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Backwards

Sermon Text - 06.02.2024

I heard a phrase this last week - it was one of those totally random things where you just have to stop and think about it for a second. The guy said, ‘Fish don’t know what water tastes like.” [pause] Have you ever heard that? Fish don’t know what water tastes like. We know what water tastes like, but fish? It’s all they’ve ever known. It surrounds them, fills them, and they don’t even realize it. The reason it came up was that I was talking about what it is like to pastor here in the Grand Rapids area, as opposed to some of the other churches I’ve been at. West Michigan is kind of Christianized - do you know what I mean when I say that? This whole region has deep Christian roots - it’s in the water over here. Even people who have never been to church have soaked up the value system from their neighbors. And so I - I didn’t grow up in this area, I’m not used to Christianity being in the air. Where I went to school - Christians were the ones that got made fun of. In the churches I have served - when i used to tell people the story of Jesus, and they were blown away by it. Never heard anything like that before. I’ll never forget this one time I was taking a group of high schoolers to a Christian music festival. And one of the kids brought his cousin. She was completely unchurched - knew absolutely nothing about Jesus. And she spent the whole weekend, just peppering me with questions. Like, I told her the story of Jesus walking on water and it absolutely blew her mind. She was like, “he did what?” And I was like yeah - I’ll never forget that, we were walking in the mall food court. We had stopped on our road trip to grab lunch, and we’re walking to the panda express or whatever and she just stops walking, ‘he walked on the water?” And I was like, “yeah, we haven’t even gotten to the resurrection yet - sit down, we got to finish this story.” There are big chunks of the world that have NO concept of Jesus or God or what the church is. But then I get over here in West Michigan - and it’s sort of like, “everyone is already starting on step 3 of learning about God”. There’s a lot of half knowledge. Even if they don’t go to church or follow the faith in any sort of way - they kind of know about Jesus. It’s just in the water around us - and fish don’t know what water tastes like. 

Today we are starting a brand new sermon series called “Backwards: The Blessings Of Jesus.” I am so excited about this series - throughout this summer we are going to do a deep dive into a section of scripture called the “beatitudes” - it’s this big chunk of Jesus’ teachings where he explains and outlines the upside-down kingdom of God. And I say “backwards” and “upside-down” because when you read it - it’s the opposite of what you might expect. But here’s the problem - as people who live in or grew up around Christianity sometimes it’s hard for us to see just how revolutionary these teachings are. Or even worse - we think we understand it, and so we don’t let it challenge us. I think about that young lady on the youth trip - she was so blown away by the miracles of Jesus - and how amazing and powerful he is, and we in the church are like, “yeah, big whoop. Walking on water - whatever, that’s old news.” We let cultural Christianity keep us from being amazed by God. We let a tiny portion of knowledge keep us from the full revelation of God’s teaching. So what we’re going to try to do is cut through the expectations and approach this with new eyes to see just how radical and backwards the blessings of Jesus were. 


So if you want to open up your bibles, we are going to be diving in to Matthew chapter 5. You might already know this - but Matthew five is Jesus’ most famous teaching. It’s actually three chapters long - chapter 5, 6, and 7 - all together it’s called the sermon on the mount. Because it’s a speech he gave, on the side of a mountain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - the people who name stuff in the bible, they’re not creative. The letter to the town of Philippi, we will call it “Philippians” - the sermon given on the side of a mountain? Sermon on the mount. It says, [read v.1-2] and then he jumps into the blessings, [read v.3-6] - and it keeps going, but you get the idea. Jesus starts out with this list of blessings, but they’re not normal blessings, right? They’re backwards. Poor. mourning. Humble. Hungry - these are not people who we would call “blessed.” And it actually gets worse the deeper you dive into it. The greek word for blessing is “makaroioi” - (I’ll tell you, all the pastors of the zero collective got together and struggled over this word, and we drew on our one semester of ancient greek that we took 15 years ago in seminary and we came up with a big shrug emoji - Makarios, best I can do). But it doesn’t matter how you say it - it matters what it means. Makarios, the blessed, in ancient greek times that referred to the gods. Little “g” gods - not “our father who art in heaven” but like Zeus and all those guys. In this world they thought if you were “blessed” you had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world up on mount olympus away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people. To be blessed in ancient greek culture you had to be a god. But then Jesus shows up and uses that SAME word (makarios, or whatever), but in a completely different way. In fact it’s the OPPOSITE of what they were saying. It’s not the elite, or the rich or the powerful. Jesus says, “no, no - in God’s kingdom the blessings come on the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. The elite in God’s kingdom, the blessed ones in God’s kingdom are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity. 

Now here’s my problem - don’t let me lose you. I know some of you are already tuning out. Because we’ve heard this before. Yeah, yeah, yeah - Jesus lifts up the poor. We know, we know - but let me show you something incredible. Some of you may have heard that Christianity in the west is declining. There was a movement about 20-25 years ago called the “New Atheist” movement - with authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris - wrote books about how we don’t need Christianity anymore. Christians are dumb, atheists are smart - we can come up with our moral codes with logic, we don’t need your superstitions anymore. That’s what they thought. That’s what they wrote. That’s what they argued. But what they found is that where Christian influence declines, chaos grows. Christianity is so baked into western culture that when you try to pull it out, the whole system unravels. The atheist movement grew for about ten, fifteen years, and then it just came apart - because they couldn’t agree on the fundamental definition of truth. You pull out the source of truth and what’s left is a shell that crumples. There’s a book and podcast that I’ve been really into lately called “The Surprising Rebirth of Belief In God” - and what the author, Justin Brierly, what he’s describing is this return to faith from all these atheists who tried it without God and realized that it has dissolved into chaos. And you’re starting to see really big names, even people who are still atheists - they’re still not believers, but they’re starting to see the value of what Jesus taught. The backwards blessings, the upside-down kingdom is crucial to the progress of humanity. People who maybe 20 years ago would have made fun of Christians and their crazy beliefs, are starting to speak with more respect towards our faith, because they have seen the fruit of what happens to society without God. People like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, Bill Marr - they’re not Christians, and some of them have been anti-christian in the past. But the tone is changing because Jesus’ teachings are that important. 

Let me give you an easy example of this. Have any of you ever seen the classic Disney movie Hercules? Came out in the 90’s - which for me was like the golden age of Disney. Now in the movie, Hercules wants to become a hero so he can rejoin his parents in Olympus, right? This is ancient greek mythology with catchy theme song. And he trains with the little Danny Devito goat guy, and then he gets all muscle-y, fights some bad guys and he thinks he’s ready. But that’s not enough, right? His Dad tells him, the measure of a hero is not his muscles, it’s something more. And then Hercules, spoiler alert, at the end of the movie he sacrifices himself for someone he loves. He gives up his life, which makes him a true hero, and then he turns into a god and he can join Zeus up on Mount Olympus. Did you know, that is not the way the story actually goes? In the original mythology, the original greek story to become a god Hercules is given 12 challenges called the 12 labors. He fights the bad guys, he overcomes the impossible challenges and poof - that’s it. Disney added the part where he gives up his life for someone he loves - do you know what that sounds like? Jesus. It’s Jesus! It’s like the movie studio took the story of Hercules and fed it through a Jesus filter to spit out what we know as the 90’s cartoon classic. In the ancient greek world, makarios, the blessed, were those who earned their way to heaven. They were the gods who only had good things happen to them - that’s what “blessed” meant. Then here comes Jesus with his little sermon on the mount and literally the entire world was never the same. I know you have probably heard things like this before, “blessed are the poor” and all that, but I want to challenge you this week, and through this whole series - I want to challenge you to look at these teachings with fresh eyes. Fish don’t know what water tastes like, and they might even take it for granted. But we are going to be a church that comes to this text, knowing it will transform our lives, expecting it to change us. 

If you’ve got your bible in front of you, I just want you to zoom out a little bit. We’re going to spend a lot of time in those first ten verses - in my bible I’ve got these little subject headings and mine says, “The Beatitudes” for that section, but if you scan the rest of the page you’ll notice most bibles lump the paragraphs under different topics. Just scanning mine right now the headings say, “teachings about anger”, “teaching about adultery” teaching about revenge” - and what I want you to realize this morning is that Jesus makes a habit of turning our world upside down. We’re going to do a deep dive into the Beatitudes, and that’s going to be awesome - but Jesus flips things backwards all the time. You can actually track it through the chapter - it’s the same formula. Jesus says, “you have heard it said…” and then he flips it and says, “but I say to you…” and gives us the upside down teaching. Let me show you what I mean, jump down chapter 5 verse 38. My little subtitle heading says, “teachings about revenge” and it says, [read v.38-39]. You see the formula, right? “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” And I know you have heard this verse before, but let’s… let’s have a moment you and I - gun to your head, super-duper honesty time, do you believe this? And if you say yes I’m going to assume you’re an only child! Because I have two brothers and a younger sister, and I love them very much, but if one of those goobers comes up to me and slaps me on the cheek, I can guarantee that my gut reaction would not be “turn the other cheek.” And it must be genetic, because my boys have the exact same problem. In fact, this past week the kids got sick for a couple of days - and I knew they were feeling better because one punched the other, and then the second kid came back and WAILED on the first one, twice as hard. And on the outside I was like, “No, no - we don’t hit to get what we want.” But up in my head, I’m thinking, “Whew, I’m so glad they’re feeling better. They’re back to normal.” Because in the human heart from the youngest of ages, revenge is normal. Wait, let me check in - is my family the only one that’s like this? Does eye for an eye feel more natural for you? Have you ever justified your actions by pointing to something someone else did? Well my neighbor did it to me, so that makes it okay for me to do it to him. Well, that guy in the office did it - so that makes it okay for me to do it. Hey they cut me off in the drop off line at my kid’s school last week, so this time I get to do it. An eye for an eye feels natural to us, but then Jesus comes in here and says NO. We’re not going to fight fire with fire, we’re going to break the cycles of pain, the cycles of action and reaction and try something better. And I could go on about how awesome this teaching is - but what I want you to grab is the formula. You have heard it said…[there is the normal way the human heart wants to do things], but I say to you…[and then he gives us a teaching that is backwards, and flips the whole thing on its head]. 

I think I’ve got time for one more. Let’s do verse 27, chapter five verse 27, [read v.27]. Alright, so far so good. If you’re married, no adultery. That makes sense to us, BUT [read v.28]. Ope - this one’s a little awkward. Socially, our culture has decided it’s okay to lust, as long as you don’t do anything, as long as you don’t act on it. It’s not cheating as long as it stays up in your head -  but Jesus says, “Nope - I don’t just want your actions, I want your heart.” Jesus teaches us to have loyalty in our marriages, not just of our actions, but of our hearts and minds as well. He has the exact same teaching up in verse 21 about anger.  In chapter six it’s teachings about prayer and teachings about money - and each time there’s this formula, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” and he flips the whole thing upside down. So when I think back to that word Makarios, the ancient greek word for “blessed” - and I see how Jesus is completely flipping it backwards - it makes total sense.They thought it’s Hercules earning his way to mount olympus with his strength. Blessing is something reserved for the gods - but Jesus, in his upside down kingdom, teaches us “blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the humble, those who hunger, etc.”


Now, here’s the big reveal. This is where it all ties together. If you fell asleep, that’s okay - wake up for this one line and then you can go back to sleep. To be honest, I’m giving away the secret to the whole series right here - are you ready for this? The good news that I have for you this morning is that JESUS IS NOT THE ONE WHO IS BACKWARDS. It is our hearts. It is our broken human nature that is backwards. We are the ones who are upside down, and in this teaching Jesus is inviting us to live right-side up. We say “backwards blessings” or “Jesus and his upside down kingdom” - but the truth is that WE are the ones who are upside down and Jesus with these teachings is setting us right. God is the one who knows what is good, who knows what is right, what is just, what is holy. We are the ones who need to be reoriented.

It’s a silly example, but I think it helps. My two year old Asher - he’s in this phase where he’s learning to put his own shoes on. And I don’t know if you know anything about the independence of toddlers, but they can get REAL cranky if you infringe upon their freedoms. All toddlers are libertarians. So he’ll get the shoes out, and he’ll grab some socks and he’ll take a half an hour and then come out with the shoes on the wrong feet. And I try to point it out to him. Bud, those are backwards. And his response is always the same, “Noooooo” - and you can’t really argue with a two year old. I mean, what am I going to say? Yessssss. The curve on the bottom of the shoe, it’s going the wrong way, how did you even do that - I can’t even get the shoe ON if it’s the wrong foot, what is happening right now. So I try to fix it. “Noooooo” - bud if you leave it like that, it’s going to hurt your foot and be uncomfortable all day - I’m trying to help you. But he’s happy in his backwards-ness. This is what it looks like when we try to argue with God. Turn the other cheek, “Nooooooo” - Don’t lust or have hateful thoughts, “Noooooo” - Blessed are those who are merciful, “Noooooooooo.” We are the ones who are backwards. But there is a good God in heaven who knows what is good, who knows what is right, what is just - and he came with this teaching to turn us around. To get our shoes on the right feet. 


So to start our series on the beatitudes, to dive into this teaching from Jesus designed to reorient our hearts to his way, the first thing we need to do, our challenge for this week: take our definition of blessing and flip it right side up. Not upside down, it’s already upside down - we need to flip it right side up. Makarios - the ancient greek word for blessed. For them the ones who were blessed were the ones who had a lot - think Hercules up on Mount Olympis. The winners, the have’s, the 1% - those are the blessed ones. The whole framework is about having. But Jesus flips it around. And I know you’ve probably heard this before - in the Kingdom of God, you are blessed to be a blessing. The things we have are not for us to have, they are for us to USE. And so if you want to flip your heart right side up, I want you to look at your life - take the good you have been given and use it for others. What have you been given in life? For some people they have been blessed with finances. I have a dear friend from one of my former churches. Her husband had passed away decades ago, but he had set her up financially very well. But she knew - her money was not the blessing, but what she could do with it for other people. She helped so many people. It was a lot of fun for me as a pastor, because she would come to me and ask, “who needs help?” And as the pastor I could guide her, and let her know who was struggling and she’d go take care of them. I have another friend, they have no extra money - but man, he can cook. So this buddy, he gets busy in the kitchen and he will bless the people around him with what he has been given. He has this talent and he uses it to serve other people. So this is my challenge for you - ask yourself two questions; what have you been blessed with? And how can you use it to bless others? If you want to live into the upside kingdom of Jesus Christ - don’t look at blessings as something to have, look at blessings as something to DO. And if you can’t come up with anything - I want you to remember Jack’s sermon from last week. Sometimes you ARE the blessing. Just your simple presence, can protect someone’s joy. 

Let me see if I can explain it like this. I’ve been a pastor of churches with a lot of older folks. I’ve done a lot of hospital visits, and if I can just be honest - I’ve never felt like more of a fraud than when I do a hospital visit. I remember when I first started as a pastor, I would go - because I knew I was supposed to. They were sick, they asked for a visit - But I didn’t know what to do! It was so awkward. I would just sit there, and we would talk - about nothing and we would pray and then I would leave and I felt like I didn’t make a difference at all! Why did I even go, why did I even bother them. But then I started to hear feedback, over and over people were so grateful that I showed up. I didn’t have to be eloquent or deep or insightful - just my presence made a difference. Even if all you have to offer is your presence - that might be exactly what someone needs. The world says blessings are all about you, but in the backwards blessings of Jesus we know - we are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. 


Fish don’t know what water tastes like. And living in West Michigan, sometimes it’s hard to see how shocking and amazing and backwards the teachings of Jesus can seem. There’s a movement amongst some atheists and non-religious folks to be “cultural Christians.” They want the benefits of a Christian society, they want the influence of our teachings WITHOUT the person of Jesus. Can’t we just keep the good ideas and not worry so much about Jesus - but every time they try to keep the benefits of Christianity without Jesus Christ - it falls apart. Because Jesus’ teachings are so backwards. They are so different from what our instincts are, so opposite of what our hearts want. But then we realize that it’s not Jesus who is backwards - it’s us. Naturally, our hearts go the wrong way all the time. What I want is not always what is good - and when we realize that God is good, God is just, God is holy - we should want to be reset. We want to be reoriented to God. Turned right side up. To take the blessings we have and use them as a way to bless others. That’s backwards in the best possible way. Let’s pray. 

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