Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Amazed, But Uncommited – SOTM #25

How do we account for the fact that the huge crowd that heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount left “amazed at his teaching,” in Matthew’s words, but three years later only a handful of women, and possibly one apostle, stood within sight of the cross upon which he was being crucified?

Matthew concludes his description of the Sermon on the Mount with these words:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Law.

It is easy to misconstrue Matthew’s words and probably his intent, too. I believe most of us have done so at times. We can easily believe that he is saying, “The people left excited to try out their new ‘rules for living.’ They immediately became the community of saints that Jesus indicated should inhabit the kingdom of heaven. When confronted with insults they turned the other cheek. When asked to lend their cloak they offer their coat too. When required to go a mile they gladly went two. They became peacemakers in their communities.” In other words, like the wise man building his house on the rock, they put in practice the words that Jesus had taught them.

Probably not!

You see, Matthew did not say the crowds eagerly sought to become the kind of people Jesus portrayed as kingdom people. He said they were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught them. In other words they had heard a man who not only talked straight; he taught with the authority of one who knew what he was talking about. The crowd did not know that he had spent the night before in prayer to his Heavenly Father, but they sensed that there was something radically different in this man than what they heard each week in their synagogue. They were excited, perhaps expectant that Jesus might at last be that Messiah for whom they wished. They may even have been ready to accept a call to arms. But to “lay down their arms,” to “turn the other cheek,” to “love their enemies”? Not yet. Not this crowd.

Here, I think, we see part of the reason for the resistance to the Sermon on the Mount that I’ve noted over the years. The Jews who heard Jesus that day were excited by a man who “says it like it is,” very likely believing he would create the kind of kingdom on earth that they envisioned. They would, over the next three years, see that Jesus was serious about the kingdom he described in the Sermon on the Mount, and not at all interested in the kingdom they so ardently desired.

A winnowing would have to occur, a dying, not just of the Messiah, but also of the aspirations of those who would be his disciples. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me,” Jesus said. Those willing to “die” and be raised again with him, would then truly “hunger and thirst” for the kingdom of righteousness he had described to them. They would be eager for the image of Christ to be formed in them by the Spirit that he would send them.

When I see the multitudes that now flock to Christian meetings around the world, I have to think of that crowd on the mountain side. And I ask, “Do they hunger and thirst for the kingdom Jesus offers, or do they envision a Messiah who will establish a kingdom of their liking; one built on the principles of this world?” Are they committed to the principles of the kingdom of heaven, or are they enamored with the apparent “success” of the movement they are witnessing. Do they hunger and thirst for the righteousness the Spirit of God wants to build in them, or will they walk away when they learn that following Christ means entering into his suffering and bearing his cross daily? Is the way still straight and the gate still narrow that leads to eternal life? Are there still few who find it?

I’ve been using “they” in the previous paragraph but it should be “I”, because the message of this powerful sermon is as personal as any can be. What kingdom am I longing for – committed to? Would I prefer some kingdom other than that which Jesus declared was “at hand”? Am I willing to have the Spirit of God create in me the “fruit” appropriate for a citizen of the kingdom of heaven?

The answers to those questions determines whether I will simply be “amazed” at the message of the kingdom, or committed to it; whether I will seek some sort of sand on which to build my house, or build it on the rock of Jesus’ teaching.

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