Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:4
Memorial Day may be the most confusing holiday of the year. It began in 1864 in response to the Battle of Gettysburg when women from Pennsylvania put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The year after the Civil War ended, communities began organizing events to honor their fallen soldiers. The holiday became known as Decoration Day and wasn’t officially changed to Memorial Day until 1967.
As the son and grandson of military veterans, I know something of the sacrifices so many men and women have made to preserve our freedom. On this day we remember with gratitude the 1.1 million soldiers from all our wars who died so we could live.
At the same time, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Barbeques and parties mark the holiday. Americans will consume 818 hot dogs every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day (seven billion in total). We will purchase $1.5 billion in meat and seafood for the holiday. More than forty-two million of us will travel over the weekend.
We’re celebrating at the same time we’re remembering.
Last week we began a summer series in the Beatitudes, the eight statements of Jesus that serve as the foundation for the Sermon on the Mount. Today we come to his second beatitude. In light of our text, it seems entirely appropriate on this weekend that we learn how to hold mourning and celebrating together.
The beatitude is simple: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And yet its complexities are deeper than our finite minds can fully understand.
Today we’ll claim God’s promise to us: we will mourn, but we will be comforted. Where is his statement relevant to you?
Seek to be “blessed”
Let’s begin with some background.
Jesus has launched his public ministry. Scripture says that “his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:24–25).
In response, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1–2). This is the area marked by the Church of the Beatitudes, a Franciscan chapel completed in 1938. Somewhere in this area, Jesus preached the most famous sermon of all time.
His first beatitude laid the foundation for all the others: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). To be “poor in spirit” is to know how desperately we need God. When we admit that fact, we make God our king and advance the “kingdom of heaven.” Then we are “blessed” with God’s best.
The second beatitude begins in the same way: “Blessed.” This is a translation of the Greek word, Makarios, meaning “a sense of wellbeing that transcends circumstances.” Our culture offers happiness based on happenings, but Jesus offers blessedness based on his grace. Our culture offers us what our circumstances can give but Jesus offers us what no circumstance can give or take.
Don’t settle for happiness. Don’t settle for what the world can steal. Don’t settle for anything but God’s best.
How do we experience it? Admit how much we need God, how much he could do with our lives if he were fully our king. Envision what it would be like to be led by his omniscience and empowered by his omnipotence. Then make him king of every dimension of our lives.
Expect to mourn
But such blessedness does not insulate us from suffering. The opposite, in fact. The second beatitude does not say, “Blessed are those who might mourn” or “who happen to mourn,” but “who mourn.” The implication is that everyone will mourn. And this is a fact.
“Mourn” translates penthountes, which describes a kind of grief so deep that it takes possession of the entire person and cannot be hidden. Genesis 37 uses it to describe Jacob’s grief upon learning of the supposed death of his son, Joseph (verse 34).
What causes such mourning?
We mourn our losses. The death of my father at the age of fifty-five is still the great loss of my life. He died ten days before Christmas in 1979. He never saw me married or heard me preach. He never met my sons (he would have been a wonderful grandfather).
The survivors of our war dead are mourning on this Memorial Day, and we mourn with them. What other losses are you mourning today?
We mourn our failures. We all have mistakes in our past that we would pay a high price to correct. Things we did but should not have done; things we did not do but should have done. People we hurt; opportunities we missed. I had a friend in high school who took his own life. I will wonder for the rest of my life what I could have done to help him.
What failures are you mourning today?
We mourn our sins. These are moral failures, things we thought, said, and did that violated the word and will of God. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba then arranged for the death of her husband, he said to God, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). We all know the feeling.
Expect to be comforted
So we’ve seen the mourning side of our Memorial Day study; now let’s move to the celebrating side: “for they shall be comforted.” The Greek means literally, “they shall be encouraged” or “they shall be invited in.”
Note that this is unconditional: not, “they may be comforted” but “they shall be comforted.” This is a future indicative, the promise of an absolute fact.
And yet, so many in our world mourn but are not comforted. How can God make this promise?
The first beatitude empowers the second. When I admit how much I need God, I bring my grief to him. I don’t try to handle it myself. I don’t ask other people to do what only God can do. I bring it directly and unconditionally to God. I make him the king of it.
I give him my grief over my father’s death. I trust him with my failures and mistakes. I ask him to forgive my sins and transgressions.
And when I do, I “shall be comforted.”
The challenge is, we must give our mourning to God to receive his comfort. His word teaches: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
Have you done this? Have you named your grief, your failure, your sin, and made him the King of it? Have you put it in his hands and left it there?
If you will, God will comfort you. His Spirit will speak to your spirit, giving you the “peace of God.” He will work through circumstances to bring you strength and help. His word will give you guidance and hope. He will lead people to bring you his wisdom and presence.
I don’t know all the ways God will comfort you when you give him your mourning, but I promise you that he will:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).
Dwight Moody was right: “God never made a promise that was too good to be true.”
Look for ways to comfort others
Expect to mourn, and when you trust your mourning to God, expect to be comforted. One last principle: look for ways to comfort others. One of the most significant ways God comforts us is by using us to help others.
I believe that God redeems all he allows. One way he redeems our suffering is by using it to help us help other people who are suffering.
His word is clear: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
When my son, Ryan, was diagnosed with cancer, people who had dealt with cancer could help us as others could not. When you have faced tragedy and struggles, people who have been where you are were God’s instruments of healing.
Now we are called to pay it forward, to help others as we were helped, to be wounded healers.
Ask God to guide you to someone who is going through what you’ve been through. Ask him to open your eyes and heart to people he wants you to serve. Ask him to redeem your mourning by using it to comfort someone who is mourning. And know that he will.
The day after my father died, a friend from college named Ricky Wilcox drove across Houston to stay with me. I don’t remember that he said anything at all. He was just there. And I’ll never forget his kindness and the presence of Jesus I sensed in him.
I didn’t see him again that semester, then I graduated from school, got married, and moved on to seminary. I have not seen him since. I don’t know where Ricky is today.
But I know this: he was God’s gift to me that day. I want to pay that gift forward to you today.
Now it’s your turn.