The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page.
When my parents were first married they had a TV the size of my microwave that, if you moved the antenna just right, received about four channels. They could watch ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? When a show became a national phenomenon, back in those dark ages, it wasn’t all that surprising because everyone was forced into watching the same four channels simply because options didn’t exist.
In our modern world, when you have a million cable channels, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, it is pretty incredible for a show to take over the public consciousness. But, this is exactly what has happened with the show This Is Us.
Here is the thing. I hardly have to say three words and half of you are literally in tears because, for some reason, we have inflicted it upon ourselves as Americans to sit down and ugly cry over pretend people on the TV. Even if you don’t watch the show, simply mentioning crock pots, fire, and the super bowl could lead an entire room to tears.
You can’t really judge them. Even if you aren’t a This Is Us fan, you have all sorts of other things you willingly subject yourself to that makes you cry. This is apparently the only reason the Hallmark channel exists. We have an entire musical genre in America called the blues. Half of country music is made up of songs about loss.
And, it’s not just shows, movies, and music. I’ve seen a lot of grown men cry in stadiums and sports bars. Yet, year after year, we willingly come back and subject ourselves to the same pain.
With that that in mind, why is it so hard to mourn when it really matters? You would think we would understand this whole grief thing. Why do so many people struggle in the face of actual tragedy? Why do we say things like, keep your chin up, everything’s going to be okay, or they’re in a better place? We have even started calling funerals celebrations of life, which isn’t completely a bad thing because we should celebrate the good memories and the joy that people brought into our lives, but we should never cut short the pain that is present when we pick up the phone to call that person and they aren’t there to answer.
And the pain we experience in life isn’t just due to the loss of someone we love. Some of our deepest pain is the loss of innocence, the guilt we feel for past decisions, and the daily reminders we live with because of the choices we have made.
The danger is that this kind of pain gets hidden away in coping mechanisms that for far too many of us are dangerous, addictive, and damaging to ourselves and the people around us. As a result, we end up even further down the spiral from where we started.
The reality is that in this world we have become experts at mourning the inconsequential and ignoring the very real pain in our lives. Yet pain is a gift that leads us into healing. And, as we will see today, the healing that God wants to bring into our lives is more real, more whole, and more needed than we might know.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them…
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Everyone fails. Everyone gets older. Marriages fall apart. People get sick. All of us die. You will not go through this life without grief staring you in the face. The only way to not experience that is to not love and to not care. But we do care and we do love.
I love that Jesus brings this to the forefront.
You see, religious people, whether in Jesus’s day or today, are notorious for telling us to ignore grief. They tell us we don’t have enough faith, or that we did something wrong, or that we just need to smile more. But this isn’t what Jesus does at all.
Jesus says to rip off the mask, be honest with ourselves, and lean into grief. In teaching about the very real experience of heaven coming to reality in our lives, Jesus tells us to mourn. Just like all these beatitudes he gives us a promise. He tells us that if we mourn, we will be comforted because it is in that comfort that we actually experience what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. In that comfort we experience the goodness, the mercy, the grace, and love of God.
But it’s the depth of this mourning that is so powerful in this verse.
In English we have this weird thing where we use one word to mean a lot of different things. For example, you can say you love your wife and use the same word to say you love pizza. Now, I hope that love isn’t the same. We do the same thing with the word you. You can mean you, as in you right in front of me, or you can mean a whole bunch of people. It gets us into trouble with language because we lose nuance.
The Greek language is actually really helpful here because there are different words for these nuances. They have 5 different words for love and the same is true of the word mourn. When Matthew puts the word mourn in here he could have used a lot of different terms but the one he uses is the strongest word for mourning that is found in the Greek language. It is the word you would use if you lost someone you loved. It’s feeling that pain at the deepest level and working through that emotion.
In the ancient world, when people would mourn they would shave their heads, tear their clothes, sit down in ashes, and spread them on their bodies. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is telling us to do, but I do think he is telling us to lean all the way into our grief so we can experience true healing.
You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief.
These aren’t bus stops. They are a way of pointing the huge range emotions we feel with grief. The challenge we have for ourselves is to not just go through it ourselves but to join others in the process. To put it another way, I think we are actively working against God when we tell people to get over it, to cheer up, or to put on a happy face.
Jesus doesn’t want us to short circuit the grieving process, he wants us to have the empathy to experience the pain of others.
This is what Jesus did.
One of the most famous stories of Jesus is when he turns two fish and two pieces bread into a meal big enough to feed 5,000 people. But the key to the story isn’t the miracle it’s his compassion.
13When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
All Jesus wanted to do was be alone, but he sees these crowds and he has compassion on them. The word that is used here for compassion isn’t found anywhere else. In our modern language we would translate this that his heart broken and as a result he loses track of time as he walks among people and heals them. The days get away and it becomes dark. The disciples realize time has just slipped by, and they have to come to Jesus with the concern that it’s getting late because he is lost in his compassion.
How many of us have lost track of time as we cared for the people around us? How many of feel our hearts breaking for each other and the pain our friends experience. The reality is that we all have something big going on. Imagine how our world would change if we lived like we knew that was true and like we actually cared that it was true.
If we did, we would experience the comfort that Jesus promises we will receive. And, at some point in our lives we’ve experienced this.
When others lean into our pain, we experience the comfort of true friends in our lives in ways we couldn’t have expected. We are all surprised by who shows up, who cooks a meal, who says just the right thing we need to hear. In the midst of mourning we receive the gift of realizing we are not alone. We are comforted.
One final story…
In the book of John we find the story of a man named Lazarus. He was the brother of two sisters who followed Jesus, named Mary and Martha. These two sisters had gotten word that their brother was sick and he was dying, so they send word to Jesus because he was also a friend of Lazarus. Jesus heads to the city where Lazarus lived knowing full well that he is too late and the man is already dead.
32When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
You can actually hear the stages of grief that Mary is going through. Jesus doesn’t short circuit it. He doesn’t rush off to the next thing. He simply enters the moment.
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
This story reminds us that Jesus enters into the suffering of people. He is once again heartbroken. Our Heavenly Father continues to be heartbroken with us. When we cry, he cries. When we mourn, He mourns.
Look at what Jesus said one more time.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
The word for comforted is the very same word that people in the early church used to describe the Holy Spirit. We see and experience God as our Heavenly Father, Jesus who gave His life for us, and the Holy Spirit who lives within us…but who also comforts us and helps us realize we are not alone.
This Holy Spirit that is within each of us is at work within all of us as we give our lives to God, to each other, and to live as the church that God desires us to be.
In the book of Romans, an early follower of Jesus named Paul, leans into this as he writes a letter and tells the young church in the city of Rome:
15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
Let’s give up the easy answers to grief. Let’s stop ignoring very real pain. Let’s lean in and provide the comfort to each other Jesus promises when we truly mourn.