You may have heard that Andy Stanley has a new book out. I have not read it so I am not endorsing it. But, I will say that like many of you, what I have read from him over the years has been good and when I have heard him speak, he has often been thought provoking, easy to listen to and practical.
His new book is called Better Decisions, Fewer Regrets. Apparently, the bulk of the book is focused on five questions that Stanley says we should always ask ourselves when faced with a critical decision. He says it really doesn’t matter in what area of life the decision needs to be made, these five questions can help us make the best choices.
I think of Andy Stanley’s new book when I think of our text for today which is the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 verses 1 through 12. Often when we focus on the Beatitudes in worship or study the Beatitudes in a small group, we think about them one by one while taking each of the nine statements and ideas individually, pulling them apart, dissecting them and giving them our full attention. I have tended to do this too. In fact, as I have thought about it this week, I cannot recall a time when I have preached or taught on these statements as a whole but rather I have always isolated them individually.
Yet, when we do think about them holistically, just like in Andy Stanley’s new book, I think they invite us to wrestle with a couple of questions that are always good questions to ask ourselves in our attempts to first and foremost pursue God and the things of God in the midst of all of life’s other pursuits.
On this All Saints Day as we remember and give thanks for the Saints in our lives, I want us to think about these two questions that the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount beg us to ask of ourselves. For it seems to me that answering these questions in the right way can help us to follow in the footsteps of these dear ones of God that we remember on this day.
First, however, let me provide us some context on the Beatitudes. These nine statements serve as Jesus’ opening words in his most famous sermon which is called either the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain. It is called the Sermon on the Mount when we read it from Matthew’s gospel because we are told that Jesus went up on the side of the mountain with his followers and that is where he delivered the message. It is called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel for the very same reason. In Luke, Jesus is on level ground, not a mountain when this sermon is shared. In Matthew, the sermon is three chapters in length and in Luke it only covers part of one chapter. In Matthew, it begins with these nine statements known as the Beatitudes while in Luke they are condensed to four statements.
The Beatitudes all begin with the word blessed which we often translate as happy. Better English words here may be joyful or content. Joyful are we when we live life with meekness, a hunger for righteousness, mercy or with any of the other ideas of the Beatitudes at the center of who we are.
Again, holistically, I think these statements beg us to ask two questions of ourselves. Let me share them with us. First, as a group, the Beatitudes invite us to ask ourselves if our lives are focused on success or sainthood. Said another way, the Beatitudes beg us to consider whether our goal in life is achievement in the eyes of people or achievement in the eyes of God?
I say this because if we honestly read the Beatitudes, we find that they don’t necessarily describe the keys to success is most areas of the modern world. This isn’t to say that sometimes there isn’t an overlap between how we succeed in our every day life and our faith life. But, it is to say that there do come times when the two are in direct conflict with each other, when ideas like meekness, purity and the ability to mourn are not necessarily as valued in the corporate or manufacturing world as they are in the Kingdom of God.
Inevitably, there do come times when the two go head to head with each other and we have to choose. This begs the question, what is our ultimate goal? Which will we allow to eventually carry the day? Sainthood or success? The Beatitudes are first and foremost about our becoming saints in the Kingdom of God not successful in the eyes of the world.
As I say this, on this All Saints Day, let me remind us that saints are not perfect. Saints are ordinary people just like you and me who find a way to allow the light of Christ to shine through their lives in clear and unmistakable ways. We get to this point when we constantly choose the ways and ideas of the kingdom over all other possibilities. The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount provide the playbook for what this looks like as we allow these 9 ways of approaching life to be at our core as God’s people.
Second, as a group, the Beatitudes invite us to ask ourselves if we are exhibiting a healthy balance of beliefs and behavior. What strikes me as we encounter both the Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount is that they are focused on how we are to behave. They are not really about our believing the right things, they are about our behaving in the right ways as we demonstrate purity, peacemaking, controlling our temper, forgiving our enemies, praying, not worrying and on and on the list goes.
Now, don’t get me wrong, beliefs are critical. Having the right beliefs is imperative to our lives of faith. Without question, our right behavior is always an outgrowth of our right beliefs. But, believing the right things is never enough. It is only one side of a two sided coin. People will never hear what we believe if we constantly behave in the wrong way. And, our behavior, will almost always carry more weight than our words.
Think about it for a moment. Reflect on the three or four people who have been the greatest saints of your life. Why do you remember them so fondly? Is it because of what they believed or is it because of how they behaved? Again, belief is critical, but behavior is belief’s natural extension. I feel very confident that those who are the saints of our lives have reached those lofty places more because of their deeds than their words.
In my very first semester at Duke, we had a professor who was an up and coming figure. He was a great teacher, charismatic and intelligent. People loved him and his classes. One day, however, he was terminated by the school when it was discovered that he had embellished his resume. On his resume, there were books listed he had not written and accomplishments noted that he had never achieved. In a moment, as you can imagine, all of those great ideas he had taught in the classroom were drowned out by the loudness of his behavior. An incongruence between the two dominated the moment as it almost always does. It no longer was enough that he believed the right things for he was not behaving in the right way.
When considered holistically, the Beatitudes help us to see that those really treasured people in our eyes and in the eyes of God who we celebrate and remember on this day got there because of how they handled two critical things. They understood that sainthood was more important than success and behavior was and always will be the necessary extension of belief. How are we doing in our attempt to follow in their footsteps? Amen.