Let’s quickly set the scene for today’s Scripture. Jesus is up north near his home town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. He is walking from town to town with his disciples. Great crowds come out to meet him and he performs many miracles of healing for them. People even travel long distances from the south to see the amazing spectacle.
This is an example of the pure grace of God. Nothing asked, just healing poured out.
One day, Jesus is with his disciples and the crowds on the shore of Lake Galilee just outside Capernaum. He turns toward the hills and starts walking. Instead of striding off to escape and be alone, he goes a little way and then sits down. (Verse 1.) This is a signal that he is ready to start teaching, and so his disciples gather around him to hear what he has to say.
At this point those in the crowd only interested in miracles and excitement will have gone back to work or gone home, while those interested in learning from the master have joined his disciples on the hillside. This is still God’s grace as he freely dispenses wisdom, but it’s not as appealing to some in the crowd.
Seated there on a peaceful Galilean hillside in the warm sunshine, butterflies and wild flowers around them on the stony ground, the crowds silently strained to hear what Jesus was saying.
With his very first words, Jesus turns common sense on its head and upends all that they know to be true. It was well known and widely practised at the time that a poor person was disgusting. They were marginalised and excluded from society, and they were seen as cursed by God. These people of low birth and poor education often did not know the Scriptures and neglected the synagogue. They included most of the ordinary people at the time. The people of higher birth avoided them in case they became spiritually polluted, and condemned them as beyond God’s reach. They thought they were the lowest of the low, and a waste of space. Trying to teach them was deemed to be a waste of breath.
Jesus says (verse 3), ‘God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him.’
Or in the better known translation, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’
He is not saying it is a virtue to be materially poor, but that the poor can discover their spiritual poverty and be spurred on to seek God.
Jesus says we need poverty of the spirit. Spiritual poverty has two parts – impotence and sinfulness.
Zechariah 4:6 says – “It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”
Jesus declares this very same principle in John 15:5 – “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
The pathway to failure is to try and do a great wonderful thing by our own strength. The pathway to failure is paved with good intentions. When Jesus sent out his disciples to begin the Great Commission, he told them to first wait until they were clothed in power from on high. (Luke 24:49)
In order to be blessed, Jesus said upon that hillside, we need to realise our impotence.
Then there is the spiritual poverty of our sinfulness. This is clearly set out in Isaiah 6:5 where the prophet discovers his personal sinfulness. It is the realisation that sin is not something that makes an occasional appearance in our generally good lives. It is not the occasional mistake or wrong action.
When Isaiah realised this he cried out: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
Who is guaranteed to have a park bench all to themselves? It is the beggar dressed in dirty clothes with wild hair who stinks of stale urine and soju. What Isaiah is saying is that when God looks at you, what he sees is even worse than this because your inner being is more filthy and more disgusting than the tramp.
When we are able to see ourselves as God sees us, we will be blessed. When we realise our spiritual poverty, then there is hope for us. When we understand how powerless we are and how revolting sin has made us, God is able to start doing something in our lives.
Your highest virtues are fatally flawed. Sin is not a character defect but the condition of your soul.
When Isaiah realised this and cried out to God, he was blessed and God used him. This event is recorded in Isaiah 6:
“It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.”
Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”
I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
And he said, “Yes, go.”
God responds with forgiving mercy when we realise our spiritual poverty.
When we admit how we really are in front of God, when we face up to our own disagreeable reality, then we can enter into the blessedness that Jesus offers.
We are blessed not by any merit or good deed, but by accepting our acute inadequacy.
It is in this state that we come before him in communion and receive his grace.
The word that the Bible uses for ‘blessed’ is beatitude and generally means ‘happy’.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The blessing he refers to, the happiness he promises, is not an end to poverty and it is not riches or success in this world.
The blessedness is that of being able to have salvation and to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is the great blessing of being forgiven and being able to have a relationship with God. It is the great blessing of having God’s spirit come and set up home within us.
Alone we are impotent and disgusting. With the Holy Spirit we are reborn as God’s beloved children, filled with his power and his beauty. We are able to experience his great love, and we start to have the fruit of the spirit growing in our lives.
Hear what Jesus is saying to you today from that distant hillside in Galilee. He is calling you to come to him. Will you dare to come as did his disciples and sit down with him so that he can teach you and bless you. Come now, all of you.