The phrase which we heard over and over again during the American Presidential campaign by Donald Trump and in his inauguration speech was “make America great”. And he said that the way he was going to do that was by “putting Americans first”. Making America Great – Putting Americans First. Basically he is saying that if something is not in the best interests of Americans then he is going to scrap it including any trade deals with other countries.
It spoke to a lot of people because it’s the fundamental thinking of human beings and it is used by marketing quite frequently. Make yourself life great by putting yourself first. That’s the basic message of marketing. It’s the underlying human condition as we seek the best for our lives.
Jesus tackles this type thinking as he sits with the people and preaches to them his first sermon which has become known as “The Sermon on the Mount” or the Beatitudes. It was a sermon that challenged the “me first” thinking that goes right back to Adam and Eve and the “you will be like God” promise made to them by Satan: You will be great – your eyes will be opened and you will be like God – was the trick Satan used. It was the same trick that Satan tried on Jesus when he tempted him to put himself first: Turn these rocks into bread – put yourself first and eat if you’re hungry. Throw yourself from the temple and see if God loves you enough. Bow down and worship me and I will make you great by giving you all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus turns this around and says that greatness is found in very different places:
Jesus says that there are blessings that are found outside of ourselves and highlights qualities that would normally be associated with weakness and defects. Being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, those who hunger and thirst for the needs of others, not themselves, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers, the persecuted and reviled. These do not look like symbols of greatness but they are where true greatness can be found. And the reason is because we are led to understand that our help comes from God. As Paul said when he needed to look outside of himself and discovered – when I am weak then I am strong. And he said that because in times of weakness, in times of suffering he realised that it wasn’t about him making himself great but about God’s greatness being revealed in him. And as a result he said he wasn’t going to boast about his own greatness but about the greatness that is given to him when he lets go of his self-greatness.
When he stops boasting about his own strength: He said: I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
What both Jesus and Paul are trying to highlight is that human greatness is always limited. It is limited by availability – someone greater will always come along – or something may happen to take away our greatness – a sickness – an accident – or an external influence like a recession in the economy that can wipe away our possessions.
Human greatness is artificial – someone will take our place like a sporting champion who is defeated by a younger, hungrier, up and coming star or because of age we are forced to retire. But greatness bestowed by God cannot be taken away. But it can be ridiculed, it can be made to look weak, it can be made to look foolish. But we don’t worry about what others say. Instead we remain focused on where God has shown his power and strength and that is in the foolishness of the cross of Jesus Christ where his power and authority was revealed in death and defeat.
In Jesus’ death was where God revealed his power by raising Jesus from the dead. And so Paul keeps directing us there as he says: The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing – those who don’t understand God’s power – but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. The cross looks like weakness – it looks like failure – but it is where God has hidden his greatness. People will make fun of what we hold dear to our faith. They will mock us in the same way they mocked Jesus while he was hanging powerless from the cross. But it was only powerless in human terms not in Godly terms.
So what Jesus and Paul are telling us is that we are blessed when – whatever our circumstances – we know our need of God. And sadly, our need for God is often when we can no longer rely on ourselves to provide for our needs. In times of suffering when we cannot find healing, God comes to remind us of the full and final healing when our time comes to be called home to heaven. In times of grief when we lose a loved one, God comes to us to comfort us by reminding us that Jesus is the resurrection and life and that whoever believes in him shall never truly die. (John 11:25) In times of poverty God comes to us as he came to the poor man Lazarus where we see the reversal of fortunes as Lazarus is comforted by Abraham. (Luke 16:19-31) In times of persecution and ridicule God comes to us to remind us that our Lord is going to return and everyone will see him— even those who pierced him. (Revelation 1:7)
Our comfort and assurance doesn’t come by human effort, they come through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Knowing our need of God allows us to endure the bad things of life knowing they cannot utterly destroy us. And so as Christians we are called to go through this life trusting God’s plan for us. And even if in this life we go through those experiences that Jesus speaks about – we know that we have God on our side and that he is going to turn these around and ensure we receive justice. As Paul assures us – if God is on our side who can be against us (Romans 8:31)
The world doesn’t operate under those principles. You only have to read the letters to the editor and read people’s suggestions as to what should happen to the person who drove down the Bourke Street mall killing and injuring innocent bystanders including children and babies. As Christians we are called in those situations to speak about mercy and being peacemakers. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punished. But it means we are careful about the words we use and the judgments we make publicly. There are enough calling for punitive justice – and there is a place for that.
But there is a different sort of justice that Jesus preached. It’s the justice that we have been shown by God in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) It is the justice Jesus showed when he was ridiculed because “he eats with sinners”. (Matthew 9:11) It is the justice Jesus showed to his executioners when he cried out “forgive them Father – they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) And this is the difference that Jesus is trying to teach – to look outside of ourselves as it is God’s will that all people be saved – not just the people we believe should be saved.
When I see the atrocities in the world – the violence, the crime, the injustices – my initial response is very worldly: I want them punished severely and I even feel at times that there’s a special place in hell reserved for them. And that’s when I need to stop and think again about the sacrifice Jesus made not just for me but for all people. And that’s when I need to remember what Jesus said today: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. That’s when I need to remember the message of the cross which is the power of God for those who are saved. And if we limit to whom that grace can be shown then we must ask ourselves whether we deserve God’s grace. And the answer is – we don’t. For it is by grace that we have been saved so that none of us can boast. And so we are constantly called to look outside of ourselves and put the salvation of others first, And by looking outside of ourselves to the salvation of others we shall be truly blessed.