Alfred Place Baptist Church

6:21 The bliss of a starving soul

Luke 6:21 “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

In 1948 there was a boy who often dogged my footsteps around the yard at playtime in Abermorlais Junior School in Merthyr Tydfil. My mother generally gave me an apple to eat during the 11 a.m. school break. It was kept in my desk until then, and as we ran out to the playground this boy from my class spotted my apple and accompanied me pleading. “Don’t throw away the apple core.” I protested once to him, “I eat most of it,” but he still took whatever of the core was left and sucked away every piece of apple I left leaving just the pips. If Mam would give me an orange then he would ask for the peel and eat the very orange peel. He was a poor boy, and always starving. Sixty years ago most boys were not like him; we always had enough to eat, and since that time we have never known days or weeks dominated by the gnawing pains of starvation. None of us today have begged for food from other children, but in much of the world it is still a reality.

Hunger was a bane in Jesus’ day. There was a vast underclass called the ‘poor’ who would consider themselves blessed if they ate meat once a week. There were Jerusalem beggars on most street corners who needed to cry to passers-by for some coins in order to live. Their hunger threatened their very existence. If the ache of starvation remained unsatisfied then they’d die. For many poor people there was a fine line between healthy hunger and starvation.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are you who hunger now” he wasn’t saying that there was any happiness in our bodies painfully aching for food year after year. What a pompous child I would have been to have turned on the starving ten year old who followed me around the yard saying to him, “Blessed are you who hunger now.” If he had known Scripture he might well have quoted back to me those words of James, “Suppose a brother or sister is without . . . daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15&16). Jesus commended his people for responding to their hungering fellow believers with food. “It was as if you were giving that food to me,” he said.

There is no way that the starving children of Bombay with their pot bellies and shrunken faces are blessed by being without food. They sit on their bare bums in the dust and sift through the rubbish looking for some food that’s been thrown out. They are called rag-pickers. Of course it’s not physical hunger for food that Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. He was, of course, truly concerned about that; on one occasion seeing 5,000 men fainting from lack of food he multiplied some loaves and fishes and fed them all abundantly, but in this beatitude our Lord is employing a metaphor. He is talking about hunger for God, hunger for spiritual things, hunger for righteousness and hunger for salvation. The blessed man is one who longs for God, as really as a hungry man longs for food. Our Lord is opening up again those themes which we find in the Old Testament, for example, Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Or again in the opening words of Psalm 63, “God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Again in Psalm 143 there is this same description of personal longing; “my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, O LORD; my spirit fails” (Psa. 143:6&7). There is the command to others, “taste and see that the Lord is good;” (Psa. 34:8). There is also the invitation to everyone, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (Isa. 55:1&2). Thomas Watson said about this verse, “If a friend invites guests to his table he doesn’t expect them to bring money for their dinner, only that they come with an appetite.” There is the apostolic appetite expressed by Paul, “that I may know him” (Phils 3:10). That is his hungry longing for the Son of God.

HUNGER THAT IS NOT FOCUSED ON GOD NEVER SATISFIES.

The Lord Jesus once spoke to a Samaritan woman he’s met on her daily walk to the town well for water. He said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (Jn. 4:13&14). People are hungering and thirsting. They are unhappy with mere materialism. Their souls are empty and they’re seeking to fill them. Some give themselves to their hobbies and pursue them diligently. A man enjoys using the vocabulary of his interest; he subscribes to specialist magazines; he’s daily checking E-bay for bargains. He goes to auctions and conventions, phones fellow hobbyists, has a room dedicated to this pursuit of his and keeps that door locked. His wife is not allowed to dust in that room; his children can’t enter it in his absence – “don’t touch!” He insures everything he’s gathered, and emphasizes how valuable his collection is. He bores his friends and family with incessant talk of his hobby. All his spare time is dedicated to this.

You can appreciate that people can’t survive only by eating and drinking as animals do, and little else. They know that there is more to life that food, and so their hunger for ‘more’ is bound to show itself in their fascination with steam trains or gardens or stamp collections or military history or narrow gauge railways or vintage cars or painting lead soldiers. The list is endless. The world is full of people who are dedicated to specialized interests; they spend time and money pursuing them. For such men there is nothing at all odd or anti-social in the particular ways they satisfy their hunger, in fact they find it hard to understand your indifference to their hobby. In it they’ve discovered their meaning to life and they’re always hungering after this interest.

Now if we are going to spend our lives hungry for such pursuits then surely it is right for us to interrogate them. Before making such a commitment first we must strengthen our understanding. Let’s ask key questions, because the Word of God gives us some criteria, three great questions, to test the things of the world before we make our commitment.

i] Will the things I’m hungering for last? It is the question of the durability of our interest. God has given us immortal souls. Every human birth is the beginning of an endless existence. Christ asks us as we choose the things we’re going to hunger for to bear our own immortality in mind. Jesus spoke of certain men who possessed very valuable objects but moth and rust were corrupting them; thieves were stealing them. They were tremendously attractive, but they couldn’t pass the test of durability. We must ask what the passing of the years is going to do to such things? What will the onset of time, the march of history and social change do to the things we’re so hungry for?

A robber may take off with them; a fire could destroy them; a flood can ruin them. All your hunger is focused on things that could so easily be lost. In the Times this week a writer named Steven Jacobi described the devastating consequences of last year’s floods on his offices in the high street of Chipping Campden. He was on holiday in Spain when he heard about the heavy rain and flooding that had hit that part of England. He called the landlord from whom he rented the two rooms in which he worked and stored his books. The landlord confirmed that the office was under water. ‘I’m actually wading around in 3ft of the stuff,’ he said, a little too playfully. ‘How bad is it?’ I asked. ‘The bottom shelves of your books?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘First shelf: 100 per cent destroyed. Second: 100 per cent. Third: 100 per cent. Fourth: 90 per cent. Fifth: 90 per cent. Sixth: 50 per cent.’ ‘Only 50?’ I brightened. ‘Yeah. There was a painting propped up, just in front of it.’ ‘Was that damaged?’ ‘One hundred per cent.’ ‘What about the other room? The one with all the stuff on the floor.’

“‘One hundred per cent.’ I grimaced, made the not-so-difficult decision to cut short my holiday, and caught a plane to England. By the time I arrived back at the office, the water had receded. Through the window, things didn’t look so bad. Just a pile of decaying mulch around my desk. Also, I noticed, the carpet was strangely translucent, almost glistening, as if a giant snail had crawled over it. However, on opening the door, I understood immediately that the situation was worse than I’d feared. Much worse.

“First there was the smell, vinegary and pungent, something between manure and grease, possibly with a hint of mould. Second was the sticky gloop, which glazed everything up to a height of about 2ft. This ooze, I discovered, was the result of a burst oil drum in the garage directly behind my office. On rupturing, it had joined the surging floodwater. Even worse, and at more or less the same time, a sewerage pipe had cracked. The blended stink of all three elements – oil, water, excreta – was repulsive. High on adrenalin, I pitched in, estimating the damage and mounting some kind of clean-up operation. During this first offensive, I dumped the pulpy remains of my research, filling 15 bin liners” (Steven Jacobi, Rain Ransacked my Mind, The Times, Thursday May 29 2008). A consequence of that grief was Steven Jacobi’s love of writing was destroyed for about a year. He couldn’t sit and write because he didn’t want to. The ruination of what he’d hungered to achieve in life had blighted his inner man. If your life is focused in something that can be destroyed in a day then how perilous it is.

Again, those things may survive moth and rust, fire and flood, the march of time and the onset of age, all kinds of economic and social change, but will they survive the last great change? Can I bring them into immortality beyond? Can I take my interests across Jordan? Can I bring them to the judgment seat of God? Can they pass the criterion that neither life, nor death, things present nor things to come can separate me from them? I am confronted with two great sets of options, these perishable things and God’s jewels. I am asked as a thinking and intelligent man to use such information in the moment when I’m making my commitment to say, “I have a durable and lasting soul, and I want therefore a durable and lasting treasure.”

ii] Will the things I hunger for answer me when I call out to them? I am bringing the test that Elijah brought to the nature gods of Canaan. He told their priests to cry, and how they called out. What pressure they brought to bear on their god. They begged for some evidence that he was there, that he was living, responsive, that he could see and hear and understand. But no answer came. They hungered for something that was not able to answer them, that gave no indication at all that he was living, responsive and able to see and hear. All they heard was the echo of their own voices and the mockery of Elijah.

Today you whose great obsession is making money, does your wealth answer when you cry? Do you, whose life is your hobby, does it reply when you talk to it, your books, your music, your laptop, your paintings, your fame? Does your love of fashion reciprocate? Does the new frock love you back? I’m not asking do these thing exist and do they give pleasure. I am not asking if they can help pass the time. I am asking something more. Can they return my love? Can they pity me? Can they care for me? Can they tell me how much I matter to them? Can they plead with me? Can they weep with me? Do I long to spend eternity in their embrace? Am I fed by them? Am I led by them to the rivers of living water? Aren’t they made of fabric, or steel, or paper, or plastic, or wood, and covered with paint? Or aren’t they a mere game and one side or one person wins while the other loses? Here I am a living soul, one that lives and loves and longs, one that knows fear and happiness, and I’m not going to rest in material things or in games.

I can stand today before the glory of a persecuted, resurrected Saviour who says, “Come to me.” I’ve never heard a motor car say, “Come to me.” I have never heard home-made wine saying, “Come to me.” I have never heard a football saying, “Come to me.” I have never heard a bank note saying, “Come to me,” but I hear God saying, “Come to me!” I want a God I can speak to, into whose eyes I can look, a God I can know face to face. There is nothing in the whole world as glorious as this, that when we cry there’s a mind that answers, and a heart that beats in pity and compassion over our town, there’s a God who longs for us, a God who says it gives him joy whenever a sinner returns.

iii] Will the things I hunger for save my soul? I am not just the sum total of a body and a brain. I’m also soul, and so Christ insists we ask this question, what should a man give in exchange for his soul? He might gain the whole world and lose his own soul. What a bad bargain. Imagine achieving everything that a hobby has to offer! You have got it all, every great work of art. What a collection! Or you’ve got all the steam trains from Stephenson’s Rocket to the Flying Scot and a fifty mile track to drive them on. You’ve got every Penny Black stamp, or you’ve got everyone’s autograph from Henry VIII to Mother Teresa, or you’ve got the world’s greatest diamonds. You’ve actually got everything your hungry hobby could desire; you’ve got it all . . . but you’ve lost your soul. What would you give in exchange for your soul? Do you see? When we are faced with every fascinating interest to be found in the world we have to remember we are also souls. We want a God who will meet the need of our soul, the nature and growth of a living soul,

But I have not only a soul, I have a lost soul. So they say to me, as the sales staff does, “What exactly did you have in mind?” Imagine you are standing on a threshold of a life of commitment and priorities. There are all these options presented in their very best mode; see their colours, fitness, beauty, fame, pleasure, culture and wisdom. “What exactly do you have in mind?” “Something that meets the needs of my soul. Something to meet the needs of my lost soul. That’s what I have in mind.” What is my lostness? It is my guilt, that in my living I have sinned. I have incurred guilt before God, wrath before God, condemnation before God. My most urgent need is to deal with that problem.

I can look at all the options and will I choose one of them and take that with me to the throne of judgment? Will we take our hobby, or pleasure, or fashion to the Lord and say, “Lord, I really enjoyed myself. I hungered for the finest collection of Hornby trains . . . I hungered for a large shed full of antique motor bikes . . . I hungered for the rarest Wedgewood pottery . . .”, and so on. Will my collection of paintings get me forgiveness, and my best-selling books gain me atonement for my sins, and my fame compensate for my appalling ignominy in the courts of heaven?

More than that, not just my guilty soul needs pardon it needs nobility, and purity. It needs to be elevated and sanctified. What interest or obsession can do that? Half the world thinks such pursuits can, but the great lesson from human history is that hobby and vice, depravity and learning have gone hand in hand. The most exquisite aesthetic sensitivities have been wedded to the most appalling moral degradation. Think of the Greece of the philosophers and historians and sculptors and how its end was viciousness. Think of Rome and that mighty catalogue of vice outlined in Romans chapter one. It was the age of Virgil and Julius Caesar, the great Augustinian age, and yet it was an age of abominations and immorality of the exposure of babies and the goading of beasts to fight one another to entertain the masses. In our own day consider the Germany of Luther, and Bach, and Goethe. Great scientists, brilliant philosophers and, yes, impressive theologians too lived there, and yet that did not prevent a mighty explosion of human depravity. God used perhaps the most talented nation in the world to teach us the same lesson that talent can lead to the concentration camps, and that there is no real connection between culture and morality.

I apply those three criteria to what people are hungering for, and I say that none of those things is durable; none of those things answers when I cry; none of those things can save my soul, not a single one. So what are we going to hunger for? We live in an age of extravagent hunger for experience and fulfillment and satisfaction. Let’s be hungry for that which lasts, that which will answer us when we cry, and that which will save our souls. Let me hunger and thirst for that and then I will be blessed. Augustine famously said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Our generation’s drug and alcohol induced pursuit of one thing after another indicates its failure to fill the God-shaped vacuum in every heart. All is vanity and grasping for the wind. As Jesus said to the woman, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (Jn. 4:13&14).

HUNGER FOR THE LIVING GOD IS EVENTUALLY SATISFIED.

The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). There is blessedness in simply the right focus of our hunger, and also there is blessedness in being filled. Let’s all be hungry people. Let everyone in Aberystwyth be hungry, but let them be hungry to know the living God for themselves. Are we hungry to be known by Jehovah who has spoken in his word? Are we hungry to fulfil man’s chief end to glorify God and enjoy him for ever? Are we hungry for that? The righteousness of God is by faith unto all and upon all who believe in him. The righteousness of Christ himself is imputed to them, for God made Christ to be sin for us, he who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Do I have the robes of Christ’s righteousness clothing me? Can I sing,

“My hope is built on nothing less
Then Jesus’ blood and righteousness”?

Can I sing,

“Jesus Thy blood and righteousness,
My beauty are, my glorious dress”?

Is this the focus of your hope before God? Then you are freely justified in the name of Jesus Christ, and what a glorious and eternal status is yours. Let’s imagine the working people of the town, some entering old age, few of them having traveled far from this community or achieved anything that brings them recognition. They’ve never been to an opera or to a concert. They left school at 14 and they feel terribly inadequate and inferior. I ask why should they feel second class citizens if they know the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to them? Again, the Bible itself is the most potent influence of culture and education. I know very cultured people who’ve never read Hamlet or walked around the Louvre or seen a play at Stratford on Avon, yet their intellects have been ploughed by the Word of God. They know some things that the Prime Minister doesn’t know. They know things that Paul MacCartney doesn’t know. They know what many professors at the university don’t know.

They know how the world began, and they know how it is going to end. They know their sins have all been forgiven. They know who Jesus Christ is. They know that God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. They know the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They know that someone is more powerful than the grave. They know what happens after death. They enjoy a face to face encounter with this God. They know the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love that will never let them go. Such knowledge means they are sometimes lost in wonder, love and praise. They have a new song in their mouths and they are singing, “O happy day that fixed my choice on Thee my Saviour and my God.”

Have you seen God like this so that your souls are saying, “I hunger for him. I thirst for him. He’s the one that I want. Nothing less could satisfy; nothing more is desired, for more than all in him I find”? Let all Aberystwyth have a magnificent obsession, yes, but let’s make Jesus Christ our obsession. Let’s hunger for him. Let’s be filled by him. Let’s be filled by his love, and his peace, and his worship. Let’s know our hearts going out to him day by day, hungering each day and being satisfied each day. Let’s know on Sundays the movement of our souls in praise to him as we hear his word in the midst of his people and recall again all that Jesus Christ is. J.N. Darby said, “To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in his heart towards me.” Then he adds this, “When the prodigal son was hungry he went to feed on the husks, but when he was starving he turned to his father.”

Dr. William Barclay had a number of fatal theological aberrations but he had an unsurpassable knowledge of Greek history and language, and what he says is helpful about this phrase, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness.” “In Classical Greek verbs of hungering and thirsting normally take the genitive case after them; the genitive case is the case which we express by the word of. In the phrase, ‘a slice of bread’ of bread is the genitive case. The reason for this grammatical usage is that normally we hunger and thirst for part of some food or drink. We don’t want the whole loaf; we want a part of the loaf. We don’t want the whole pitcher; we want some of the water which is in the pitcher. But, when these verbs take the direct accusative, it means that the person involved wants all the food and all the drink there is. If a Greek said, ‘I hunger for bread,’ or, ‘I thirst for water,’ and the words bread and water were in the accusative case, it would mean that he wanted the whole loaf, and the entire contents of the pitcher. In this Beatitude ‘righteousness’ is in the accusative case; and, therefore, if we are to translate this with strict accuracy, we ought to translate it: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for all of righteousness, for total righteousness’ (William Barclay, The Plain Man Looks At The Beatitudes, Fonatana, 1963, p. 51)

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the grammatical judgment, but I am committed to Barclay’s conclusions. There is no pick’n’mix about the righteousness of God. The Christian hungers for righteous living, and he hungers for it all. He wants to love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. He wants to love his neighbour as himself. Nothing less than that will do for the hungry soul. He wants to take up his cross and deny himself and follow Jesus day by day. He wants to love his fellow believers with a pure heart and fervently. He will forgive them seventy times seven. He will lay down his life for them. He will deem each one much better than himself. He will even love his enemy, maybe especially his enemy. If he sees him starving he will feed him. If he is naked he will get clothes for his enemy. If his enemy hits him on the cheek he won’t retaliate. He’ll turn the other cheek. He will love him in this way; “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Cor. 13:4-7). That is what he wants; nothing less than that. He must love like that or life is not worth living. This one thing he does. Nothing else can satisfy except living like that. Bearing grudges, and feeling resentment, and showing your bitterness, and looking for revenge will destroy you. Haven’t you recently seen on the news the mother of a teenage boy who was murdered the day after his 16th birthday talking of her compassion for the parents of the boy who killed her son? She was quite remarkable; she and her husband are a church going family and they had no talk of wanting the murderer to burn in hell, and all the other wild expressions people who are not hungering for righteousness use. What good will it do them? None, but much harm. Blessed are the hungry, not those hungry for blood but for mercy and pity and forgiveness.

Let us think that most of us are moral and righteous people. We are respectable; we don’t gamble; we do not drink; we do not use foul language; we not get into debt; we tell the truth and so on. All that is commendable, but it is not enough. Do you have a shoulder a sinner can cry on? Would you give your coat off your back to a shivering person? I am pleading not for bursts of righteousness, and not for fragmentary righteousness but for the whole of it, for Christ-likeness.

YOU CERTAINLY WILL BE SATISFIED.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, you will be filled, and the word is used of fattening the calf for the special celebration. Fattening the goose’s liver for the foi gras. Then that word is also used of men eating until they can’t put swallow another mouthful. They are totally full and utterly satisfied. I am saying that God does that to all who hunger for him. Can you believe it? The world has its hobbies, and its interests and its indulgences satisfying the lusts of the flesh and the mind and then still wanting more. It is like that feeling of yours the hour after finishing your last exam, or what champions feel the evening after having won the Masters, or the Grand Slam or the World Cup. There is always a feeling of anti-climax. “Is that it? Is that the peak? Is that what I longed for and dreamed for and worked for and trained for and prepared myself for all these years, and now it is over?” You cannot be satisfied with the glittering prizes of the world because God has made you for something more. He has made you for himself; he has made you for righteousness and until you have that then there’s still the hole inside you.

When you receive the salvation of God in Jesus Christ then you’ll be satisfied. Can you believe it? That is why the Son of God came into the world. That is why he was sent by God his Father the mighty Creator. He came to deliver us from sin and all its effects in our lives, and one of them is the feeling of dissatisfaction for what we have done in our lives, the vague sense of guilt, sadness, and regrets that men carry around with them and try to escape from in drink and drugs. A hungry man will turn from all of that and cry, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly.” Only Jesus can meet his great longings. The sinner knows he is ignorant and he hungers for the truth that is found in Christ. The sinner knows he is guilty and he hungers for the forgiveness that is found in Christ. The sinner knows he is helpless and he hungers for the protection that is found in Christ. The hungry sinner takes the Lord Jesus as his prophet, priest and king and then he is satisfied.

I wish we could take that message into the shops and schools and colleges and streets of Aberystwyth and tell everyone, “I am satisfied with Jesus.” I have tried the waters of the world but my thirst was not quenched and my heart was not free but I have found that peace in Jesus Christ. I went to him for he said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (Jn. 7:37&38).

June 1st 2008 GEOFF THOMAS