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Matthew 5:10-12

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

As you remember, Jesus is speaking to His followers about the Kingdom of God. Upon seeing a large crowd, He walked up the side of a hill and gathered His followers around Him. He is teaching them about the nature of God's rule and how He blesses those who are in His Kingdom. What we have noticed all along is that it is not obvious to us that the people Jesus claims are blessed truly are blessed--- Those who are keenly aware of their lack spiritually and of their own inability to make themselves rich. Those who grieve over the brokenness, pain, and sin of this world and long for comfort. Those who ache for all of creation to be set right. And, as we studied last time, those who long for God's shalom to fill the universe to overflowing. These characteristics are not, in general, what the world respects and recognizes as evidence of being blessed.

I think we hope that if we are blessed, then others around us will recognize that fact and celebrate with us. Part of being blessed surely is getting along with everyone around us, being favored by all, isn't it? Here Jesus tells His followers that those that are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed. Surely this is going too far. In the previous beatitudes, we could see that the world would not recognize their blessedness. What Jesus says it means to be blessed is not what we expect from looking around us. The strong or rich in spirit, those who are not mourning, who look out for themselves and don't waste undue time on making things right or peaceful, these are the people who, for the most part, are admired by our world. But now Jesus says you are blessed if people are actually persecuting you for righteousness' sake. This is truly not what we expect. Being persecuted in no way feels like being blessed. I don't like being persecuted. Not at all. I can endure it if I must I suppose, but I am not sure that I am able most of the time to stop and view these actions against me as signs that I am blessed.

Jesus says that these persecuted ones are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Notice this is present tense, just like the first beatitude about being poor in spirit. These people surrounding Jesus are finding that when they act righteously they sometimes are persecuted. But this result has led them to wonder if God has abandoned them or turned against them. Surely if they are acting as God would desire, they are not going to receive persecution by those around them? Now Jesus gives them an astonishing word. He says that being persecuted for the sake of God's righteousness is a sign of blessing because it is a sign that you belong to the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is a persecuted kingdom in this world. John contrasts the kingdom of God with this world in the first chapter of his gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." God's kingdom breaks into this fallen world and is met with resistance and hostility. Jesus was not welcomed with open arms by all. As we read through the gospels, we can see the resistance and skepticism that Jesus encountered develop into such antagonism that in the end many pursued His destruction. There were plenty who made it clear that they did not want what Jesus was offering. We want to assume that every word of peace, goodness, life, and joy will be welcomed by all, but that simply isn't the case.

So what we see here in this last beatitude, as in all the previous ones, is that this statement is true first of all of Jesus Himself. Jesus is the truly blessed One. He brings the kingdom of God so that it is "at hand"(Mk. 1:15), within our grasp. He is the Righteous One, the One in whom and through whom all things in heaven and earth are being set right. And He is the persecuted One. The inbreaking of the light was met with tremendous resistance from the darkness of our fallen world. Jesus knew He would face defiance. Two Sundays ago we celebrated Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus knew, as he rode in amidst shouts of acclaim, that many in this very crowd would in just a few days participate in a movement to have Him crucified. He knew the persecution that awaited Him. They did not welcome Him as the Blessed One, their Savior. Yet, He was the Blessed One nevertheless. In some ways, the persecution was a sign of His Blessedness. He came to undo, destroy the sin and unrighteousness that was destroying His good creation. Sin, evil is anti-life. It feeds off of, distorts, and damages the life that God created. Jesus received persecution from this very evil that wants to destroy the life and goodness He brings.

The resurrection shows that evil doesn't win. The darkness is unable to overcome the light. Jesus tells His disciples right before His arrest and crucifixion, "'I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.'"(Jn. 16:33) In the end, evil will be wiped out, and the righteousness and peace of the Kingdom of God will fill up the whole universe. In the Kingdom itself, there is not persecution or evil and death has been swallowed up in life and shalom.

But for now, when we belong to the kingdom of God here on this earth, that still suffers from the brokenness and pain of sin and evil, we will be met with resistance and even hostility. And this persecution is a sign that we belong to that kingdom of righteousness that has invaded the darkness which has overcome and is overcoming it. This persecution is a sign of our blessedness in Christ. It is a sign that we no longer belong to the lostness and twistedness of the kingdom of this sinful world, but that we now belong to the kingdom of God, a kingdom which is still persecuted by this world even as it is overcoming it.

Now Jesus turns to His disciples and speaks directly to them. "Blessed are you," He says, "when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account". Jesus becomes more pointed here to underscore the importance of what He has just said. He indicates to His followers that their lives as His disciples are not going to be easy or smooth. People are going to show contempt for you and are going to misjudge, misrepresent, or lie about you. They are going to persecute you, which ranges from resisting you to being hostile towards you. Again Jesus is emphasizing the truth that to live in and for Him in this world will not always be welcomed and honored. We are tempted to be surprised and discouraged by this. After all, if Jesus is so good, won't everyone recognize this and want what He is giving? Doesn't everyone want what is best for them? Of course, if we think about it awhile we realize the answer to these questions is "no". There are times when we ourselves are at least double minded about what God wants for us.

Jesus is reassuring His disciples, and us. Being resisted, being persecuted, will be a part of belonging to Jesus. When we live in His peace, we are less apt to be manipulated by the world and the world isn't going to like that. We often in our social relationships use manipulation to move friends or family to act the way we want them to. To refuse to manipulate or be manipulated is not always going to be met with understanding and joy. When we refuse to lie or go along with underhanded ways, it is not likely the person encouraging us in this behavior will be pleased. To say that Jesus is the way to real life, joy, and reality is often met, as we know, with disdain and open hostility. Some are even dominated by what is present to some degree in all of us, the resistance to any repentance, to any change, even for the good.

It isn't easy to be persecuted. We don't like others thinking ill of us, or having our reputation falsely or truly tainted. This is why Jesus goes to these lengths to reassure His disciples. We fear persecution in any form and wonder if God can still be present, good, and faithful, if our lives aren't going smoothly as we follow Him. But Jesus assures His disciples that in the midst of a negative reception here on earth, they are blessed. They are not blessed because they are persecuted, they are blessed because in their persecution the kingdom of God is theirs. Their persecution is a sign that they belong, not to this twisted and broken world, but to the kingdom of God's goodness and righteousness.

How are we to look upon and deal with those times when we are resisted or opposed? Jesus now gives His disciples His first command in this whole section. "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets before you." Jesus tells His disciples to rejoice and be glad. They are not merely to suffer from the persecution or put up with it stoically and patiently. They are to rejoice and be glad. How can they do that? How can they will themselves to rejoice when they are not being welcomed and respected in their immediate circumstances? Notice that Jesus doesn't just merely give them a command. He gives them two reasons to rejoice. First, they are to rejoice because their reward is great in heaven. This present situation, Jesus is saying, does not tell the whole story. Present difficulties do not mean future struggles as well. What these present sufferings indicate, as we have seen, is that you belong to God's kingdom. The reason this place does not feel like home is, quite simply, because it isn't! There is still resistance to God's goodness and shalom and we participate in that truth as we grow in the love and peace of Christ.

So this rejoicing is not about where we are now, but where we are going. It is a response to our future. Notice that Jesus calls us to look forward to a great reward in heaven. What might this great reward look like? I think Jesus has been telling us through the previous beatitudes. We will have complete comfort and satisfaction. We will see complete righteousness in all relationships. We will see the very face of God and know the joy and love of being His children. We will have full and complete shalom or well-being. We will inherit the entire earth to enjoy together. So to rejoice and be glad is to bear witness to our true situation and our sure future. It is to find joy in the signs that we do indeed belong to God, and He is at work in us making us more and more like Himself.

The second reason Jesus gives for His disciples, and us, to rejoice looks to the past. He reminds them that the earlier prophets were given the same treatment in this world. It should not surprise them that they are resisted, because those that carried God's word into the world before were treated in the same way. The light has always met with resistance in this fallen world. This too can give them reassurance and a place to look other than their current circumstances to know what the truth is. We are far too often tempted to believe that our present situation tells us everything. When we are dealing with our current struggles and crises, they conspire to try and tell us who we are and what life really is. But they don't. The truth is we don't see all there is even in the present situation. We truly are limited in our knowledge and perspective. It is interesting to me that Jesus does not direct their attention to the present at all. Rejoicing in a situation that in and of itself is difficult and painful requires looking beyond it to something else.

Jesus tells His disciples to rejoice and be glad when they face persecution. In a way, this command seems to fit for the whole of the beatitudes. In some real way we are to rejoice in the midst of our mourning, hungering for righteousness, being merciful, longing for peace, looking to see where God is working and present in all things. We don't rejoice because we are mourning, but because we know that someday we will know the incredible and total comfort of God. This frees us to mourn today without fear. And we can rejoice in our mourning because we are participating in God's own mourning over the sin that twists and distorts His good creation. We can rejoice in our desire for right relationships because we know we are participating in God's very heart for righteousness. We rejoice when we see He is at work in our hearts and that we are coming to know His own good and gracious love.

We will always feel that the world in which we now live is not really a good fit. We will long for peace, harmony, and joy in this world. And as we grow in Christ these longings and this feeling that this place is not our home will only grow, not diminish. Life here will not necessarily get easier. In fact, we may find that we mourn more easily than we used to, that our ability to be merciful has increased because we are more aware of our need for mercy, and that our awareness of the sin we commit and that committed by others is more keen. We may also find that some people become less and less happy with us as we experience greater peace and freedom in Christ because we are not as easily manipulated and don't join them in their controlling games. But we can rejoice and be glad because we want more deeply the very things Christ is offering us and so we are glad that His kingdom is our real inheritance.

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