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True, her reasoning was flawed and foolish, but I will freely grant that there are things in scripture that are difficult to grasp. One of them may be our text for today as we encounter the second Beatitude: Matthew 5:4 - "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Lovely words, and very familiar words, but do they make sense?
Let us look at the words. "Blessed are..." - we understand that to mean "Happy are..." or "Congratulations when..." or "How fortunate you are..." and certainly any of those sound like nonsense in connection with mourning. "Happy are those who are unhappy..." Truth be told, they would have made even less sense to Jesus' audience in the first century because funeral practices way back when had folks weeping and wailing and putting dust and ashes on their heads for a week when someone died. Who would congratulate anyone caught up in that?
Perhaps Jesus is talking about a different kind of mourning. One commentator says, "The antecedent to this second beatitude... is Isaiah 61:1-4, where one is anointed with the Spirit to bring good news to the poor and 'to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair...They shall build up the ancient ruins.' The mourners to be comforted here are those despairing over the devastation of Israel and the disobedience that brought such a horrific punishment upon God's people. The message is that the disobedience and devastation are not the last words, and the day would come when God would restore the fortunes of the nation.
Is that the kind of mourning of which Jesus is speaking? Perhaps. There would certainly be a 21st century application. Our land has not been devastated and, by the standards of the rest of the world, we are immensely prosperous. But we know that the prosperity is not shared by all. It was the same in the Israel of Jesus' day - there was a degree of prosperity, but it was not equally shared. There was an enormous tax burden that fell most heavily on those who could least support it (sound familiar?), so it was not uncommon for a poor farmer or a day laborer to sell members of his family into slavery to pay his debts. As in our own age, it was easy for the affluent to be unconcerned about the agony of the poor. There were many, nonetheless, who mourned the injustice of a system rigged in favor of the rich and powerful and longed for a change. The message of this Beatitude then is that these mourners, then and now, may be assured that the God of justice is not asleep. The devastations wrought by human greed and thirst for power will be remedied. (1) That is comforting. That is one interpretation.
Another says that the mourning of which Jesus speaks is over our own sinfulness. It has been pointed out that the greatest saints are devastated, even mournful, at their shortcomings. Listen to one commentator:
If we read the journal entries of spiritual giants, we find women and men who contemplate their sins and shed tears of grief. Thérèse of Lisieux wept over the slightest separation from Christ she felt. In the shadow of the cross of Christ, an intense mourning over the gaping hole in the soul, the yawning gap between me and God, is entirely fitting. To those who grieve over their sin, to those who lament their distance from Jesus, our Lord says, "Blessed are those who mourn." His mission was precisely to comfort sinners. (2)Perhaps that is it. In generations past, worshipers could come to the front of the sanctuary and sit on the "mourners' bench" as they prepared to publically repent of their sins, promise to turn over a new leaf, and anticipate the comfort of divine pardon. These days, those burdened by guilt end up on psychiatrists' couches or in counseling clinics rather than mourners' benches. That's fine, as long as no one tries to gloss over the fact that sin is the root cause of a wide range of the problems we face.
So saying, I am hard pressed to quickly jump to some kind of mourning other than the one we commonly understand, the kind of mourning that comes following the loss of someone near and dear. It is in that context that I hear, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." How do we make sense of that?
For starters, remember what we have been saying about understanding these Beatitudes. These are not SHOULD-BE attitudes but rather WILL BE-attitudes. Yes, they are counter-intuitive. They reflect an upside-down, inside-out reality. They are part and parcel of the gospel that says the last shall be first and the first shall be last, the gospel that says the greatest of all will be the servant of all. These statements are reflective of what reality is for God's faithful and only begin to make sense when seen through that prism.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." From a Christian perspective, this makes great sense. What do we believe about death? It marks a time of separation, of course, and that brings sadness, but we believe, with every fibre of our being, that death is not the end. It is not the final word. It is a comma, not a period. Indeed, death is seen as a doorway to a new state of existence, a life where there is no more sorrow, no more pain, no more tears, even no more death. All those things that terrify us during our life on earth, gone. And one day, sweet reunion with those who have gone before.
Years ago Henry Van Dyke wrote, "I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, `There she goes.'
"Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, `There she goes,' there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, `Here she comes!'" That is the perspective we take when we gather for a Christian funeral. Not just there she goes, but here she comes.
In my ministry, I have officiated at more funerals than I could possibly recount. Some things happen routinely, one of which is a family member or close friend coming up to me and saying, "I don't know what I would do right now without my faith. In fact, I don't know how anyone could get through something like this without faith." Amen. This second Beatitude has kicked in, this WILL-BE attitude - "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
In probably 95% of those funerals, I have quoted the immortal words of Dwight L. Moody, that great evangelist of a previous generation. He said, "One day you will read in the paper that D. L. Moody of East Northfield, Massachusetts has died. Well, don't believe a word of it. I shall have gone up higher, that's all, out of this old clay tenement into a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. And at that moment, I shall be more alive than I have ever been."
Joseph Bailey, a wonderful preacher and an author, writes that one Sunday afternoon, while speaking at a convalescent home, he had many people gathered around him in wheelchairs. Some had to listen from their beds. Several people were in their 90's or late 80's. One lady was nearly 100, and she was weeping. She whispered into Bailey's ear, "I'm afraid to die."
Bailey responded to her concern by addressing the group. "If I could promise to take you from this home to a beautiful springlike place where you could be forever free from all your aches and pains; where you could walk and even run, hear and see without man-made devices; never have any more loneliness or sorrow again, but I had to take you through a dark tunnel to get there, how many of you would be willing to go?" All over the room the hands shot up. "Death is that tunnel," Bailey explained. "And it is not to be feared, if we trust Jesus, because he will take us through it to heaven."
That is what we believe. And that is why the Apostle Paul could write to the Thessalonian church, "Brothers [and sisters], we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope." What prompted this little lesson was the fact that the Lord's Second Coming, which the early church expected at any moment, had not occurred yet. Meanwhile, life was keeping on keeping on, and, since death is a part of life, death was keeping on keeping on for those folks too. It made grieving family and friends wonder what was to become of believers who had "fallen asleep" while the wait continued. Were they going to miss out?
Paul instructs, first of all, do not grieve as those "who have no hope." He does not say do not grieve. Grief is one of God's good gifts to help us deal with painful events. Anyone who has ever shed tears of sorrow knows what a wonderful catharsis a good cry can be. Paul does not say do not grieve, but rather, do not grieve as those who have no hope.
What hope? Listen again: "We believe that Jesus died and rose again..." That is the basis of our faith. Death - the event that elsewhere Paul called the final enemy - does not have the final word. "...and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." Death did not have the final word with Jesus, nor us either. These friends who have died are not going to miss out on the glorious future that awaits.
The language that Paul uses to describe the day is magnificent. "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." Glory! The sound of an enormous celestial Reveille - as the old spiritual has it, "that great gittin' up morning."
Marvelous poetic imagery. The trumpet - the traditional way to announce the arrival of a royal figure. The notion of "meeting the Lord in the air" speaks the language of power. The Greek word for "meeting" that Paul uses (apantesis) is used of a ruler paying an official visit or the return of a conquering hero. This dignitary receives tribute, not as he approaches the city gate, but "in the air," a signal that his dominion is not that of an earthly ruler. Unlike the Roman emperor, he is not in charge of particular territories. He is in charge of all territories. (3) Power!!! Wonderful. So he concludes, "Therefore encourage each other with these words." The word rendered here in our pew Bibles as "encourage" can also be translated, "comfort." In fact, it is the very same word that we hear from Jesus' lips when he said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
More than 400 years ago, in a time of great theological conflict - the Reformation raging, people fighting and even dying in defense of their beliefs - two young men (one a pastor, the other a professor in the local university) were asked by their German Governor to put on paper just what Reformed Christians believed. They were asked to write in simple terms so the next generation, the youth, would not have all this trouble.
We still have the results of their work in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. It is called the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of 129 questions and answers that provide an overview of the faith. They are all helpful, I suppose, but for me, the very first question and answer make the whole thing worthwhile: "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" The answer:
That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who, at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins...that he protects me so well that, without the will of my Father in heaven, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.The question raised at the beginning of this comes again: Have you ever read anything in the Bible that you did not understand? No doubt. But for people of faith, this second Beatitude is not in that category. This is a no-brainer. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted," and we have been. We remember that our comfort is in the fact that we belong to Jesus, and nothing can ever change that, not even death. And you can take that to the bank. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
1. Douglas R. A. Hare, "Matthew," Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, CD-ROM edition, (Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox, 1993)
2. James C. Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox, 2006), p. 42
3. Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Interpretation series, (Louisville : John Knox, 1998), p. 66