Notes for the message based on Matthew 5:13-20; “A”–Epiphany 5

This week’s readings: Isaiah 58:1-9a ; Psalm 112:1-10 or UMH 833; 1 Cor 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

You can read these scriptures here:   NIV  //  ESV  // NRSV  // The Message

 

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When we think about the Sermon on the Mount, in our imagination we see Jesus standing in front of the crowd of people and preaching for a long-long-long time. In reality I think that the Scriptures that we call The Sermon on the Mount represent a period of days and maybe even weeks, during which time Jesus preached many messages rather than one long sermon. Over time, prior to Jesus’ words being written down, these messages were passed from generation to generation using oral tradition. In that process, as these messages were told and retold over many generations they were compressed and the resulting portion of the Gospel of Matthew — what we know today to be chapters 5, 6 and 7 — became collectively known as The Sermon on the Mount.

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We know what Jesus preached about during that revival; all we have to do is read those three chapters in Matthew. The question is, why did Jesus preached what he preached, why did he chose these topics? Matthew gives us a hint in the verses directly preceding the Sermon on the Mount (Chapter 4:23-25):

NIV Matthew 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

Before preaching at the revival, Jesus "went throughout Galilee," and healed "every disease and sickness." Matthew tells us that "large crowds" from nearby areas followed him. Jesus spent time with the people who followed him; he took the time to listen to their stories; he heard what was bothering them, what they thought was missing in their lives, and what they thought would help them to live better lives.

 

Jesus was preaching to men and women who were struggling with the reality of brutal oppression by Roman garrisons. Their land, their cities, even their religion was controlled by the Romans. To give you an example, the Jews of first century Palestine did not eat pork, yet from elsewhere in the Bible we know that there were herds of pigs in Israel ((Matthew 8:28-33; Mark 5:6-13; Luke 8:27-34)); presumably they were used to feed the Roman conquerors. From secular resources we know that there were heated arguments and debates about what the children of Israel could do to live productive lives that would honor their faith in God, their traditions and their history.

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The men and women whom Jesus addressed during that revival were struggling with questions as to how they could preserve their cultural and religious identity as a people called and set apart by God. That is why in that revival, Jesus spoke about such topics as how to forgive, how to create a healthy and productive environment in the home, how to be persistent in the face of adversity, how to make judgment calls without being judgmental, how to deal with anxiety, how to be a better person in trying circumstances. During that revival, Jesus taught his congregation how to be a follower of God, how to pray, how to live out their faith and devotion in the time and place where they lived. During that revival Jesus taught his congregation how to act justly, how to extend mercy and how to walk humbly with the God of Israel, enabling them to live better lives during their time in history and in their geographical place. During that revival, Jesus gave his congregation practical ways to learn more about their God, to grow in their love and devotion to their God, and to be in tune with God’s guidance on their lives. Today we would say that during the revival that we commonly call the The Sermon On The Mount, Jesus gave his followers practical guidance on how to be better men and women, how to translate their relationship and devotion to God into practice, and although the word "Christian" was not invented yet, he taught them how to be better "Christians."

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Although we live two thousand years after Jesus, we face our share of problems. Every generation does. Just like the men and women in first century Palestine, we struggle with what it means to be faithful followers of God, and what we can do to respond to the challenges that we face in our lives.

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Although we may not hear the boots of occupying garrisons on our streets, we struggle with the issue of control. Many families across our land live in anxiety because of an  "occupying force" in their lives called "credit." We may not think of it as "brutal oppression" but what would you call it when parents have to work two or three jobs to pay interest on their maxed-out credit cards and/or to pay the mortgage on their house while their children are left to fend for themselves and to raise each other? Debt is a form of slavery and oppression for our generation.

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In first century Palestine, there were heated arguments and debates about what the children of Israel could do to live dignified lives that honored their faith in God, their traditions and their history. If you wonder what those debates sound like today, just turn on CNN or FOX-NEWS during election time. We hear heated debates about the ways we could honor the "American Way of Life," or whether we should print "In God We Trust" on our money. We hear very different opinions as to what our country needs. Usually after the elections there is a stalemate in Congress and the House, “Red People” and “Blue People” blame each other for everything that is wrong in the universe. Meanwhile our health system is the most expensive in the world, a large number of children in this country graduate from high schools without learning how to read or write and without basic math skills, our national debt is rising, unemployment is ten percent, our young men and women serving in the armed forces risk their very lives in wars fought in faraway lands and you don’t want to get me started on energy costs and dependency on foreign oil.

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I don’t say all of this to depress you. The point I am making is that there is hope. There was hope for men and women who took the time to listen to Jesus 2000 years ago, and there is hope for men and women who take the time to listen to Jesus today.

The Sermon On The Mount is just as relevant to us today as it was to the men and women in first century Galilee. During that revival 2000 years ago, Jesus taught his followers the skills they needed to meet the challenges of their day, and He challenged them to transform their lives through their relationship with God. God does the same with us today by examples from Jesus’ life and ministry and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So what’s in it for us? What can we take from today’s Scriptures and how can we apply it to our lives?

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If you look at the Sermon On The Mount in your Bibles, you will discover that today’s reading is located between the Beatitudes that we explored last week, and teachings that look in depth at various pieces of the Law. Even a cursory look will reveal the rough equivalence of Jesus’ individual messages to the Ten Commandments. In today’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus tell to his congregation:

NIV Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

The truth is that we need to reclaim our "saltiness" and to re-light our light just as much as the men and women who lived in ancient Galilee. We need to rediscover what it means to grow in our love and devotion to God and how we can be in tune with God’s guidance on our lives. We need to learn those same practical lessons that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Men and women who listened to Jesus 2000 years ago changed the world, because they were with God. When we listen to God and work with each other and with God, all things are possible for us as well.

In the next few weeks we will explore the Sermon on the Mount in greater detail, and we will discover that Jesus was giving his hearers then, and as well as us today, practical advice on how to rediscover our "saltiness," how to re-light our light, how to meet the challenges of our day, and He challenges us to transform our lives through our relationship with God.

{Transition to the Holy Communion}

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