Last week we began a series on one of the most famous parts of Jesus’ teaching, the beatitudes. I stressed that the beatitudes were an appropriate text for the people of BCF because the people who are at home here are like those described in these verses – simple, ordinary people who do not trust in this world’s resources.
We saw that the word translated “blessed” means something like “to be congratulated”. Those who fit the description in the beatitudes are people who God himself congratulates. He welcomes this sort of folk because they are like him.
It follows that the beatitudes are not promises to everyone but only to followers of Jesus. This becomes more and more clear when we start to appreciate the back – to – front nature of Jesus words. This is especially true of the second beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” Naturally speaking, people would prefer not to mourn at all. What then does Jesus mean by these words?
Firstly, he means something very intense. The word for “mourn” is the strongest word available in the Greek language (lupe). It is used for example in the Greek translation of Genesis 37:34 when Jacob is told that Joseph is dead, “Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.”
This sort of mourning is too powerful to be kept secret. Since all the beatitudes involve life- habits, this mourning is a passion running like a river through your life. It is not a sadness that comes and goes from time to time and that needs to be removed as a “problem”. If this sort of mourning were a “problem” or a sin it would not draw the congratulation of God.
We are not dealing with ordinary mourning. There are no promises in the bible that God can comfort people other than believers in Jesus. Some forms of grief are inconsolable. Paul says, “My friends, we want you to understand how it will be for those followers who have already died. Then you won’t grieve over them and be like people who don’t have any hope.” (1 Thess 4:13). If you have been to the funeral of a non –believer you now what I mean by a form of mourning that can seem wholly negative. Useless mourning, such as self – focused despair, is one of the consequences of our sin.
The sort of sadness that Jesus is talking about is more than an emotion or thought pattern, it is a deep spiritual disposition. It is like the psalmists repeated lament, “Why do the wicked renounce God, and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?” (Psalm 10:13); the righteous in Israel were continually grieved by the prosperity of the godless wicked.
As another example, Peter describes what was going on inside of Lot when he was living in Sodom: “a righteous man who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men, for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Pet 2:7- 8)
This condition of restless grief was also in the life of the apostle Paul: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16). This illustrates that this sort of mourning is holy.
As far as Christians are concerned, there will always be dimensions of the world that make it a wicked and mournful place: 14 million AIDS orphans in Africa, a billion in poverty, 11.5 million refugees, wars, famines, abuse, terrorism…
Lamenting over all these things is to be expected in the church because it is sharing in God’s heart –felt experience, that is, God himself –the God of the Bible and of Jesus, laments over the state of the world:
Prior to the flood of Noah we read, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. ” (Gen 6:5- 6)
[“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” (Eph 4:30)]
One of the things that especially disturbs me is the constant stream of accounts from nation after nation of the persecution of other believers in Jesus – we cannot escape the fact that the world is a tragic place.
That this sort of mourning is a necessary and godly thing becomes undeniable when we see it in the life of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. “When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” (John 11:34-38)
Jesus’ groaning in pain and moral indignation is an expression of the deep compassion felt in the heart of God over the wretched state of humanity, a state that climaxes in the tyranny of death. (Need to remember this is a state we have brought on ourselves by our own rebellion against God, Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23.) Jesus knew what he was going to do, he knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still had agony of emotion over the indignity that had fallen his friend.
This anguish in the heart of Christ continues as he approaches Jerusalem, the city of his destiny:
“41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37)
“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”” (Luke 19:41-44)
This passionate outpouring of grief over the future destruction of Jerusalem (1 million dead) is not yet the climax of the Son of God’s experience of mourning. His anguish must become a more first hand one: “36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”” (Matt 24:36- 38).
Here in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus is beginning to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah [concerning God’s chosen servant]: “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and familiar with grief.” (Isa 53:3) Jesus is in such a state of internal pain that he feels he is about to die even before he reaches the cross.
The torment of the cross is the fullness of his sorrow. In his terrible cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) we are witnessing not only what is means for a perfectly righteous man to be left alone with all the powers of evil in their filth and pollution, but what it means for God (the Son) to be separated from God (the Father). This mourning was infinite and whilst it was being felt it was absolutely inconsolable. Lamentation 1:12 has long been seen as a prophetic testimony of Jesus experience on the cross: “Is it nothing to you,all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”
Every dimension of human mourning was shared by the Father and Son on the cross – the mourning over a last child, of a broken marriage, a devastated career, the grief of the Holocaust, over the bombings this week in London, over humanity’s lost relationship with God. Remember a 40 year old devoted Christian man breaking down and sobbing, crying aloud, “I had such potential”, because his life had been robbed of so many things – marriage, career etc. by psychiatric disorder. Was Jesus unfamiliar with his grief?
Sine all this actually happened for Father and Son, since they actually mourned all things, it begins to open up the entire biblical message of not only of the God who comforts but of a God who knows what it is to be comforted.
“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
“Comfort” is in the passive, it is something that happens to us, “they will be comforted”, it is what God will do. It is a promise that in the service of God there are no afflictions without comfort.
But this is not how most men and women see it. Someone says, “We escape the present by drugs, alcohol or going shopping, which amounts to the same thing.” [“A women’s place is in the mall” sticker.] Entertainment has become an enormous thing in our culture – I Pods, CD players, car radios, TV’s, DVD’s, computer games and on and on. Most people try very hard to switch off to the pain and sorrow in the world. There is a brand of whisky called “Southern Comfort”. How much of sex is an attempt to find comfort? The 1000’s of sex slaves used by the Japanese military in WW 2 were even called “comfort women”. How about “comfort food” – the whole snack industry depends on it! Christians are immune from these sorts of things.
Jesus had some hard things to say about the sort of trivial escapism that plagues our society: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25). This is a hard word, but one we must hear because only when we get in touch with our real feelings do we reach out for God. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Ps 34:18) “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” (Ps 147:3).
In dealing with Jesus’ promises to the poor in spirit we read how he quoted Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor;” (Isa 61:1); this passage goes on to say, “to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isa 61:2- 3). As the anointed servant of God full of the Holy Spirit and power an essential part of the ministry of Jesus is to comfort those who mourn.
This comfort does not come in the way that men and women expect it, it does not come by “positive strokes”, it will not come by God simply speaking soothing words and telling us things are not as bad as they look (they are in fact worse); time does not heal all wounds. We must understand that God can bring comfort only in the way that he himself ha been comforted. The way in which God, and only God, can bring comfort is indicated by further prophetic words; words that go to the heart of our problem, words we would rather not hear – words to do with sin.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isa 40:1- 2) [cf. Isa 51:3, 3 God is Israel’s comforter] Like it or not, sin is at the root of all sorrow- our sorrow, God’s sorrow, the sorrow of Jesus at the cross, and unless sin is dealt with sorrow can never be healed.
By embracing our sin and sorrow in the cross Jesus has fully paid for our sins; this is the foundation for his providing for our comfort in his resurrection. Let me quote some wonderful words from a famous theologian: “We must receive what has come upon Jesus in his resurrection from the dead. We must believe with the risen Christ on the basis of the divine comfort that has come upon him. God has comforted his Son in eternity. And in him he has comforted all of us in advance” (Barth CD II/1 253).
What can we do but let this comfort be our comfort? Just as Jesus was able to endure the desolation of the cross in the conviction of the future and final comfort that happened to him in his resurrection, we too must believe that in the end the Father will comfort all of his children. This is the apostolic faith,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again.. ” (2 Cor 1:3 – 10)
With every experience of grief in following Christ, Paul expected an experience of comfort. This was not based on optimism nor simply his personal experience, but on a core conviction that the true pattern of the Christian life is always death/mourning and resurrection/comfort.
Over the centuries multitudes of followers of Jesus have drawn immeasurable strength from the promise that one day all the struggles and mourning of this valley of tears will be over:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1- 4).
Application and Conclusion
Let me sum up and bring out some applications:
Mourning is a normal and a healthy part of the Christian life because Christians experience a certain isolation and aloneness in the world until Jesus returns. In talking about his departure to heaven and the time before the second coming, Jesus said, “‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’? 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”
This does not mean God expects us to live a life of misery. Since God has the final say in history, and his final say is resurrection, there are four times as many words to do with joy than those to do with sadness in NT (NIDNTT 2, 420). (This is the subject of another of the beatitudes, Matt 5:11- 12). I believe this is so because the early Christians knew how to deal with their sorrows in away we often do not.
Mourning is not something to be ashamed of, in many ways it can be a sign of Christian maturity. It reveals a keen sense of the difference between good and evil. It is appropriate to mourn the present terrible state of the world and it is vital to join with the Holy Spirit in grieving the way he is shut out of much of the activities of the church.
Deep mourning (as long as it does not become a “pity – party”) turns us to God, to a place where God is found, because he himself is “familiar with grief”. It is an experience he knows and shares. There is a deep prophetic power in God- centred mourning. You hear it in other cultures, like in the old Negro spirituals coming from the depth of their laments in slavery. Without embarrassment we need to get in touch with and express the pain of our hearts in this dark world and cry out to God for comfort here and hereafter – this needs to come out in our songs, our prayers and our witness.
Until Christians are more real with God about their mourning they will not experience a greater reality of the power of the resurrection. Only to the degree we express and surrender our mourning to God will the comfort with which the Father comforted Jesus flow into and through our lives for the God- like ministry of bringing comfort to others.
Outside of Christ people have no answers. When the wife of a famous American tycoon died he cried out like a baby, “Won’t someone please give me some comfort?” (J.Pierpoint Morgan). 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in Australia suffer from depressive illness some time during their lifetime. This is our leading cause of suicide and 4% of population suffers from clinical depression in any one year. The only answer for these people is an assurance that God is with us now and one day will do away with all our sorrows entirely. This is the promise of “eternal comfort” (2 Thess 2:16) that the gospel brings.
In the end, God is going to turn it all upside down. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh….Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:21b, 25b). This is the great reversal of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. His is not an easy path to follow, but may it be true of each of us, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”