Words from the hill

Words from the hill

Sunday 9th February 2020
Series: Sermon on the Mount

Preacher: Rev Phil Swain

Reading: Matthew 5: 1-12

Over these three weeks we following the lectionary readings and are working through one of Jesus most profound sessions of teaching – the Sermon on the Mount – with the desire to allow these words to help us spiritually grow.  The SOTM is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus teaching in the bible, and it is contains some of the best known teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. 

To start us off, I am going to attempt to give us a 75 second summary of the SOTM teaching … are you up for this…

Sermon on the mount in 75 seconds…

Matt 5:1-2         Jesus saw the crowds, went up the mountainside and started to teach.

Matt 5:3-12       You need to think differently about what it means to be blessed

Matt 5:13-16    You are to be salt and light in the world

Matt 5:17-20    I did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil the law

Matt 5:21-26     You have been taught this but now I say… Anger = Murder

Matt 5:27-30     Lust = adultery

Matt 5:31-32     Divorce is not good with exceptions

Matt 5:33-37     Don’t make vows just keep your word

Matt 5:38-42     Turn the other check, give your shirts as well, go the extra mile

Matt 5:43-47     Love your enemies

Matt 5:48           Be perfect – as God is perfect

Matt 6:1-4         Don’t give to be noticed but give in secret

Matt 6:5-13       This, then, is how you should pray

Matt 6:14-15     God will forgive you in the same way as you forgive other people

Matt 6:16-18     Don’t be showy about your fasting, it is between you and God

Matt 6:19-24     What do you treasure in your heart?  You can’t serve both God and money

Matt 6:25-34     Don’t get so anxious about life or clothes or food … but seek first the kingdom of God.

Matt 7:1-6         Do not judge others or you will be judged

Matt 7:7-12       Ask and you will receive, Seek and you will find, Knock and the door will be opened … because God is good

Matt 7:13-14     Find the road in life that is life-giving and follow it

Matt 7:15-20     Watch out for deceivers … they are shown by the fruit of their actions

Matt 7:21-23     Not everyone who sounds like my follower is part of the kingdom

Matt 7:24-27     Hear these words and put them into action and you will cope with whatever comes your way

Matt 7:28           And when Jesus finished these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching.

What did you think of that?  When I hear all that teaching together it reminds me again just how amazing the SOTM is.  But it also underlines for me that Jesus is really challenging us to reconsider our whole way of living.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century.  He grew up in Germany in between World War 1 and World War 2, and a lot of his theology was shaped around the questions of how do you be a good citizen of your country when you government is doing things which don’t seem to align with the God’s will.  There are people who think that we are somewhat in similar situation today.  I am going to share much more of Bonhoeffer story next week, so be here for that.

Bonhoeffer said that the SOTM is perhaps the most important part of all scripture.  He would read it over and over – and as principle of a theological college – make his students study it regularly.  Bonhoeffer key line was that “The power in the SOTM is not just understanding the words, but by obeying the words and living it out”.

And so today … and over the next two weeks … that is the angle that I am going to take.  Yes, we are going to dive in deep into the words of the SOTM, we are going to ask questions and explore different people’s insights on it; but I hope (and pray) that above all, that over these next three weeks Jesus’ words from the SOTM might help us reconsider a whole new way of living.   That we will both understand these profound words of Jesus, but also that we will be equipped to live them out.  Sound good?   Ok, let’s have a closer look at reading for today, the Beatitudes.  

But I will say upfront, that I am not going to step through each beatitude and try to explain it.  You probably have heard heaps of sermon on this before.  Rather I wish to explore the bigger picture of what the beatitudes are about and what Jesus was trying to teach through these words.  Sound like a plan?

Ok – Context.  In the previous chapter to the SOTM, Matthew chapter 4, we find Jesus travelling around Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing the sick.  Matt 4:25 tells us that large crowds would follow him around.

In Matthew 5:1,2 – the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we read that “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.”

There is so much in this introduction.  Let’s try to break this down.  Firstly … Jesus went up the Mountain to teach.  It is almost like Jesus is speaking in code to the Jewish audience that something special is just about to happen. The Old Testament is full of examples of people going up a mountain and something amazing happening.  Think Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice, Moses and the 10 commandments on Mt Sinai, Elijah meeting God on the mountain, etc.  But heading up on the mountain it is like Jesus is re-enforcing that what he is just about to say is important.

The other question that comes from these two verses is … when it says “and Jesus began to teach them” … who is the “them”.  Is Jesus teaching the crowd or the disciples?  Or both? 

Verse 1 clearly tells us that Jesus saw the crowd, Jesus knew the crowd was there and by scooting up the hill, was accommodating the crowd – making sure the crowd could hear him.  However, I want to suggest (and incidentally so does Bonhoeffer) that this teaching is directed to the disciples – while encouraging the crowd to listen in and engage with it.   

Can you see this subtle difference?  I think that the moral and ethical teaching found within the SOTM is not something that Jesus demands the whole world needs to do bur rather it is for the followers of Jesus to live out.  It is like Jesus was saying, “if you are with me, if you trust me … then let these words change you and challenge you to reconsider your way of living.

And Jesus started to teach …  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  [etc]

These words are some of the most profound teachings of Jesus and at the same time some of the most confusing.  My bible study group last Wednesday made the comment, “we studied the Beatitudes for 8 weeks one time and were more confused by the end of it.” 

Yes, they are confusing, especially as they are not worldly true.  If we look around, not all mourners are comforted, the merciful are not always shown mercy and the meek definitely do not inherit the earth.  These statements do not reflect the reality of the world we live in – so instead of being worldly true, there must be a spiritual truth in these words, a glimpse of something beyond or bigger.  This is what we want to explore today.

Part of the problem with the beatitudes comes from the word blessed.  The Greek word used in Matthew 5 is μακάριος (MAR-KAR-EE-OS) which is not easily translated into English. 

It can mean happy or God’s favour is on … the best word that the translators can come up with is Blessed.  But the word blessed bring confusion.   When we think of the word bless – we often think of something good – “I am so blessed to have the family that I have” or something rewarding – like last week in church when I said that we as a church have been blessed by an increase in giving.  But that sort of blessing is not the beatitudes are talking about.  We are not saying that it is great when you mourn or that it is so rewarding when you are persecuted. 

One sermon I was listening to during the week – the preacher suggested that the blessing in the beatitudes has more to do with the presence of God.  God is with you when you mourn.  God is with you when you strive for peace.  Yes – I think that is part of the answer but not all of it.

One insight on this passage that I had never heard before is that Jesus might have been contrasting the Beatitudes with the teaching of the philosopher Aristotle who lived about 300 years before Jesus.  (Anyone heard of this before?)  Aristotle thought that the goal of life was to be happy and wrote a famous series of statement on what it means to be happy or to have “a flourishing and thriving life.”  300 years later, it is like Jesus saying “And how is Aristotle’s teaching working out for you?”  Are you flourishing?  Are you happy?  No?  Then here is a different way of thinking about blessing.  

Another preacher I was listening to described it like this.  The blessedness that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5 is not about happiness but more of a settled-ness or put back togetherness (their word not mine). 

Take the mourners line as an example – “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  If you look at this from a worldly happiness point of view it doesn’t make sense.  A time of mourning or deep loss is not happy.   But for those of you who have experienced loss or the pain of grief … did you at points within during that pain experience a peace, or have a settled-ness come on you?  I have heard stories of people say, “if it wasn’t for my faith, I don’t think I would have made it through the grief”.  When I ask, “what is it about your faith that bring you comfort in the midst of grief” … most of the time the answer is something like, “I am not sure.  It is just knowing that God was with me.  That my faith was like a rock I could hold onto”.  I once heard a person say, “It was like when Jesus was not only holding me in my brokenness, he was gentle putting me back together again.”  This is what it means to be blessed.

You can put this idea alongside anyone of the beatitudes. 

If you are feeling meek, powerless, like you are always walked over, then look to Jesus and you will find that Jesus is right next to you saying that he is on your side.  Jesus offers to be your advocate, your strength, your help and that makes you blessed.

If you are striving to do what it right and just and keep running into brick walls; if you are trying to change the world but getting nowhere; Jesus knows how draining that it and offers to bless you with people and worship and other things to make sure your inner well is filled.  And that is a blessing.

If you are always being asked to be the bigger person, to be the one to show mercy … please hear me when I say that God of mercy knows … your choice to forgive is not forgotten – God knows … and offers in return to bless you with divine mercy.

Are you seeing how this works?  But please note that the beatitudes don’t work without God.  These spiritual truths only work when we turn to Jesus.  That is why these words are directed to the disciples – because these spiritual truths only work if we have our eyes focused on Jesus. 

The same preacher who suggested that to be blessed is to experience settled-ness in your spirit or a sense of “put back togetherness” also said this:  When we begin to experience the beatitudes in our lives, when the spiritual truth starts to become real to us – it is like being in the middle of an orchestra where all the instruments are tuning up.  It might seem to be chaotic and confusing and all over the place, but a moment will come when everything comes into tune – and your spirit settles.  That is the moment of blessing, when we can say “it is well with my soul” no matter what our circumstances.

This sermon was a tough one to put together, there just seem to be too many threads and I felt like I was not doing any off them justice.  I really pray that in the midst of all of this that God spoke to you.

To finish, I just wanted to re-iterate Bonhoeffers challenge about the SOTM and the beatitudes.  Bonhoeffer said it these words are worth studying and mediating on because they have the power to challenge and change us.  But the real task is to work out how to live them in your life.

So when we feel like we have nothing left to give – lets not give up but feel the blessing as Jesus steps into that space.

May we when we have lost what is most dear to us, feel the blessing of God’s embrace

May we not be seduced by power but in that place of contentment find the blessings of things that can’t be bought

May we recapture that hunger for expressing our love for God and others through good and righteous actions … because then we will find the blessing of being spiritually fulfilled.

May we continue to offer care to those who need it, even when it hurts, because in the midst of that we will experience the compassion of God in our lives.

May we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and in doing so discover the blessing of seeing Jesus all around us.

May we strive, as much as we can, to live at peace with all, and in doing so discover the blessing of being part of God’s family.

May we always stick with Jesus – live out these beatitudes – even if it brings ridicule or persecution – because Jesus has the knack of turning the difficult upside down into a place of being blessed.  Amen.