Psalm 24:1-10; Matthew 5:1-12
3rd Sunday before Lent
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Groucho Marks, not someone I customarily quote in my sermons, famously said: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Honesty, fair dealing, integrity, matter to us. We don’t like it when people say one thing and do another, or when their actions lack moral principles. We know that it is one of the things that cannot be faked.
At our Pilgrim home group on Thursday evening we were looking at the book of Jonah, a book about a prophet who said one thing, but acted in the opposite way, a prophet lacking integrity. That led us on to discussing the importance of integrity in people today, and our desire to see greater integrity within our political leaders. Integrity, or the lack of it, is never far away from our politics. Just seven days ago, for example, Nadhim Zahawi was sacked for a lack of honesty, a failure of integrity regarding his tax returns. And he is just one in a long line of politicians over the years who have fallen short. Integrity is not something we can fake.
Which leads us to our penultimate beatitude in this beatitude series: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
The word “pure” here has a variety of uses. It can mean something that has been washed clean; or it can refer to wheat that has been sifted and rid from all the chaff; or it can refer to something that is unadulterated – wine or milk that hasn’t been watered down. In other words, pure is something clean, unmixed – it is what it is. In today’s language we might choose to rephrase the beatitude, blessed, happy, you are in a good place, when you are utterly sincere, when you live a life of honesty and integrity.
What does such a life look like? Again, our starting point must be to look at Jesus. After Jesus was filled with the Spirit at his baptism, he went into the wilderness and there was tempted by the devil. He was tempted with seemingly good things – food for his hungry body – “turn these stones into bread” Satan said; fame that his message could be spread more easily – “throw yourself from the temple and let the miracle of being caught by angels wow the crowds”; and power that he could command all people to follow God’s will – “Worship me”, Satan said, “and all nations will bow dow to you”. At that moment, for Jesus there was an inner conflict, a wrestling with doing what was right, and doing so for the right reasons and in the right way, when an easier way, a shorter way was offered, which involved just a little bit of compromise, of watering down God’s values. Jesus each time rejected the temptation, holding on to the ways of God.
Jesus was alone throughout those temptations so how do we know about them? Presumably because he told his disciples about them afterwards. There is an integrity in facing temptation head on and resisting it, and an honesty in acknowledging to others the pressures being faced.
Living lives of integrity and honesty is a challenge. It is tempting at times to put on a show, to deceive others, to pretend to be things we are not in order to be liked or popular or to get our way. But as Christians a key characteristic of how we live our lives should be honesty and integrity. A consistency in our words, actions and thoughts. That people know we are are people of our word. That we aren’t going to say one thing to them and another thing to someone else.
You may have watched the TV show “The Traitors” recently. What struck me about both the UK and US versions was the weight, the burden, that those who had to lie about their identity, experienced. Although it was a game, and although lying was what they were supposed to do, the weight of deceiving others over the course of a few days, took a heavy toll. Some burst into tears of relief when they were exposed and could come clean, even though it meant them missing out on the large financial prize. The truth is that living with a pure heart, with pure motives, with integrity, is hard, but the opposite is harder still.
God loves us for who we are, not for who we pretend to be, and we will come to see him more clearly as we come before him humbly acknowledging that.
Our final beatitude is perhaps the most uncomfortable and challenging of all eight: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed, happy, you are in a good place, when people choose to persecute you, oppose you, insult you, bring false claims against you, attack you and undermine you because of standing for what is right, because of your faith in Christ, because when that happens you can take comfort and hope in knowing that you will experience great joy in heaven.
Jesus did not go out of his way to court persecution and yet his love prompted him to stand up for those on the margins, to oppose power where it was being used to oppress others. This man of love was killed violently on a cross by those who opposed him. The early church too experienced strong opposition. Peter and Paul were in and out of prison, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered, and in Nero’s time, Christians were not only thrown to the lions, but sewn up in wild animal skins and torn to pieces by wild dogs, and placed on spits and set alight to act as human torches. Living the life of the Beatitudes leads to opposition.
We may feel that this was a different age, and that people are much more tolerant now. However, the number of those killed for their Christian faith around the world in the last century exceeded the number of martyrs in the previous 19 centuries combined. There is not a diminishment of persecution. Indeed, one of the charities we hope to support as a church this year is Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a charity that works with governments and the United Nations to advocate for religious freedoms for all around our world. And though we are fortunate to live in a country where religious freedom is protected by the law, living out our faith, especially in standing up for the rights of others, can sometimes lead to verbal attacks and intimidation.
This is the one beatitude that we do not have to pursue or work at. Living out the other seven beatitudes will shape our lives in such a way that those who oppress others, those who wish ill to others, will take offence. When we mourn for the suffering of the world, when we stand up for the rights of others, when we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, when we actively pursue mercy and peace, whether that is in personal relationships, whether that is in our workplaces and community, whether that is in our wider world, we will undoubtedly upset those who benefit from the way things currently are. And then the persecution that the beatitudes speak of will come.
Facing such opposition requires both humility and courage. Humility to look at ourselves and check that the opposition and criticism that we are receiving is not in fact because of our lack of righteousness – our own failure to be peace-makers, to treat others with grace, love and respect. Sometimes we may be criticised justly. And we need courage, because if you are anything like me, I run a mile from conflict. Once again, recognising we are poor in spirit, in need of God, we turn to him for help.
And so we come to the end of our series. What does it mean to live a blessed, a happy, a contented life? These eight statements of Jesus give us much to pray through and live out:
Blessed are the poor in Spirit – those who know their total need of God
Blessed are those who mourn – those who mourn their own failings and the suffering of the world
Blessed are the meek – those who are humble and seek the rights and justice of others before themselves
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – who care passionately about God’s love and justice
Blessed are the merciful – who show the mercy to others that God has shown to them
Blessed are the pure in heart – those who live with integrity and honesty
Blessed are the peacemakers – at home, at work, in community, in the world
And blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness – for that will be a sign that they are on the right tracks.
May God truly bless us – may he help us to live out the life he calls us to live.