On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered his disciples together around him and began to tell them of the terrible things that were going to happen to him on the following day – that he would be arrested, tortured and crucified. And as he spoke to them he said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). He tells them he is going to be crucified and that will make them joyful? How incompatible, how out of character with what Jesus had just told them, joy seemed to be.
A similar kind of strangeness and paradox confronts us in those words with which Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount. Here he talks about happiness. Nine times he says “Happy are… or blessed are they...” And yet how strange it is to find happiness where Jesus places it – being poor in spirit – mourning – being meek. What seemingly unlikely places to find happiness – among the broken, in the midst of grief, with the humbled.
In our world we tend to look for happiness on the outside; we externalize it. We think that happiness is to be found in external circumstances or in the possession of things.
Illustration: Lucy is seated comfortably in her bean bag chair watching television. She asks Charlie Brown: "How about getting me a dish of ice cream? Mint! Make sure it's mint!" Charlie Brown returns with a dish of green ice cream. Lucy smiles and says, "Thank you." Then her face is perplexed and she sticks out her tongue. "This doesn't taste like mint." Charlie Brown replies, "All we had was vanilla . . . But you can do amazing things with a green felt tip." Things are not always as they seem...
Our first impulse is to paint over our failings and hope nobody notices. As long as we look okay on the outside, we convince ourselves, it will be alright. When we are empty on the inside, we stuff ourselves with junk food and at least feel fuller, if not satisfied. But we still long for that which will really fill us full.
A poet has said, “Those who seek answers in houses and lands and rings, will someday find that empty lives are just as empty when filled with things.” Jesus said, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
Real life and real living are not related to how rich we are or how many things we can accumulate.
Happiness strangely eludes those who seek it head-on. It is always and essentially a by-product – found while searching for something else.
This great truth is never so clearly illustrated as it is in the words of Jesus before us this morning: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
I want us, this morning, to notice first and foremost, the intensity which this search for righteousness must carry with it. I wonder if that message of hungering and thirsting didn’t mean more to that crowd assembled there on that Galilean hillside that day than it does to us this morning. Those people knew the meaning of hunger, they were well acquainted with thirst.
I don’t know how many of us have ever really been hungry – that kind of hunger that says, if I don’t receive food, physical life will perish. We might miss a meal now and then – we glibly say, “I’m starving.” But the truth is that that kind of hunger is a foreign concept to most of us.
But those people who were listening to Jesus were well acquainted with hunger. They knew what it was, not just be hungry, but to be starving. Many of those people lived on the very edge of starvation. Fathers and mothers who listened to their children cry out at night and knew that there simply wasn’t any food to feed them. It was the kind of hunger that must be fed or life would end.
They also knew a kind of thirst that few of us have ever known. Oh, we get those little tingly sensations that drive us to the drinking fountain but how many of us have really felt the kind of thirst that had to be quenched? In those days they didn’t have the water faucets, that all we have to do is turn them on to see that refreshingly clear water flowing out. They knew that in between the towns they traveled they had to find those wells or streams. The thing they dreaded the most were the sandstorms. All they could do was turn their bodies against the sand and bury their heads in their arms and try to survive. They knew the thirst that comes when the sand would fill their mouths and nostrils – the kind of thirst that says, unless I find water soon, I will die.
They really felt the intensity Jesus intended when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And we need to have that kind of intensity of feeling that a starving man feels when he needs food, and a man dying of thirst feels when he needs water. And when we have that kind of hunger and that kind of thirst for righteousness, then we will be filled, and not before.
Our search for righteousness can’t be casual. Righteousness isn’t something that falls on us by accident. We have to want it with all our heart, soul, and strength. It must be the sole pursuit of life, if indeed we are going to experience that righteousness.
It is the imagery that David used so many years before that Jesus reflects here in this beatitude. The words of Ps. 63, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
The reality of this beatitude is best framed in a couple of questions. They are really the same questions Jesus is asking us: “How much do you really want righteousness?” and “How intently are you willing to pursue it?”
Parents, if one of our children suddenly and for several days didn’t want anything to eat, we’d be very concerned. We’d have him to the doctor, to the specialists, tests would be run – we’d get to the bottom of the problem. We know how important that physical nourishment is to their health and welfare. And we know that the loss of appetite is a sign that something is seriously wrong.
And so it is with our spiritual lives. When we don’t have a spiritual appetite for prayer and a desire to be in God’s Word, when we just don’t feel a need for worship and we don’t spend much time in fellowship – it indicates to us that something is wrong, seriously wrong with our lives. These are indicators and warning signs – just as a doctor pokes and prods and listens and questions to see what’s going on inside our bodies, these are indications of what’s going on inside our souls.
Let’s make sure that we understand what Jesus means when he says we must seek righteousness. Righteousness is one of those religious words that has such a stained glass image.
Certainly, it would seem clear that Jesus wants us to live lives that are virtuous and pure. No man or woman can seek to follow Jesus with unrepented sin in their life and rebellion in their heart.
It is a major theme in Paul’s letters:
2 Cor. 7:1 Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
Eph. 4:22-24 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Heb. 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
God wants our lives to be models of integrity and goodness. I don’t want anyone to leave here this morning thinking you can live for Satan during the week – lives filled with bitterness and malice and immorality and then come to God on Sunday morning thinking your worship will be acceptable to him. Your life needs to be spent in striving after the righteousness and holiness of God.
But simply being good doesn’t make you righteous. Of our own actions we will never fulfill the legal demands of righteousness. No matter how good we try to live, how completely we try to obey God’s commands, Paul reminds us, “We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...”
But thank God, he has provided the solution for our dilemma. In Rom. 3:21, he writes, But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
In 2 Cor. 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Righteousness is not simply a matter of human action, but of God’s redeeming purchase through Christ upon the cross. In the cross our sin is exchanged for Christ’s perfect righteousness.
Here now is Jesus’ call to us this morning. If God has made you righteous through the precious blood of his son, does your life demonstrate a desire to reflect that righteousness in the way you live? Last week we were reminded that our ultimate goal is found in Matt. 5:48: “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It must be our deepest desire to have our will swallowed up in the perfect will of God. Is that true of you?
Is it reflected in the movies you watch and the music you listen to? Is God honored, is his holiness proclaimed in the places you go and the people you surround yourself with? Is there a striving after holiness in your relationships with others? Do you imitate Jesus’ righteousness in your honesty, your integrity, your purity?
You see, this call to righteousness is not a passive restraint from doing bad, but a dynamic, aggressive pursuit of a godly life.
If only we could apply the same intensity of pursuit toward righteousness as we do towards so many other things in life – our career, or our hobbies, or a sport, attaining a new car or a new home. We get passionate about our pursuit – we pour ourselves into it – we talk about it all the time with whomever will listen. If we pursued a holy life like we pour ourselves into some of those, imagine the kind of life we might live.
But, we live our lives so diluted by other pursuits, so distracted by the seductions of the world around us. We pour our energies and our passion into so many other things that righteousness becomes an optional extra – it would be nice, but not necessary.
When the Berlin wall fell in 1980, soon followed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, after 70 years of spiritual famine, there was a hunger for God that was truly without parallel. EEM began printing and taking Bibles into Russia by the truckload, and when they would arrive in a city and begin telling people they could receive a free Bible, crowds would overwhelm the trucks. One man heard that they would be delivering Bibles to one town in his state and he walked almost a hundred miles to the town, and when he received his, with tears in his eyes he said, “all my life I’ve waited for this moment.”
It’s an interesting contrast that we, who probably have a half dozen or more Bibles in every household never feel a twinge of need to open one and read it. We, who feel no hunger physically gorge ourselves with junk food, yet suffer malnutrition. And spiritually we gorge ourselves on Twinkies and potato chips and wonder why we just don’t have an appetite for the things of God.
Illustration: An old rabbinic story is told of a young man who went to a wise old rabbi in his community to inquire of him about the right way to live. The wise man led him down to a river, and the two of them walked some distance out into it. The young man, perhaps thinking that some sort of purification ritual was about to take place, did not question the old man. After they reached a certain depth in the river, the old man took hold of the younger man, pushed him under the surface and held his head submerged! The young man began to struggle with all his might to escape, to get his head above the water. Seconds ticked by and the young man grew desperate and finally managed to free himself from the older man’s grip and thrust his head above the surface. As he gulped in the precious air, the wise man asked, “When you thought you were about to drown, what did you want more than anything else?” “Air!” the young man gasped. Then the older man replied, “When you want righteousness as much as you wanted air just now, then it will become a possibility, but not one second before.”
Until we desire righteousness more than anything else, until all of life is focused through that lens, then we will fail to be satisfied. Our lives will remain empty of the one thing we need the most. Jesus said in our beatitude this morning, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”