As an elementary principal in Nebraska, the first school that I worked at was a public school in the middle of the state. Although many of the families that attended the school were farmers or worked in the agricultural business, several families lived in that community because they could not afford to live in any of the bigger cities in the area. Big by Nebraska standards, not Texas standards, because, everything is bigger in Texas, right? In a short amount of time, I realized that there were families in the school that did not have enough food to eat. We offered a free breakfast and lunch program and I had students picking up their trays and literally licking the tray clean. Students were coming to school day after day with the same clothes on. They couldn’t do homework because they didn’t even have colors or a pencil. The staff and I quickly mobilized and started a backpack program so that students could have food over the weekend, and had school supplies donated, among other programs to help students. I knew that people struggled with poverty in big cities but I was surprised that there were poor people out in the rural areas as well. In some ways, they had it more difficult because they were further away from potential resources. One family had built onto a garage just using sheet metal and was living there with no heater, trying to make it through a harsh winter. Some of you have had the opportunity to do mission work overseas. And as difficult as these people in Nebraska had it, it is even worse for families in some countries. They have even less than the poorest person in America. They live in small shacks. No bathrooms to speak of. They search for their food among the trash. Terrible living conditions. They have no money. They are truly poor.
I am guessing that you and I have never really experienced true poverty. Having nothing. Not knowing if you are going to eat again. Having a hopeless future. It is hard to imagine living in those conditions when we all have so much. Because we have so much stuff, we have a hard time understanding what it means to be poor let alone what it means to be poor in spirit. Jesus is intentionally using words to paint a picture to help us understand what He is saying. He is not saying that those who have little to no money are better than those who have a lot of money. No, what He is saying is poverty of spirit is ultimately yours and my attitude towards ourselves. What we think of ourselves. Just like the poorest people you can think of, that is a picture of your heart and how much you need the help of Jesus. Perhaps you will find no greater difference between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of self than in this beatitude. Let me explain. It is very common to hear people say you just need to believe in yourself. Have confidence in you. Think positively about yourself. Rely on our own instincts. Look inside yourself. What kids movie or TV show doesn’t drip with these themes? It is the idea that you have everything you need inside you, you just need to find it. You are rich and wealthy of heart. This just isn’t true.
You and I are confronted by a completely different reality that we find in the Bible. The great hymn writer Charles Wesley speaks of this reality in the hymn Jesus, Lover of My Soul. He wrote in one of the verses,
Just and holy is Thy name
I am all unrighteousness
Vile and full of sin I am
Thou art full of truth and grace
The good news of the Bible is that it breaks us down before it raises us up. This beatitude is about bringing us low to better understand who we really are. Let me give you two examples of what I am talking about. First being poor in the spirit is like standing at the foot of an extremely rugged mountain. Who has been to the Rocky Mountains? Who has been to Denali National Park in Alaska? This is where the tallest mountain in North America is. It is extremely isolated and rugged and dangerous. If you have ever stood at the base of a mountain like that, with the cold and snow blowing on the sheer granite and icy side of the mountain. There is no way you are going to climb that. When Jesus talks about being poor in spirit, about seeing your soul in complete spiritual poverty, unrighteous, vile and full of sin, knowing that the call to kingdom living is to be like Jesus, full of obedience, love, joy, kindness, and self-control, you should first think, there is no way I can do that. There is no way I can live as Jesus wants me to live in His kingdom. It is a mountain that I cannot even attempt to climb. I need help. Jesus said if you have that attitude towards yourself, if you are truly humble, you are blessed. Versus the one who thinks, you know, I think I can scale this, and jump over that 90-foot drop, pull myself up over that cliff. Hang by one hand and reach up to that ice covered rock. I think I can do this.
Second, being someone who is poor in spirit is like a man who looks at his face in the mirror. The brother of Jesus, James, wrote in James 1,
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
Being poor in spirit is a humility that when the word of God is spoken and I see something I need to change, I do it. That word of God may come in the form of reading your Bible, hearing a pastor preaching a sermon, it could be a teacher correcting you, a parent, a coach, even a student here at school. God uses all these different means as mirrors. Too often we become our own defense lawyers and say “I object. How dare you accuse me of doing anything wrong.” Those people are a mirror, it is showing us that we have dirt and filth all over our face and hair and we’ve got a date with some water, soap and a washcloth. Too often we see that and think, nah, I’m good.
There is another hymn by another great hymn writer, Isaac Watts. He writes about how Jesus reigns as king over everything but you and I are so quick to try to build our own kingdom where we are kings and queens of our lives. The reason we do that is that we are not poor in spirit. We think way too highly of ourselves. We think we can climb that treacherous mountain ourselves, we see the ugliness of ourselves in the mirror and think we are fine, even when people are trying to point it out. Isaac Watts uses another word picture of who we are without the grace of Christ and that is a prisoner. Listen to how a prisoner who is poor in spirit reacts when rescued by the grace of Jesus:
Blessings abound wherever He reigns
The pris’ner leaps to lose his chains
The weary find eternal rest
And all the sons of want are blessed
Your king rules over all of creation and wants desperately to be king of your heart, to rescue you from yourself and the prison of pride that you trap yourself in so that He can bless you.
Just like those children that have no money, looking for scraps of food just to survive, in complete poverty and hopelessness. We must view ourselves in that humble state. Needing a great king to reign, to rescue and to rule over our heart. The truth is, there is no one in the kingdom of God that is not poor in spirit. You and I need Jesus as much today as did when we first heard the good news. And in a thousand years in the future, we will still need Him as much as we did on the day we first believed. You see by being in poor in spirit here on earth, Christ, the king says, you will inherit the kingdom of heaven. That is amazing and it is worth the sacrifice.