Maybe you’ve had the experience this past week when you say “Happy New Year” it feels like you’re telling a joke. Should we really expect a Happy 2024? Turn on the news and the signs aren’t so hopeful. Wars and rumors of war; complicated problems with no easy solutions; an election year that will be extremely divisive: perhaps we should instead say “Happy Apocalypse!”
In times like these we run on the fuel of anxiety. We get touchy. We get financially frugal or (depending on temperament) financially impulsive. Then there are the unique details of your life. Will you be able to keep your job? Will that broken relationship finally be mended? Will this be the year that you finally put that particular vice to death? Will your heart hurt a little bit less?
Probably 12-15 years ago, there was a slogan that showed up on banners over highways, graffiti on walls, bumper stickers on cars. It said “Wake Up America, Read your Constitution!” The conviction was that our society needed to wake up to the fact that we were losing. If only we’d dust off that US Constitution, we’d learn afresh how the game gets won.
In 2024, there’s a more urgent message we need: “Wake up, Church! Read the Beatitudes.” Jesus has given His people a strategy that looks like losing, but it’s actually winning. It looks like weakness, but it’s actually strength. The strange character of Jesus’ kingdom is that winning is losing and losing is winning.
Think about this truth from two angles: a present reality and a future reward.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the humble,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” (Matthew 5:3-10 CSB)
In order to get these verses right, we need to remember who Jesus has in view. This is a kingdom manifesto for disciples. It’s a character sketch of what Jesus followers should look like. It’s not about how to get into the kingdom, but what kingdom life is like. This present reality is seen from the start: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matt.5:3). To be “blessed” is the happy state of having God smile upon you, to be surrounded by His grace (Num.6:22-26). The “kingdom of heaven” is the realm where that blessed relationship with God and others gets played out. How do you get the blessing? How do you flourish in Christ’s kingdom? Poverty of spirit. In other words, the one thing you need is nothing. The essential mark of a Christian is someone who never outgrows their sense of need. We cannot claim any righteousness of our own. We can’t point to our religious pedigree or virtue. We must consider ourselves beggars. Only those who own up to their sin and recognize their spiritual bankruptcy before God can enter His kingdom. In the words of the old hymn, “All the fitness He requires is to know your need of Him.” The result of this encounter with God’s grace is that we become a certain kind of person.
Sadly, Christians know all too well how to keep up appearances and become forgetful of how spiritually needy we are. In a world of social media, we can quickly be fooled by the difference between reality and the appearance of reality. But God isn’t. He invites us to the freedom of embracing reality, and living in line with it. People aren’t comfortable with this because it feels like Loserville.
Our world tells us to be strong; not too sensitive; we’re told to run from “negative feelings” by numbing ourselves and distracting ourselves. Jesus says, “Let the tears flow. The comfort will come.”
Our world demands that we assert ourselves; boast about our accolades; to think it would be a tragedy not to be recognized; and a death to ever feel like a doormat. Jesus says, “Embrace humility. You won’t miss out on anything.”
Our world dangles sensuality and selfishness before us; the only sin is to say no to your desires. And yet to those whose deepest desire is righteousness, Jesus says “It’s worth it. You will be satisfied.”
Our world applauds those who crush their opponents. Jesus says, “Be merciful. Whatever mercy you need will come your way.”
Our world operates on ulterior motives and using people for our own advantage. Jesus says, “Let your heart be pure. You’ll see God.”
Our world either keeps peace at all costs or views peace as compromise. Jesus says, “Be a peacemaker. Move toward others. Try to graciously bring people together. And it’ll be clear you’re in God’s family.”
Our world tries to bully us into silence (keep your righteousness to yourself) or bullies us into surrender (change your definition of righteousness). Jesus says, “Let them persecute you. You got nothing to lose because you’re with me.”
We see clearly that there’s a way to win in our world that ultimately leads to losing. But there’s a way to lose that is ultimately a sign of winning. How is this good news for us in 2024? Thankfully God gave us a test run at this in 2020. It’s good to reflect: how did that all work out?
– Humility went out the window out of fear that someone might think we’re stupid or weak. So people filed into tribes.
– We didn’t hunger or thirst for righteousness. Instead people hungered and thirsted for blood.
– Mercy got cancelled. And “No Mercy” became the mantra.
– Purity of heart looked quaint and naive.
– Peacemaking looked like suicide.
– And everyone became “persecuted for righteousness.” But it was a “righteousness” associated with a political outlook, not the name of Christ.
What was the fruit of all this? Outrage; angst; anxiety; depression; family division; isolation and fear. This was the fruit of a mindset that said “Win at all costs.”
The church can do better in 2024. We can live above the fray by having a firm conviction that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. The church is called to be a contrast society. When we embrace that call we can actually be good for the world around us.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt.5:13-16)
According to Jesus, the present reality is that no matter what’s happening around the world, His people are blessed. Even though we might look like fools who are losing we’re actually winning.
There’s an episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza realizes that his life is the complete opposite of everything he wanted to be. Jerry says “Try doing the opposite.” As George ceases to care and starts doing the opposite, his life turns out exactly how he wanted it.
Our world has a script for how things should go and what you must do. Jesus says, “Do the opposite!”Not because it always pragmatically works in our favor (Matthew 5:10-12 shows otherwise); but because it positions us to know this is the life that is truly blessed by God.
The kingdom of heaven is a present possession, but it’s not yet fully in our grasp. It’s in the bank, and our name is on the account, but it’s not yet been cashed out. This helps us have balance with our expectations.
Faith is essential. A Christian is someone who’s not just living for the present, but also banking their life on the future. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the arc of history is long and it bends toward justice. That’s true, because the arc of history bends toward Jesus.
There’s lots of talk about being on the right side of history. Yet if you don’t know how history ends, then it’s hard to know what the right side is. If history doesn’t really have an end (ie. if there is no God, and therefore no meaning), then it’s really hard to say that there is a right side or a wrong side at all. We can only conclude that this becomes language of pressure and manipulation.
The Christian vision of the future is a vision of Jesus on His throne, bringing perfect judgment and putting things right. That future vision reminds us that the present vision of Matt.5:3-10 is not in vain. Here is a resolution worth making: that you will let the future impact your present.
Are you mourning? You will be comforted. There’s coming a day when “all the sad things come untrue” (Tolkien). The comfort of that Day is enough to get you through your darkest day.
Are you humble? Do you have what Matthew Henry called an “easiness of spirit”? If so, your primary concern isn’t asserting yourself, or getting your way; it’s not getting even or putting someone in their place; it’s an easiness that says “God’s favor is eternally mine. Therefore, I can be gentle. When I really want to put that person in their place, I can be forbearing and kind. I can actually put their needs ahead of my own.” That kind of humility is a breath of fresh air to people, and ultimately it’s rewarded with this promise: you will inherit the earth.
A future outlook reminds us that this world isn’t all there is. In fact, this world and our time in it, are very short in comparison to eternity. These are just a couple examples of how future reward can affect our present reality. Calm your anxieties about this year by letting eternity put it all into perspective. In the process, be reminded of what’s truly important.
The columnist David Brooks has written about the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are those things that get us the recognition and reward now. It’s your talent; your charisma; your accolades; and affiliations. Eulogy virtues are those things you’re remembered by, the things that matter most. It’s your character. One of God’s kindnesses in the aging process is that we get a front row seat to the fact that we aren’t ultimately defined by what we do, but by who we are. You’ll reach an age when you can’t do much. Yet the heart you tended to; the character you built; your relationship with God and others – that will be the fruit you’re ultimately left with.
So think about the things that strive after your stress and devotion today. Think about the hot button issues that threaten your relationships. Think about the tawdry temptations that call for your surrender. Now ask yourself, “Will that be something I still value when death comes knocking?”
When that times comes:
- You won’t wish you played the rat race harder, or kept up with the Joneses better.
- You won’t still be fighting with your family about Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
- You won’t be wishing you fed that sinful vice more.
No. You’ll likely see that the virtues that Jesus commended were the things that truly mattered. The beatitudes are an invitation to live like they do.
Happy Apocalypse! The word for apocalypse in its original meaning is “revealing,” an “uncovering.” I’ll venture to say that this year will be apocalyptic. My prayer is that what’s revealed in us will be the character of the kingdom. In the present, we’ll reveal what the blessed life is. In the future, it will be revealed that it was true. And we’ll have no regrets.