Sermon for Epiphany 6
The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman
You have heard it said…
It may seem strange that Moses poses the question to the Israelites as to whether they wanted life and prosperity or death and destruction. Surely everyone would choose life and prosperity.
But Moses asks the question because choosing the option of life and prosperity which God now offered as the Israelites stood on the brink of the Promised Land also carried with it responsibilities of obedience, love and unswerving commitment to God’s ways. These had not been the strong points of the somewhat fickle Israelites so for as they travelled out of Egypt and around the desert for 40 years…
Moses is now asking them to be a mature people, a people of true faith, who can take responsibility for their future with God. Following God in a covenant relationship was no soft option and they needed to make a decision one way or another.
Paul picks this need for a mature faith up in many of his letters as we see in the Epistle reading for today. In his letter to the Corinthians he calls out the requirements for true Christian living and the need to focus on God alone, not on his messengers.
In Deuteronomy, the people come through the wilderness and arrive at the border of the Promised Land where God makes a covenant with them and lists the blessings and curses that would come upon them if they were obedient or disobedient.
Matthew shows Jesus coming up out of Egypt, through the wilderness of temptation and the water of His baptism, which took place around the same place as the Israelites entered into the Promised Land, as He Himself comes into the Promised Land. He then lives out the (New) Covenant which his birth inaugurates.
So in living out this New Covenant it’s not surprising Jesus speaks about the principles of living in a covenant relationship with God right at the beginning of His ministry. He outlines them in his discourse know as the Sermon on the Mount, from where today’s Gospel reading comes.
We’ve had the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…’ we’ve been instructed to be the salt and light of the earth, and that our righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees.
Today’s section is called the Six Antitheses, because the sections each contain the antithesis formula, ‘You have heard it said… …but I say to you’
Matthew is contrasting Jesus’ exposition of the true meaning of the Torah (law), and what they dynamic of living this out really means, with the more common, legalistic, ritualistic rabbinic understanding.
This is how our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees, by living out the true meaning of a covenant relationship with God, not by following just empty rituals or by going through some process which means we can tick a box called service, prayer, worship or some other topic or debate the minutiae of the sub clauses.
Living out the law and its precepts would involve a change and transformation of heart and mind, not just a nodding intellectual acquiescence, agreement and acknowledgement. This was radical stuff!
Rabbis would often use the form ‘It was said…’ in their discussions and debates about the law. Jesus mimics this and then expands it to add, ‘But I say to you…’, Not only did this take the normal structure further than the rabbis dared to do, it also implied an authority in Jesus which the rabbis did not have.
It is the Messiah’s interpretation of the law which is finally authoritative and brings it to fulfilment.
God had called the nation of Israel to be the salt of the earth and they had fallen short. Jerusalem, a city on a hill, was called to be the light of the world but it had become dim as it had become part of the darkness itself. And the sayings which originally applied to Israel now applied to all who would follow Christ.
Jesus not only teaches what we should be doing but gives practical examples of what this might look like in life. Be reconciled, make friends, love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and so on…
The topics covered range from direct quotations from the Ten Commandments, to topics addressed in the more general law and commandments of the Old Testament, and further to some which are more implied in the interpretation of the Torah.
Through them all, Jesus is calling the Israel of His day to be true to the Israel of God.
But Jesus is not just teaching about the Jewish law and how to understand it in all its fullness, He’s revealing a new way of being human, a new way of living, which really is the living out of our covenant relationship with God, in our case, through Jesus.
Jesus pioneered it, He invites us to follow.
For the Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about us, it isn’t just some piece of esoteric fine teaching. It’s about Jesus Himself.
The Sermon on the Mount was the blueprint for His life, the path He was to follow, the true modelling of a covenant relationship with the Father. In Jesus we see the reality of Emmanuel, God with us in person.
He would be killed at the instigation of those who taught that it was wrong to kill. His tunic and cloak were taken from Him at His trial. As He was crucified He forgave His enemies. On the cross He showed love unconditionally to all, not just those who were like Him or publicly acknowledged Him.
During His ministry He sought reconciliation for all, did all that he could to build up communities and break down barriers. He spoke out against the things which hindered reconciliation and strong community. His unconditional love showed no bounds.
The Sermon on the Mount is not just a discourse on how to live, how to truly fulfil the law and the prophets, it’s a prophetic insight into the life and ministry of the Messiah which was to follow.
It’s not just about how to live and behave, but about discovering the living and dying Jesus and how to reflect that love into the world that so badly needs it. How to live out the mature faith that a covenant relationship with the Father through the Son, empowered by the Spirit as we too follow God, as did the early Israelites.
And, as we can read in the gospels, Jesus asks nothing more of His followers than He has faced Himself.
He also asks nothing less of His followers either.