I've been studying and writing about the Beatitudes of Jesus for the past month, aided by Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister at Westminster Chapel, London. It was published in 1959, and I bought it for the color of the cover. It’s been on my mantle for a year. When I started reading it, it turns out Lloyd-Jones is rad, and his 80-year-old perspective on Christ’s 2,000-year-old words is totally relevant in 2020.
But the main thing I've gleaned from reading good old D. Martyn is that no matter what culture you're living in, Jesus is probably going to be counter-cultural. Because Jesus will always take what people expect to be true, and flip it up-side down. The Beatitudes are part of Christ's most foundational teaching, and they tell us that poverty leads to a kingdom, mourning to comfort, meekness to inheritance. They say that happiness is not found in conquering and dominating others, but by being merciful and pursuing peace. They say that being righteous will cause you to be ridiculed, but bring you true happiness.
Is there any secular culture that has ever believed these things to be true? I don't see it in America at the moment, do you, my darlings? Not even necessarily in the American church, which often seems to prize numbers and prosperity, believing those to be the primary signs of God's favor.
And apparently, this was true of 1950s England as well. Read what the theologian says:
“We must point out that this Beatitude,” he says, “this particular description of the Christian, causes real surprise because it is so completely and entirely opposed of everything with the natural man things. ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.’…The world thinks in terms of strength and power, of ability, self-assurance and aggressiveness... The more you assert yourself and express yourself, the ore you organize and manifest you powers and ability, the more likely you are to succeed and get on.
But further, this Beatitude comes, alas in the form of a very striking contrast to much thinking within the Christian Church at the present time. For is there not a rather pathetic tendency to think in terms of fighting the world, and sin, and the things that are opposed to Christ, by means of great organizations? Am I wrong to suggest that the controlling and prevailing thought of the Christian Church throughout the world seems to be the very opposite of what is indicated in this text? ‘There,’ they say, ‘is the powerful enemy set against us, and here is the divided Christian Church. We must all get together, we must have one huge organization to face that organized enemy. Then we shall make an impact and then we shall conquer.’ But ‘Blessed are the meek’, not those who trust to their own powers…and their own institutions.”
I read this passage out loud to my teenager, and we were both stunned at how it described so much of what we've seen on the internet in this contentious election year from Christians: believing they can somehow band together (sometimes behind a political candidate) to conquer America in Jesus's name. And this has always been human's problem with Jesus: they want him to come and conquer the powers of earth, the government and culture. That's why the Jews missed who he was. But Jesus came instead through a womb, to a manger, to a life as a poor teacher, to sit down with sinners, to ride on the back of a donkey, to die on a cross. He was always after souls, one-by-one, never after nations. His kingdom was a like a mustard seed, never like an army or an empire.
If 2020 has taught me one thing (and actually, it's taught me TONS of things), it's that the only safe place to hope is in the blessings of Jesus, and that these blessings come in being more like Jesus. And Jesus continues to be a mystery, a paradox, a puzzle and a prize. I can never be complacent, believing I know what he will do and what he asks of me, but continue to bring my thoughts, beliefs, emotions, plans and philosophies to him over and over again to be sifted and refined.
I'm aware more than ever that the culture through which I see the world and read the Bible is a pair of gummed up glasses, and I hand them over to God and ask him to wipe them clean. Again and again and again.
At the end of Advent, at the end of the crappy year, I reflect on the mysterious, weird ways of Jesus. Being weak makes us strong. Character is built through struggle, not peace. Adversity brings faith. Poverty can reveal true riches. From ashes come beauty. Dependency rather than self-sufficiency is a sign of maturity. All these contrary-seeming truths offer real hope for each of us right now. Because Jesus was straight with us, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world." Cling to that truth in this moment, my dear ones, and be blessed.
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.