Jesus went up the mountain. Does that remind you of anyone? It’s meant to. It’s meant to remind us of Moses. Matthew in his gospel is presenting Jesus as a new Moses, as the one who will speak God’s words to us. In the book of Exodus, after God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, after they have crossed the Red Sea and entered the wilderness, they come to Mount Sinai and they camp there, in front of the mountain. And Moses went up the mountain. But the people were not allowed to go up the mountain. The people stood at a distance, afraid. And when God began to speak from the mountain, they became terrified, and they said to Moses, “Do not let God speak to us or we will die.” And so the people did not go up the mountain.
But when Jesus goes up the mountain, he sits down, and his disciples come to him, up the mountain. And so do the crowds who have been following Jesus, for though Jesus’ teaching is initially directed to those who are his disciples, we are told that by time Jesus has finished speaking, the entire crowd was astounded and amazed.
I want you to put these two images side by side for a moment. The first is the image of Moses going up the mountain, but the people standing at a distance, terrified that God will speak, terrified of what might happen when God speaks. The second is the image of Jesus going up the mountain, sitting down, inviting his disciples to gather around him, and as he speaks, the crowd starts streaming up the mountain to join them, to hear the word of God.
When Moses spoke God’s words, they came out in the form of commandments, you shall do this, you shall not do that. But when Jesus speaks, the words that come out of his mouth are blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
There’s a difference, isn’t there. Something new. And before we get into all the words of the sermon on the mount, when I take these two images, one of Moses going up the mountain and the other of Jesus going up the mountain and I hold them together, here’s what I get.
Jesus wants us to know that God is good.
The God that Jesus reveals to us is a God who wants what is good for us, what is best for each one of us. A God who loves us and looks upon us with favour. A God who blesses us and wants us to be blessed. A God who is approachable and wants us to be near him. A God who invites us to be with him on the mountain.
God is good. Jesus wants you to know that.
I could stop right there. If we could absorb, if we could really come to know just this one thing, it would change an awful lot.
I could stop there – but you know I’m not going to. God is good. But we want to know more. And this is precisely where Jesus gives us more. Last Sunday we talked about how Jesus inaugurated his public ministry by proclaiming a vision: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The sermon on the mount that we begin today fleshes out that vision. It is Jesus’ manifesto: his public declaration of who God is and what God wants. And it is a manifesto that holds out for us a way of life. And when we live that way, the kingdom of heaven comes near, and those who see it will say, so that’s what he’s talking about, that’s what the kingdom of heaven is.
The kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God, same thing, it is the central message, symbol and metaphor of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. It’s what we should be striving for. It is at one and the same time a deep insight and a call to action. “Repent. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” Jesus proclaims as he calls his disciples to follow him.
And the disciples ask “What’s the kingdom of heaven?” even as they watch Jesus begin to embody it, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing those who are sick among the people. Maybe they expect a one-sentence answer. Instead, Jesus goes up the mountain, and sits down, and he teaches them, saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall 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 receive 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 for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Now do I understand what the kingdom of heaven is?
No, not yet. But I am starting to get a glimpse. The first thing I see is that the kingdom of heaven looks different from most of the world around me. I live in a world where the wealthy and the healthy, the famous and the successful are assumed to be blessed. The kingdom of heaven is an alternative vision, a radical alternative. It is a call to see people differently, to upend our notions of what it means to flourish as a human being, to learn to favour those whom God favours, that is, those who are in need. Our government is proud to say “we will favour the middle class.” In the U.S.A. it's "America First". God says that he will favour the poor, and the poor in spirit.
Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven is what theologians would call an eschatological vision, a vision of the end-times. It is a future vision of what will be when God is King, when all is the way God wants it to be, when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. This creates a tension for us. The kingdom of heaven has come near but it is not yet. Those who mourn will be comforted, but there are those who mourn who are not comforted today. But even today they are blessed. God looks upon them with favour and will comfort them. The kingdom of God is a future vision, but one that is breaking into our lives and has the power to re-shape the present.
That power comes, in part, from the fact that by making public what God wants, Jesus presents us with a program for participating in its realization. Jesus’ manifesto calls us to a way of life. Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus is not so much about what you believe as how you live. He calls us to a changed life, for that’s what it means to repent. We are to be people who mourn, not just for loved ones, but for all who are the victims of injustice. We are to be meek, gentle with one another, living with humility, considerate of others. We are to be people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, people who hunger to see a just society and thirst for wrongs to be made right. We are to be merciful, people who forgive one another, people who reach out with compassion and are steadfast in their love for others. We are to be pure in heart, people who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and whose actions are guided by that love. We are to be peacemakers, those who strive to create God’s shalom, God’s peace, harmony, and well-being in the lives of those around us.
When this is what we seek, we are blessed. And in the moments that we live into this vision, the kingdom of heaven breaks into our world, our present reality. And we get a glimpse of what Jesus is teaching, a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus holds out before us.
I suppose you could say it’s circular in a way. But it’s a good circle. Jesus calls us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. We ask, what is this ‘kingdom of heaven’? Jesus responds with this manifesto that we call the Sermon on the Mount, a public declaration of who God is and what God wants. The vision of the future that Jesus lays before us serves as a present call to action, a call to an alternative, counter-cultural way of life that has the power to re-shape the world around us. And in the moments that we respond to that call, the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives, and we and those around us get a glimpse of what it looks like. And we are blessed.
Because our God is a God of blessing. A God who looks upon us with favour and wants the best for us. A God who invites us to draw near.
God is good.
Homily: Yr A P5 Jan 29 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Micah 6.1-8, Ps 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12