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The Upside-Down Kingdom

The Blessed Ones

Rev. Philip Miller | January 9, 2022

Selected highlights from this sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is the central, essential message of Jesus. It contains His most brilliant, incisive, and challenging teachings. If you want to know what Jesus is all about, look no further than the Sermon on the Mount. In this message, Pastor Miller shows us unexpected realities about the kingdom of heaven and those God truly blesses. Then he tells us about an unparalleled offer from God that will turn our world upside down.

From the Brunswick Manifesto, to the Declaration of Independence, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the history of the world has turned on ideas. And 2,000 years ago, a young Jewish rabbi from Nazareth in Galilee turned the world on its head with His Sermon on the Mount. He proclaimed an upside-down kingdom so radical that the authorities killed Him to try to put an end to His ideas. But even death couldn’t stop the upside-down way of Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount is the essential central message of Jesus. It contains His most brilliant, incisive, and challenging ideas. If you want to know what Jesus is all about, look no further than the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is, at its core, about a kingdom, a kingdom that turns the world on its head—an upside-down kingdom. It turns our lives upside-down as well. And in our modern world today, dominated by divisive and corrupt political kingdoms seeking to enlist us in the advancement of their earthly agendas, the question rings out, “Whose kingdom will we live for? What if Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world? What if the blessed life is found not in the vision of political kingdoms but in the kingdom of heaven? What if the upside-down way of Jesus is, in fact, the right-side up way of life?

Friends, my prayer in this new series is that we would be enraptured by the upside-down kingdom of heaven, that we would commit ourselves to living the upside-down way of Jesus. But let me warn you, to follow the upside-down way of Jesus means going against the flow. It is an inverted way of life. It runs cross-grain to everything else because this broken-down world is like a turtle that is flipped on its back and doesn’t know which end is up. And Jesus is in the business of setting the world aright, setting it right-side up. And in fact, to live in the upside-down kingdom of heaven is actually to live right-side up in life.

So come. Let’s sit at the feet of the Master and let’s learn how to really live.

Grab your Bibles. We’re going to be in Matthew 4 and 5 this morning. In Matthew 4 we’ll read verses 4:17 down to 5:12. You’ll find today’s reading on pages 809 and 810 in the pew Bible there.

The reason we’re starting wide and then narrowing in is [because] I want you to see the context because the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t really start till chapter 5, verse 3. But I want to start here in chapter 4 in order to see the context just to give you a sense of what’s happened in the book so far. Jesus has been baptized. The Spirit of God has descended upon Him. He has been tempted in the wilderness by Satan, has prevailed over him, and now returns in power and is ready to begin His ministry.

Matthew 4:17: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordon.

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”

Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.

As we look at these opening verses in their context, I want to show you this morning three things. We’re going to see:

  • The Unexpected Kingdom,
  • The Unusual Blessings, and
  • The Unparalleled Offer.

It’s all right here: Unexpected Kingdom, Unusual Blessings, and Unparalleled Offer.

Would you pray with me as we dive into God’s Word together?

Father, it’s possible that there are no more important words in all of the Bible than what we are about to read in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the message Jesus repeated over and over and over again wherever He went. It is His essential truth, His essential message. It’s what He wants us to hear. May we pay attention and may we be changed. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen. Amen.

First, the Unexpected Kingdom, the Unexpected Kingdom.

So Jesus, baptized, now full of the Spirit, victorious over the devil’s temptations, steps onto the scene, full of authority and says, in chapter 4, verse 17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

And, of course, the Jewish people were waiting for a kingdom, weren’t they? They were waiting for Israel to be restored. They were waiting for the Romans to get kicked out. They were waiting for a king to rule and reign on David’s throne in Jerusalem. They were waiting for a kingdom of peace and prosperity for the people. And some had tried to bring in the kingdom by force through revolts and violence. If you know your history, this is what the Maccabeans tried to do. It’s what the Zealots were all about, the Sicarri, the dagger men who were trying to bring in the kingdom by violence.

Others thought to bring in the kingdom through diplomacy, through political alliances. The idea was if we could just get friendly enough with Rome, they’ll give us some freedom. We’ll carve out a measure of a kingdom for ourselves. It won’t be everything, but at least we’ll have what we have. This was the strategy of the Sadducees and some of the Pharisees.

Still others believed that if they were just religiously pious enough, if they were righteous and holy enough, God would see from heaven and would bring the kingdom as a reward for their righteousness. This was the strategy of the Essenes and many of the Pharisees as well.

And it is into this first-century world, white hot with kingdom fervor, that Jesus announces, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent. Change your whole way of thinking, your whole way of living. The way you pattern your life, change it. Reverse course; 180-degree turn. Why? Because the kingdom is at hand. It’s at hand. You’re all striving so hard to make the kingdom come down in to reality, but I’m telling you the reality of the kingdom is already coming down to you. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It’s right here. It’s at hand. It’s kind of a pun here as Jesus extends His hand, the hand that brings power and miracles and healing. The kingdom of God is at hand. It’s right here. Reach out and take it. Take my hand and follow me into the life of the kingdom of heaven.

And these are not just empty words.

Chapter 4, verses 23 and 24: “And he went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them.”

So Jesus proclaims the good news, the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven. And then He reaches out and heals every disease and affliction in order to back it up. Do you see this? The kingdom of heaven is “at hand” in Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is “at hand” in Jesus.

The kingdom, friends, has come down to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of the kingdom of heaven. He demonstrates and wields His power, the power of the kingdom at hand, and He offers the kingdom in Himself. He is “at hand.” And so the kingdom is at hand as well, which is why He says to Peter, Andrew, James, and John, “You follow Me. Follow Me. Follow the King. Follow the King Jesus, and step into the life of the kingdom of heaven.”

Friends, how unexpected is this? They were expecting a totally different kingdom. They were expecting a palace, and Jesus offered His person. They wanted freedom for their nation. Jesus brings healing and freedom, one person at a time, individuals. They wanted some great big external political upheaval, and Jesus brings an inner transformation of the heart.

This is an Unexpected Kingdom. And it is “at hand” in Jesus Christ. That’s the first point: The Unexpected Kingdom.

Secondly, Unusual Blessings. Unusual Blessings. Jesus’ fame is spreading. The crowds are growing, and so Jesus goes up on the mountain and begins to teach. And He gives us, opening here with nine statements of blessedness, each one beginning with one word: “makarios” – blessed. “Makarios” is a Greek word that means blessed, happy, well-off, favored. It was used most often of the gods to describe the blissful state of the divine. When it was used of humanity, it meant that you were blessed by God. Blessed, kissed by the gods, the favor of God resting upon you; that you lived a life that was evidenced by the blessings of God. And in Jesus’ day everybody knew who was blessed. It was all too obvious who enjoyed the favor of God in their day, just as in ours.

You say, “Who’s blessed?” They would have said, “The rich, the powerful, the affluent, the popular, the dignified and successful, those who are happy and full and beautiful, the people at the top, the rulers, the Pharisees, the elites. Everyone knows who is blessed in this life. They are the blessed ones.

A contemporary list might read like this.

Blessed are the wealthy.

Blessed are the leisurely.

Blessed are the affluent.

Blessed are those who walk the red carpet, the fashionable, the skinny, the ageless.

Blessed are those who are on point, and on trend.

Blessed are the retweeted.

Blessed are the powerbrokers, the election winners, the quickly promoted.

Blessed are the healthy, the popular, the successful.

Blessed are those with vacation homes, and fast cars, and designer wardrobes, and social media following, and high-tech athletic gear.

Blessed are those with thick hair and white teeth and bronzed bodies.

But that’s not who makes Jesus’ list. Do you see this?

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled. Blessed are the falsely accused for Jesus’ sake.

Friends, this is a shocking list. This is a subversive list. It’s a radical list. Can you sense what Jesus is doing here? He’s cutting through all the noise and all the marketing and all the advertising. He’s turning the world upside down. He’s telling us how it really is.

“Repent! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Everything you think you know about the blessed life, the good life, it’s wrong. Now that the kingdom of heaven has come among you, you’ve got to change the way you think about life and everything else in the kingdom of heaven. I’ll tell you who has the good life. It’s not the rich. It’s not the comfortable. It’s not the successful and popular. Everyone you think has the perfect blessed life actually does not. In the kingdoms of this world these are the people who come out on top, but not in My kingdom. In My kingdom, it’s different. My kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. And in the kingdom of heaven, many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Now, it seems to me that Jesus’ list of blessedness here, blessed people, is operating on two levels. First, this list is meant to shock us. If we were to make a list of the most blessed people we can think of, what the character traits are that they have in common—this would not be our list. Jesus is intentionally picking the people least likely to be thought of as blessed in the world. And He’s showing us in the kingdom of heaven, all of that is flipped on its head. Think about it.

Think about the people that are gathering around Him, all these people that are coming from miles around: the sick, the afflicted, the diseased, the oppressed, the social outcasts, the least, the lowly, the left behind. And the kingdom of heaven, friends, is coming upon them. Do you see that? The kingdom of heaven is arriving with healing and freedom and life in Jesus Christ. These are the least likely people on Earth to experience the blessing of God, and yet they receive it. They are getting it.

This is shocking! It’s the upside-down kingdom. The first will be last, the last will be first. This is the first level, the shocking level of these statements. But I think there’s something else going on here too. There’s a second level at which Jesus’ list is operating. And it’s not just shock, there’s a twist as well. These descriptions seem at first to be the kind of people who could never be blessed by God, the least likely people, but it turns out (here’s the twist) that in the kingdom of heaven, these are the very people who are most receptive to the blessings of God. This is the twist. They’re the easiest people in the world for God to bless! So easy. For example, let’s look at the first one here on the list.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So at the first level, it’s shocking, isn’t it? Blessed are the spiritually impoverished ones, the spiritually bankrupt, the spiritually debt-ridden who have no righteousness to their names, no reputation to uphold, no spiritual qualifications to offer. They are at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the Pharisees. The Pharisees are spiritually asset-rich, aren’t they? But these are the spiritually poor. They have nothing but filthy rags to bring before God. And in spite of that, in spite of all those apparent disqualifications, blessed are they when the kingdom of heaven comes upon them, for in their impoverished, spiritual helplessness, when they cry out to God, “God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” they discover the forgiveness of the grace of God in the kingdom of heaven, and against all odds, they find themselves blessed, blessed.

Remember the parable that Jesus told His followers in Luke 18:9–14? Let me just read it to you. It’s a great little story. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’”

Okay, pause for a moment. Who’s the good guy? Pretend you don’t know your Bible. One’s a Pharisee, one’s a tax collector, a revenue agent. He works for the IRS. Who’s the good guy and the bad guy? A pastor and a revenue collection guy. You know this. Okay, the pastor’s the good guy. Right? He’d better be. (laughter) “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this (spits) tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ (Hm?) But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This is shocking! This is shocking! Do you realize what He did? He just made a villain out of the pastor, and He made a hero out of the tax collector. How is it that a Pharisee goes home—with all his spiritual assets—goes home unjustified by God, without any good standing before God, and a tax-collector—a spiritually destitute bankrupt man—goes home justified, right before God? How is this possible? See, Jesus is showing us it’s not just sin that could get in the way of a relationship with God. Self-righteousness can be a problem too. Self-righteousness is actually just as deadly as our sin.

Ironically, religiously good people often have the hardest time receiving God’s mercy because they’re still trying to trust in their own righteousness to stand before God. One of the ways we can avoid Jesus as Savior is by being really, really good, because then we don’t need Him. But friends, the kingdom of heaven is not earned. It only comes by grace to those who know their desperate need for mercy and who cry out to God, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” The kingdom of heaven is for those who know their only hope is to be covered by the blood of Jesus Christ—His life in exchange for mine. If I stand on my own two feet, I have nothing, but if I stand in Jesus Christ, I have everything I need before God.

And so, the second level of this list, as it works on us, is this twist, this irony that the spiritually impoverished ones, who at first seem to be the very last people God could ever bless, turn out to be the very people who are most receptive to the blessings of God in the kingdom of heaven. They have nothing and they know it. And having nothing, they are ready, primed for mercy and the blessedness of the life of the kingdom of heaven. Shock! And twist! Do you see them both here?

Now let’s consider two more, and then we’re going to come back next week and do the rest of the list, okay? We just don’t have enough time to do it all today. Two more.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Again, shock! Blessed are the weeping ones. Not the optimists and the cheery souls who find a silver lining in everything. No! Blessed are the bereaved, and the heartbroken, and the devastated ones. Blessed are those who have lost loved ones, who have lost careers, who have lost health, who have lost their way. Blessed are those with tear stains on their pillows and a sorrowful ache in their heart.

This is shocking, and yet, the Lord is near to the brokenhearted. Jesus is a man of sorrows, acquainted with much grief. Even the Holy Spirit groans with us in our weakness. Remember at Lazarus’ tomb? Jesus wept! How remarkable is this, that God weeps with us? And those who mourn discover, in the kingdom of heaven, a God who weeps with them, who bears our sorrows, who catches our tears in the palms of His nail-scarred hands. In the kingdom of the heavens those who mourn shall find comfort from a God who is sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, who will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes, who will turn sorrow into rejoicing, and make everything sad come untrue.

What a twist is this, that mourning would be the gateway into the depths of the heart of God. Who would have ever seen that coming, and yet it is so in the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The meek, again, shocking! Not the go-getters, the trendsetters, the trailblazers. No, blessed are the humble. Blessed are the unassertive, the quiet, the timid, the shy who prefer to be behind the scenes, to serve in supportive roles, who never wish to get in the way or be in the center of attention, who step aside and let everyone go first, and if something goes wrong they usually blame themselves.

Blessed are the meek, the unnoticed, the easily overlooked, who never make the headlines, for the meek discover in the kingdom of heaven a Savior who is meek and mild, who is lowly and gentle, and humble of heart, who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. And having humbled Himself, becoming a human and becoming obedient to the very point of death, a death on a cross, God has now highly exalted Him and given Him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on Earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father!

And indeed, in the kingdom of heaven, the meekest of all people, Jesus Himself, now inherits all the earth. And those who share in His meekness, who have their destinies tethered to His, will be ushered into a huge inheritance, and the whole Earth will now be theirs in Jesus Christ, and they will be left in the shadows no more. All their needs will be provided for.

Again, what a twist, friends, that the meek would so meaningfully connect to the very heart of God. And yet this is the kingdom of heaven.

The favor of God, don’t you see, is bestowed upon the least likely. The favor of God is bestowed upon the least likely which, friends, is really good news, isn’t it? Are you spiritually bankrupt with nothing to offer God but filthy rags? Are you a mourner, heartbroken in life, and all the losses that come our way? Are you one of the meek and overlooked ones, living in the shadows? Don’t you see? The kingdom of heaven is for you. It’s for me. The God-blessed life is available to you and me. Even now it can be ours. The unexpected kingdom, full of these unusual blessings, are available through an unparalleled offer, an unparalleled offer.

Remember Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It’s right here. It’s right here. It’s on offer. “I’ve come from heaven to Earth, the King of kings, to offer you life in the kingdom of the heavens if you will come and take My hand, and I will lead you into all of life, into the blessings of the kingdom of heaven,” because, friends, the blessed life in God’s kingdom is on offer in Jesus. It’s on offer in Jesus.

Everybody wants to be happy (chuckles) in life. We’re all seeking some vision of the good life, aren’t we? All the marketing and advertising tells us what it will take for us to be successful, to be blessed, to live the good life. And we run frantically chasing, everyday of our lives, after the blessing of life, and the good life that is offered. But friends, what if Jesus is right? What if the blessed life of the kingdom of God comes upon the least, the last, and the left-behind? What if Jesus is showing us the life that is the real life, the upside-down life, the upside-down kingdom? What if this is actually the right way to live?

Friends, if Jesus is right, our whole world is like a turtle flipped on its back. It has no idea which end is up. So many of us get swallowed up and sucked into the machine, chasing after everything in this kingdom of the world. But what if Jesus is right?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It’s right here. All we need is nothing, but it’s the one thing most people don’t have. If you are a flipped over turtle, you can’t save yourself, right? You’ve got no plan, no chance, and no hope unless someone reaches down and saves you.

Don’t you see? The meek have no plan. The poor in spirit have no chance. The mourners have no hope unless someone reaches down and saves them, and Jesus has. Jesus has come. He has reached down from heaven and is turning everything upside up, and He says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And Jesus invites all of us to come follow Him.

“Follow Me. Take My hand, and step into the God-blessed life of the kingdom of heaven. It’s on offer in Me, in Jesus Christ, this upside-down kingdom which turns out to be the right-side-up way of life.” Won’t you come and follow Him? Won’t you follow Him?

Let’s pray.

All of life, Father, is built around achievement, around earning, around merit and worthiness. That’s how it is down here in the kingdoms of men. And so it’s hard for us to get our heads around an upside-down kingdom like the one Jesus describes that runs on grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and pardon. Who would have thought that the only one who could earn His way into your presence is Jesus, and the rest of us, our only hope is grace? And yet that’s how this kingdom runs.

Father, teach us to stop striving, to stop running so hard and to discover the unforced rhythms of grace. Jesus once said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me for my yoke is easy and my burden is light, and you will find rest for your weary souls.” Father, this is what we need, the grace, the mercy, the rest of the kingdom of heaven. May we take your hand and walk into abundant life. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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