"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
I had to memorize this verse and the rest of the beatitudes when I was a child. What they meant to me 25 to 30 years ago, is so different to my understanding today!
What were once "feel good" sayings, are now words of inspiration, of encouragement, of conviction and of challange! These beatitudes, are words, that should embrace every millimeter of our lives, not just snippets of it. These are words that bring the Kingdom of God to earth and in our midst! These are words that should embrace the whole Christian community, not just us as individuals. These beatitudes, are words, that should bring us closer to God, words that inspire us to be more like Jesus and to follow His ways!
Jesus embraced all the beatitudes 24/7, with His whole life. These words were lived out, in both word and deed, internally and externally, wherever He went. He brought His Kingdom to earth, and lived out the prayer he taught us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven". He calls us to do likewise.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
When I memorized this verse as a child, I thought all it meant was we had to read our bibles, pray, and if we're really good, fast a lot. I also thought it meant being good, by making sure we didn't swear, we listened to the right music and went to Church twice every Sunday. I did all that, apart from fasting, but I didn't feel satisfied, I was disillusioned and felt ripped off. It didn't make sense! I felt frustrated at God.
When Jesus said "blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness", He was challenging and convicting us with something far deeper and life changing. My hope and prayer is to encourage you all this morning.
The first question I want to ask is; "What does this word righteousness mean?"
When I went to Bible College in New Zealand, I briefly studied Greek, and one of the first things we examined was the meaning of the word "righteousness". The greek word is "dikaiosune", and basically, through looking at this word and the root words we find that righteousness and justice are related and should not be separated. Vines Expository Dictionary describes righteousness as "whatever is right or just in itself, whatever conforms to the revealed will of God." Righteousness is about making what is wrong, right, or making what is unjust, just!
A second point of clarity about the word "righteousness", it is used differently by different authors in the New Testament. Righteousness in the book of Romans indicates how we were wrong, but God, through His grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has made us right before Him. Matthew, however, uses righteousness in a different way; to him it's our "ethical conduct in keeping with God's will." In other words, Jesus wants us to live by His standard, not our own way, and He clarifies this in Matthew 5:20, by telling His followers, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven".
When Jesus speaks of righteousness here, He is calling us, as believers, as people who've been justified by God, to live a life where we bring heaven to earth. Righteousness is doing what Jesus wants us to do, in the way that He wants us to do it! This means, loving our neighbors, being peacemakers, being meek, being merciful, being pure in heart, being poor in spirit and, of course, following the example of Jesus in what we do and say.
The second question I want to ask is; "How do we Hunger and Thirst after this Righteousness?"
In the ancient world and in certain parts of the world today, droughts cause starvation and death. Obviously, in such climates, hunger and thirst are the strongest biological drives for humankind. It's hard for us to understand this concept here in Chicago, because food and water is so readily available. Today, we might say, we need to hunger and thirst after righteousness just like an addict craves after her fix, or an alcoholic needs his alcohol, or some of us need to be online, on our phones or need to watch the next episode of our favorite shows! Jesus is talking about a craving so powerful, it's next to impossible to resist!
Basically, Jesus is telling us we live in a messed up, unjust, violent world and our strongest cravings should be to right the wrongs around us! We need to represent and imitate Jesus in our midst. We need to bring the values of heaven down to earth, we need to live out His kingdom values here in our neighborhood, we need to be salt and light in our communities and wherever we may roam.
The third question I want to ask is; "How do we live out this verse here in Uptown, in Chicago, today?"
We live in a neighborhood that's hurting. We live in a neighborhood where we witness and know of too many things that are so unfair and unjust. We just need to walk out our doors and see the tents down the street to know that inequality exists. Within our neighborhood, whenever I speak to those who are poor, mentally ill, addicted or have physical disabilities, I mourn over the huge obstacles they face. I listen to their cries for justice! I listen to those who have been oppressed because of their race, and see how they weep over how unjust and unfair things have been and are for them!
It's sad, but every day, I witness and experience things that are not right! It's not right that my 67 year old friend, who's mentally ill, has cellulitis and is a veteran remains homeless. It's not right, when a few of us at CCO witnessed police taze a young man who wasn't violent and wasn't being a threat. It's not right, when I turn on the TV and see the rich and powerful get away with horrible crimes, while I watch Clarence get tossed in jail for stealing some cough drops.
It wasn't right, when my friend named Bernard came to see me on Wednesday. I helped him get into a place recently, but on this day, Bernard had tears in his eyes. His 22 year old son was shot and killed in Englewood last Friday.
All this isn't right! This world isn't fair! This world needs the Kingdom of God to reign right here on earth, right here in Uptown. Uptown needs God's will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven!
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus proclaimed his mission, what bringing heaven to earth means; “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lordʼs favor.”
Jesus is calling us to saturate our surroundings with righteousness. Jesus is calling us to fight for those who are weak and poor! He calls us to be salt and light to those around us! Just as Jesus lived out this verse, we need to do likewise.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for the elderly, widows and orphans.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who struggle with mentally illnesses.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those suffering with sicknesses and disabilities.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those in prison and who continue to suffer because of their past.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who are experiencing homelessness.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their gender.
He calls us to hunger and thirst for those who've been abused, bulled and assaulted
He calls us to hunger and thirst for anyone and everyone who's been brought down by the cruel hand of oppression and injustice!
Craving for righteousness, doesn't mean we all become activists chanting and waving signs in the street. Craving for righteousness can be loud. It can be quiet. It can be peaceful. It can cause chaos! Craving for righteousness is the desire to love our neighbors as ourselves and trying to bring the ethics of God's loving Kingdom to those around us!
Craving for righteousness is quietly sitting by a cancer patient. It is changing someone's tire. It is singing songs in a nursing home. It is hugging and listening to a victim of abuse. It is visiting those in prison. It is buying someone a sandwich. It is not abandoning the veteran who suffers with PTSD. It is making every effort to spread the love of Jesus to all we come in contact with. It is bringing the good news of the gospel, even when people try and stop us!
Loving our neighbors and bringing the gospel into our streets will cause reactions! Jesus broke the rules, He healed people on the Sabbath, He dined with prostitutes and He harshly challenged and rebuked the religious and political leaders of His time. Craving after righteousness attracts haters, it brings about persecution. Let us not forget, craving after righteousness took Jesus to the Cross.
Through my job, I have the privilege of knowing a lot of people in Uptown, and when we talk about Jesus, most of them tell me they love to see Christians uniting together to overcome what's wrong in this world. They want to see us living out the gospel. They want to see us challenge injustices. They want to see us taking risks. I constantly have folks asking me, questioning me, or even thanking me about our role, as Jesus People, in the community! When people see believers coming together to live out the gospel, I've seen even those who've turned their backs on God, glorify Him. I've seen it time and time again! Despite the opposition, when the Church hungers and thirsts after righteousness. God is glorified and people are drawn to Him!
The fourth and final question I want to ask is; "if we hunger and thirst after righteousness all the time, how will we be satisfied?"
As with all the beatitudes, the final phrase of the verse carries mystery. How can we always be hungry and always be thirsty, while at the same time, always feel satisfied or filled? It doesn't make sense.
I believe these beatitudes carry the "already, not yet" tension of the Kingdom of God. In eternity, we won't need to hunger and thirst after righteousness, because our God makes all things just and right and we'll be perfectly satisfied. But while we're here on earth, our cravings to overcome the wrongs should never cease, and yet at the same time, Jesus promises us we'll feel satisfied or filled. Jesus lived this way, we should too!
I would describe it this way; I have the honor of helping homeless men and women get housed. I hunger and thirst that our homeless brothers and sisters overcome whatever barriers stand in the way and successfully move into their own homes. It gives me so much satisfaction and joy when I have the opportunity to take a picture of someone, like our friend Linda, proudly holding her keys! Yet, as much pleasure as it gives me, I know that as soon I finish congratulating them, there's plenty of other folk needing to get off the streets too! Within me stands a tension of mourning and hope, and in that, I'm mysteriously satisfied.
Sadly, there will always be inequality, violence and unjust laws wherever we go. So when we fight to bring the kingdom of God into our neighborhoods, when we hunger and thirst to bring hope, to bring peace, to bring mercy, to bring love, to bring the gospel and to bring Jesus into our surroundings, Jesus promises us, we will feel satisfied at the same time.
This beatitude is a mystery that's hard to describe, so I want to close with a story that summarizes what I've been trying to say. This was a time where God taught me about the importance of craving after righteousness. This is also a story where God filled me up when I thought I'd feel empty.
Years ago, when I was relatively new at CCO and Chris was out of town, I had to run our soup kitchen. It was crowded, there may have been 200 people in our dining room. A group near the front of the line called out to me and snitched on this guy who was pushing in. I approached him and told him he needed to go to the back. He didn't like my request, felt embarrassed and refused to move. When I got persistent, he got irate!
He didn't stop. He followed me around the room. He got in my face, was yelling at me and threatening me. This happened before we all had cell phones, so I approached the front desk and started dialing 911. With the phone against my ear, this guy winds up and punches me twice in the face and runs out the door.
I was angry. I was embarrassed. I wanted revenge! The room was crowded, and everyone saw it! I couldn't stop, I couldn't run away, people were hungry and needs had to be met, so I went right back to running the program. I suddenly found myself in an awkward position, people were watching me to see how I'd react.
I had onlookers who offered to mess this dude up for me, people who could have and would have done serious damage! On top of this, because of my position and because he was homeless, I had the power where I could have made this man's life a lot harder than it already was! People were watching and wanted to see what I'd do! I had to ask myself, do I seek revenge or do I hunger and thirst after righteousness?
I knew what Jesus wanted and I knew what I wanted! I wanted revenge! Jesus wants mercy, love and forgiveness, and this was the challenge. I didn't want to see him again, I wanted another staff member to address him, but that didn't happen. It was up to me! Jesus wanted me to be merciful and a peacemaker. He wanted me to face my fears, face this man and restore what was wrong. I couldn't do it on my own, I knew the only way I could do it was through prayer and God using me in my weaknesses.
It wasn't easy and it took a while. Through prayer and pursuing what was right, our broken relationship was restored. I learnt his name, Clyde and I became friends, I was able to help him with his housing and Darrell and I attended his funeral a few years ago, where we were honored to meet his mother. The fight to right this wrong, gave me this mysterious satisfaction. It filled me up! It gave me hope, because I realized God can use a broken vessel like me to make what seems impossible, become possible.
Through getting punched by Clyde, God taught me something. He taught me, however weak we may feel, He wants us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and when we take that risk, He'll strengthen us and use us to bring heaven to earth and to glorify His name.