares us blessed, but the show is not over, there’s a reward too for they will be comforted.”
Now we know that this morning is about being aware of our sinfulness in front of a perfect, sinless God. We know this so that we can get on the next rung of this Beatitudes ladder. Just as King David received forgiveness and mercy and restoration after acknowledging his big sin, and just as Jacob was rewarded for being known as God wrestler, for being gutsy enough to stand up to God for a blessing, this comfort can be put into context. Comfort, comfort, it’s a nice snugly word, isn’t it? Comfort my people, God said in Isaiah 40. In Isaiah 53, Jesus is known as what it is to be acquainted with grief. He also knows how to give comfort.
Comfort, the same word parakaleo used in the New Testament for the word helper, advocate, in the context of the Holy Spirit coming alongside. The same word for encouragement in the Christian community. The calling to one side when we take heart in understanding a portion of the Bible afresh, when we know that we receive supernatural strength in times of distress. Parakaleo and its other words kind of spin-off words, its linked words, it means more than just a consoling pat on the shoulder. John Blanchard remarks that it has a dynamic dimension, it’s active, it speaks of being strengthened by outside resources that are brought alongside to help.
We can rely on God in our mourning, in our sin to bring us through. I remember going through a difficult patch some years ago with a friend of mine, my best friend actually. I was visiting him at university and just couldn’t get off to sleep, such was my unsettled being. I guess we’d had some ongoing argument or discussion and in my brain and deep down I sensed I should read Psalm 35. I read Psalm 35, didn’t make sense. I read Psalm 3:5, no. Psalm 30:5 says this, “For his anger lasts only a moment but his favor lasts for a lifetime. Weeping may remain for a night but rejoicing comes in the morning.” That’s precisely what I needed to know in that moment. Forgiveness, freedom from frustration.
Of course, we know that there will be an end to suffering. There will finally be a cessation of death. There are even places in the Bible that say tears will cease, there will be God’s glorious comfort. This dynamic dimension of God coming alongside us is just what we need to fill that perhaps emotional hole once the tears have stopped. The presence of Jesus in a supernatural way or through the presence of another Christian coming alongside us in that time of need: that’s the comfort, the encouragement, the help that is ours.
In the words of that hymn we sang earlier because the sinless saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me. An 18th century theologian or preacher, C R Vaughan, said these words, “God is there to impart holiness, to give grace according to the day, to bestow wisdom, patience and courage, to sanctify and comfort in affliction. To erase the image of Satan, to impress the image of God, to conquer the unholy passions and to fill the soul with the fruit of the Spirit.”
This is what occurs when we empty our grief of the weight of our poor-in- spiritedness, when we know that the mourning that Jesus talks about in the beatitudes is not the natural state of mourning, but more the mourning of the sinful soul. This is how we can be comforted, because our loving heavenly father sends Jesus to be that holy example. Because he sends his holy spirit to draw alongside us: the comforter as it says in John 14. Because in the Christian community, we can be Jesus to one another too. If we are aware of anybody who is in trouble, let’s draw close to them. Let that comfort flow from within us to comfort one another. Let us learn to be open and sensitive to one another’s needs. Emotional and spiritual.
Let us develop those deep relationships where we just know where to be, who to call, who to sit by, who to be with. For it’s in those intimate and Godly relationships that we learned to bear tears. We learn to trust one another more deeply with what’s going on in our lives, and truly understand what it is to be part of the community of God. As part of developing this new world that Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, the Kingdom of God that we were looking at last year, Jesus invites us to that vulnerability.
He invites us to, as Psalm 139 says, “To search our hearts, to see what anxious thoughts or offensive ways there are so that we might be led in the way everlasting.” This can only happen when we’re real with God, when we’re real with one another. As I said earlier, that’s what becoming part of this kingdom is all about. It’s an upside-down kingdom. When we become deep-rooted in our relationships, then we become secure in trusting one another. We become known as a church that doesn’t only care, but cares deeply and compassionately and that wants to share the heart of God with the world.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. In an act of, perhaps getting right with God, you might want to join in a prayer, in a Psalm. I’m going to read most of Psalm chapter 51 as a response.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time I was conceived.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the inner parts;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Father God, would you please help us to be in a right place with each other and with you. Would you help us to receive your holiness, to receive your grace, to have your wisdom, your patience and courage. Help us to comfort those who are in affliction. Would you please impress the image of God on us afresh?
Father, God, I thank you that you do come alongside those who mourn, those who mourn naturally and those who mourn because they know the weight of their sin. Thank you so much, Father God, that you are in the business of forgiving, and wiping clean, and setting us straight again.
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