He Began to Speak and Taught Them
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
We live in an era where people are now concerned about fake news. When the news is about “fake news” you know there is trouble with credibility in the news department. David Mikkelson is the co-founder of Snopes.com a popular fact-checking site which debunks fake news, urban legends, and political spin. Last August (2016) Mikkelson told The Guardian (UK) "There are more and more people piling on to the internet and the number of entities pumping out material keeps growing. I'm not sure I'd call it a post-truth age but … there's been an opening of the sluice-gate and everything is pouring through. The bilge keeps coming faster than you can pump."
Do we live in a post-truth age? Is this new? Do you remember the conversation Pilate had with Jesus during Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus when Pilate asked, “what is truth?” The tone of Pilate’s question may have been exasperation. Pilate is trying to sort through all the political spin and half-truths with regard to the mountain of charges leveled against Jesus by people Pilate suspects are a bit unhinged for hatred of Jesus. None of the charges amount to much. Pilate also takes it as axiomatic that the accused will say whatever is necessary to deny the charges. He has to be shocked that Jesus said he came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate may well have thought he lived in a post-truth age.
1. As the story of Jesus unfolds in Matthew’s gospel we are told, in the fourth chapter, that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” The author would have us understand that preaching and teaching were the staples of what Jesus’ ministry looked like, along with relieving people of their suffering.
In the fourth chapter of Matthew we have what we might call the “fifty-thousand foot” view of what his ministry looked like; in this vantage point from above we see his journey from village to village noting a general pattern. Now, in the fifth chapter, we come in for a landing and experience up-close and personal a particular instance of this general pattern. In this Sermon on the Mount we hear details of Jesus’ teaching; Matthew brings us to the hillside to listen to an instance of what it means that Jesus taught and proclaimed the good news.
Here is how the story of this “close-up” of Jesus ministry begins; “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.” Consider a question. Why does Jesus teach and preach? Upon seeing these crowds of people following him why is his response to teach and preach? If you could imagine yourself in God’s shoes, so to speak, having decided to come among humans to rectify what is wrong what would you do? Lest we think we haven’t considered this question before, we only need to reflect on those times we wished God would fix some wrong in the world; rarely do we imagine that the fix is God talking to someone. “Those people need a good tongue lashing,” is not really how we envision what God should do in setting things right.
In another place in Matthew’s gospel he gives us a clue about what drives Jesus. In the midst of another preaching tour Matthew notes, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) Our Lord knows the impact of fake news. He recognizes how people struggle to find their way in what feels like a post-truth era. Our Lord knows the vulnerability people feel not knowing who or what to trust. This is one of the reasons that Jesus comes teaching and preaching; the one who is truth comes that we might know the truth about our lives; comes that we might know who we truly are.
The Bible attests that the characteristic of the living God is that he speaks. When God creates the world God speaks and things come into existence. In the creation story the thing that distinguishes the human from the rest of God’s creatures is that God speaks to the human. We humans are then response-able. When God speaks it is never merely words; his speaking makes things happen. His word accomplishes what is spoken. When Jesus speaks faith happens. When Jesus comes teaching and preaching it witnesses to the reality of the world—it has and is sustained in its existence by God’s word.
Jesus preaches and teaches because by his word we are sustained. The Apostle John wrote that Jesus is the word of God; “all things came into being through him … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Jesus comes preaching and teaching not because his options are limited but because his word is life. One implication is that humans are assured by this action taken by Jesus that God’s desire is that we hear him. It the midst of a world of contradictory voices God wants you to hear his word to each one of us; I love you.
Other implications abound for believers. There is content to our Lord’s teaching. There are things to be learned and known. God gave the command to love God with all you mind and the blessing in this command is that the wonder of the gospel—remembering that Jesus is this gospel—can be probed and proclaimed and learned and ingested. The reason that we gather in worship and hear the scripture read and explained in sermon is for this very purpose. We do this in response to our Lord’s identity as the word of God and in obedience to his example as one who came preaching and teaching. As that gospel soaks into our being a transformation takes place that our God undertakes.
The gospel then becomes a scaffold for your thinking shaping your conduct and experience of life. We experience the joy in the Psalmists’ affirmation that in his light we see light.
Often this transforming work seems imperceptible to us because it is incremental. Permit me a question. What did you eat for lunch a week ago Wednesday? The Tuesday before that? We may know what we ate if we eat virtually the same thing each day at lunch but do you recall any of those meals as memorable? In point of fact most of our meals are utterly forgettable—even so the truth is that such unremarkable fare sustains us throughout our lives. So it is with our worship. We have a penchant for memorable worship experiences, like last Advent 3 when Sarah and our choir thrilled us with Christmas proclamation. The bigger picture is that word and sacrament sustain us even when unremarkable. What we receive from the hand of God in worship is consistent nourishment. We do not always need exciting, extraordinary spiritual ecstasy, but daily bread.
In a post-truth era there is a voice you can count on. The one who is way, truth, and life has come among us. Jesus sees people in the turmoil of life and he longs to teach us and speak his word of help and sustenance. Our worship is that action we take to open our ears and listen. Not long ago someone said to me that they could experience the presence of God on the top of a mountain every bit as readily I could as at a worship service. I am not sure how one knows that to be the case. It is true that God can make his voice heard by any means that God chooses. What the gospel affirms is that in the voice of Jesus we know we have hear God for sure.
2. The movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh episode in what is now eight in the Star Wars series. The first line of The Force Awakens speaks to the longing of the human heart: “This will begin to make things right.” I would not accuse the director of ripping off the Biblical story; perhaps it is just evidence of the influence of the gospel. The gospels present Jesus to be the hinge of history. The older testament looked forward to “the age to come;” the newer testament reveals Jesus as ushering in that age—the age has come in him!
Jesus Christ is God coming among us to set all things to rights. Death and decay have been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus. What remains is the mop up operation as all things are put under his lordship. He isn’t simply the beginning of making things right; things have been set to rights in his ascension to the right hand of the Father moving all things inexorably to the final consummation. The outcome is not in doubt. I suppose that if you want to see what humans imagine as the path for making things right you could watch The Force Awakens. If you want to see what God does to set things right then you go to the cross and witness the self-forgetful self-giving of Father and Son for human sin.
Behind the rise and fall of kingdoms, presidents, prime ministers, and premiers is another history that encompasses all there others. Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ, wrote Paul to the Christians in Rome, not principalities nor powers nor things to come. The story of Christ’s love is set and cannot be moved. His grip on the believer is stronger than the best grip we can muster on him. As we hear Christ teach, his word takes on a significance that transcends all the turmoil and turpitude we face in life.
In his sermon "The Heartbreak Gospel” Bryan Wilkerson writes, “Suppose we were to come up with a set of Beatitudes for the 21st Century. What if we made a list of the kinds of people who seem to be well-off—who seem to have it made—by today's standards? It might go something like this:
Blessed are the rich and famous, because they can always get a seat at the best restaurants.
Blessed are the good-looking, for they shall be on the cover of People magazine.
Blessed are those who party, for they know how to have fun.
Blessed are those who take first place in the division, for they shall have momentum going into the play-offs.
Blessed are the movers and shakers, for they shall make a name for themselves.
Blessed are those who demand their rights, for they shall not be overlooked.
Blessed are the healthy and fit, because they don't mind being seen in a bathing suit.
Blessed are those who make it to the top, because they get to look down on everyone else.
Compare that with our Lord’s Beatitudes. The beatitudes are pronounced in the indicative mode, not the imperative. Meaning they aren’t commands. They aren’t a recipe for finding happiness as if our Lord said—do or be these things and you will be happy, Instead he is addressing people in the various categories he names and declares that every one of you will find blessing in the kingdom. The poor, those who mourn, the meek (unable to assert yourself), those who long for things to be set right, the merciful, those who long for purpose (pure in heart refers to singlemindedness), those who suffer for doing what is right. These and many more will know blessings of our Lord’s kingdom.
No wonder our Lord’s preaching was so attractive. He starts with this glorious invitation to the kingdom in which we experience blessing instead of the blows that life in the world dishes out. His beatitudes are for the healing of the heartbroken. The ethical imperatives of how to walk in company with our Lord in his kingdom will come in his sermon. But all such imperative for obedience is always in response to God’s open hand of kingdom blessing; never as requirement to enter the kingdom. In these beatitudes Jesus proclaims that his kingdom is blessing and a happiness that cannot be finally taken away from us.
Are you mourning the loss of a loved one today? Jesus says that in him you will be comforted. In his kingdom you are one day going to experience a comfort so complete all the pains and scars will be gone. A comfort that is assured in the conquering love of the risen Lord. Will we believe Jesus for this? Perhaps we worry about loved ones whose faith we wonder about. Jesus invites us to trust him and his love which is stronger that death and whose desire is always to save. Trust all of this to him—a comfort is coming that will erase all uneasiness.
We taste that comfort even now. We experience it as scripture is read and our risen Lord, the One of whom scripture testifies, steps forward to assure is he has conquered death. We find it in the love of friends who journey with us in our loneliness. I realize that the love of a friend can never replace the loss of the one dearest to us. Even so, the love of a friend points to the one who is love; the one from whom the love of friendship draws its life. His love, God’s love is perfect and will bring to perfection all that it envisions.
Are you struggling with trying to make sense of a disease that is so senseless? Something that has happened that had you reeling wondering what’s the point? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This is our Lord’s kingdom promised. That desire (hunger and thirst) you have for things to be set right will be satisfied. “You will be filled.” One day all will be set to rights with a completeness that will answer every question; all the uncertainty will disappear. Will you believe Jesus for this?
Even now some things have become clear. Our Lord has shown you that evil is senseless, so rationalizing it will never work. “Deliver us from evil;” in this prayer Jesus points us in the direction of where we find help. We have discovered in the rhythm of weekly worship that our Lord has helped is building line upon line the gospel narrative into our lives and its liberating power we have experienced, even as we await the day of final liberation.
The Beatitudes are our Lord’s invitation to a kingdom filled with blessing. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them. Amen.