Jesus 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:
One bright morning in the spring of 2017, 53-year-old Jeff Murphy was hiking in Yellowstone National Park when he disappeared. Park investigators found his body on June 9 (2017), where Murphy had fallen 500 feet from what is known as Turkey Pen Peak, after accidentally stepping into a chute. But he wasn't on just any hike. He was looking for a treasure box of gold and jewels worth up to $2 million, buried somewhere in the Rocky Mountains by an eccentric millionaire named Forrest Fenn. Fenn, an art dealer and millionaire in his 80s, included a poem in his self-published memoir that supposedly leads to the treasure he hid in the mountains. Murphy is the fourth man to die while searching for the chest.
1. How different it is with God in disclosing to us the treasures of his kingdom. “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.” The treasures are not hidden but stated openly for all to be able to hear. There is no mystery as to the location of the treasure—they are in Jesus Christ. God plays no game of “hide-and-seek” and his treasures are not limited to a single find. It is an amazing miscalculation, and at the same time tragic, that we humans will undertake great risk of life for the time-bound gains of sudden wealth and expend so little to experience the treasure of eternal life offered in Jesus Christ.
Matthew says that Jesus went up the mountain. This place in Israel that, according to tradition, is the place where the Sermon on the Mount is given is in an elevated place, to be sure, but not the kind of elevation of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Matthew is evoking an Old Testament image as he describes this event; he is calling to mind the word from God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. When Jesus goes up a mountain God is speaking again. And he speaks openly and teaches his disciples along with any others who would hear.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has launched his preaching ministry in Galilee and has been proclaiming. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17) You will note the opening eight beatitudes are bookended by beatitudes that hold the promise “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The theme of “the kingdom of heaven” that characterized Jesus’ preaching is the theme Jesus will probe in this sermon. In other words, Matthew would have us understand that this sermon is typical of what Jesus was preaching as he toured Galilee.
The witness of scripture is that the chief characteristic of the living God is that God speaks. The gospel that tells us of God coming among us in Jesus Christ witnesses that God has made great effort to speak to us and with us. Consider the precarious place to which God has subjected himself in order to do this in being born of a woman, for example. He comes among us as a Jew from Nazareth—a town of no account and from a people of no account living under Roman occupation. He was not of noble birth nor did he hold political/public office that would accord him the prestige and honour of readily being listened to. And yet his voice and teaching has been preserved and heard down through the ages.
When you think about the great pains and effort God has undertaken to speak to us is not our proper response to listen? You notice in Matthew’s story that after Jesus sat down—the posture of a teacher in Israel—that “his disciples came to him.” Isn’t this the very picture of what we do today? We note that Jesus has taken his place to teach and we have come to listen. We have come to listen for him to speak through the word read and proclaimed.
2. Imagine, if you can, the people who are gathered to hear Jesus preach this day. Imagine what their life is like. It is a hard life living under the Roman occupation that exacts taxes that must be paid to support the foreign power that occupies. The presence of the local Roman garrison has to grate on you. These are people without rights; no Roman court would hear their complaint. They are just another of the peoples conquered and dominated by Roman military might. The longing in their hearts is for things to be set right. They want peace and security—the kind that comes when one is no longer subject to the fear that Roman authority will turn on you or change the rules.
To these people Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven has come near. This kingdom is not like the political kingdoms they know in which the powerful win, the confident grin, and the rich pull all the strings. Jesus announces in God’s kingdom an entirely new order where the poor and meek and mourning find blessing along with those who suffer for doing what is right. Jesus announces that in the kingdom of heaven these people will find blessing.
The Roman world promised great things for Roman citizens—a prosperity fueled by enslaved and occupied peoples. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem took a “you-have-to-go-along-to-get-along” approach with respect to the Romans in order to hang on to the scraps of power left over for them. Many political ideologies of our day make promises to be the best way for the most people. The promises made are mostly economic. They are based on the idea that economic prosperity equals a blessed life for people. Jesus speaks of a different source of blessing—one where the poor can know such blessing. We will return to this point in a moment.
As we listen to Jesus preach this day he proclaims blessing for all the categories of people for whom the powers of their world have shoved to the side. If you weren’t on the right side of who had the military might life was difficult. As I hear our Lord’s pronouncements of blessing I am struck that our joy, our good, is God’s delight. The word we translate “blessed” in these beatitudes could be translated “happy” or “good fortune”. If you were to imagine God coming to this world that has turned its back on God would you expect a message that begins with the announcement of blessing? When the kingdom of heaven forges its reality into the kingdoms of this world aligned against it, are you anticipating the announcement of happiness?
And yet here it is from our Lord’s lips. The idea that God wants our good isn’t a brand new idea with Jesus. The book of Psalms, Israel’s prayer book, opens with the phrase “happy are those.” You might even think that Jesus has the opening of the Psalms in his mind as he opens his sermon. It is an idea repeated throughout the Psalms—for example in Psalm 84 (today’s appointed Psalm) it concludes with, “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.”
We must also note that the blessing and happiness of the kingdom of heaven our Lord proclaims isn’t to say that all people are wonderful so much so that God just wants to hand out gifts. The kingdom of heaven announces that there is a new king we need to embrace; we must give up old allegiances and embrace allegiance to our Lord. Yes, some aspect of his teaching in this sermon many find bracing but there is correction needed and transforming of our thinking required. Humans don’t naturally think after the gospel. Our loves need to be redirected to him. Even so, as we hear his teaching our delight is in his heart; our good his objective. We know this because he pours himself out completely at the cross that shows he will go to any lengths in his mission to be for us.
3. Early in Jesus’ ministry he came to his hometown synagogue and read from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) and claimed that this word was fulfilled in his ministry. Listen again to some of what Isaiah writes that Jesus takes as his own ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18) It is no surprise, then, that the opening beatitude of Jesus sermon is ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I note for us that in Luke’s gospel he gives this beatitude as, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
Why the difference? I think that Jesus could have said both things in his preaching. We usually think of poverty as extreme lack of financial resources. But there are other kinds of impoverishments—think about how disease impoverishes health. I find that illness has a way of dominating not just the body but also the being; it is hard to think and pray in the midst of a migraine headache. Poverty of finance also spreads its impoverishments to our beings as well including our spirits. So why would Jesus pronounce blessings for such a state? Is poverty good? Is it a blessing only for the future life to come?
Jesus pronounces poverty blessed in that the poor are more likely to see that the consolations of the world are finally spurious. One of the world’s consolations is wealth. Has wealth ever improved the spiritual condition of anyone? It has spelled the spiritual ruin of countless. What does wealth bring finally but a shrunken heart? Another of the world’s consolations is adulation. What does adulation bring finally but a swollen head? Poverty isn’t blessed because poverty is good; poverty is blessed because those in extreme need have the fewest pretences about themselves and their profounder need, even their ultimate need — which need, of course, is their need of the saving God. The more extreme our need, the less likely we are to think we need nothing; the less likely we are to think that we don’t even need the One who claims us for himself by his generosity in creation and claims us for himself again by his mercy in redemption.
4. Real people. Real places. This has been the theme of our summer sermons. Today on the mount of Beatitudes we Jesus and his disciples and the crowds gathered. So too, in faith, we also gather with Jesus today. I invite you to take the highlighter of your mind and mark his name: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” It is good to keep in mind that he is our take-away from any gospel proclamation. We don’t measure him, he measures us (and is the one who measures up for us). He is the very definition of love. Love isn’t a force separate from God as if we can measure if God is loving or not; our ideas of love are incomplete and corrupt, according to the gospel. God is love.
I shared with you previously form a recent article by Rev. Fleming Rutledge titled Why Being 'Spiritual' Is Never Enough (May 31 2018) She writes of receiving a long, compassionate letter from a friend regarding a family crisis Rutledge was facing. She commented that, “Although the letter was wonderful, one line bothered me. My friend wrote, “Your spirituality will get you through this. When I read it, I recoiled. Whatever “spirituality” meant, I was keenly aware that I didn’t have any of it. In and of myself, I had nothing adequate for what was facing us at the time. I had only the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”
Rutledge comes at this same point I am highlighting with you from a different angle of vision. We need to circle the name of Jesus; what we have as believers is Jesus Christ. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he surely referred to the gospel declaration of the poverty we all share—spiritual poverty. The difficult thing for many is that we are loathe to admit it. Just as it is hard for people with wealth to acknowledge their utter dependence on God, so too for people who believe in some inner ability to be spiritual, it is hard to admit that in myself nothing I bring, only to the cross I cling. (Difficult to accept but wonderfully freeing once embraced.)
You have heard people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Both the category “spiritual” and “religious” are problematic with respect to the teaching of the gospel. I am using the word “religion” in the sense that Karl Barth used it. He calls religion “a human work” and goes on to say that “a religion adequate to revelation and congruent to the righteousness of God … is unattainable by human beings.” John Calvin argues the same point famously declaring that the human mind is “a perpetual factory of idols.” These statements—about the incapacity of humans to come up with the story of God in Jesus Christ—is a foundational affirmation of the Bible and essential to the renewal of the church.
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. I conclude with the voice heard in the cloud on another mountain, the mount of transfiguration; … ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’