Poor in Spirit, 12 July 2020

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Blessed: The Beatitudes
Matthew 5:3

Series Big Idea: The greatest sermon in history is radical, revolutionary, and relevant.

Big Idea: Although we avoid the poor—and being poor—God can fill whatever we lack.

The date was March 11, 1994. After working in my home office in the basement of our duplex in metro Detroit, I went upstairs to have lunch with my bride. With a toddler and a newborn in the background, Heather turned Focus on the Family on the radio and we listened to George Barna and Dieter Zander talk about this up-and-coming generation we know today as Generation X. It was a moment that forever changed my life.

God used the voice of Dieter Zander to create within me a vision to plant the church that years later would become Frontline Church, Ann Arbor. I could easily write a small book just about my relationship with Dieter, who became my mentor during the four years that followed when we both lived in Chicagoland. Each time we met, Dieter seemed to reach deep into my soul and expose my insecurities, my ambitions, and my passions.

Perhaps the most tangible influence of Dieter decades later can be found in my e-mails. That might sound odd, but I remember him ending his e-mail with “Blessings and peace, Dieter.” I thought that sounded cooler than “In Him” or “Sincerely” and began using it. To this day, most of my e-mail close, “Blessings, Kirk.” It is not a signature that is automatically generated by my e-mail app, but instead I manually type it each time, intentionally sending a blessing to my reader.

What does it mean to be blessed? How can we experience more of God’s blessings? How can we be a blessing to others? These are the questions we’ll address throughout our new series, “Blessed,” a study of the Beatitudes, the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Do you want to be blessed? Why?

When someone sneezes, what do we do? Nowadays, we jump as far away from the person as possible! COVID! We say, “God bless you” or “bless you.”

When I greet someone with a “how’s it going?” I sometimes hear, “I’m blessed.”

I usually end our Sunday gatherings with a benediction which begins, “May God bless you and keep you.”

What does it mean to be blessed?

The original Greek word used in Matthew 5, makarios, means “supremely blest; fortunate, well off, happy.” It doesn’t necessarily speak of material wealth, though we might say a millionaire is blessed with money, a supermodel is blessed with good looks, or an athlete is blessed with physical strength.”

The Hebrew word for blessed is
barak. It suggests thanks, a gift, praise, and rejoicing. We are told throughout scripture that God blesses…and also that we are to bless God. Perhaps the most famous example is Psalm 103 which begins

Bless the LORD, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name! (Psalm 103:1, NKJV)

What does that really mean? The New International Version translates it,

Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. (Psalm 103:1, NIV)

Like our English word
love, bless has different meanings according to the context. When we ask God to bless someone, we don’t usually think of God praising them, but we want His favor, gift, goodness. A blessing indicates a state of joy or happiness.

I’m going to give you my definition:
blessed is having God’s presence and favor. There’s nothing greater than God’s presence. If there’s anything you want more in heaven than being with God, it’s an idol. I can’t wait to have a pain-free body, a sinless existence, and streets of gold. I’m looking forward to a reunion with my dad, mother-in-law, and grandparents, but what I want to do more than anything in heaven is run to Jesus! I can’t wait to be in the eternal presence of God.

Sadly, many Christians want money, pleasure, and power more than God. They are willing to settle for temporary things which may bring a moment of happiness, but no lasting joy. This will become so obvious as we look at The Beatitudes, a word meaning blessings. We all want to be blessed…or do we?

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said: (Matthew 5:1-2)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The New Living Translation reads,

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3, NLT)

Blessed are the poor. Why the poor? They look the least blessed. We seemingly do just about anything to avoid being poor. If we’re honest, we may even avoid the poor. It’s such a negative word, poor. It’s at the bottom of most survey responses—from excellent to poor. Maybe you saw the word on your report card. It may conjure up the image of someone begging. The original Greek word, ptochos, means to crouch, a beggar, distressed, cringing. What could that possibly have to do with God and His blessing?

I’d like us to consider today Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, The Message)

When is the last time you were at the end of your rope? Maybe it was that time you were sick in the hospital. Perhaps it was when a relationship ended. It could’ve been losing the job, filing for bankruptcy, or your bank account getting hacked (as mine did two weeks ago!). It’s possible you’re at the end of your rope at this moment, perhaps due to COVID-19, directly or indirectly. This is a challenging season for all of us.

Jesus doesn’t say blessed are the financially poor. He uses the phrase “poor in spirit.” It’s a hole, something missing, a lack. You can be one of the 800 billionaires in the United States and be poor in spirit. You can be a world-class marathoner and be poor in spirit. You can be famous and powerful and yet poor in spirit. We’ve all found ourselves at the end of our rope. And then what?

It’s common for us to complain. Maybe we blame. It surely can’t be our fault! If you’re like me, after whining, you’ll remember to pray. It could be God’s goal for our poverty in the first place!

I’ve heard a lot of people over the years talking about the decline of Christianity in the West. Thousands of churches in the United States close every year (which is one reason why we need to plant new churches). Research consistently shows church attendance and biblical literacy on the decline. I think there are two reasons people in our culture aren’t passionately pursuing Jesus. The first is simply that we’re too busy, distracted by our screens and entertainment. The second is simple:
we don’t need God. Or more accurately, we don’t think we need God.

Who has time or energy for God when you’re in the middle of your rope, when things are going great, when the money’s flowing, the relationships are healthy, the body’s in shape, and all is well? Need I remind you money, people, and health can all be idols?

Eventually it hits the fan. Nobody lives a perfect life. We get the phone call from the doctor. The boss gives us a pink slip. The spouse files for divorce. The car breaks down. It might take a while, but eventually, many people turn to God. They are desperate. They are searching for answers. They need help…and are willing to acknowledge it. I’ve been praying that coronavirus might lead our nation and world from our idols to God.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, The Message)

It sounds so simple, yet it’s profoundly true. In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus said,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

It can be all about you or all about God, but not both! You can allow God to be in control or pretend you’re in the driver’s seat, but you can’t have God as your co-pilot!

Jesus did not say blessed are the poor who have no money. He says blessed are the poor in spirit, those who need God. His kingdom belongs to them because they seek it, they find it, and they experience it.

Who wouldn’t want the kingdom of heaven? Simply, those who don’t need God. They love this world too much. They feel self-sufficient. Their arrogance keeps them from bowing their knee and pursuing God. Just as there must be emptiness before fullness, so becoming poor in spirit must precede the grace and riches of the kingdom of God.

Later in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6, he will say,

31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:31-34)

Think about all of the times you’ve experienced fear or worry this past week. We don’t often think of fear or worry as sins, but they are repeatedly forbidden…except for the fear and reverence of God. I doubt I’m the only one who finds themselves afraid or anxious. What do you worry about? If you’re like me, you worry about

  • - Health
  • - Money
  • - Safety
  • - Relationships

If our focus is on Jesus, it leaves little room for worry. When we seek God’s kingdom, everything will be ok. We might get sick, but God is our healer. We might need money, but God is our provider. We might be in danger, but God is our protector. We might experience conflict, but God is our peace.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, The Message)

I want to suggest to you that the root of all of our distance from God is pride. It’s what got satan kicked out of heaven. It’s what creates walls between us and others. Pride says it’s all about me, I have no needs, I’m in control…and it’s ultimately a lonely place to be.

Do you want more of God or more of yourself? That’s the bottom line. When it’s all about God, temporary trials matter less than eternal treasures.

I have four prayers for First Alliance Church: direction, protection, unity, and passion. I want God to guide us, shelter us from evil, keep us together in harmony, and that last one: passionate, zealous for God and for others, loving well, looking beyond ourselves to bless God and others.

My Story

Although we avoid the poor—and being poor—God can fill whatever we lack. I’ve never prayed for sickness, a pink slip, my bank account to be hacked, theft, broken relationships, or the death of loved ones, but I’ve experienced them all. In each instance, I found myself desperate, broken…poor in spirit.

The most profound part of my story involves nine years of treating a sick child in five states for multiple conditions. It drove me to my knees. Some of the effects continue, but at a moment when the storms were calming, I remembering praying, “LORD, I don’t want to lose my intimacy with You. I want more of You and less of me. I want to turn my petitions into praises and remain close to You.”

Honestly, my prayer life hasn’t always been as vibrant and passionate as those days living in the Cleveland Ronald McDonald House or when my family was separated by thousands of miles. I truly experienced the blessing of God’s kingdom and presence during my most desperate days.

We need not wait for trials to be passionate for God. We can begin right now in blessing God, in praising God. We can offer up our thanksgiving, acknowledge our dependency, recognize without Him, we can do nothing. Sunday worship is a weekly rhythm to remind us that He is God and we are not. We don’t gather simply to sing songs and endure a lecture! This experience is but one of the ways we admit our weakness and declare His strength, confess our sins and receive His forgiveness, expose our poverty and receive His riches.

It’s not about you! It’s all about Jesus!

This morning, you are either in a storm, coming out of a storm, or about to enter a storm. God’s blessing is His presence—always, even in the storms, especially in storms. He says, “I’m on your side. I’m with you. I’m for you.” Sure, we want Him to instantly calm the storm. Sometimes He calms the storm, and sometimes He calms His child. The promise is His presence. You might feel like a spiritual zero, as Dallas Willard called it. Maybe you’re at the end of your rope due to an addiction or a failing marriage. You might be financially broke, overwhelmed with depression, or debilitated by anxiety. Your physical body may be failing you. God doesn’t promise to instantly fix everything broke in our lives, but He promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He’s with us in the storm. Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. But it begins with surrender, with recognizing our poverty, and turning to God.

And if all is well in your life, praise God…and remember without Him, you can do nothing. We are all sinners saved by the wonderful grace of our LORD.

LORD, I Need You

I can’t think of a better way to end than to declare our need for God, our personal poverty, the fact that we don’t have it all together and we’re not in control.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, The Message)

We are all blessed. We simply need to open our eyes and see God’s work all around us. Religion, health, fame, and fortune will always let us down. There’s nothing greater than God’s love, peace, and presence.

Credits: Some ideas from The Beatitudes Project.

You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

You can watch this video and others at the First Alliance Church Video Library