Sermon - 2nd February 2014
A New Law for a New Kingdom
Scripture - Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
“Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you because you are my followers. Be happy and glad, for a great reward is kept for you in heaven. This is how the prophets who lived before you were persecuted.”
The task of the prophets in Jewish history was to speak out against actions, behaviours and beliefs which were drawing people away from the true faith of Judaism as enshrined, primarily, in the Law. The Law - the first five books of the Jewish scriptures - was held up as God’s definitive word on how the Jewish people should maintain their covenant with the God who had made them his chosen people. It used a continuing metaphor which likened God to a King, spoke of the Jewish people as God’s subjects, and put forward the idea of a perfect Kingdom which would come about by perfect obedience to the Law. It was a noble intention, but it suffered from occasional bursts of human weakness.
Time after time, throughout Jewish history, a prophet would emerge who proclaimed that the chosen people of God had strayed from the core values of what God’s Law required of them. And sometimes a prophet would go further than just tell people off: sometimes he would share a vision of how things should be - a vision of what true obedience to those core values of the Law would look like in practice. And Micah - a prophet who lived eight centuries before the lifetime of Jesus - shared on one the most moving and memorable visions that found its way into the sacred writings of Judaism.
In Micah’s vision, God’s Law required three core values to be observed above all else: “to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God” (Micah 6:8). This was the way towards that perfect Kingdom of God to which the Law pointed the people of God.
Come forward 800 years or so, and Micah’s values of justice, love and humble fellowship are in short supply in the Judaism practised in the first century AD. A new prophet has emerged proclaiming - again - that the people of God have strayed from the core values of what God’s Law requires of them. John the Baptist has built up a large following - perhaps worryingly large for the civil authorities - based on his vision of repentance, his outward symbolism of a new life expressed through baptism, and his powerful proclamation that the Kingdom of God is near - perhaps at long last a Kingdom of justice, love and humility.
Sermon on the mount
But how? How will the Kingdom of God be brought about? What needs to happen next to bring about the full flowering of the Kingdom? Well, the answers are contained in the three full chapters of Matthew’s Gospel which we know as the Sermon on the Mount - chapters 5, 6 and 7. Perhaps more than any other text in the gospels, when we want to understand what it means to say ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven...’ this is where we look.
Those who compiled and edited the work which has come down to us as the Gospel According to Matthew brought it into existence around 50 years after the death of Jesus. These compilers had an agenda: they wanted to use every method they could find to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people, principally because they were writing their gospel for the Jewish followers of Jesus. So, whenever they could delve back into the Jewish scriptures and link ancient references to the Messiah to events in the ministry of Jesus, they did so to support their contention that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
So when Matthew describes Jesus going part way up a mountainside, and delivering an extended block of teaching which radically reinterpreted how God’s Law would bring about the coming of God’s Kingdom, Matthew is effectively saying, ‘Here is the new Moses, on a new Mount Sinai, delivering a new vision of the Law, and leading the people of God into a new world of justice and peace. And what better credentials to be the Anointed One of God - in Matthew’s tradition - than to be acknowledged as the new Moses, the successor to the one whom God uniquely blessed and empowered in the past and who was appointed to deliver the Law to the people.
Today we only heard the very first part of the Sermon on the Mount. We shall hear other parts of it on the next few Sundays until the start of Lent in early March. And we *need* to hear other parts of it because they amplify and expand the meanings behind the short sayings we heard today. In a sense, these sayings are the headings for deeper teaching which is to follow. But above all else, they confirm one thing: this reformation of God’s Law by the New Moses is going to be radical, challenging, and perhaps even revolutionary - so revolutionary that the civil authorities will seek to kill it off by killing those who promote it.
The translation we used in our reading today begins each statement with the word ‘happy’:
- Happy are the poor in spirit…
- Happy are those who mourn…
- Happy are the meek…
More frequently in other bible versions you will find that each statement starts with the word ‘blessed’:
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…
- Blessed are the merciful…
- Blessed are the pure in heart…
Another commentator argues that the best translation of the original Greek is ‘How honourable’:
- How honourable are the peacemakers…;
- How honourable are those who are persecuted for my sake...
But whichever word is used, and whatever phraseology is chosen, the sense of these powerfully affirming words is that these are the new commandments from the new Moses, and they will be the new ethics of a new kingdom.
This is poetic and visionary writing, and the vision seems to come into focus more clearly if we take the statements as a whole, rather than try to deconstruct each one to discover its meaning. Each statement is related to the others, and they build on one another. And when you do stand back and consider the vision as a whole, you can shape these characteristics of God’s Kingdom into three essential principles: simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.
Through these three principles we can be in the world without being totally shaped by it. By choosing simplicity over complexity in our dealings with the world, we have a better chance of being honest, open and moral in our choices. The more we avoid the tangled webs of deceptions, delusions, and self-delusions, the more likely we are to avoid intrusive or destructive actions in the lives of other.
By remaining hopeful about our world, our communities, and ourselves, rather than resorting to a cold, self-centred cynicism about the world around us, we hold on to our vision of the new kingdom and allow it to come a little closer with each positive action.
By showing compassion for others we connect with the heart of Jesus’s teaching. Henri Nouwen describes compassion as something which “grows with the inner recognition that your neighbour shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.” [Henri Nouwen, With open minds. New York: Ballantine, 1972]
So, there is our framework for our journey into the true meaning of the Kingdom of God. Whether we shall be happy, blessed, or honoured, we know that the core values which bring the Kingdom a little closer are inseparably bound up with justice, peacemaking, comfort for those who mourn, humility, meekness, mercy, purity of heart and courage in the face of persecution. And by upholding those values in our dealings with the world, our lives will be characterised by simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.
The journey of exploration continues for the next few weeks. Jesus has more to say; we have more to learn; and the Kingdom of God is yet to come on earth as it is in heaven - as we shall shortly affirm for ourselves in words taken from the Sermon on the Mount.