Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A New Kingdom - Our Essential Identity

Preached on Sunday, Februrary 8, 2015

Scripture readings: Matthew 5:1-20; Exodus 19:1-8

Great crowds came to Jesus from all over the Middle East. When Jesus saw them, he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the crowds said, “Hmm that is so very interesting!”
Pictures Near Desert Aire WA: February 2015
Of course we don’t know if they said that. Maybe they said, “That’s so not what I came to hear.” Yes, I think a lot of them probably said or thought something like that.
Some of them probably came to hear talk of miracles, and wonders, and signs. Jesus was famous as a healer. He was a wonder worker. People came to be healed or to see others healed. If healing happened they would become rich and abundant in spirit. That would be their blessing.
Some of the crowd probably came to hear a call to arms. Jesus was a potential revolutionary. He talked about a new kingdom. The crowds came looking for clues about the coming revolution against the Romans. They wanted Jesus to pour out upon their people the warrior spirit. They had been poor in spirit long enough. It was time for that to change.
Some people in the crowd would have remembered so many words from their scriptures that stood behind the words of Jesus. For one thing there was the psalm that said, “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:6) Maybe these people understood Jesus.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases the blessing words about the poor in spirit like this, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (Matthew 5:2)
There are people who find this all very interesting, until it happens to them. It’s interesting until it becomes personal. Nobody sets out wanting to be poor in spirit. Nobody sets out wanting to come to the end of their rope.
There was an old poster in my college days that said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” It’s actually a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the poster didn’t have his picture on it. The poster had the picture of a cute little kitten hanging onto the knot at the end of a rope: hanging on for dear life.
Hanging on can work, but not always. In fact, the world does not usually protect the person at the end of their rope.
The next blessing is confusing in the same way as the first. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3) There are people who comfort those who mourn, but these comforters aren’t always around. Time leads us into comfort of a sort, but it doesn’t take away our loss: not in this world. Loss hurts.
We can say that the Lord is our comforter, and this is true, but this is just as strange as it is true. One part of the strangeness is that Jesus, who is God in the flesh (God as a human being), wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. (John 11:35) There is something about such deep losses as death that makes even God weep. Even when God comforts us, he doesn’t stop us from weeping. At least this is true in the world, as we know it.
The world as we know it is probably the key. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So there is something about heaven going on here.
When we read the gospels about the kingdom that Jesus is talking about we find Matthew doing another strange thing with the word heaven. He uses the word “heaven” as a substitute for the word “God”. Where Jesus, in Matthew, speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he speaks about the kingdom of God in Mark and Luke. (Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43)
Matthew wrote his gospel in the Holy Land, for the Jewish church. For his intended readers, saying the word “heaven” was a reverential way of saying “God”. Heaven is where the reality of God is strongest and clearest even though “the whole earth is the Lord’s”. (Exodus 19:5)
In God’s universe, as the Bible teaches us, God’s rule works in different ways in heaven and on earth. But heaven and earth interlock. They are interconnected. The Lord’s Prayer gives us a clue. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The kingdom is coming from heaven to earth. That was, and is, the plan.
The blessings of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, are not about the way the world works, as we know it. The blessings are about the way that heaven works, but heaven is coming to earth when the Lord’s plan to restore the world is done. Jesus taught us to pray for this.
Jesus calls you and me to be a breed of prophets who live like the world to come. The world to come is the world that we are promised in these blessings. It’s the world we live for now. When we live the blessings of Jesus we live in two worlds at the same time. This is not easy, but it is our calling.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” (Matthew 5:5) he was saying, “You need to be meek.” Here you see that what Jesus says is not meant to be interesting: it is meant to be personal. This is hard, this is a challenge.
The word “blessed” here means the gift of happiness, or the gift of joy that will come from life with God. And he means that he will bring a new world where we will be at home and happy, if we are meek.
Jesus is really telling us to be like him, because he is that strange thing called meekness. At the end of chapter eleven in Matthew, in the King James Version, Jesus said, “I am meek and lowly of heart.” Our more modern translation puts it like this, “I am gentle and humble of heart.” (Matthew 11:29)
Meekness is word that requires more than one word to define it. It means perfect responsiveness. Meekness is gentle because it means being gentle toward God; being yielding and soft in God’s hand. It means being tame toward God’s direction of our life.
It could mean a well trained horse. It could mean a war horse who would perfectly respond to its rider in battle. It would charge, or stand, or retreat, or turn to the right or the left exactly on command every time. It would be broken from its wildness, but never broken in its spirit.
Moses was meek when he stood up to Pharaoh, and even to his own people. (Numbers 2:3) Jesus, driving the money changers from the Temple, was meek. They responded to everything in exactly the right way, according to plan.
The world as we know it does not always reward the people who seek to live in this world with a perfect responsiveness to the call of Jesus. When we share the responses of Jesus, the world might even persecute us the way it persecuted the prophets who came before us.
The world might seem to work against us. (Matthew 5:12) We respond like Jesus anyway because we are like prophets showing, in our words and our lives, what Jesus intends the world to be.
In the Old Testament, the Lord told his people that they were called to be a kingdom of priests. Just as the priests of Israel were called to make offerings and sacrifices for the people of Israel, so the whole people of Israel were called to be a kingdom of priests for the world. (Exodus 19:5-6)
In Israel, the high priest wore a golden plate on his chest, over his heart, with jewels that were carved with the names of God’s people. (Exodus 28:29) The plate of gold and jewels was a sign of what it meant to carry the people on your heart. Because God called them all to be priests, Israel, as a whole, was called from all the nations to carry the names of all people and nations upon their hearts.
That is what we are called to do. We are all called to be like priests. (1 Peter 2:9) We are called to carry all people and all nations upon our heart.
Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and to be the light of the world. It is his calling for us to be a blessing to this world. It is his way of calling us to be priests for the whole world: to carry all people upon our heart, like Jesus did on the cross.
Jesus was like a priest offering himself as a sacrifice for us, and for our sins. We are called to follow him. Our offering for all people and for all nations is to live out the blessings of his Sermon on the Mount.
Salt preserves the food from decay. Light gives growth to all living things, and light helps us to find our way. This is our offering to the world. If we are poor in spirit, if we mourn in hope, if we are as meek and responsive as Jesus, if we do all these things, then we preserve whatever good we find in this world, and we shine with life-giving light. We are life-preservers and life-givers for others.
How do we bring salt and light to our families and to our neighbors? How do we bring salt and light to our community and to our world? How will we bring mercy and peace?
There is something in what we call sin that loves to fight, that loves to defeat others, that loves to judge and condemn. There are plenty of people who seem to find a way to keep all of God’s commandments and still keep their love of fighting, and defeating, and judging, and condemning. But they are wrong.
Jesus simply tells us to do better than that. He tells us to find a better way of being righteous. He tells us to create mercy and peace in our world. He tells us to create mercy and peace in the lives we share with others.
The crowds went to Jesus to see great things. On that mountain where they gathered, Jesus called them to do something different. Jesus called them to see and to do the essential things.
Jesus calls us to do the essential things. Salt and light are essential. Our following Jesus is not about seeing and doing great things, but about seeing what is essential, and doing that.

More than anything else, Jesus is essential, and we are called to be essential by receiving him, and following him. We become essential by being Christ in fellowship and partnership with him. We become essential when we learn to live and work faithfully together in the way we know he will bless. We become essential when we make the kingdom that is coming real to the people around us and real to world as we know it.

1 comment:

  1. "All nations upon our heart", amen.
    "Essential things", amen.