I think you will agree this has indeed been a costly, traumatic week in Europe. Wherever your loyalties lie, the stinging defeat, the vote of no confidence and subsequent resignation has not lessened the utter humiliation. The ramifications will inevitably linger for years to come. Someone has calculated that out of all the eligible citizens, if you remove half the population who are women, remove those under 18 and over 35, remove the overweight, the blind and disabled, those in hospital, those employed in essential services such as police, firemen and ambulance drivers, in earthquake and volcano surveillance, those away at sea in the whaling industry, the sheep herders, and not least the imprisoned bankers, the pool of men from which Iceland had left to pick its football team stood at around 23 men. The entire 23 man Icelandic squad apparently cost less in their last transfer moves than it cost Manchester City to sign one player, Raheem Sterling from Liverpool. And on a salary of £3.5 million, our manager was the highest paid in the world, while theirs is a part time shepherd. Clearly money isn’t everything.
A traumatic week indeed. Our hearts go out to those bereaved or injured in the terror attack at Istanbul airport. We also feel for those who have, or will, lose their jobs, their investments, their pensions, or just freedom to live and work, as a result of the decision to leave the EU.
Where do we find security in a volatile, and sometimes hostile world? It may surprise you to discover where the first Christians found their hope. If we were living in the first century and hiding in the catacombs of Rome because some of our brothers and sisters had just been thrown to the lions or burned at the stake, or crucified and set ablaze as torches at one of Emperor Nero’s garden parties, what symbol would encourage us in your faith? Ironically, it was the anchor. The anchor rather than the cross was one of the first symbols used by Christians to encourage one another, based on Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” The tombs of first century Christians reveal that the symbol of the anchor expressed their faith and hope in the Lord Jesus. Only after 300 A.D. as the Empire went from persecuting the Church to sponsoring it, did they no longer need secret symbols to identify themselves. Constantine’s conquering cross replaced the anchor as the symbol to identify and encourage believers in troubled times. It’s ironic that the cross, albeit in different colours, is the symbol on the national flag of both Iceland and England. It is testament to how the Christian faith spread, as the Church was persecuted in Rome, was scattered throughout Europe, eventually converting even the barbarians of the darkest Northern islands.
How we respond to traumatic events like this week reveals our roots, reveals our security, the source of our hope, our peace and dare I say it, our joy. Because nothing distinguishes Christians from non-Christians more clearly than how we respond to adversity. No one in the entire world has ever had more reason to be discouraged or disheartened than Jesus, and yet no one was more joyful. Jesus embodied a stubborn joy. A joy that refused to bend in the wind of hard times. A joy that held its ground against pain. A joy whose roots extended deep into the bedrock of eternity. That is certainly where we can learn it. What kind of joy is this? What is this sacred delight? It is the sacred delight of meeting Jesus and not being judged like the Pharisees.
The sacred delight of the day’s wage paid to workers who’d only been in the fields an hour…
the joy of the father scrubbing the smell of pigs off his son’s back… the joy of the widow throwing a party for her son with food baked for his funeral. This sacred delight is the discovered pearl, the lost coin, the multiplied talent, the criminal scraping into heaven in his dying seconds, but just in time for eternity. The sacred delight of Peter plunging into the cold Lake to get close again to the one he had recently denied. Sacred delight is good news coming through the back door of your heart. It is what you’d dreamed of but never expected. It’s the too-good-to-be-true coming true. Its having the Lord God almighty, the king of the universe as your loving father, counsellor, comforter, protector and best friend, by your side, in your heart, out in front, and covering your back, 24 hours a day. Sacred delight. There is no other way of describing it.
Jesus summed it up in that one word, “Blessed.” Please turn with me to Matthew 5. So rich, so important, Jesus repeats it over and over and over again in his first, his longest and most important sermon, delivered on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:1-11)
The word “Blessed” in the original is Makarios (blessed).
It means happy, fortunate, blissful. It is an inward contentedness that is not affected by circumstances. It is a sacred delight to be blessed by God. So delightful, it takes your breath away. So sacred it cannot be stolen. It is as if Jesus was saying “Oh the bliss…” This is the kind of joy God desires for His children. It is a state of joy and well-being that does not depend on circumstances. Is it not incredible that the first sermon of Jesus begins with the resounding and repeated theme of joy? Surely a fitting elaboration of the “good news.”
- These Blessings seem Paradoxical
The irony is that the conditions and their corresponding blessings do not seem to match do they? By human standards such things as humility, mourning and persecution are not usually equated with happiness.
But here Jesus teaches that weeping endured for the right purpose and in the right way is the key to happiness.
The world says, “Happy are the young, the affluent, the successful, the glamorous, the popular, the famous, the aggressive.” What usually follows when someone says to you, “The Lord has blessed me….” Tragically, some preachers, evangelists, and writers today are passing off worldly philosophy in the name of Christianity—claiming that faithfulness to Christ guarantees health, success, prestige, and prosperity. Jesus taught no such thing.
If anything, Jesus taught the opposite. Jesus warned that physical, worldly advantages most often limit true happiness. Jesus administers a kind of electric shock treatment to this kind of “me centred” cosy religious pietism. No, this sacred joy, this blessing Jesus promises is not to be confused with happiness. This is not a gimmick to give you goose pimples. To be blessed is not a superficial feeling of well-being based on circumstance, but a deep supernatural experience of contentedness based on the fact that your life is right with God. These blessings are paradoxical.
- These Blessings are Pronouncements
It is important to remember that the Beatitudes are pronouncements of fact, not of probabilities or wishful possibilities. They are not optional extras for the dedicated or the religious. The Beatitudes contain both divine promises of blessing and also divine warnings of cursing. In Luke’s account of this sermon Jesus matches each blessing with a curse. In Luke’s account, when the word “woe” is used, it is an interjection that connotes pain or calamity. And Jesus here pronounces both, for the opposite of the blessed life is the cursed life. Jesus used positives and negatives to teach the same truths. – “this is the way to live – this is not the way to live” What Jesus is saying is this, “If you set your heart on these things, if you spend all your energy to obtain these things which the world values so highly, you will get them…. but that’s all you’ll ever get. You’ve had it… But if on the other hand you set your heart and mind and will to be loyal to God you will indeed be blessed – Blessed with all kinds of trouble, because people will mistake you for me, they will slander you, misrepresent you, caricature you. But when that day comes, smile, because great is your reward in heaven” These blessings are paradoxical and pronouncements.
- These Blessings are Progressive
These blessings are not in a random or haphazard order. Each leads to the other in logical succession. Jesus describes a radical process of reconstruction that occurs in the heart, the mind and the will. Observe the sequence. First we must recognise we are in need (poor in spirit). Next, we repent of our self sufficiency (mourning). Then we quit running the world our way and surrender control to God (meekness). So grateful are we for his presence that we yearn for more of him (hunger and thirst). As we grow closer to him, we become more like him. No longer insecure we learn to forgive others (the merciful).
We increasingly see things from Gods perspective (the pure in heart). We put ourselves in the firing line to resolve conflict (the peacemakers), and at times we endure injustice (the persecuted). This is no casual shift of attitude. It is a total demolition job of the old worldly values and aspirations, and in its place, the rebuilding of our whole way of life on His foundation. Indeed, God’s blessing runs counter to everything the world holds dear. Jesus promised his followers three things. They will be completely fearless, absurdly happy and in constant trouble. The jewel of joy is given to the impoverished, not the affluent. God’s delight is received upon surrender, not awarded upon conquest. The first step to joy is a plea for help. Those who taste God’s presence know their spiritual bankruptcy. Their cupboards are bare. Their pockets are empty. Their options are gone. They have long since stopped demanding justice, and instead plead for mercy.
They don’t brag, they beg. They ask God to do for them what they can’t do without Him. Oh the irony of God’s delight – born in the parched soil of destitution rather than the fertile ground of achievement. It is a different path, a demanding path we’re not accustomed to taking.
Never forget, what we have here is not a list of proverbs or a collection of quaint sayings, but rather a step-by-step description of how God progressively rebuilds the believer’s broken heart and puts the world, His world at our feet as we learn submission to His majesty.
Last week was indeed traumatic, for our institutions, for our political parties, for the economy, for industry, for the banks, for immigrants, for our partners in Europe.
What will next week be like? God knows. God does indeed know. And that is why we need an anchor don’t we?
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”(Hebrew 6:19). The Beatitudes are like the chain that secures us to our anchor, the promises of God’s word, the person of God’s Son, the presence of God’s Spirit.
The blessing of knowing God is pure, sacred, joy and delight. Because it’s God’s joy what can cloud it? What can quench it? What can kill it? No. His is a joy which consequences cannot quench. His is a peace that circumstances cannot steal. Because this is a sacred blessedness that comes from God. Paradoxical maybe, but pronounced by Jesus upon you and me and progressive for all who would dare follow Him. A holy joy, a sacred delight. A blessedness. And it is within your reach today. Lets pray.
With grateful thanks for inspiration and ideas from Max Lucado and his book, The Applause of Heaven.