When I was 14, my family moved to the UK from the Middle East, where we had been living. It was not easy. Although my mother is from Jordan, my father is from England, so I had grown up feeling like a foreigner. Therefore, I assumed, moving back to Liverpool would be easy. I was home – this was my own culture. I would know what to say, how to behave. But I was wrong! Every day I faced sometimes-painful reminders that I was a foreigner here too. I spoke English fluently, yet there were so many phrases, references, idioms that made no sense to me. I would say something and everyone would laugh and I could not work out what I had said that was so funny. I had no idea how to do simple things: like queue correctly at the bus stop or wear my rucksack to school.
Slowly that changed. I learned how people in this culture spoke, dressed, acted. Rucksack: strap on one shoulder, never both. Bus stop: Never ever, jump the queue, even if it is raining and the bus shelter is empty. I worked out which film or song the quotes came from. I learned to fit in. Eventually I no longer had to think about what to do in each situation. Not only had I learned the rules, I had internalised the values.
Maybe you too know what it is like to move into a new culture. Maybe a new country. Or it could just as easily be a new school, or company. Or you married into a new family with unfamiliar ways of doing things. When you find yourself facing a new culture, it's so helpful to be told what to expect and how to behave. In a new job, we call it an 'induction'. When you come to live in the UK, you are tested on your knowledge of this book 'Life in the United Kingdom. A Guide for New Residents'.
When we trust in Jesus, he welcomes us into his kingdom. We renounce our former citizenship and become subjects of the King of the Kingdom of heaven. Then we hear the words of King Jesus himself introducing us to life in our new culture: how to think, speak, act and behave.
We are starting a new series in the gospel of Matthew. Tonight we look at Matthew 5.1-12. It's the opening words of Jesus' induction session for those in his Kingdom. The opening chapter of what we could call: 'Life in the Kingdom of Heaven. A Guide for New Residents'. Otherwise known as the 'sermon on the mount'. Have a look at Matthew 5.1-2:
"Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…"
What we have in these chapters is the summary of a single teaching session. That may have taken a whole day or even a number of days. We're not sure. But, Matthew tells us it was a definite block of teaching given on a single occasion. The sermon summary lasts until the end of chapter 7. Here is Matthew 7.28-29:
"And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."
It is clear from these verses who Jesus was teaching. Two groups are mentioned, and the immediate context tells us more about them. The first group are the disciples. Who are they? Those who had committed to following Jesus as their king. Glance up to Matthew 4.17-22.
"From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him."
The first group are the disciples. They had responded to the call of Jesus to repent. That's a Bible word that means you change the direction you are heading in. It is talking about an internal change, about an inward attitude change in how you treat God. So you change from quietly ignoring him, or more obviously rebelling against him - to treating him as king. That is how you become a disciple, which is the first group mentioned.
The second group are the crowds. Those who knew about Jesus, had experienced his work in their lives but were yet to commit to following him as king, yet to repent and so enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 4.23-25:
"And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan."
So Matthew chapters 5-7 are King Jesus' induction to life in his kingdom addressed to his disciples. Yes, the crowd are listening in. However, Jesus is talking to his disciples. Look at chapter 5, verse 13:
"You are the salt of the earth..."
Not you 'could be'. And verse 14:
"You are the light of the world…"
Not 'if you follow me, then you could become the light of the world…' It is really important we grasp that these words are not primarily a recruitment drive on how to gain entry to God's Kingdom. What we are about to read is not the list of 'essential qualities' on a job description. It's not the list of items that give you 'points' when applying for a visa to take up residence in a new country.
Jesus is not saying, 'if you live like this, then you will be allowed in'. Do not misunderstand what Jesus is saying. You cannot for one moment even live up to these standards on your own. Only God can bring about that kind of transformation by his Spirit. What he is saying is this: 'now that you are in my Kingdom, this is what life is like here.' This is a guide to kingdom culture for those already in that kingdom, not a rulebook for gaining citizenship.
Of course, the crowds are listening in too and if that is where you are at right now, then it does paint for you a wonderful picture of what life would be like if you accept the invitation to follow King Jesus.
It's also worth saying that both groups at the time had huge misunderstandings of what it would like to be a part of the Kingdom of heaven. Those misunderstandings needed correcting. Some thought joining God's kingdom meant strapping on armour and joining a war against the political enemies of God. They thought the Kingdom of heaven was the piece of land either side of the river Jordan. Some thought it meant doing the right things externally, regardless of what was going on inside your heart.
We too have our own misunderstandings of what it looks like to have Jesus as king. That life would be boring, or old-fashioned, or involve switching off your brain. That also needs correcting too. The fact of the matter is: life under King Jesus is summed up by that word blessed. It is a good thing! So let's see how Jesus describes life with him as King. Verse 3:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
A poor person knows he has great need. To be poor in spirit is to be honest before God and admit that we are spiritually bankrupt and constantly needing his forgiveness.
At Jesmond Parish Church, we run a group called Celebrate Recovery, to offer support to men and women as they seek freedom from a range of addictions, deep-seated struggles with hurts, worries, guilt, shame, relationship issues, and more. The process of recovery begins with this idea of being 'poor in spirit' and this principle: 'I admit that I am powerless to control my tendency to do the wrong thing and my life is unmanageable.'
That effects how we treat others – how can we be arrogant and poor in spirit? It also changes how we pray. That utter dependence on God for everything is characteristic of all disciples in the Kingdom of heaven. That is quite different to life when we live as if we were king - masters of own lives and destiny. But things are different now. Verse 4:
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
What does it mean to mourn? It doesn't mean that Christians should always be miserable or that we look for suffering because the more we suffer the more godly we must be. What it is saying is that those who follow Jesus will find that there is a constant, background tune of grieving in their lives. Which is right because they increasingly see things as their king sees them.
So this includes the grief we feel about the growing realisation of our sinfulness. And from there it extends to a deep sadness over the sinfulness and brokenness we see around us. Things are not as they should be. Evil prospers. God's will is not yet done on earth as it is in heaven. So we mourn – or to put it another way, we long for the time when we will be home and all that is wrong with the world will be put right. We look forward to when things will be different from now. Verse 5:
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
What does it mean to be meek? It is not feeling the need to defend ourselves when we are opposed or face challenging situations. It is when we are able to leave our case and our cause in the hands of God. Normally we would rush to take matters into our own hands. But things are different now. Instead, as Celebrate Recovery puts it: 'I consciously choose to commit all my life and will to Christ's care and control'. Verse 6:
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
One of the words added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year was 'hangry'. It's a great word! We don't have to have lived in a desert climate to understand what happens when we are desperate for food or drink and have to wait. Just give me an hour waiting for food I've ordered at a restaurant and you'll get a glimpse of what Jesus is referring to here. It's when your hunger distracts your attention from anything else you might be doing. You can't shake off the awareness of your need. It makes you push other things aside. 'Let me get some food and then I'll get back to you…' Dealing with your hunger is top priority, it's the first thing we think about.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness is just like that, but what you hunger for is not food or drink but righteousness. It involves being passionate about God's kingdom and doing the right thing in God's eyes. Rather than whatever else it is that we used to seek. Perhaps to be served and live in comfort, or to be worshipped and gain approval from others, or to be in total control of life and other people or to be most successful in whatever our thing is. But things are different now. As we grow as disciples we live for the glory of our heavenly father and we work for his will in the world in every area we can make a contribution. Verse 7:
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
Mercy is holding back on treating people as they deserve and instead treating them with a generosity that is not deserved. Our day to day experience is often that the world is an unmerciful place full of unmerciful people. But God's kingdom is different. This is the kingdom of mercy. We have been shown mercy, and so we in turn are to be merciful people. Verse 8:
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Notice the emphasis on what is inside us, not on external goodness. It's not just about being seen to be good. But things are different now. In God's kingdom what matters is being pure in the areas of our lives that no one sees. In our minds, at the level of our motives. Verse 9:
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."
The idea of being a peace-maker is an active one, not a passive one. It's not staying out of the way and peacefully doing nothing. A peace-maker actively goes out of their way to bring reconciliation and harmony. A peace-maker does whatever is needed, as much as lies within their power, to bring peace when there is conflict. Many react to conflict with gossip, being two-faced, or stoking up the aggression. Or they take the typically British style of talking to anyone and everyone about a grievance we have with someone but not talking to the one they are angry with. But things are different in God's kingdom. That's not how things work here. Instead of ignoring such a situation, a peace-maker cares that there is a war going on. And they want to do something about it. They care enough to speak with tact, sympathy and humility. They recognise that true peace can only come by pointing men and women to the only way of forgiveness and harmony. Verses 10-12:
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
We've seen some of this recently in our series in 1 Peter. The King of the Kingdom of heaven – Jesus himself – did not escape opposition from those who hated God's message and his ways. It is no surprise that we, just like the prophets of old – will also suffer because we are his subjects. We belong to him; we are now members of the kingdom of heaven.
So those are the beatitudes, as they're sometimes called. They're general - Jesus will come back to them in more detail as the session goes on. But they tell us what life with Jesus as King is like. It is blessed. Not just later. It is blessed now, in this life. We know his forgiveness, guidance, comfort and care, and he provides our needs. We are satisfied. We receive mercy. We see God. There are benefits to living under God's Kingly rule. As we've just seen, that doesn't mean life is without difficulty. But the one who is in the Kingdom of Heaven is blessed. That is Matthew 5.1-12.
Let me conclude. As I said at the beginning, when we trust in Jesus, he welcomes us into his kingdom. We renounce our former citizenship and become subjects of the King of the Kingdom of heaven. But that doesn't mean we feel at home straight away in our new society and culture. Through study of the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit, we first learn the rules of the Kingdom. For some the first challenges involve not lying, not using words harshly, not fighting back, not letting your anger flare up. At the beginning we focus on rules because everything is new and we want to fit in.
But eventually we internalise the rules. Increasingly the cutting edge of growth for us becomes the values of the Kingdom – loving God and loving other people. We make positive choices to be generous, to be a servant, to honour our parents. We struggle less and less with whether to lie to someone: our struggle increasingly focuses on how best to love that person.
Finally, as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven and as subjects of the king, we begin to embrace not only the values of the kingdom, but also the purposes of the king. We begin to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" as its says in Matthew 6.33. We begin to consider the implications of our own lives for the call of our king to make disciples of all nations. We struggle with discerning the best ways to seek and advance God's Kingdom. More than simply fitting into the culture of the kingdom of heaven, we desire to advance God's purposes in our lives and in the lives of other people. We are different.
Welcoming Jesus' Kingship is a process of increasingly allowing his authority and his Kingdom to be the defining reality of our lives. The process takes a lifetime, and often it feels like two steps forward and one and a half steps back. It isn't always an upward progression so don't be discouraged if that is your experience. You are not alone.
The beatitudes flesh out for us what it looks like to have Jesus as Lord of your life and what growth will look like as we absorb the rules and values of the King. But then we begin to ask: 'Why?' What is the purpose of us living different lives? Remember what Jesus said when he called those first disciples. It's in Matthew 4.19:
"Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."
Ultimately, that is why. So that we live lives that point to our King. So that we can help others know him. So that God's Kingdom grows. And that is why, as we'll see more next week, Matthew goes on to talk of those who live with Jesus as their King being salt and light in the world.