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John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson that "The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion." Tolstoy said he took the Sermon on the Mount as a practical guide to life, taking it's precepts literally, at their face value, but he ignored any spiritual interpretation because he was aware of none. Preachers constantly hear from folks who ought to be in church but are not that church is not all that necessary; as long as they live by the Sermon on the Mount, things are perfectly OK. They are "fans."
But these "fans" miss something in these teachings of Jesus. These instructions are intensely unnatural as a way of life. When someone says, "Oh, I live by the Sermon on the Mount," between you and me and the gatepost, I 'spect that they don't really know what is in the Sermon, because if they did, they would never make the claim.
The Beatitudes, these eight "Blessed are..."'s that begin it all prove the point. As we have seen in our previous studies, there is nothing natural about being congratulated for being poor in spirit - realizing our own impoverished condition before a holy God. There is nothing natural about being considered fortunate in the midst of mourning. There is nothing natural in a society that sings "Only the Strong Survive" to congratulate someone about being meek, gentle. This is all upside-down, inside-out. And there is certainly nothing natural about the Beatitude...this WILL-BE attitude...to which we come today - "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." People hunger and thirst for lots of things, and Madison Avenue stays up nights thinking of new things to get us hungering and thirsting for, but righteousness generally is not one of them.
Think about it - about hungering and thirsting - first in general terms, and then more specifically in regard to this idea of righteousness.
Have you ever been hungry or thirsty? Of course. It is natural. How about the opposite? Have you ever lost your appetite? I don't mean you stuffed yourself so full that you had no appetite left - I mean no appetite to begin with. Mealtime came `round, and where normally you would have dashed to the table, suddenly, you could have cared less about food. It probably has happened to all of us at some time or another. Back in the dim and distant past, it used to happen to me because of girls. To be sure, I got over whatever problems I was having with them and settled back into a more normal routine fairly quickly (as you can tell by looking at me). People do occasionally lose their appetites, but soon regain them once things settle down.
It is nature's way that we should hunger and thirst. It is a mark of life, not only for human beings but for all living things. These magnificent trees that are everywhere around us in Warren are a good example. They require nourishment all the time. Botanists tell us that, on a hot summer day, they will take in hundreds of gallons of water. If one of them fails to do so, it will die. Or perhaps, more properly, it would already be dead. That is nature's way.
Recall some of the ancient burial rituals of cultures like the American Indians or the Egyptians and you remember that food and drink were placed in the tombs of the dearly departed so as to provide sustenance for the journey into the unknown. As far as I know, there is no record of any one of the deceased ever indicating any gratitude for that bit of thoughtfulness. The dead don't care about food or drink because they no longer have any hunger or thirst. Hardly a startling statement there, but it should serve to remind us that, when hunger and thirst are completely gone, life is completely gone.
Come to think of it, hunger and thirst are things we think of as marks of good health. How many times have we had friends who were ill but were just beginning to get over whatever their problem was and said so by letting us know that their appetite (which had been nil) was now returning. We all know that a good appetite is a sign of good health.
If you own a car, you know it needs gas to run, even at $4.00 a gallon. Our bodies are no different; they need fuel to operate. They get that fuel as we exercise and satisfy our hunger and thirst.
But our appetites are even more than that. They are a sign of growth. When a baby is born, it comes into the world at a certain weight, but within a very few days, that new little life, assuming all is well, will have added on an ounce or two (or three or four) and all because of a healthy appetite. When that child is not asleep, it wants to eat, and has no qualms about letting anyone within screaming distance know it. But that is all good - the noise not withstanding, we are glad for that appetite because we know it means a normal, healthy growth.
One more thing should be said about appetite: it is a source of enjoyment. Some of the fondest memories any of us have are those that call to mind the marvelous smell's coming out of Momma's kitchen - pies and cakes and breads and all sorts of good things that make us long for "the good ol' days." A good appetite is a joy.
Now, up to this point, everything I have said might be repeated in an elementary school science lecture. It is all basic stuff, and pretty much common sense. We share our physical appetites with all the lower forms of life. But there are other appetites that belong uniquely to us who were formed in the image of God, higher appetites that make us what we are.
Some of you may know the name Clovis Chappell, one of the great Methodist preachers of the past generation. Dr. Chappell had a wonderful knack for describing complex metaphysical processes in very down-to-earth language. Listen to what he has to say about this matter of appetite:
When I was a boy on the farm, I owned a faithful dog named Jack. Jack and I were the best and most intimate of friends. I have never loved any other dog as I loved him. Many a meal I shared with him. I would give him of my bread and meat ungrudgingly. At times, I would even give him a bit of cake, if I could spare it. Having eaten together, we often went together and drank out of the same gurgling spring. His appetite was quite as keen as mine...But having left the dinner table, we parted company. I had hungers and thirsts to which Jack was an absolute stranger.Indeed. And, of course, as Jesus said, "Man does not live by bread alone..."
One thing we should note: there is nothing particularly spiritual about many of these higher appetites of ours. There are many who have hungered and thirsted after knowledge, and because they did, civilization is forever in their debt. Great scientists and inventors have made life infinitely more livable because they wanted to reach into the unknown. There are those whose hunger and thirst has been for beauty, and they have enriched us all with their magnificent art and music. There are even those who hunger and thirst after that elusive butterfly called truth, and their efforts have given us a more profound understanding of ourselves. Perhaps Jesus might, at some point, have congratulated those folks too, but at the moment, we only have the record of him congratulating "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
So what is this righteousness without which we are supposed to feel so empty? Righteousness in the Bible is not so much about being "right" in terms of blamelessness but rather "right" in terms of a relationship. The word "righteousness" occurs five times in this Sermon on the Mount, (2) and in each case cannot be properly understood any other way. Listen to the way one commentator explains it:
By the time Matthew wrote down his Gospel, this word that we translate into English as "righteousness" (dikaiosune) had zoomed to the top of Christianity's theological vocabulary list. In the Apostle Paul's profound understanding of the effects of Jesus' life and death, "righteousness" is transformed from something we are supposed to DO to something that God GIVES [again this WILL-BE attitude]. Righteousness is a gift from God, achieved by Jesus. Righteousness for Paul is really a wrong relationship with God that has been set right - not by us, but by God.Truth be told, we crave intimacy. We were made for intimacy. As I so often note in wedding ceremonies, in the creation story in Genesis, after that long list of things that God created that were declared good, the first thing we find that is described as "not good" is for us to be alone. We were made for relationships, and a particularly appealing partner is the God of all the universe. We remember Augustine's famous prayer: "Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee." We understand the Psalmist who saw a deer sniffing the air, peering into a dry riverbed, searching for water, and perceived in this beautiful creature an image of his own quest for God: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God."
Gene Peterson hits it on the button with his paraphrase of this Beatitude. He says, "You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat." (4)
By the way, did you notice that this Beatitude does not say "Blessed are the righteous?" Good thing because I suspect that anyone who would consider him- or herself the recipient of that blessing would tend to fall into the category of self-righteous, and those folks are not very appealing. In fact, Jesus himself said he was not especially interested in the "righteous." Remember? "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (5)
I read once of a convicted criminal, a rough-looking character his fellow prison inmates nicknamed Spike. Just before his release from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence, Spike had a long talk with the prison chaplain. He told the chaplain how much he had looked forward for all those years to the time when he could hold up his head in society and live a good life.
Among other things, the chaplain advised Spike to join the church nearest to his home as soon as he was released. It so happened that the church nearest to the ex-convict's apartment was located on the edge of the town's richest neighborhood.
Spike called on the pastor of this fashionable congregation and told him of his desire to join. "My dear man," said the pastor, with more than a touch of superiority, "I do not think you would be happy here, though I appreciate your good intentions. Really, you would be most uncomfortable amongst my people and I am afraid it would be quite embarrassing to you and perhaps to them. I suggest you think it over and pray and meditate and see if God does not give you some direction."
A week later, Spike met the pastor on the street, stopped him, and said, "Reverend, I took your advice and prayed and meditated and finally God sent me word. God said I should not bother any more trying to join your church. God said He Himself had been trying to get in there for years but without success." (6)
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Yes, the people who really want this right relationship will put themselves in a position to get it. They come to a welcoming church; they fellowship with God's people; they study God's word. There is nothing haphazard about the pursuit of their goal. That is why I know that the folks who claim that the Sermon on the Mount is all the religion they need, those "fans" that we talked about in the beginning, are all wet! They are SOAKED by this fourth Beatitude, this WILL-BE attitude. They are not hungering and thirsting after righteousness - they think they have already got it.
Do I have it? Do you have it? Partially, perhaps, but not completely. The filling process is ongoing and will never be completed in this life. "This world is not my home, I'm just-a passin' though." But as pilgrims on a quest, ever hungering, ever thirsting, we have a wonderful guide for our journey - the one who, on a Judean hillside so long ago said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
1. Clovis G. Chappell, The Sermon on the Mount, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1958), pp. 51-52
2. 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33
3. James C. Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), p. 58
4. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2002)
5. Mark 2:17
6. John Terry, "The Righteous," Sermons on the Be-attitudes, (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Company, 1997)