We have been through a lot over the past three years, haven’t we? In just a short time, we experienced a Pandemic responsible for the death of millions, racial tensions so divisive that some are afraid to even mention what they believe or feel out of fear of what label they might receive, inflation is on the rise, another national recession appears to be immanent, the threat of a World War III seems more real than ever, and the only thing that has not changed is the ability politicians have to blame those on the other side of the aisle for the problems in our nation. We are living in a season of extreme divisiveness and there does not seem to be any way of escape.
The results of a major survey conducted by Edelman was published in 2021 that found more than half of Americans believe that the United States is in a cold Civil war, that government leaders and journalists are purposely misleading the public, and that we are in an era of “information bankruptcy.” In his book titled, Cold Civil War, Christian political philosopher Jim Belcher warns that America is polarized and fragmented so badly that there are two different versions of America represented on the political left and right that could eventually split the nation in two.
In his book, Belcher created a diagram that I find to be helpful in showing the four ways our nation is polarized and gravitating towards more extreme views. Without going into great detail, I want to share Belcher’s diagram to illustrate why a sermon series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is timely and necessary for Meadowbrooke.
So, what does this diagram mean? The further away from the “New Vital Center” one moves, the more extreme one becomes. The “New Vital Center” as I understand it, is a return to a Christian influenced political identity where love of neighbor and the value of human dignity are foundational. I am more pessimistic than Belcher is regarding the future of our nation and do not see any way back (I am not the only one who feels this way). I am however, very optimistic that the Church has a voice that can speak into the polarization of our nation that can be profoundly redemptive.
So here is a very brief summation of Belcher’s diagram:
Freedom Left: Truth is relative and what you make of it. Government must be neutral on the question of the “good” allowing the individual the final choice in determining the good life, questions of right and wrong, and ultimate purpose (extremes of this quadrant include: America’s founding documents were written by White Supremacist; white fragility exists, radical skepticism, and radical relativism).
Order Left: Government has a moral obligation to eliminate poverty and to free the poor and ethnically marginalized into prosperity (extremes of this quadrant include: White Christian nationalism is evil, Critical Race Theory is objectively right, etc.).
Freedom Right: Government has no right to regulate the borders, social life, expression of individual persons, nor does it have the right to limit market capitalism. Everyone has a right to make it to the top if they are willing to work hard enough. All men and women are created equal (extremes of this quadrant include: some forms of globalization…).
Order Right: Small government that has been traditionally conservative rooted in some form of a Judeo-Christian worldview (extremes of this quadrant include: I will leave it to your imagination as to who fits into the extreme of this category).
Regardless of how you feel about the four quadrants that make up America’s political landscape, they are four different forces pulling/luring Christians from a center that the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us into. The center that the gospel calls the Christian into is a new identity that is different from the identities politics and the media pressures us to affirm or to deny. For example, many Mainstream or liberal forms of Christianity gravitate towards left quadrants while many independent or conservative forms of Christianity gravitate towards the right quadrants of Jim Belcher’s “Vital Center Quadrant Diagram.” However, over the past three years we have seen and experienced conservative Christians who once were unified by their core beliefs now polarized by some of the same ideologies that polarize our nation today.
While I do not see any way for our nation to recover, I do see a way for the fractured Church in America to return to its center, and the only way that will happen is that the American Church experiences a revival that calls her back to where her identity is really found. Revival is an awakening that happens among Jesus’ followers only when they actively pray, prepare, and work for it. In their book on the subject of revival titled, A God-sized Vision, Calin Hansen and John Woodbridge explain that the problem with revival today is that few of us have ever seen one. They continue to explain in the preface of their book:
Many of those who think they have seen a revival may have in mind events that would not pass the biblical or historical standard. Perhaps their church holds regular “revival” meetings on certain nights of the week or during a summer month. But manipulative appeals to renew your vows to Christ do not constitute revival. During genuine revival, the Holy Spirit contends and convicts, but he does not manipulate as he grants Christians a new experience of God’s presence and power.
Why is the Sermon on the Mount Important?
Some have suggested that Jesus’ sermon on the mount is something to be experienced in the future when he comes back to reign on earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords. Others have suggested that Jesus’ sermon is an exposition on the Old Testament to drive people to the grace of God for the forgiveness of their sins. Then there are others who believe that if we take the Sermon on the Mount seriously enough that a utopian society could finally be realized on earth.
Here is what you need to understand before we dive into Jesus’ sermon.
- The Sermon on the Mount is not something we are encouraged to look forward to only when he comes again.
- Jesus’ sermon was not given primarily to us to show us how great our sin is.
- The Sermon was not given to shape legislation for the purpose of moving communities closer to a utopian experience.
So, what is so special about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount besides the fact that it is in the Bible? It is important because it is Jesus’ description of the Christian life. In the gospel of Matthew, we are given a version of Jesus’ sermon that probably does not include everything in his sermon, but the essential things we must be aware of if we are going to live the life he intends for us to live. Matthew places the sermon at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry just after he called the first disciples. The Sermon on the Mount was given to us by Jesus’ for the Christian today. One of the great preachers of the 20th century said of the Sermon on the Mount:
These things were taught by the Lord and were meant for us, His people. This is how the Christian is meant to live…. Here is the life to which we are called, and I maintain again that if only every Christian in the Church today were living the Sermon on the Mount, the great revival for which we are praying and longing would already have started. Amazing and astounding things would happen; the world would be shocked, and men and women would be drawn and attracted to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ description of what following him looks like. It is Jesus’ call to the good life as it is a description of the kind of life he requires of all those who want to belong to his kingdom. The greatest sermon every preached is a description of the Christian life. It is the application of the apostle Peter’s description of what the Church is positionally: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9–10).
What was in us that made God call us out of our spiritual darkness and into his marvelous light? Nothing but his grace and mercy. This is why Jesus begins his sermon with these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
How We Enter the Kingdom of Heaven
The Sermon on the Mount begins with nine statements of blessings known as The Beatitudes. The word used for blessed in Matthew 1:3-11 is makarios which can also mean “happy.” Blaise Pascale once said, “All men seek happiness, even those who hang themselves.” The great pursuit and longing of mankind is the desire to be happy. I believe the reason why our nation is so fractured is because of the things, ideals, and dreams people believe will bring them happiness. In fact, the base motive of every idol fabricated in the human heart is the desire to be happy. The problem is that at the end of every receding rainbow people follow to find happiness is misery because they seek it thinking that they can have it without God.
The kind of happiness described at the beginning of Jesus’ sermon is not a superficial smile or a feeling that is here one moment and then gone the next. The kind of happiness described here is the kind of joy that cannot be overcome by pain, discouragement, shattered dreams, or even death. The kind of happiness described in Jesus’ sermon is the kind we were created to experience that only God can give. The blessing Jesus is talking about is the kind of joy that only comes when one is approved of by God. It is the kind of joy a person is given only when that person is favored by God. This is the blessing the Christian has experienced, for when God blesses us, he approves us.
According to Jesus, there is only type of person who can experience the kind of blessing and joy humans were created to enjoy, and that person is the Christian.
So, how does a person enter into the kind of happiness and joy that comes only with the blessing and approval of a holy God? It can only come to those who are “poor in spirit.” Who are the poor in spirit? Being poor in spirit has nothing to do with a person’s economic status. Those who are “poor in spirit” are not the shy or nervous. Being “poor in spirit” is not the conviction that you are of no worth. The Greek word for “poor” in this verse is ptōchos, whichJesus also used to describe Lazarus in a parable he told: “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man name Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:19-21).
To be “poor in spirit” is to be one who is “desperately” poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit is a person who realizes that he/she has no spiritual resources to bring to God’s table of holiness and righteousness. To be poor in spirit is to arrive with empty hands that are only able to receive before they are able to give. In other words, the only way to be forgiven of your sins and to be accepted by a God that has every right to condemn you is to recognize that you are bankrupt of any moral virtues adequate to gain the approval of a Holy God. To be poor in spirit is to be like the tax collector Jesus depicted in another story he told in the Gospel of Luke:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:10–14, NIV)
The only righteousness that is available to sinners like us is the righteousness of Jesus Christ whom the Bible says God provided by sending his Son to die in our place for sins we were guilty of. This is why the Bible states, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Only the poor in spirit are able and ready to receive a salvation that only God can give, and once he has given it and you have received it, only then will you experience the approval of God and only then will you become the free recipient of the kingdom of heaven.
To be poor in spirit is to come to God with the awareness of your absolute poverty, and emptiness. It is then, and only then, you must plead to Jesus:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling….
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.
This is how the Christian enters into the Kingdom of Heaven, for there are none who enter who are not first and foremost poor in spirit.
 Grace Kay, Business Insider: “A majority of Americans surveyed believe the US is in the midst of a ‘cold’ civil war.” (Jan. 13, 2021).
 Jim Belcher, Cold Civil War (Downers Grove, IL: IVP; 2022).
 Jim Belcher, Cold Civil War (Downers Grove, IL: IVP; 2022), p. 269.
 Collin Hansen, John Woodbridge, A God-Sized Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2010), p. 11.
 A view proposed by Dispensationalism.
 A view championed by Lutheran Orthodoxy.
 A view advanced by the Social Gospel Movement.
 We are given a shorter version of Jesus’ sermon in Luke 6:20-49.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company; 1976), pp. 22-23.