Sunday, February 25, 2024
Psalm 42:1-6a & Matthew 5:6
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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We all want to know what it means to live well in the world, and much of our lives are occupied with how we answer this question. What does it mean to live well? There are so many answers that we could give. Living well could mean having financial security. That is, I live well when I have the money to buy what I need and also what I want. Living well could be relational. That is, I live well when my family and friends know I love them, would go the extra mile for them, and would do the same for me. Living well could mean having a consistency between what a person believes and how a person acts. For example, I believe that God wants us to share our time, talents, and money with others, so I live well when I offer my time as a mentor to a student at Griffin Elementary every week. Gathering in worship is another example of staking the claim that this is how a person lives well. 

What it means to live well is a perennial issue. Throughout time, humans have wanted to know how to do this. This was especially the case in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus. It was a worldwide project. We see that voice especially in the prophets of the Old Testament — Amos, Micah, and Isaiah for example. We also see it in Greek philosophy. In The Republic, which circulated in the fourth century and beyond, Plato studied the human soul and the condition of the soul necessary for for humans to live well and do what is right. The word Plato uses to describe that is dikaiosune, which is a word found all over the Old Testament and which is the word Jesus uses throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Often this word gets translated as “justice” or “righteousness,” but those words are so familiar, especially in the church, that we have lost their meaning. So, for today, let’s give this definition to dikaiosune: What makes a person really right or good. 

It wouldn’t be hard for us right now to think of people we know who have dikaiosune, who have that thing that makes them really good. They are compassionate. They are selfless. They go the extra mile. It also wouldn’t be hard for us to think of people who do not have that. They are selfish or cruel. They have no aim higher than themselves. They are hateful. They live with no understanding that they will give an account to God for what they did with their lives. 

But to do that actually misses the mark on how dikaiosune works. To keep me from saying the Greek word dikaiosune too many more times I’m going just use “righteousness” as we go forward. But I’m going to strive to redefine righteousness into something that is more faithful to how Jesus uses it. What is it about a person that makes him or her really good? 

Scripture tells us that it is what God has already done for a person that does this. God is righteous. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, God declares the verdict of “righteous” over all who awaken to this reality. So, God’s righteousness has led to his action to save. That action is something that profoundly impacts you personally and the whole world universally. And it is that saving action that then leads to a transformed life that reflects righteousness of heart, thought, and action. Not the reverse. 

Rudolf Bultmann describes it this way, “[Righteousness] does not mean the ethical quality of a person. It does not mean any quality at all, but a relationship. That is dikaiosune is not something a person has as his own; rather it is something he has in the verdict of [God].” So, righteousness is about behavior appropriate to a relationship. 

Think about it. Every relationship makes demands on conduct. In an elementary school classroom, there is behavior appropriate to that space. Children should listen to their teacher. The teacher should be patient and kind with students. In a marriage, there is the expectation that the spouses are dedicated to each other, listening, helping, and sharing life together. 

The same is at play in the covenant relationship between God and people. Every relationship makes demands on conduct. Following our pattern, “God’s righteousness is his acts in history to save. That salvation grants to his people the gift of acceptance of him. They in turn tirelessly seek a lifestyle appropriate to the relationship granted to them as a gift.”

It is within that last sentence — people, in turn, tirelessly seek a lifestyle appropriate to the relationship granted to them as a gift — that draws our attention to the fourth beatitude. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The language Jesus uses here is so evocative. Hunger. Thirst. I wondered this week how long it took before a person would die from hunger or thirst. (This is the kind of rabbit trail that pastors go on when we write sermons. Sometimes I’m scared of what my search history on Google would reveal about my mind as a sermon-writer.) To my surprise, our bodies can last far longer than I expected. If a person still has access to water, it would take upwards of three weeks before a person starved to death. Water is the greater issue. Without water, it takes around a week, perhaps less if the conditions are bad. So, next time your kid comes up to you complaining, “I’m starving!” you can confidently tell them they’re not. They’re just hungry and quite likely dehydrated. 

It occurred to me as I thought about hunger and thirst this week that I have never truly hungered or thirsted, thank the Lord. Sure, I’ve been hungry. You can ask my family — I’ve been hangry. I’m no fun to be around when I’m like that. 

Hunger and thirst are physical responses to a desire and need within a person. Like pain, they are actually good things, telling us we need to eat and drink. We don’t like feeling hungry, but that yearning tells us that it’s time to eat. We don’t enjoy pain, but pain allows our bodies to say “Something’s wrong! Don’t do that again!” 

In this beatitude, Jesus uses words rooted in physical needs to describe spiritual realities. To hunger is to desire something strongly. To thirst is to have a strong desire to attain a goal. So, blessed are those who desire righteousness so strongly that it drives their behavior in the way that reflects their gratitude for what God has done for them. We are blessed in the striving for righteousness, not if or when we attain it. Remember righteousness is not about our particular lifestyle that has earned us God’s favor. It’s the reverse. God’s favor already is on us, and blessed are those who tirelessly seek to live into that reality!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness — who desire so strongly to know and live the good life God has for them — for they will be filled, Jesus says. I think it is tempting to view the Christian life as one of deprivation. I can’t do what others do. I give money away that others use for nice things. Wouldn’t it be nice to tell off that jerk I work with for once? But in this beatitude, we have a reminder on both ends that the way of Jesus is fulfilling. It begins with “blessed are,” which is describing a state of blessing that already exists, not only that the person earns. It ends with “they will be filled.” Hungering and thirsting are strongly desiring something, and “will be filled” means experiencing inward satisfaction. What one desires will be satisfied. 

The beatitudes are not pie in the sky but they are a description of a reality that is different from our typical experience. I really love how Warren Carter captures this. “In the beatitudes, Jesus has the disciples imagine a different world, a different identity for themselves, a different set of practices, a different relationship to the status quo. Why imagine? Not because it is impossible. Not because it is escapist. Not because it is fantasy. But because it begins to counter patterns imbibed from the culture of the imperial world.” In other words, it provides an alternative but possible reality to the greed, violence, and selfishness we encounter on a daily basis, and Christians get to be a part of living as an alternative community, experiencing that blessedness. 

Scot McKnight shares, “Those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ are those who love God and God’s will…with their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Because they love God and others, they are willing to check their passions and will in order to do God’s will, to further God’s justice, and to express their longing that God act to establish his will and kingdom.”

I began this sermon by asking, “What does it mean to live well?” Plato’s answer was dikaiosune. That was also the answer of the prophets. It is the thing that actually makes a person good. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The blessing comes because God’s righteousness is conveyed to the world through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and that way of being in the world turns into just behavior that comes from gratitude. Christians are those who burn with desire for things to be made right. 

So, dear friends of Jesus Christ, do you find yourself hungering and thirsting for righteousness? Is this what drives you when you get out of bed in the morning? Is that what defines how you treat others, how you go out of your way to care, how you direct your life? Well, then, there is good news. Jesus says that you will be filled. Not, you might be. Not, you will get a little taste. You will be filled. Ken Bailey even encourages us, “You can pig-out on righteousness with no negative side effects.”

What is the good life? It’s the life driven by gratitude that rises from God’s verdict over us — that we are forgiven and set free to love well and to live justly.