David Brooks tells the story of Aiesha Butler. She is about to move out of a troubled community and sees a young girl in an empty parking lot with broken bottles and tells her husband that they cannot leave. Over time, deeply rooting herself in that community, she begins to slowly change the identity of that space.
Movement. Presence. Identity. Transformation.
Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who mourn” and on he goes. An unexpected and surprising list of blessed people. One would almost think he has lost his mind. I mean, doesn’t Jesus know that Blessed are the Happy, the Beautiful, The Rich and the Confident. Dallas Willard tells us something of their purpose.
First there is the question of which life is the good life. What is genuinely in my interest, and how may I enter true well-being? Of course we already know that life in the life of God will be the good life, and Jesus’ continual reassertion of the direct availability of the kingdom always kept that basic truth before his students and his hearers. But exactly who is and who is not assured of such a life was a subject of much confusion in his day, as it is today. What came to be called the Beatitudes were given by him to help clarify this matter.Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy)
Dallas Willard highlights that the beatitudes tell us more about who Jesus has come to bless than about what character traits are blessed. I.e. Blessed are the poor, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the samaritans and tax collectors, not because they are tax collectors or poor or downtrodden but because the Kingdom has come to them. The Kingdom has become available to unexpected people in unexpected places. The beatitudes highlights something of Jesus’ movement. He moves towards people and into spaces that we would not normally regard as valuable.
“The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood” says John1. Jesus has moved, changed neighbourhoods, and descended from the luxury and comfort of heaven into a neighbourhood of need and pain and discomfort. He is present in uncomfortable spaces, moving in an uncomfortable direction. It is the goal of the upwardly mobile, the aim of the west, to flee the poor, to flee places that don’t promise security, to flee places of discomfort. Not Jesus. He chose a counter-cultural way. The way of downward mobility.
The thing that Willard highlights is that a neighbourhood becomes blessed precisely and only because Jesus has come to it. This is the reason for the blessing. The transformation in understanding of the state of person or a place is not because anything about that place has changed per se, but rather that one of its residents has changed. Jesus has become present. The kingdom is at hand. And that change brings blessing. Think of Aiesha at that moment seeing the community with new eyes. The community took on a new identity. An identity shift changes the value of the space. A place disregarded, a person unwanted, Jesus moves into the neighbourhood and now all of a sudden it is Blessed!
Jesus’ downward mobility challenges me as a South African Christian. The places that come as perceived places of comfort and security are few and far between. We scramble in our upward mobility to get to those places as soon as possible. We work hard, we over extend ourselves. We move away from the poor into our islands of exclusion and then complain about the areas we have left behind and what they have become.
Movement. Absence. Identity. Decay.
Jesus did the opposite. He moved from a place of luxury and comfort into the pain. He moved into the neighbourhood.
Earlier in the chapter John says that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it. Christ comes into the darkness. This movement of Christ is powerful, in fact it is unshakeably powerful. The darkness cannot defeat it. The prevalence of darkness is overcome by the arrival of light. Could it be that transformation will come through the movement of people into those spaces. A light shining in the darkness. A new resident in the neighbourhood. Christ arriving through his people, through a church plant, through the gospel.
Movement. Presence. Blessed.
A place once disregarded. A community one wants to flee. An Aiesha who gets impacted by the brokenness and moves in. The gospel is preached. The kingdom comes. Blessed.
In part two we will look at how the Sermon on the Mount starts with blessed and ends with obey. The progression of transformation starts with the underserved change of identity. From scorned, disregarded, and unwanted to blessed. An identity shift that becomes a catalyst for real transformation.
- John 1:14 ↩