Sunday, October 23, 2016

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

We’ve just been through a series of sermons on glimpses of Jesus, mostly focusing on events in Jesus’ life, giving us the opportunity to see the way Jesus operates -- healing the sick, raising the dead, going out of his way to help the needy, comforting the shaken, and shaking up the comfortable. And we hope that these glimpses of Jesus have made him attractive to you, and made you curious about he might have to say! So this morning, we’re kicking off another series of sermons, this one focusing on Jesus’ teaching. In particular, we are going to do a high-level walk-through of what is called the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5-7. This morning, we will have an introduction and consider the first part of Matthew chapter 5.

But before we get there, let’s set the stage a bit. Here, in the fifth chapter of Matthew, we have some of the first public words of Jesus presented to us in the New Testament. But not exactly the first public words. Those are found in verse 17 of chapter 4, where we read: “From that time on Jesus began to preach [with these words], ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ or, perhaps better, ‘Change your way of thinking, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’

Now to help us understand what Jesus is trying to say, let’s consider the historical context of his words. As you likely know, the land of Israel has been a very strategic one throughout history. On a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the desert, the people of Israel found themselves again and again the victims of powerful conquering armies. Early on, there were the Assyrians; then came the Babylonians; then the Persians; then the Greeks. Now at that point in history, the Jewish people recovered their pride for almost a hundred years. But then along came the Roman armies; and nobody could hold out against the Romans. So for as long as anyone could remember, the land was being overrun by foreign kingdoms roughly once every hundred years or so. And if that pattern was going to continue, the land was just about due for another conquest… just when Jesus arrived on the scene, saying, “Change your way of thinking, for [a new Kingdom is coming! T]he Kingdom of Heaven is near.

When a massive army comes and overruns your homeland, you know that your plans are going to get disrupted. Don’t count on any of your investments. Dividends? Forget about them. The currency you’ve been using? Worthless. When any new kingdom took over, the people would need to do some “repenting” -- that is, some serious life-rearrangement. And this, of course, is what Jesus is telling us. This is what John the Baptist was telling us. This is the message that Jesus gave his seventy-two disciples when he sent them out to heal and preach. The Kingdom of Heaven -- the Kingdom of God -- is coming. And we better get ready for it. It is going to radically change your life whether you like it or not!

Now you might say, “all that ancient history is interesting and all, but what has this to do with me?” But you see, the kingdoms of this world aren’t just the political kingdoms -- they also include the personal kingdoms. Our domains of control, our spheres of influence, our possessions, our investments, our families, our careers, our hobbies, our recreation, or even our wardrobe -- these often represent personal kingdoms, which could very well be in competition -- and perhaps even in conflict! -- with the Kingdom of Heaven!

Unfortunately, churches and Christians throughout history have been altogether too quick to imagine that they have “made it”: that they are entirely in the center of God’s will, and doing precisely what God wants them to do. But when Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”, he does so knowing that there are continual risks and challenges in the process. And when the Son of Man in Revelation tells the church in Ephesus to repent, and the church in Pergamum to repent, and the ones in Thyatira and Sardis and Laodicea all to repent, it should be a clue to us that this business of repentance -- this business of “thinking differently” -- should become a habit, something as natural to a healthy Christian life as breathing.

If we ever imagine ourselves to be beyond repentance, then we find ourselves in particular need of... repentance! And if we think that having a full-time job, getting married, raising 2.5 kids, and attending church regularly represents participation in the Kingdom of God, Jesus may well be telling us to think differently this morning.

Change your way of thinking, for the kingdom of heaven is near.

At the end of this amazing book, in the book of Revelation, we see the progress of the Kingdom of Heaven reaching its inevitable conclusion (Rev 11:15):

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:
“The kingdom[s] of this world [have now] become
  the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
  and he will reign for ever and ever.”

God has plans for the world, and His plan will always succeed. The Kingdoms of this world (including all of our personal concerns!) are on their way out! God’s Kingdom -- that is, the activity of God in the world and the working out of His plans -- is the only one that will last. And this is the Kingdom that is front and center when we come to Chapter 5, where we read:

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now before we go any further, I’m afraid that we need to deal with a linguistic problem. What is this word “blessed”, anyway? It really isn’t a word we ever encounter outside of church -- and that’s the problem.

This word translated “blessed” is the Greek word μακάριος (makarios). And perhaps the closest that we can come to translating makarios today is using the word “happy”. But “happy” is such a shallow, diluted, weak-sauce kind of word. It really doesn’t come close to capturing what Jesus is really expressing. We have all experienced “happy”. And we all know that it can come and go. Sometimes, it can go as fast as it comes. But that isn’t the kind of “happy” that Jesus is talking about here. Instead, Jesus wants to do w-a-y more for us than just make us “happy”. This “blessedness” that Jesus is talking about involves fulfillment, serenity, and wholeness. He’d like to give us that living water, that will well up inside of each of us to eternal life. Yeah: eternal happiness. As Peter read for us last week, His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14)

But to better understand what Jesus is saying, I’d like to briefly return to the historical context... I’ve already told you that the people listening to Jesus were all-too-familiar with being overrun by foreign armies. And they were also familiar with the behavior of conquering kings. After a victorious campaign, a typical earthly king would gather the representatives of his newly-subjugated people, and with his armies standing behind him he would address those representatives with words such as these:

Blessed are the rich, for they will partner with us to rebuild your country.
Blessed are the well-connected, for they will be given the opportunity to govern.
Blessed are the influential, for they will be given positions of responsibility.

And by doing so, this earthly king would be telling his new subjects about himself: what he values, his priorities, and how it is that others can become part of his inner circle. And smart people would pay close attention. But what about those who weren’t rich, or well-connected, or influential? Well, they wouldn’t panic. They would simply try to establish friendships with those who were, ministering to them, and in so doing, they contributing to the king’s plans and purposes. Obviously, when a conquering Kingdom has established itself, you want to find yourself on the right side of power. And understanding the priorities of the new King is the best way to do that. Now, the people listening to Jesus had heard all this type of thing before. And it is in the context of these kinds of addresses that Jesus utters these game-changing words:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

How different from the typical earthly King! Obviously, the values expressed by this King are the polar opposite of those of earthly kings. But just as important, this coming Heavenly King is giving us clues as to how to align ourselves with the coming Power ahead of time -- that is, before the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah has eliminated the Kingdoms of this world. What a gift to us! How very gracious of him! To be given the opportunity to pay attention to change our way of thinking, to change course, redirecting our energies and resources in service to the coming King, before it is too late!
And remember: Jesus is telling us about the coming King. The King’s priorities. What kind of people are the King’s kind of people. And this King seems to be concerned for all those whom the rest of the world has overlooked, doesn’t he? That certainly describes the “meek”, anyway. Now if you don’t immediately recognize yourself on Jesus list of those close to the heart of the King of Heaven -- don’t panic! Instead, set aside some time to minister to the mourning, the poor, or the hungry. And in so doing you will be an agent of the Kingdom of Heaven.

You might also have noticed that the King of Heaven does not seem to be at all concerned about anything political. After all, the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted are simply those who are on the margins of political life, aren’t they? Now while it might be tempting to say that there isn’t anything particularly religious here, either, that could only be true if we consider religion the way the Pharisees did -- as a movement, as a deep social identity, or as a means of control. Instead, those that Jesus singles out as being close to the heart of the King of Heaven are entirely in alignment with the definition of religion that we find in James:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

After all, the orphans and widows -- those are the poor and the meek. And the merciful and the peacemakers are those who look after them. The pure in heart and those who prioritize righteousness are simply doing their best to avoid being polluted by the world. It is very much like James has taken the time to gather the common elements in Jesus’ beatitudes to help him arrive at his definition of “pure religion”.

So what have we got? On the one hand, we have a firm personal moral agenda. That’s what it is to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. That’s what it is to be pure in heart. That’s what it is to hunger and thirst after righteousness -- even to the point of being willing to suffer for it. But on the other hand, we have a gracious and generous position toward the rest of the world. That’s what it is to be a peacemaker. That’s what it is to be merciful. That’s what it is to be meek. That’s what would motivate us to look after orphans and widows.

A firm personal morality, and a grace toward the world. These are the characteristics of the citizens of the coming Kingdom. But that isn’t a very popular message in some churches these days. After all, it feels that the world is pushing us to keep our beliefs to ourselves, to drive us to the margins of public life, and that isn’t very comfortable at all. In fact, it sometimes feels quite a bit like persecution.

But it is almost as if Jesus anticipates this objection, doesn’t he? In verses 12 and 13, he repeats the last beatitude for clarity and emphasis:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Sure, the nations can (and will) rage in vain, continually seeking to disqualify and discredit and marginalize and even persecute God’s people. But they don’t understand that Heaven operates on fundamentally different principles than they do, and that God has decreed victory not only in spite of -- but perhaps even because of -- that very persecution. Remember those haunting words of Jesus, found in all four of the gospels as many as six times:

[W]hoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.

And as Paul writes:

[W]e declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor 2:7,8)

You see, Jesus didn’t just give us this mind-blowing teaching and then leave us to fend for ourselves. He demonstrated the principles himself. He showed in his life and death and resurrection that a poor carpenter on the margins of “civilization”, condemned by the authorities, rejected by the religious establishment, executed in the most degrading way possible, leaving only a ragtag band of outcasts for followers, could change the course of history for the good and establish an eternal Kingdom of righteousness and justice. Yes: even bringing justice for the poor, and the hungry and the persecuted, and the disenfranchised.

And by conquering death once and for all, Jesus demonstrates that the things that consume us and the things that concern us are trivial matters from a heavenly perspective. Let’s change our way of thinking this morning, and begin again to be more serious about our commitment to the coming kingdom and its heavenly King. In closing, please listen, once again, to Paul’s reminder of what that looks like (Philippians 2:5-11):

...have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

His Kingdom is coming. It will not fail. Let’s align ourselves with the coming King of Heaven this morning. Change your way of thinking! The Kingdom of Heaven is near.