On June 26, 2007, while on a training exercise off the Oregon coast, Major Gregory D. Young of the Air National Guard flew his F-15A fighter into the Pacific Ocean. The $32 million aircraft was destroyed and the pilot killed. There was no distress call, no attempt to eject, and no apparent aircraft malfunction. Young, 34, had 2,300 hours of flight time, more than 750 hours of it in F-15s.
As investigators sifted through what was left of the wreckage – and their wasn’t much left – they were left to wonder: What caused Young to fly his airplane right into the ocean at more than 600 mph? The investigative report released two months later held the answer: Young “experienced unrecognized (Type 1) spatial disorientation (SD), which caused him to misperceive his attitude, altitude, and airspeed. As a result, [he] was clearly unaware of his position and impacted the water.” In other words: He didn’t know which way was up, and which direction he was flying. He never knew what hit him. Most disciples of Christ these days would say that, in some ways, the cultures of this world are in much the same predicament. In some way or another, the world has things backwards. Truth is, so does the church a lot of times.
Now, when Jesus taught, he typically used examples from everyday life and his immediate surroundings as a way to connect his message to the lives of his hearers. And his primary message was nothing less than the coming of the Kingdom of God. That is what Jesus talked about. His parables, his teaching, his illustrations, and his analogies all served to hammer home his point that the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, had come to this world in him. His teaching was always done in ways that there was something in it familiar to the masses.
At the same time, there was something strangely unfamiliar, something new, even radical about his teaching. His teaching about the kingdom of God didn’t fit anyone’s preconceived notions. He used phrases and terms they were familiar with, even phrases he borrowed from other popular teachers of his day, but in every case he turned them on their head, turned them upside down. In a sense, he was telling them, “Everything you thought you understood about the Kingdom of God is wrong. You’ve got everything upside down.”
He completely turned upside down the world of the elite and the outcasts alike. The elite heard words like “I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God before you” and were angry. The outcasts heard, perhaps for the very first time, that there was hope. That they were invited too. And they flocked to Jesus. They tore holes in people’s roofs and pushed their way through crowds, even climbed trees just to be near him, or to catch a glimpse of him. In fact, just before delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us that Jesus was with the masses of people, touching and healing them of disease. As the crowds pressed in, he wanted to teach his disciples and whoever else would listen, so he climbed up on a hill where they could see and hear him. And He began with what we call the Beatitudes. MATTHEW 5:1-11.
Our tendency in the Christian church is to view the Beatitudes as divine standards for being blessed by God. After all, it says over and over again “Blessed are …” I read those words and think, to be blessed by God I have to be humble-minded and recognize my spiritual poverty. After all, that’s what it means to be poor in spirit, right? We’re spiritually destitute apart from Christ but we know it, we claim it, and we call that being humble-minded. Just be humble-minded. Just be “poor in spirit.” That’s the key to being blessed by God.
Here’s the problem with that mentality: I’M still in control. If I do these things, God WILL, or maybe MUST bless me. It becomes salvation by works, or at least salvation by attitude. Maybe even salvation through your circumstances if you happen to find yourself being persecuted or grieving a significant loss. It’s the attitude that says, “If I can just attain one of these characteristics, I’ll find myself accepted by God.” Christians who read the Beatitudes in this way, and believe me, it’s most of us, find themselves hopelessly guilt-ridden, assuming “For God to bless me, I have to be like that.” Many just give up and figure they’ll do their best at humility, as they misunderstand it from this perspective, or they reject Christianity outright as hopelessly impossible.
The problem with that reading of the Beattitudes is Jesus’ message in the Gospels. He wasn’t saying “The Kingdom of God is coming.” His primary message, in fact his only message, was “The Kingdom of God is here.” Yes it has a future fulfillment as well, but the Kingdom of God is here now. That was the good news the masses were looking for. They were no longer striving to attain a hopeless standard for some supposed future blessing after death, they were a part of the Kingdom of God now! All the promises for the future held, but they were also, in Christ, becoming a reality in their own lives. Somehow, without doing anything at all on their own, they found that through this peasant teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, they had stumbled and fallen right into the outstretched arms of a loving God. Through no earning on their own they had made it into the Kingdom of God. Now that’s good news! The Beatitudes aren’t a “how to list.” If that’s the case they introduce a new legalism every bit as deadly as the legalism of the Pharisees.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Now this doesn’t mean “those who know they are spiritually destitute.” Those who know that apart from Christ there is nothing good in them. That isn’t what this means. If Jesus were speaking to us today, he might say something like (Dallas Willard) “Blessed are the spiritual zeros – the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of religion – when the Kingdom of Heaven comes upon them.” The poor in spirit live a life of spiritual poverty. And what is poverty? It is lack. They live lives of spiritual lack. Spiritual nothing. Today it no longer conveys anything of the sort. These are people with no spiritual qualifications or abilities at all. They readily admit they can’t make heads or tails of religion and probably that they have no need for it. They aren’t the sort of people church leaders seek out and ask, “What do you think?” They’re typically viewed as hopeless. Simon and Garfunkel call them the “written off, sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.” And yet … “He touched me.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” A parent in gut-wrenching grief. Men and women whose spouse has left them. If you’ve experienced real grief, you know it isn’t a blessed condition. As someone with significant experience with it, with grief as a constant partner in life for many years now, I can tell you that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But the promise of the kingdom is comfort, not necessarily the removal of grief, but comfort as the loss is experienced.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” These are the shy, unassertive, meek and mild, intimidated ones. They never push. They always get out of the way. When others cry out in anger at being treated unfairly they shrink back, unable to find words, retreating into a silent corner, often filled with a rage they can’t find a way to express.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” They burn with desire for things to be made right. They have a strong sense of justice. They can’t stand to be wronged, or maybe to see someone else wronged. They long to see wrongs made right. Or maybe they find the wrong inside themselves. Maybe they failed so badly that day, and they cringe at the thought of what they have done.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” We don’t live in a merciful culture. We don’t live in a culture that celebrates self-sacrifice for the sake of others. You see, the merciful leave themselves open to being taken advantage of. Mercy is not a popular act, except for the one receiving mercy. The merciful are always despised by those who know how to “take care of business.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The perfectionists. The ones for whom nothing is good enough, including themselves. Their food is never right, their clothes and hair are never right, they can tell you exactly what is wrong with everything. Talk about living a miserable life! But at last they will find something that satisfies their desire for purity – they will see God.
Then we have the peacemakers. Outside of the Kingdom of God they are called every name but child of God. They are the ones who wade into conflict and try to smooth things out. Neither side likes them. Neither side trusts them. After all, if you are looking at both sides, you certainly can’t be on MY side. I do quite a bit of marriage and couples and family counseling, and I can tell you that it feels really different than individual counseling to those in counseling. And it feels different because my client isn’t one person or the other. My client is the relationship itself. And there’s an old saying in couples work. “Any time you’re working with a couple, there are three stories in the room – his side, her side, and the truth.” And my job is to help the couple to come off their insistence on their story, their perspective, and look at the problem together, as a team. And let me tell you, that isn’t always a popular thing to do.
Then there are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They are attacked because of their stand for what is right, even if culture says it is wrong. And they aren’t suffering momentary trouble or harassment. They aren’t just being made fun of at work or on Facebook. Their lives have been ruined, their lives have been threatened, or they have been killed for refusing to comply with what is wrong. And lastly there are those who are insulted, persecuted, even lied about because of their stand for Christ. Those for whom it is dangerous to even utter the name of Jesus. Those secretly gathering in huts to worship, fearing for their lives. Those who sing their hymns in silence for fear of being heard.
So what is Jesus’ point here? His point is simply this: The kingdom of God is open to everyone. It’s open to you, and to you, and yes, even you. But what do we mean when we talk about the Kingdom of God. We use that phrase all the time. We pray for God’s kingdom to be established on earth. We pray “thy kingdom come.” But what do we mean by that? What do we mean by “the kingdom of God?”
A few years ago read a book that I’d been wanting to read for quite some time. The book is titled “The Feuds of Eastern Kentucky.” Sounds like a weird book to be reading, I know. A weird topic to be interested in. But it’s important to me because my family, through my maternal grandmother, is in that book. My mom’s mom was from “Bloody Breathitt” County, Kentucky. When you think about feuds, you think about the Hatfields and the McCoys, right? And that was a real feud. They’re in the book. But the Littles? We made them look tame. We were involved in three feuds, two on the side of another family and one directly opposed to that family.
But as I read, I started to get interested in the sociology of the whole thing. I started wondering, “What made these families start shooting and killing one another?” It was pretty simple, really – a desire for control. Political control. Control of business and commerce. A lot of the people involved were well educated businessmen and lawyers. Not all of them, but many. And nobody trusted the law enforcement and criminal justice systems because you could kill someone, be sentenced to life in prison, serve a few years and then be pardoned by the next governor and get out and go back home and start back up again. So people tended to take matters into their own hands. So in the counties of Eastern Kentucky, families often became little kingdoms, each doling out their own justice and seeking revenge as they saw fit. And depending on which side the sheriff or prosecutor was on, they just might look the other way, or refuse to serve the indictments.
Some families chose to live under the laws of their county, the state, and the nation. Many wanted peace and less bloodshed. Others did not. They chose to walk their own path, by their own set of rules. Most weren’t always lawless. But when it came to getting the control they wanted, they lived by their own law.
Now think about your life as a kingdom, and the extent of your kingdom is that place where YOU have a deciding voice. The only place where you have legitimate control is over yourself, your life. Your children for a while maybe, but over time their life, their kingdom separates from yours and you hand over the scepter of their lives to them. I often tell people in counseling, “you cannot control what happens to you.” In other words, you usually cannot control others. But you do have control over your response. That’s your life. Your kingdom. The area where your will reigns.
And God has allowed you to have your kingdom. That’s what it means to have free will. Just like the citizens of Eastern Kentucky, you can do what you want. You can choose to go your own way. Oh, there will be consequences, perhaps in this life in certainly in the next, but life is best when what you want falls in line with what God wants. To live in the kingdom of God is to bring your kingdom into God’s kingdom, to submit your life to God as the ultimate sovereign. It is to acknowledge a higher, loving, grace-filled authority. It is to say, “I am free to do what I want. I can recognize no other authority than my own. That is my right as a being with free will. But I choose to submit to God’s rule in my life, because God’s way is best now, and in the life to come.
The door to that kingdom is a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. As we live in the kingdom of God, over time, we begin to do by nature those things that please God. We grow into our citizenship in that kingdom. And we don’t need a list of laws to guide us because Jesus is living through us, transforming us. So the kingdom of God is present now for you, insofar as your kingdom has been brought under the authority of the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. To follow Christ is to enter into that kingdom now, and to live in it fully in eternity.