I believe it is critical as a preacher to find a way to connect the ancient context of Scripture with the modern reader. There is nothing in human history which is not a product of its time, so we miss out on amazing breadth and depth if we do not attempt to bridge that gap. I could spend several blogs on explaining the fascinating milieu of imperial power and messianic hope into which Jesus the itinerant teacher appeared…or I could just tell you to turn on the news.
A culture pressed and torn between the competing forces of past and future, tyranny and freedom. A religious hegemony in decline, desperate for a political machination which God can use to make their country great again while others clamor for a new and different future. A large crowd, fatigued and distraught, feeling increasingly left out by the elites and their power struggles, gathers in the hopes of hearing hope and promise in the words of one who would lead them.
Matthew tells us that in this eerily similar context Jesus delivered the set of teachings we remember as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whether you’ve never read it or see it frequently, I invite you to click the preceding link and read it unabridged. Between the theological content so central to Jesus’ mission and the way Matthew positions this distinctly at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, in a different time Matthew might have called this the announcement of Jesus’ candidacy and platform. That isn’t nearly as anachronistic as it sounds. Based on the surrounding culture, we can be sure that many gathered to hear Jesus saw him as a potential Messiah, the anointed hero of God who would restore Israel (and, as a natural consequence, remove the rule of pagan Rome). Their expectation of Messiah was decidedly political. Matthew’s telling has Jesus striding forward to declare candidacy for Messiah, but in a way the original audience likely never expected.
Jesus didn’t announce how to use the tools of empire to defeat empire. Jewish history was cluttered with the executed corpses of those who had proposed such a solution and found Rome waiting for them. His project was not limited to the restoration of a political kingdom; instead, Jesus was announcing the coming of a Kingdom built on humility and quiet service rather than pride. Its laws, familiar to the Jewish audience, were not heights of morality to which to aspire or a means to protect oneself but rather a minimum above which greater righteousness and selflessness could be achieved. Perfection, completeness, wholeness of the citizenry was to be the standard. The integrity of this Kingdom would be protected through counterintuitive sacrifice, not redemptive violence or revenge. Love would be its banner, and hope its song. And, as the disciples would eventually learn, this Kingdom lacked the borders of land or race, instead open to all who would come.
Jesus’ call runs just as counter-culturally today as in its original context. We prize wealth and power, looking up to those who possess them; Jesus warns against their entangling power lest we are possessed. We want to be able to fight back at those who hurt us; Jesus reminds us that greater goals await than our own personal vindication. We want to look out for ourselves and those like us. A prominent pastor even says he would run “as far as possible” from a candidate who echoed the Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus tells us that perfection like God in Heaven is found in love for all, even our enemies, and taking up a cross on their behalf.
Exactly a week before what may go down as the ugliest election in US history, we find ourself at November 1st, All Saints’ Day, on which the church pauses to remember those heroes of the faith who have gone before us. I find this timing to be too perfect to be ignored. The ranks of the saints are comprised of those who, across countless human boundaries and eras, heeded the call to stake the core of their identity on citizenship in this Kingdom above any other ties or unities which we humans have created. The leader who captured their allegiance didn’t rely on decades of prominence, nor did He arrive to announce Himself on a golden escalator. They realized our means of Kingdom and His means of Kingdom are mutually exclusive, not just different or auxiliary. Just as Jesus promised, the storms of life came. Projects built on human strength fell away, while the Kingdom endured. This is still true, right now. I tell you with surety that glory fades, the purest gold grows dim, and the administration of whomever wins on November 8th will turn to ash. But the Kingdom of Jesus goes on.