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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 01/30/2011

I pick up where I left off last week:  are we disciples or are we just part of the crowd?  Today’s gospel starts with Jesus seeing the crowd; sometimes he has compassion or feels sorry for the crowds that follow him, but here it just says he sees them and then he goes up the mountain.  His disciples follow him up the mountain, but it doesn’t mention the crowds, the possible implication being that the crowds go about their business doing other things, not sure yet about just how far they want to go with this Jesus, or maybe they follow part way, but hesitantly, keeping their distance.

This move up the mountain continues Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses because remember Moses was summoned to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the commandments and other teachings he would address to the people of Israel.  This time Jesus goes up the mountain and the disciples follow and in following they will be addressed and taught directly by Jesus just as Moses was addressed and taught directly by the Lord.  Only disciples though will risk this address that might upset their lives.  The crowds will continue to keep their options open, preferring not to get too close, not yet anyway.  So do you want to be a disciple and hear what Jesus has to say over the next five Sundays, or would you prefer to be part of the crowd and sit this one out?

You can’t help but wonder what the response was among those who first heard this sermon.  Or maybe we don’t have to wonder because historically much of the interpretation around the Sermon on the Mount has involved strategies to help us avoid thinking that these words really apply to our lives.  It stands to reason that the first hearers probably tried to come up with those strategies too.

Among Lutherans the Sermon on the Mount is often seen as an example of what is called the second use of the Law.  The first use of the law is to tell us what we should or should not do.  The second use of the law is less about telling us what we should or should not do and more about making us feel guilty in order to move us to recognize our need for forgiveness.  That interpretation and that use of the law does have merit.  We do need reminders of our dependence on God’s forgiveness, reminders that try as we might we can’t do enough to save ourselves but still we can depend on God’s grace.  There is merit to that, but I’m not sure we need the Sermon on the Mount to make us feel guilty as feeling guilty comes quite naturally to most of us. 

The other thing is that it’s a slippery slope from the second use of the law to cheap grace.  We can wind up thinking I’m guilty no matter what I do and no matter how hard I try but I’m forgiven anyway, therefore I don’t have to worry too much about Jesus’ difficult ethical teachings.  I can just keep doing what I’m doing and then ask for forgiveness.  With that line of thinking we can take a more casual approach and think about Jesus’ teachings as ideals, but nothing we have to take very seriously as we consider how to live…

…which leaves us in a bit of a predicament.  It doesn’t seem very useful to take everything Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount literally because at best that will lead us into second use of the law guilt knowing that we can’t do it, we won’t do it.  On the other hand, these chapters of Matthew that start with the Beatitudes represent Jesus’ core teachings so I’m pretty sure his intent wasn’t that we should ignore his words; they’re there for a reason.

A different approach is called for, an approach that starts with remembering who it is that preaches this sermon.  Jesus isn’t just another moral philosopher; our claim is that he’s the Son of God, the Messiah and we don’t want to separate the sermon from the one who delivers it.  Now if Jesus is something other than the Son of God, then this is just a set of ideals and we’re just left to think about their practicality or impracticality.  As the Son of God though, his words reflect the character of God, they help us to understand what God is like. 

That’s a useful staring point…understanding these words, especially the Beatitudes we consider today, as helping us to understand the nature of God.  But if these words represent what God is like, shouldn’t they also have something to do with the character of those who call themselves the people of God?  I think the answer is yes, but can we answer yes without winding up going back to reducing what Jesus says to moral instruction that we’re not likely to keep anyway?

We can, we can answer yes, that in addition to reflecting the character of God, the Beatitudes should also reflect the character of the people of God, but it involves a shift in our thinking.  One of the roles that Jesus plays for us is that of a prophet; he’s not only a prophet but that is one of his roles.  We can tend to think of prophets as those who predict the future, but that’s not exactly what biblical prophets did.  Biblical prophets usually did one of two things; sometimes they just told it like it was, identifying what was going on, particularly pointing out ways that the people were violating the religious, ethical and moral law of the Old Testament.  So in that regard, prophets were truth tellers proclaiming truth that people might not really want to hear.

The other thing that prophets would do was to create images, in essence challenging people to imagine new possibilities sometimes in the face of evidence that would cause them to think that nothing could change.  A classic example of this is the familiar text from Isaiah 40 that we hear some years during Advent in which the prophet proclaims that, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 

Isaiah said this when the people were in exile in Babylon, removed from their homeland and all that was familiar.  The Babylonians were in charge which meant that their gods were in charge too, and there was nothing to indicate that that would change.  But out of this the prophet challenged the people to imagine a road that would lead them home.  He didn’t tell them how to build the road; he didn’t offer an instruction manual; he didn’t say how it was going to happen; he just invited them to imagine it.  Surprisingly perhaps, they paid attention, and things did finally change.  The exile ended and they went home.  First though, they had to imagine it.

That’s a good way to think about what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes; he’s creating an image of an alternative reality where notions of who is blessed are quite different, in some cases, from what we would expect.  Similar to prophets of old, what he says contradicts what the available evidence says is true.  Spoken by the Son of God though, these words help us to see God’s purposes and God’s intentions for the world.  Note though Jesus’ tone in all this;  he doesn’t make demands or threaten or terrify; instead he creates images, and by doing so he entices and attracts and promises.

I think you could also say that he extends an invitation.  Invitation has been a theme for the past couple of weeks as Jesus called disciples; two weeks ago the invitation was to “come and see.”  Last week the invitation was to follow.  The Beatitudes can be seen as a natural extension of those invitations, perhaps the first part of the answer to what disciples will see when they do follow. 

The invitation is to take these images and begin to wrestle with them, not to solve them or figure them out, but to wrestle with them, to engage them.  Trying to solve the Beatitudes and figure them out often just leads to explaining them away and that dishonors the one who spoke them.  A process of engagement though, a process that starts with imagination can initiate transformation where the people of God do begin to take on the character of God.

It’s the work of disciples.  It’s the work of disciples as they imagine the alternative proposed by Jesus and the prophets before him.  In a world that demands proof imagination is an undervalued aspect of the journey we call faith, but in Jesus imagination leads to new life, resurrection life.  The crowds, while they are frequently amazed by Jesus, can’t or won’t dare to imagine, comfortable only in that which they can see and manage and control.  Disciples though dare to imagine the possibilities and by the power of Christ, the world is transformed.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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