Redefining #Blessed

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Our society is always changing.

And perhaps this is best represented in our weird tendency to redefine things. Particularly nowadays. It seems everywhere we turn, a previously unquestioned concept is experiencing a huge social reconstruction. I’m looking at you, marriage. Not forgetting the 63 genders you can now choose from. Here’s the problem:

We all want a say on how life should be defined.

We do it in more subtle ways too. For example, the hashtag #blessed has been used 77,000,000 times (on Instagram alone). And for many (not all) it appears to be a way of boasting whilst remaining humble. Win a sporting event. Pass that hard university topic with flying colours. Get a promotion at work. Be surrounded with friends and family. Live in a huge house. Such events seem to qualify our ability to say that we are blessed.

And so our culture has formed something of a silent creed. An unspoken but very loud anthem, drummed into the hearts of many. That to be blessed is to be subject of favourable circumstance. This is the lie we have smuggled into our internal dictionary.

And there’s a reason I say this is a lie.

To be blessed has become totally synonymous with gain in this life. But Jesus came to tell us those who lose their lives for his sake are blessed.

As always, my opinion means squat.

My greatest hope is to draw attention to the works and words of Christ. And as I understand it, Jesus seriously challenged our definition of what it is to be blessed. And he didn’t do this privately. He challenged it publicly. 

To a crowd of eager and expectant people, Jesus said some shocking stuff. Jesus defined the truly blessed people in life as being poor, hungry and thirsty, and persecuted to the point of death (Matthew 5:2-12). The crowds were not expecting that. Because it sounds like the complete opposite of being blessed. So we have to ask ourselves:

What did he mean by it?

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BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT 

The world says those who are rich and esteemed are blessed, Jesus says blessed are the poor and humble before him.

This one is so counter-cultural.

Because most of us spend our lives trying to be rich. Whether you realise it or not. We strive to be rich in money. Many of us aim for richness in achievements. Most of us long to be rich in our friendships. Rich in reputation. Rich in purpose. Rich in happiness. And so for the most part, we look to life’s many riches as our primary source of joy.

Well, Jesus uses the very first words of his sermon to tackle this issue.

Jesus has little time for those who use stuff as their primary pursuit of joy. He makes it crystal clear – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:2). Incredible! Jesus is extending to us the richest richness possible. He is literally ushering us into the Kingdom of Heaven. And get a load of this:

The only requirement to God’s kingdom is empty hands.

Those who fall at the feet of Jesus totally broken. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus bankrupt. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus bereft of all pride and life’s riches, in passionate abandon of he who can satisfy every longing. It is to that calibre of people, Jesus promises to bless with everything.

Namely, himself.

BLESSED ARE THE HUNGRY AND THIRSTY

The world says those who have everything in abundance are blessed, Jesus says blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

We have so much stuff.

Food isn’t even an issue for us,  because every type of food we need is at the supermarket down the road. To hunger and thirst in the first world is pretty much a non-issue. But we aren’t let off the hook to easily. Because Jesus isn’t just talking about food and water here.

You see, when you hunger and thirst after something, it controls you. It dictates your movements. It becomes the very thrust of your life. In fact, you know you hunger and thirst for something when you cannot go one day without feeling the pain of its absence.

Because in the end, desiring the things of this world never truly satisfies.

Death puts a dramatic end to all pursuits of happiness. So the words of Jesus ring all the more louder: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus is saying we need to develop an appetite that won’t be satisfied by this world. Jesus wants the stomach of our soul to rumble.

Jesus wants our lives to be so changed, so controlled, and so dictated by a hunger and thirst for more of God. To the point where our reflex-reaction is to show people undeserved mercy, and to spill over with blood-bought purity and peacemaking. And it is to that calibre of people, Jesus promises to bless with eternal satisfaction.

Namely, more of himself.

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO ARE PERSECUTED

The world says those who are secure are blessed, Jesus says blessed are those who risk everything for his sake.

If the others haven’t blown you away, this one will.

Jesus says “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:10). Craziness! Nobody in their right mind considers being killed a blessing. Our image of the good life doesn’t usually include death. In fact, hundreds of surveys all come back with the same result – our greatest fear is death.

Yet, God welcomes us to be fearless in death.

How could Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after standing against the Nazi party and sentenced to the gallows, say with his last words “this is the end – and for me, the beginning of life.” How did Obadiah Holmes, arrested and whipped 30 times for holding a church service, turn around to his executioner and say “you have struck me as with roses.”

What made John Cardmaker, sentenced to death for his faith, walk up to the stake on which he was to be burned and kiss it. How did Kayla Mueller – after getting captured, tortured, sexually abused and killed (by ISIS) for defending the lives of children – say in her last letter “by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

Holding tight the words of Jesus, these people experienced death as gain.

This is what sets Christians apart from the world. We are blessed because through Jesus, the power of death is no more. Nothing can shake this. Not persecution, poverty, danger or death itself (Rom 8:35). And so we shout “Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55) Because death doesn’t steal our joy.

It only advances it.

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THE MARCHING ORDERS

Our ability to say we are blessed should be primarily predicated on what God is to us. Not what God gives to us.

So go on. Use the blessed hashtag.

But Christian, make sure the world hears you loud and clear. We march to a different drum. We preach a different creed. It goes like this: Jesus is the root of my ability to say I am blessed. And so we count all else as loss except for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8).

Jesus said it in the most explicit way possible. He wants us to desire heaven infinitely more than we desire earth. More than all of life’s riches. Higher than any vain satisfaction in this life. Greater than personal security. Worthy of our whole lives. 

So let the world hear it. Our hope is not in this world. Our hope is in the resurrection of Jesus. And so we live to advocate serious joy in Christ at all costs. We might face poverty, famine, or even death. But Jesus remains the strength of our hearts and our portion forever (Psalm 73:25-26).

Life uncertain. Hope secure. Blessed always.

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3rd world citizens

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We all care about the poor.

The desperately hungry. Without a home and living on the streets. The people bashed and robbed. Socially ostracised. Those drinking muddy, unpurified water. Nothing at all in their possession except the clothes on their backs. Sick to death.

We all pity such people. We feel sorry for how they live. So we donate money, clothes, water towards their villages. Set up organisations. Raise awareness. All in an attempt to help people in need.

But none of us envy their lifestyles. A safe assumption I hope.

The life of someone in poverty isn’t exactly the peak of the human experience. You would have to be out of your mind to desire this life.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Jesus

And then Jesus goes and says that. What the heck.

These were his first words in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). If you know anything about speeches and essays, introductions are used to set the scene and grab attention. Jesus must have been very aware of these factors. His first sentence alone is shocking. 

Picture it with me. The disciples are waiting as Jesus prepares to talk. Religious dudes gather expectantly for inside knowledge on how to perform miracles, or how to get into God’s good books. Intrigued locals join the crowd to hear from this amazing teacher. Everyone is hanging on his first words.

And then for some crazy reason, Jesus starts by promising poor people the kingdom of heaven. Talk would’ve run riot in the town. If newspapers were a thing, they would’ve gone bezerk. Social media would’ve been in absolute overdrive.

The prerequisite to citizenship in heaven is to be poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is promised to poor people.

Crazy stuff.  

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Malcolm Turnbull came under fire recently.

The Australian PM was spotted giving $5 to a poor man on the streets of Melbourne. On the surface, it seemed like a nice gesture. However, news outlets and social media went nuts when they discovered Mr.Turnbull was clutching a stack of notes in his left hand. People were quick to label him greedy and selfish.

The hypocrisy in much of the criticisms of Mr.Turnbull are very real. I’d suggest 99% of those voicing hate against Mr.Turnbull for this act should take a hard look at themselves.

But the fact remains. There is disappointment that with so much money in his possession, Malcolm could only manage $5. That the leader of our people, seeing the poorest in his society, gave that which wouldn’t cost him much.

Whether or not you are critical of Mr.Turnbull is irrelevant. My point is this. Jesus sees the poorest in his society and promises the absolute maximum in return. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Dead set ridiculous. Jesus promises everything to people who have nothing. To put this into perspective, it would be like Mr.Turnbull giving $100 million to the homeless man. We are on that sort of scale of crazy.

But to get the reward, we are called to be poor in spirit. Is Jesus telling us to be desperately hungry? Vulnerable and on the streets? Are we being told be sick and thirsty and homeless and posses nothing – all for the sake of heaven?

That’s ludicrous. That’s insane.

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE POOR IN SPIRIT?

‘Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich.’ – 2 Corinthians 8:9

In understanding what poor in spirit means, it makes sense to look at how Jesus treated poor people. Unsurprisingly, one of the most defining features of Jesus was the way he sought the lost (Luke 19:10).

Jesus welcomed in the outcasts. Gave lasting food to the poor and helpless. Jesus invited people despised by the world over for dinner. Those with leprosy and blindness he came into contact with. He healed them. He talked with them (Matthew 11:5).

He came into their world when nobody else would.

Jesus, the very definition of sinless and perfect, consistently and intentionally came into contact with disgraceful sinners (Matthew 9:10). But Jesus didn’t just come into contact with poor people. He identified with them.

Jesus came from a small village, born to a poor couple in a lowly animal stable. He wasn’t too high and mighty for work – heck, he laboured for years as a carpenter. The very Son of God lived and breathed amongst poor people. He understood everyday struggles. He didn’t remove himself from pain – quite the opposite.

Surely this tells us something about how God intended to reach the world.

“Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home” – Jesus

Jesus said this to a paralysed man.

So you can see how crazy this statement is. Jesus literally told someone who physically can’t walk to do exactly that. Walk.

Try telling someone in a wheelchair to just get up and walk next time you’re in public. See how that works out for you. You might just experience the miracle of a backhand to the face.

Yet immediately after Jesus said this, a man who had never used his legs before stood up and walked (Mark 2:1-12). Let’s just appreciate how cool that is for a second. Just ridiculous.

But that’s not the only ridiculous thing about this situation.

Back in the day, sickness was considered a punishment for disobedience. It was a common belief that God inflicted sickness upon people as result of sin. Such people living in sickness were often despised and not allowed to live in community with anyone, not even their own family (Numbers 5:2).

Sin had to be expelled from the community so the people could stay clean.

Yet for some reason this Jesus dude felt like it was okay to welcome in a sick, poor and sinful person. So sin had now polluted the community. Great. Thanks a lot Jesus.

But in a mad plot twist, Jesus defies all laws of physics and medical expertise and just heals the man of his sickness. The people were in utter disbelief. It would’ve been like watching someone discover the cure to cancer. This was significant.

Why did Jesus heal this poor, sick and sinful man?

Through this situation, Jesus was sticking up his hand as the solution to the crippling disease of sin. This Jesus was sticking his hand up as God himself. No other explanation would suffice. Who else could be so perfect as to heal someone of imperfection?

No longer would people have to be expelled from the community. Sin that once left humanity paralysed had now met its cure.

Jesus.

Isn’t Christianity just a crutch for those who can’t make it themselves?

A common criticism of Christianity. Funny thing is, we actually agree with it.

John Piper (in a sermon) highlights an interesting thing about this criticism and labelling of our ‘crutch’ as being problematic. He suggested that nobody looks at an injured person with a crutch, and identifies the crutch as being problematic.

The crutch is the solution, isn’t it? 

Here’s where the problem lies. If Christianity is a crutch, then it is only good for cripples. And many people don’t consider themselves cripples. And so it is therefore offensive to an individual’s self- sufficiency to be labelled as needing help.

This is why Jesus is so counter cultural.

Jesus came to provide himself as the crutch for all. The solution to our deepest sickness.

Humanity was paralysed in sin. But through Jesus death on the cross, our greatest sickness is dealt with. As a result we can boldly approach God. Full confidence in the saving power of our crutch, which allows us to walk in the ways of our Father.

And this completely contrasts our way of thinking.

If we want a job, we work hard and present ourselves well. If we want to be better at sport, we train harder. If we want to get better grades, we study harder. If we want to get anywhere in life, it takes our own effort.

Then Jesus comes along and flips it. To be poor in spirit is to realise the state of our sickness without Jesus. To be poor in spirit is understanding that before God, we have nothing to give. All the work Jesus has already done.

It is finished. 

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PULL UP A SEAT

My Dad wrote a letter when I was born. In this letter he explains the reasons behind choosing my name – and qualities he hoped I would cling to.

Dad used the biblical Jonathan as an example of holding high the qualities of loyalty and friendship in my life. Jonathan was a very loyal man, who had a strong friendship with David. However, Dad suggests (in his letter) it is what comes of their friendship that is equally significant.

Eventually Jonathan died. To honour the deep friendship David once shared with his friend, he found a lone descendant from Jonathan’s line, a cripple called Mephibosheth. To this lowly, dishonoured man he gave the right to eat at the king’s table from that day on (2 Samuel 9).

Because of David and Jonathan’s strong relationship, a man lowly and crippled was given access to eat at the King’s table.

‘God has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence…’ – Colossians 1:22

Jesus has a perfect relationship with God.

And by extension, Jesus death and resurrection brings us into the presence of the King. Into the very presence of God. God invites us to eat at his table because of the deep relationship shared with Jesus Christ.

Lowly, hungry, flawed and crippled in sin – yet God chooses us to eat with him. Through Jesus work on the cross, we can claim our seat at the table.

“Tell a broken, crippled and dying world that they may come and eat at the King’s table.”

Pull up a seat.

 

The Race Ahead

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I love cycling.

And I don’t use the word love lightly either. At times I wonder how I’d have gone on if not for cycling. It was my release – huge to me in my high school years, and I still love to get out when I can.

There are tons of things I love about cycling.

Summiting a mountain solo. Alone, but not lonely. Guided by my bike light; a hum in the darkness. Morning fog thickening as I rise higher. Sounds of my raspy breathing. The occasional dog bark or cow’s moo. The chain cranking as it propels the wheels around. Life’s problems fading on each pedal stroke. The sun rising over Adelaide – a whole city wakes from sleep. Wind in face as I’m propelled down the mountain. Sweat in hair, eyes wide open. Feeling of aching, tired legs. I’m stuffed, but I’ve never felt more alive. Back home for coffee before school.

I love it.

And some thought I was a bit mental. The amount of time I put into it each day was somewhat unbelievable to them. But to me, it wasn’t crazy at all.

There was something about cycling that made dedication to it easy.

Getting up at 5:30 every morning – rain, hail or shine. Making training programs. Spending hours on the bike. Rarely eating bad food or having soft drink. Shaving my legs (don’t hold it against me). Following other dedicated cyclists on social media. I would admire the professionals, talk about them, watch their races.

I was committed, but I was loving it. The sacrifices I was making were nothing in comparison to the perceived rewards of joy, temporary release of problems, and the increase in fitness.

So where am I going with this.

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Paul uses the analogy of running a race to explain how the Christian life should look. It goes like this:

‘…let us lay aside every weight, and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race set before us.’ – Hebrews 12:1

And my past dedication to cycling should look like my dedication to Christ.

Just like I would lay aside bad eating and drinking, and the minimal weight that was my leg hair – this passage says we are to lay aside every weight that slows us in our pursuit of God. Anything that gets in the way. What a statement.

I was regularly setting aside time early in the morning, 5:30 – to dedicate myself to cycling before the day. In the same way, there is a need for me to dedicate myself to God and his will before every day. To seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.

All this cycling took endurance, perseverance. I wasn’t going to get much better at the sport after a week of cycling. It took a long time. But as I’ve stated, I found huge joy in the dedication to it.

Likewise, growing as a Christian and forming a strong relationship with God is a life-long pursuit. We need endurance. I need endurance – I sure don’t claim to have this covered. But we find immense joy in the reward ahead of us – eternity with Jesus and perfect community with his people.

How much greater is that reward than temporary gains in fitness!

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‘Looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Who for the joy set before him, endured the cross…’ – Hebrews 12:2

As part of my cycling addiction – I would follow professional bike riders and watch some of their races. I particularly admired the likes of Cadel Evans, Lance Armstrong and Chris Froome.

Whilst Lance Armstrong might not the best example nowadays, the fact remains. I admired each of these men’s grittiness and strength of character. The way they shone above the rest through sheer determination.

Particularly in Cadel, who had this way of making suffering his friend.

Cadel was characterised by his ability to endure. Pain and suffering written all over his face, yet this uncanny ability to power through it – even in the late stages of a grand tour (see picture above). These men embraced pain, adversity – but found a weird sense of joy and success through it.

In a similar way, Paul says (in Hebrews 12:2, highlighted above) we should look to Jesus as our example in this race of life.

We are encouraged not just because Jesus endured suffering, but that suffering was central to Jesus’ victory.

Cadel pales in comparison to what Jesus went through, and I wouldn’t ever wish to put Jesus on the same level as Cadel. But for the sake of this cycling analogy stuff – understand the context of the comparison I’m making.

Jesus is the picture of suffering if there ever was one.

In a prophecy made 680 odd years before Jesus was born, Jesus was described as becoming The Lord’s suffering servant. A man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief, oppressed and treated harshly (Isaiah 53). The prophecy was spot on.

Jesus, the Son of God was whipped, skin tore off his body. Blood poured freely. Thorns were shoved into his skull. He was tortured, spat on, crucified, killed. Unrecognisable. God turned his face away.

So, all this pain and suffering – how did Jesus endure it all?

Because the joy set before him was so great. His love for us is so much greater than the (literally) excruciating pain he endured. He was making a way for us, his people, to be in full relationship with him.

And we are called to live with the same goal in mind. We cannot fully mature in faith without trials. Therefore, we should be careful not to betray God’s invitation to maturity. But in the same breath, we can find strength in knowing all suffering, all pain on earth, is just temporary in our pursuit of his kingdom.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Jesus

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Sometimes the wind will be at our backs as we gun it downhill. Life is just a cruise along the esplanade at sunset. Everything is going great.

But then we will turn a corner. The wind is suddenly all in our face. Rain is spitting into our eyes. Ahead of us is a big-uphill. The chain comes off, a wheel is punctured. It’s remarkable how often these things seem to happen all at once – in cycling and in life.

What was once an easy cruise has become a battle against the elements. A battle against our will to push through. Others whizz past on the other side of the road as they head downhill, wind at their backs. The other way looks so much easier as we trudge uphill. We begin to envy other’s lives and the lack of suffering they have. Turning around to join them becomes an appealing prospect.

But we do not turn around. We keep moving in the right direction, slow as it is may be. For we know the strong winds and the hill climbs build up perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:4). Keeping our eyes set on the goal ahead of us, looking to he who completely shattered the elements of death itself.

The Everest we face today just an ant mound in comparison to the joy ahead of us.

Eyes set.