Last Sunday I began a preaching series on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7. Here in article form is the essence of my first lesson.
Just imagine hearing the news. It is the time, the event, the moment of history you were taught to yearn for from your earliest childhood. It is a day of great celebration, of unbelievable joy, of victory! Word is now rapidly spreading- the Messiah is here! Praise Yahweh! At last the Savior is among us! And now here in your neighborhood, he is healing and gathering to himself thousands.
You compose yourself and rush to join the throng. Breathlessly you finally arrive. You strain to see him beyond the crowds at the bottom of the hillside by Galilee’s sea. Yes, you overheard some skeptics talk about him being just a carpenter’s son; about how no one of importance could ever come from that dump of a town, Nazareth, but you discard it. Surely this healer is the Messiah. Surely his message will confirm that with calls for victory and Roman defeat. Surely he will detail the plan to reign on David’s throne and return Israel to its God-given prominence among the nations.
Then the mob quiets and he begins to speak. Your heart is racing but for a moment you question your hearing. Instead of calling for conquest, his first words are about humility. Then he speaks not about power but about meekness; not about a call to arms but about making peace! Incredibly he encourages love for the enemy! How can this be? The skeptics were right all along. This man cannot be the Messiah. Your hopes sink. Another impostor! His words are ridiculously foreign to that of the rabbis in the synagogue.
And they were.
These words which we now know as the Sermon on the Mount were different- radically so- as was the man who spoke them. From his birth in a common stable to his humiliating death on a Roman cross this Messiah was unlike anything anyone expected. His Sermon in Galilee voiced that. It was his public affirmation of this difference. Its message ran counter to culture- both Jewish and Roman- and clearly did not resemble the theology of the Jewish religious establishment. It challenged that establishment in a way that could not be ignored. It also laid the foundational elements of Christian thinking and practice that still should be shaping Christ’s church today. Even in the 21st century- to know Christ and to model him- starts here. This Sermon not only redefined the Messiah but remains definitive for anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ.
Jesus spoke these amazing words to a world of oppression where an elite 2-3% of the people held all the wealth and power. They for the most part would never listen to him. For those trapped in the helpless 97%, however, this Sermon was as energizing and empowering as the man who spoke it.
The Sermon came early during Christ’s ministry. Mobs surrounded him as he traveled. Word had reached well beyond Judea about this healer. Hundreds flocked to him bringing their sick and needy. He took advantage of this celebrity to teach and to express the values that heaven honors.
Again, and this really cannot be overstated, the Sermon was radical. It boldly presented God’s kingdom values and set them in direct contrast with the values of Empire and privilege. It honored the weak. It revealed motives. It purposed a striking new way of thinking. It brought the heart of heaven down to man.
Instead of a rant on the tyranny of Rome or even a rehash of the stale teaching of the rabbis, Christ focused on what heaven values most- the heart- and the relationships that flow from it. No longer was it acceptable to detach lifestyles from law. This Sermon made that clear.
As a result the Sermon did introduce Heaven’s Messiah. It laid the groundwork for his ministry and defined the meaning and call of true discipleship in God’s kingdom.
And there were actually many who listened.
Now imagine again: Your life is a hardscrabble existence. Tough times are all you have ever known. You are among those powerless in a harsh society with zero chance of ever improving your lot. Sure you have attended the synagogue and listened to the teachers of the law. Their rhetoric just left you empty. They were only about themselves and cared little for folks like you. Then you hear about another man. The word is that he is quite different. He is described as a kind healer who is bringing hope to the hopeless. A buzz is spreading through your community in Galilee. Some claim he is the Messiah and now he is nearby! You immediately drop everything and run to find him. It is not too difficult. You simply follow the huge crowd rushing to the banks of the sea. There you see him! He is sitting among the masses about to speak. You quiet down those around you. You do not want to miss a single word. Then you hear…
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…
Your heart stops. Tears begin to flow. Incredibly, you realize that he is talking about you! You begin to feel a new sensation. Is it possible? After all this time, could there really be hope? Never before have you heard words like this. This man understands. He must be from heaven. This man is the Messiah!
When Jesus concluded his address, the crowd burst into applause. They had never heard teaching like this. It was apparent that he was living everything he was saying- quite a contrast to their religious teachers! This was the best teaching they had ever heard. (Matthew 7:28-29 The Message)
But we don’t have to imagine. We know the Sermon. Which way do we hear it?