Big Idea: You’re invited by Jesus to live the good life — a life that’s found in treasuring him above all else.
We’ve all received invitations before. Imagine that you receive an invitation unlike any you’ve received before.
Your phone rings to tell you there’s a delivery. You buzz them in. A few minutes later, you open the door to the most important person you’ve ever met in your life. They hand you an invitation. It’s printed on the most expensive paper you’ve ever touched. As you open the invitation, you have to read it a couple of times, because you can’t comprehend it at first. If you accept this invitation, it will change the entire course of your life. It changes everything.
We don’t have to imagine this. Today you’re receiving an invitation from Jesus himself. Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus went up on a mountain, sat down, opened his mouth, and spoke. Everything in the setup is meant to heighten our anticipation for what’s coming — the deliberateness, the echoes of Moses. And he issues an invitation to a new way of life, a way that will change everything if we accept it.
Invitation to the Good Life
What’s the invitation? It’s to the good life. Jesus, the Son of God, invites us to the conditions that create a condition of flourishing and intense happiness. Jesus describes a way of being in the world that leads to happiness, both for us as individuals and for groups as well. He paints the picture for us, and invites us in.
When Jesus opens his mouth, he says, “Blessed are…” That word blessed is remarkably hard to translate, and it can even be harder to understand. Is Jesus giving us conditions — if you live this way, you will experience these results? Is he promising God’s blessing if we do certain things? Actually, no. What Jesus does here is to describe for us the best, most joyful way of being in the world. He dangles it before us like a keys to a new car or house. “This could be yours!” It’s meant to make us want what he describes.
It’s like pointing at a lush tree and saying, “Wow! That is a healthy tree! There’s a picture of what a tree looks like when it’s at its optimal state.”
Australians have a term, “Good on ya!” which means, “Wow! Congratulations on achieving something that’s both favorable and happy!” Or the Welsh have a saying, “White is their world,” which means that everything is good for that person. Jesus isn’t so much promising God’s blessing if we keep certain conditions. Instead, he’s describing a way to live in the world, and then saying, in effect, “Good on them! Wow. They’ve figured this life thing out. Because they’re living this way, they’ve discovered the conditions that will allow them to flourish. They’re living the good life.”
Don’t pass this by. God is very concerned about your happiness. Hear that again. God is very concerned with your happiness. No, I’m not a prosperity preacher. God is concerned that we flourish, and the sermon that Jesus tells us the conditions that will truly lead to our own flourishing, and to the flourishing of others.
What Is the Good Life?
So what is this good life?
I’ll tell you how I would fill in the blanks: lots of money, no debt, plenty of free time, meaningful relationships, great vacations, great food. That’s the good life! Sign me up.
John Calvin once observed that most people hold to the erroneous belief that the happy person is the one who is “free from annoyance, attains all his wishes, and leads a joyful and easy life.” Sign me up!
What’s confusing is that this is not the life that Jesus describes. Jesus turns to a group of people and says, “Good on them! They’re really flourishing. They’ve figured life out!” And then he describes a list of nine qualities that seem pretty negative to us. The good life, according to Jesus, belongs to those who are poor in spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers (because people are wronging us), and persecuted. Most of these are things that we would want to avoid. In the whole list, the only quality that isn’t negative is being pure in heart. Jesus describes a set of qualities that are the very opposite of what we think of when we think of the good life.
Take the “poor in spirit.” That sounds good at first. Jesus spoke those words into a shame-honor culture in which being poor in spirit was not a good thing. And yet Jesus says that the poor in spirit have discovered something about life that allows them to flourish. They’ve discovered the good life.
Why are these negative qualities so positive? Jesus explains:
- People who are poor in spirit have, contrary to appearances, discovered that they’re spiritually needy. The good news is that God loves to give grace to those who realize they’re spiritually needy. The kingdom of God belongs to people who realize their need of God’s grace.
- People who mourn look sad. What’s good about mourning? They are longing for God’s kingdom to come. They know that this world will never offer what makes us truly happy. And so Jesus says that because they’ve placed their hope in the only thing that can lead to ultimate fulfillment, they are truly flourishing because God will be their comforter.
- The meek aren’t impressive. They don’t throw their weight around or insist on getting everything that’s due to them. I talked to a meek person this past week. He legally has a right to somethings and yet he’s not fighting for that right. He’s giving up what’s due to him. What’s so great about that? Jesus says that he’ll inherit the earth. They don’t need to vindicate themselves, because God will vindicate them. He’ll make sure that they ultimately get what’s coming to them. He can leave the results up to God, because God never disappoints.
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness — who long for a relationship of obedience and trust with God — get exactly what they want. God loves it when we long for this with him. They will be satisfied. When we long for intimacy with God, God loves to give us what we want.
- The merciful are unusual. They don’t treat their enemies like enemies. And when they see someone in need, they inconvenience themselves to help out. They give of their time and money. These people know the mercy of God, and it’s changed everything.
- Then there are the pure in heart. This one seems positive. They know the tension of externalism — living for the social honor that comes from having a good reputation and being successful. Man, do we ever love when people like us! The pure in heart enjoy this, but they don’t live for it. They live by the hymn we sometimes sing, “Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise.” They live for God, and they have the assurance that they will see him.
- In a world marked by rivalry and conflict, peacemakers are rare. They don’t inflame the latest Facebook thread that’s blowing up. They don’t stir things up. Their presence brings understanding and peace. They’re blessed, because at the final judgment they will be called children of God.
- And finally, we have the persecuted. How is it possible that the persecuted are living the good life? What’s good about being verbally harassed or worse? If you’re persecuted, it means you’ve discovered something more important than your comfort and ease. God sees, and God will reward you. Not only that, you’re in very elite company — company that includes Jesus himself.
This, according to Jesus, is the good life. We think the good life is having everything we want and doing what we want, with no annoyances or obstacles. Jesus says the good life is one that looks pretty difficult — but there’s something within them that’s able to handle the hard times because their happiness isn’t built on circumstances. Their happiness, their flourishing, is built on something so secure that they’re just fine, even when life around them is falling apart.
Why does Jesus show us this picture? Because it’s an invitation. Eugene Peterson said:
Scripture does not present us with a moral code and tell us “Live up to this,” nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say “Think like this and you will live well.” Rather the biblical way is to tell a story and in the telling invite: “Live into this— this is what it looks like to be human in the God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.”
This is what it looks like to flourish and live well. Jesus gives us this picture of the good life, and invites us to live into it.
I’m going to make three quick observations, and then give you two stories and then close.
First observation: The beatitudes are a lot like the Ten Commandments, which we looked at the other week. Remarkable. The first four beatitudes have a vertical orientation, with a God-centered orientation, just like the Ten Commandments. The rest of them have a horizontal orientation, about how to relate to others.
Second observation: The beatitudes are an invitation to a life of discipleship. Want to follow Jesus? It won’t be easy. It will involve a life that pursues humility, justice, and peace. It will be costly. But it will be so worth it! You will have what matters most. You will flourish. You’re better off being a disciple, even if it costs. It’s more than worth it, both now and for eternity.
Final observation: We have in the beatitudes a picture of Jesus. There’s not a single one of these beatitudes that you don’t find in Jesus. He doesn’t just invite us. He models it himself.
Let me close with two stories.
Ben Affleck is a respected actor. You and I have probably seen his movies like Good Will Hunting or Gone Girl. He has two Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, two BAFTA Awards, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards. Most of us would say that he’s living the good life.
Listen Affleck says that for all of his Hollywood success, some part of him will always feel like a relentless striver who must prove, through his work, that he has a right to be there. Affleck put it this way:
That [relentless striving] never goes away. All these habits that we develop, that help us at some point, they have flip sides. In this case, it's hard to turn that feeling off … The urge of making it good and trying to make sure that it works, that you've done the most interesting version that you can—it's like a neurosis that drives me to work every day.
The people who have the good life really don’t in the end.
Then there’s J. Todd Billings. You’ve never heard of him. He’s not famous. He’s not rich. He’s a theology professor. He has incurable cancer. He writes:
At the center of God’s revelation is not a secret about how to live a lengthy, self-sufficient and secure life. We’ve been united to Christ by the Spirit to follow the way of the crucified Lord. On this path, we do not seek out suffering for its own sake, but we do expect for the God of Jesus Christ to be active in the most unlikely places: on the path of suffering, on a path hidden from the light of worldly glory. We are a people who take up our crosses to follow Christ.
And this is not a joyless path.
Instead, when we follow the path of prayer with the psalmist, we shed tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament. Lamenting and hoping in God with the psalmist is a practice that runs counter to our consumer culture. Rather than soaking in self-satisfaction or self-pity, in these seasons of sorrow we find our affections reshaped by God — we delight in what delights God, we grieve over what grieves him. It is a joy that is bigger than cancer.
You know who’s flourishing? Not the celebrity with all the awards and fame who is always striving. The person who is flourishing is the cancer patient who has something so valuable that not even cancer can take it away.
How do we live the good life? Dietrich Bonhoeffer points us in the right direction: “Here at the end of the Beatitudes the question arises as to where in this world such a faith-community actually finds a place … at the cross. The faith-community of the blessed is the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything.”
In Jesus we lose everything. But in him we find everything — forgiveness, assurance, and a love that can never be taken away. At the cross we’re given a new identity and assurance that’s ours forever. And when we get that, we’re given all that we need to flourish even when life gets hard.
You don’t get the good life by pursuing the good life. You get the good life by pursuing Jesus.
There’s your invitation to a new way of living, a new way of flourishing. How will you respond?