January 2, 2011

"Jesus' Vision of a New World"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life:  Jesus’ Vision for a New World

  Matthew 4:12-5:2; 7:24-29
(Holy Communion)

What do you believe Jesus wants the world to look like?  How do you think Jesus wants his followers to live?  Of all the mysteries of faith, this is not one of them.  There is no clearer vision of what Jesus wants the world to look like and how Jesus wants his followers to live than the words recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7, what we call The Sermon on the Mount.

For the next three and a half months we are going to be looking closely at these revolutionary teachings of Jesus and see more clearly than ever who we are called to be as followers of Jesus.  They are words the church needs to hear again because we so often involve ourselves in adventures of missing the point.  The things that bother us about church are hardly ever the most important matters.

But beware: these words of Jesus will sound like utter foolishness to those of us who find the American way of life reasonable.  We will be considering a radically new way to see and live in the world.

This morning as we gather around the table I want us to prepare ourselves to hear these words.  We will take a journey through the first four chapters of Matthew that set the stage for the sermon as it (1) introduces Jesus, the preacher of this sermon, and (2) sets the context for the sermon in the midst of his public ministry.1

The Jesus Who Preaches The Sermon on The Mount

1.  Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus traced all the way back to Abraham.  This sermon comes from the One who is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for a Messiah, One who will save us from our sins (Mt 1:1-25).  And yet he will not be what Israel expected in a Messiah, and he will save us from sins we thought were moral ways of living.

Right before Jesus’ public ministry begins Jesus is presented as the embodiment of Isaiah’s words - as light in the darkness and life in the face of death (Mt 4:12-16).  And many of the teachings Jesus presents in this sermon regarding the kingdom of God are rooted in Isaiah.

2.  Early on in the first couple of years of Jesus’ life we see he is already being opposed by the imperial powers.  His birth is a threat to Herod’s kingdom.  And so Herod sets out to kill him and Jesus lives his early childhood as a refugee.  From the beginning to the end of the gospel, the way of empire is revealed as spies, lies, and murder (Mt 2:1-23)

3.  As he grows into adulthood, Jesus is introduced by John the Baptist as One Who comes to baptize with the Spirit and with fire - saving the world by the mercy of his piercing judgment, enabling us through the Holy Spirit to change and live the life we were created to live - the life described in the Sermon on the Mount (3:1-12).

4.  Then, just in case we are still unclear who this Jesus is, God confirms Jesus’ identity in his baptism as the agent of God’s saving presence.  The heavens are opened, the Spirit descends upon him, and a Voice from the heavens proclaim: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. (3:13-17)

            So in the first three chapters of Matthew, we are told that:

                        Jesus is the Messiah of Israel who will save us from our sins

                        He is a threat to the kingdoms and empires of this world

                        He comes to baptize the world with a judgment that is our salvation

                        And the Spirit of the Lord is upon Him, for He is God’s Beloved Son.

The Sermon and the Kingdom

Chapter four sets the Sermon in the context of Jesus’ public ministry.  In that context we see that:

1. The Sermon is a sign of the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. As Jesus journeys into the wilderness following his baptism he is praying and fasting, seeking his path.  While in the wilderness he is faced with the temptation to choose the way of the kingdoms of this world with its coercive power, to be Commander in Chief of all the armies of the world.  But he knows worldly power and violence will not be his way.  So he refuses.  He has in mind another kind of kingdom altogether set in the midst of the kingdoms of this world.  His is a kingdom so radical this world will not understand (Mt 4:1-11).

2. The kingdom this Sermon proclaims calls for repentance, conversion, and discipleship (4:17-22).  The first public words of Jesus according to Matthew and Mark are the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) has come near.”  The words Jesus is about to speak in the Sermon on the Mount will require a radical change of heart and life and worldview.

But let us not fear this word “repent.”  Repentance is not a threat but an invitation.  An invitation to be loved, forgiven, reconciled, and given a new identity.  But it is more than those personal benefits.  The gospel also includes an invitation to a great adventure, an adventure Jesus calls living in the kingdom of God.  “Follow me,” Jesus says to Peter, Andrew, James and John; and they do.  They have caught a glimpse that this gospel is light and life to those who sit in darkness and death (Mt 4:12-16). 

And so is this sermon life and light.  It is a call for an alternative community.  This sermon addresses how disciples are supposed to live in the context of the kingdoms of this world.  It offers training for disciples by having them imagine a different identity, that of being followers of Jesus, not imitators of culture and empire.  It has them imagine a different way of life, a life that differs from the empire’s values and practices.  If the mantra of American society is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the mantra of Jesus, suggests Richard Rohr, might instead be “Identity, Justice, and Community.”2  Think about the difference.  Jesus is calling his followers to a truly alternative community.

One of the major weaknesses of the Christian understanding of Jesus is that we really do not understand what it was that made Jesus worth killing.  It was not because he walked around saying, “I am God.”  Rather, he was a threat to the social, political, religious and economic structures of his day that benefitted the rich at the expense of the poor working class.

3. The kingdom this Sermon proclaims brings healing and wholeness to the world (4:23-24). Immediately preceding the sermon, Matthew tells us Jesus went through Galilee teaching and preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick and the diseased and all who came to him.  I think this is crucial for the context of hearing the Sermon. 

Note the connection: Jesus proclaimed the good news of the coming kingdom and then demonstrated its power by healing people.  Healing is more than curing; it also includes healing of the mind and spirit; healing is wholeness.  In a profound way the Sermon on the Mount is a way we can receive the healing ministry of Jesus.  They are healing words for what ails for our sick world.

4.  It is also important to notice that this Sermon is spoken by Jesus as the New Moses to a kingdom crowd of all different kinds of people (4:25-5:2). 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that God is speaking again, coming to deliver us from our vicious cycles of anger and violence, unfaithfulness and adultery, manipulation and deceit, materialism and greed.

The kingdom crowd is quite diverse.  Right before the sermon, Matthew tells us Jesus is in the Decapolis, a place full of Gentiles.  These are not religious people, but all sorts of people from different backgrounds.  So the old arguments that Jesus’ sermon is meant for the super-religious or for the next life do not hold water.  This is Jesus’ plan for a new world in the midst of the old one.

There are actually two different groups of people listening to this Sermon.  At the beginning of the sermon we read, “When Jesus saw the crowds he went up on a mountainside.  His disciples came to him and he began to teach them.”  And then at the end of the sermon we read, “When Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were amazed at his teachings.”

So there are the disciples, the ones that have said they will follow Jesus.  And there are the crowds that are listening.  The call to both the disciples and the crowds that are gathered is an invitation to a new way of life in a new kingdom, an alternative community centered in Jesus.

So here’s Jesus surrounded by this mountain of humanity.  And like Moses he goes up the mountain to deliver a new teaching from God.  And then he sees the crowd and addresses them.

5.  One final note as we prepare to hear the greatest sermon ever preached: Jesus said The kingdom this Sermon proclaims is to be the foundation of our lives (7:24-29).  Jesus concludes the sermon saying, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise who build their house on rock.  Storms come and the house does not fall because its foundation is solid.”  But to hear these words of Jesus and refuse to act on them is as foolish as building your house on the sand.  Storms will come and its fall will be mighty.

As James would say a few decades later:  Be doers of the word, not hearers only (James 1:22)

sus said storms will come to both houses - those built on rock and those built on sand.  The question is: What will you find when the storm comes - when you lose a job, a relationship, your health, or you are persecuted - will you find that the house that is your faith will be standing?

This is true not only of ourselves as individuals, but also as a community of Jesus followers.   Stanley Hauerwas says the church is unintelligible when not shaped by this Sermon.  A church not characterized by this Sermon is built on sand, unable to handle conflict, judging one another, anxious about the future.

Dare we live in a world imagined by the Sermon on the Mount?  A world where followers of Jesus refuse to live ruled by anger or lust or deception.  Not retaliating or worrying, and not judging others.  The purpose of the Sermon is to enable us to imagine life shaped by God’s reign.  It is an identity-shaping, community-forming sermon.  It shapes the identity of a community of disciples who live out this way of life.

This Sermon proposes that to live according to the teachings of Jesus leads to a good life.  Disobeying his teachings leads to a life of ruin.  When our life is unraveling I wonder what would happen if we turned to the Sermon on the Mount for guidance.  Perhaps we would discover either where we went wrong or how to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves.

The question for us is not, What will I have to give up to follow Jesus? but rather, What will I never get to experience if I choose not to follow Jesus?  The answer scripture puts before us is: we will forfeit the chance to live a good and beautiful life.

In the upcoming months, I challenge you to open your hearts and lives to these transforming words of Jesus.  I challenge you to choose this day to live in the kingdom of God.

A kingdom Jesus centered around table fellowship.  A kingdom table that does not honor social class, but makes sure the marginalized are included.  This table is a foretaste of the great feast when the kingdom comes in all its fullness and Jesus serves as our host at a table where all are welcome.

Will you take the journey?  Will you make the adventure?  First, come to the table to be nourished with the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.


1.  Warren Carter, “Power and Identities: The Contexts of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount,” in David Fleer and Dave Bland, ed., Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Chalice, 2007, 8-17

2.  Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World, St. Anthony Messenger, 1996, 15