1. Our Happy Situation- Matthew 5:1-12
  2. So Are the Old Ways Obsolete? – 5: 17-19
  3. A Higher Standard – 5:20-44, selected verses
  4. Still A Happy Situation – 6: 26-34

In the third month after the Hebrew people had escaped their slavery in Egypt, in about 1250 BC, as they were crossing the wilderness, under Moses’ leadership, they came to a stop at a mountain called Sinai. And Israel set up camp there beside the mountain, as they were told by God, and awaited further instruction.

The Lord’s words came through Moses: “Three days from now the Lord will come down upon the mountain, and you must be prepared. Set up boundaries all around the mountain, and be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Anyone who touches the mountain . . . will be put to death.”

Three days passed, as the Israelites watched and waited, wondering what would happen. Then on that third day, thunder and lightning erupted, and a thick cloud descended on the mountain, and all the people in the camp trembled. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke, and the whole mountain shook, violently. And the people were afraid, and begged Moses to speak with God on their behalf, to get between them and God, so terrible were the fire and smoke and thunder.

So Moses went up on the mountain and there he received the Law, the many pages of instructions which would guide the people of Israel for the next several hundred years. And from the mountain, Moses brought God’s instructions to God’s people.

Our New Testament lesson begins today with the first two verses of Matthew 5. It immediately follows the passage we looked at last week, which concluded with a description of the large crowds who were drawn to Jesus as he began his ministry, some 1200 years after Moses’ trip up the mountain. {Matthew 5:1-2}

So Jesus went up the mountain too, to bring God’s instructions to God’s people. But this time, we see, for whatever reason, the mood is a little different. This time the Lord invites the people to come up on the mountain, instead of ordering them away. This time there is no fire, no smoke, no thunder, no earthquake. This time there is no fear, and no begging for someone like Moses to intercede. I suspect that one reason for this difference of approach is that the people of Jesus’ time had known of God their whole lives, while the people leaving Egypt were just being introduced. There was no need to instill in the Jews of Jesus’ time a healthy respect for God’s power; no need for a demonstration that God was Lord of all creation, the one who causes thunder, fire, and earthquakes—they already knew that. Whatever the reason, the mood is quite different.

Is the message different too?  Today we look at the teaching that Jesus brought from the mountain, and one of the questions we will be considering is: what is its relationship to the teaching that Moses brought from the mountain, and that was developed into a whole set of regulations known as the Law? Does Jesus’ instruction repeat Moses’? Change it? Improve upon it? Weaken it? Is the teaching from the mountain this time as different as the atmosphere in which it was done?

In the Gospel according to Matthew, this teaching from the mountain, the sermon on the Mount, is the first major teaching event of Jesus’ ministry. It is the first time Matthew tells us more than a sentence or two about what Jesus taught. It is also the most extensive teaching event presented by Matthew: 3 consecutive chapters summarizing the teachings of Jesus. This teaching, this sermon, is presented immediately after a passage summarizing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and becomes the next segment in our series on the events of Jesus’ life.

So what was it Jesus’ taught?  First of all {Matthew 5:3-12}:

I’ve described this section, in the bulletin outline, as “our happy situation.” It is known more famously, of course, as “the Beatitudes.” Those are the verses which begin with the word “Blessed.”

Jesus did not invent beatitudes. They are found frequently in the Old Testament, among other places, as we heard this morning in our verses from the Psalms: “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord,” and so on. The Old Testament says “Happy,” in our English translations; the New Testament says “Blessed”; and there really isn’t much of a difference, the way the words were intended. For “blessed” means here, as one examines the Greek word, the kind of happiness which flows from a right relationship with God. “Blessed” is a type of “happy.” You would not be far mistaken, in fact, if you wished to read the Beatitudes as “Happy are the poor in spirit,” and so on. “Blessed” is the kind of happiness which flows from a right relationship

with God.

Now “blessed” does not mean, necessarily, ease or comfort or physical pleasure—that kind of happy. As we can see from some of the verses: Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Terms we do not usually associate with happiness. The kind of happiness referred to here, rather, means the assurance of a glorious future, of life in the kingdom of heaven. This is the happiness of a person who knows they are assured of great things to come.

The best way to understand the verses might be to read them “Blessed are you even if you are mourning now, for you will be comforted.” “Blessed are you even if you hunger and thirst for righteousness now, because you will be satisfied.” “Happy are you even if you are persecuted, because you know the kingdom of heaven awaits you.” The Beatitudes are a happy announcement: Happy are we even if our circumstances at the moment aren’t good, because we have confidence in what is coming—a glory which will make any present hardships seem small. Happy are we because of our promised future.

So the Beatitudes are not a list of commandments and rewards. They do not say: Be poor in spirit. Be meek. Mourn. Try to get persecuted. So  you will earn good stuff. They say: Happy are you even if things are unpleasant now, because you know you will be part of a glorious future, since you are in a right relationship with God. The Beatitudes announce our happy situation. Happy are we, says this teaching from the mountain.

So how does this compare to the previous teaching on the mountain, the Law brought by Moses? That Law said, to put it simply, that God’s favor does depend on your doing good, doing what’s right, following the Law. Happy will you be only if you keep these commandments. Is Jesus contradicting the Law then? Nullifying it? Replacing it?—by making a happy announcement instead of a series of commands?

This is no doubt an accusation he faced. Jesus and his disciples were seen then by those who were dedicated to the Law as those who were breaking the sabbath, those who were lax in observing designated fasts, those who failed to perform ritual washings. And there are Christians today who say “I don’t read the Old Testament, because Jesus and the New Testament replaced it; it doesn’t matter anymore.” Here we had a religion, a way of worshiping God, that had worked for hundreds of years, a healthy religious tradition; a code of commandments that had been the traditional base of Israel’s life as the people of God. Is Jesus teaching, now, an abandonment of the Law? Is he saying that the old ways are obsolete?

The sermon on the mount continues {Matthew 5:17-19}:

And Jesus’ opinion seems quite clear: He isn’t replacing anything; he isn’t declaring anything obsolete. The laws are there just as surely as they’ve ever been. The law was given to Israel by God, and it continues to be valid for Jesus, and for all those who would follow him. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law”—or the writings of the prophets, for that matter. This teaching on the mountain does not displace Moses’ teaching on mountain; the Law is still

in effect.

In fact, we see next, rather than easing the requirements of the Law, Jesus is going to make them even stricter. Hear the next section of the sermon on the mountain {Matthew 5: 20-22, 27-28, 38-41, 43-44}:

Can it still be said that Jesus is easing up on the Law, being lax, being soft, lowering standards?

The passage begins, “Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees,” and say what you want about the attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees, the one thing they did know how to do was keep the Law. They tithed down to a fraction of a penny; exactly 10% of everything they received went to the church. They followed exactly the correct ways to wash one’s hands and arms so that no meal would be unclean. They could tell you precisely what could be done on the Sabbath and what couldn’t, and they never did what couldn’t. The scribes and Pharisees knew the Law, knew every detail, and didn’t break it.

So is Jesus saying we have to know the details even better than they do, be even more meticulous, more scrupulous, more conscientious, more . . . nitpicky?

Let’s look again at what he said: “Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Not . . . your nitpickiness. While the scribes and Pharisees were experts of following the details of the Law, maybe that’s not the essence of righteousness.

You’ve heard the saying “they couldn’t see the forest for the trees”? They were so busy looking at this tree all by itself, then this tree all by itself, then this tree all by itself, that they never stepped back and said, “Hey! There’s a forest here.” They were so caught up in the small picture, the individual details. Well that, apparently, was how the Pharisees were with righteousness. They couldn’t see what it meant to be righteous, for all the individual laws. They looked at this law all by itself, and this law all by itself, and this law all by itself, but never stepped back and said “What is this altogether? What’s the point?” And the point is, of course, to be righteous, to live right.

It’s the spirit of the Law that counts, Jesus was saying—the intent, the reason, the whole attitude, not just hundreds of little details. Instead of analyzing the penalties for murder and the types of murder and what counts as murder, the idea is . . . never hate anyone that much. Then the types and penalties and definitions won’t matter. Instead of defining the terms “neighbor” and “enemy,” and listing who counts as neighbor and enemy, and identifying who I’m allowed to hate and who I’m not, the idea is . . . try to love them all. It’s the spirit of the Law that counts, not just the letter.

And that doesn’t make following the Law any easier, any softer, does it? Following the Law, according to this sermon on the mountain, becomes even harder. Jesus calls us to a higher standard.

One more piece of Jesus’ sermon {Matthew 6: 26-34}:

Well this is confusing. Here we have on the one hand Jesus bringing news that the Law is still in effect and in fact is even harder to keep than we knew. We know we’re not keeping up with God’s standards. On the other hand he’s saying “Happy are we. Don’t worry. God’s kingdom is yours.” How can we be so happy and so free of worry and so confident of God’s care . . . when Jesus has just raised the standards so high for us to please God? How can Jesus say don’t worry about your future, happy are we, when we can’t possibly live up to God’s standards? How are we to ever earn the kingdom of heaven, as Moses’ law taught, when the standards are so high? How can we be happy?

Because, we find out later, the missing link, the other part of the announcement, is that we don’t have to keep the Law perfectly anymore to get to the kingdom of heaven. Yes the Law is still there, and yes it’s even harder than we had thought, and yes you still have to keep every part of it if you’re going to insist on earning your way into heaven. But the other new part of Jesus’ coming is that we don’t have to earn it anymore. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus reveals, is a gift from God now, a gift of love. The old way hasn’t worked, because no one could live up to it. So a new way, an additional way, has been established beside it: Accept God’s gift of the kingdom. And then make living righteously your grateful response to God’s gift.

Words of Paul probably provide the most succinct summary of the new situation: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, live in love, live as children of light, do what is pleasing to the Lord.” In gratitude for what God has done for us. In response. Because you love God, and want to do what is pleasing to God. The Law is still there, and still asks much of us. But our salvation no longer depends on it. Instead, it becomes our response.

So all the things which Jesus says in his sermon on the mountain do fit together: (1) The law is still there. (2) In fact, it’s harder than you knew. But God has given us the kingdom of heaven, and made the Law our grateful response instead of our qualifications, our admission ticket. SO: (3) happy are we. Do not worry. Blessed are we.

It’s hard for us to make that transition, just as it was hard for the scribes and Pharisees. We’re used to having to earn everything. Work hard, then you get the commission or the bonus. Work hard, then comes Miller time. Be good all year, then Santa Claus will bring you nice toys.

Jesus’ sermon on the mountain turns it around. The sermon on the mountain presents grandma and grandpa sending a gift first, hoping you’ll write a thank you note later, but not making you show it to them first. As disciples of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of heaven will be ours, and we try to please God in return. Blessed are we indeed.  {Matthew 7: 28-8:1}