Rather than providing just one sermon this month, we’re providing five! Going forward, we plan to provide four or five in each issue to help our pastors and other preachers implement a “best practice” we’ve long advocated—preaching the RCL (the Revised Common Lectionary). As noted in an earlier article in Equipper from pastor Sam Butler, the RCL lists for each Sunday a set of related Scripture readings (lections). The sermon and other elements of worship then focus on one or more of these lections, as explained in an article on the Vanderbilt Divinity Library website:
The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of weekly lections… built around the seasons of the Church Year, and includes four lections for each Sunday, as well as additional readings for major feast days. During most of the year, the lections are: a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel reading….
The seasons of the Church Year reflect the life of Christ. Consequently, the Gospel lections for each Sunday provide the focus for that day. The other lections for a given day generally have a thematic relationship to the Gospel reading for that day, although this is not always the case. In Ordinary Time, the Revised Common Lectionary offers two sets of readings for the lessons from the Hebrew Bible. One set proceeds mostly continuously, giving the story of the Patriarchs and the Exodus in Year A, the monarchial narratives in Year B, and readings from the Prophets in Year C. In the other set of readings for Ordinary Time…the readings from the Hebrew Bible are thematically related to the Gospel lections [which]… come from one of the synoptic Gospels according to the following pattern:
- Year A – Matthew
- Year B – Mark
- Year C – Luke
- Readings from the Gospel of John can be found throughout the RCL.
In alignment with the worship calendar of the church in the West, the RCL begins each new year with Advent. The current year, stretching from Advent 2016 up to Advent 2017, is designated Year A. For a list of Year A lections, click here. For related Vanderbilt Divinity Library resources, click here and here, and click on the links below for additional resources related to sermons and other aspects of worship in sync with the RCL. (Note: we don’t necessarily endorse all the content on these sites.)
- Working Preacher
- Commentaries on the Revised Common Lectionary
- The Lectionary Lab
- re:Worship (resources for worship leaders keyed to the RCL)
- Sonnets for Sundays (poems keyed to RCL lections)
- Sermon Writer
- Sermons and Liturgies for Year A
- Major Dates of the Christian Year 2016-2017 (Year A)
Five sermons for January 8-February 5
If you’re not doing so already, we invite you to “take the plunge” and begin using the RCL this month. To help you do so, we’ve provided below five sermons that are synced to the Gospel lection assigned by the RCL to each of the next five Sundays. In writing these sermons, Ted Johnston (editor of Equipper) drew on various sources (adaptations of work by John Stott, in particular). Direct quotes, where they occur, are not attributed (though it is standard practice to provide attribution in written material, it’s awkward to do so in sermon manuscripts like these).
We welcome your comments on these sermons—perhaps you know of articles, videos, personal anecdotes, etc. that would make useful additions. To post your comments, use the “leave a reply” feature at the bottom of this page.
And now to the sermons, beginning with the one for January 8, which in the worship calendar celebrates the baptism of our Lord.
January 8, 2017
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29:1-11; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Sermon: Jesus’ Baptism and Authentication
In chapter three of his Gospel, Matthew explores the start of Jesus’ public ministry. He first tells of John the Baptist’s proclamation concerning Jesus, then gives an account of Jesus’ baptism, which includes authentication of Jesus as God’s Son, the Messiah. Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew 3:13-17 (NIV):
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
1. Jesus is baptized (3:13-15)
This is truly shocking—Jesus, God’s Messiah, coming to John and asking to be baptized! Jesus’ explanation for wanting to be baptized is cryptic, yet powerful, relating to the truth of who hes is, and the nature of his mission.
Who is this Jesus come to be baptized? None other than the eternal Son of God become human through the Incarnation. Jesus is fully God (divine), yet also fully human. Because he is God, the Creator and sustainer of all life, in his humanity he substitutes for and represents all people. He bears in himself our humanity with its fallen human nature. And now, representing us all, Jesus comes to receive John’s baptism of repentance.
Note to preacher: For more about Jesus bearing our fallen human nature, click here for a post on The Surprising God blog.
In Jesus’ baptism is the baptism of all humanity—a baptism our Lord says fulfills “all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). What does that mean? Jesus likely is using the word “righteousness” in the way Isaiah 53:11 speaks of people being made “just” (justified, made right) before God. In Jesus’ baptism, all humanity is baptized, a baptism picturing and anticipating Jesus’ death and resurrection by which all people are made just (justified, forgiven, reconciled, made right) in God’s sight.
2. Jesus is authenticated (3:16-17)
Next (Matt. 3:16-17), Jesus’ person and ministry are authenticated (confirmed) from heaven. As Jesus comes up from the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the form of a dove. Then a voice from heaven is heard—it’s the voice of the Father: “This is My Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” These words echo Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 (and see Ephesians 1:6 and Colossians 1:13). God will repeat these words about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5).
In this amazing, powerful scene, we find the presence and activity of all three Persons of the Trinity: the Father who speaks of his Son, the Son who is being baptized, and the Holy Spirit who descends on the Son as a dove. This sequence verifies for John the Baptist that Jesus truly is the Son of God (John 1:32-34), for it fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that the Spirit would rest on the Messiah (Isaiah 11:2; 42:1; 61:1), ushering in the Messianic age. A new day has dawned!
And so begins Jesus’ public ministry (and we’ll learn more about that launch next week). Jesus, God’s Son, is the one who justifies all humanity in and through his own substitutionary, representative (theologians say “vicarious”) humanity. And that work includes his baptism on our behalf.
Next Sunday (January 15) our Gospel reading will be John 1:29-42, where we’ll learn more about the Jesus’ true identity—he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Stay tuned!
Note to preacher: For additional material related to the baptism of Jesus, click here for a post on The Surprising God blog.
January 15, 2017
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Sermon: Jesus: Lamb of God and Messiah
In the first part of his Gospel, John proclaims Jesus to be divine: fully God. John makes this proclamation by giving seven names/titles for Jesus. He begins with Word, Light-Life and Son of God. And now in our Gospel passage for today, he gives two more: Lamb of God and Messiah.
1. Jesus—Lamb of God (1:29–34)
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
Suggested musical interlude:
Back in John 1:29, it’s the day after Jesus’ baptism (which we looked at last week in Matthew’s account). And now Jesus is being identified as “the Lamb of God,” a title he will repeat the next day (John 1:35–36). In one sense, the message of the Bible can be summed up in this title. The question in the Old Testament was, “Where is the lamb?” (Genesis 22:7). In the four Gospels, the emphasis is, “Behold the Lamb!” And after you have placed your trust in him, you sing with the heavenly choir, “Worthy is the Lamb!” (Revelation 5:12).
Alternate suggested musical interlude:
The people of Israel were quite familiar with sacrificial lambs. At Passover, each family had to have a lamb; and during the year, two lambs were sacrificed each day at the temple altar, plus all the other lambs brought for personal sacrifice. Those lambs were brought by men to men, but here is God’s Lamb, given by God to men! Those lambs could not take away sin, but the Lamb of God can. Those lambs were for Israel alone, but this Lamb would shed his blood for the whole world.
In the New Testament, baptism is by immersion and pictures death, burial and resurrection. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus (we looked at that last week), Jesus and John were picturing the “baptism” Jesus would endure on the cross when he would die as the sacrificial Lamb of God (Isaiah 53:7; Luke 12:50). It would be through death, burial, and resurrection that the Lamb of God would “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
Perhaps John the Baptist was mistaken. Perhaps he was not sure that Jesus of Nazareth was the Lamb of God or the Son of God. But the Father made it clear to John just who Jesus is by sending the Holy Spirit like a dove to light on him and remain. What a beautiful picture of the Trinity!
2. Jesus—Messiah (1:35–42)
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).
In John 2:1 the wedding at Cana is said to have occurred “on the third day” in what John seems to allude to as “New Creation Week.” Since Jewish weddings traditionally were held on Wednesdays, by counting backward we can infer (though we can’t be sure) that Jesus’ baptism occurred on a Sunday (the same day of the week as Jesus’ resurrection on Easter). Then the next day (Monday), Jesus is busy gathering his disciples. The public ministry of God’s Messiah is now underway (and we’ll see more about that launch in Matthew’s account next week).
Two disciples of John the Baptist begin to follow Jesus: John (writer of this Gospel) and his friend Andrew. John the Baptist was happy when people left him to follow Jesus. As John states, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). When Jesus asked these new disciples of his, “What are you seeking?” He was leading them to define their purposes and goals. Were they looking for a revolutionary leader to overthrow Rome? Then they had better join the Zealots! Little did Andrew and John realize that day how their lives would be transformed by Jesus, the Son of God.
“Where are you dwelling?” may have suggested, “If you are too busy now, we can visit later.” But Jesus invited them to spend the day with him and no doubt told them about his mission, revealed their own hearts to them, and answered their questions. They were so impressed that they found their brothers and brought them to Jesus. Andrew brought Simon (Peter).
“We have found the Messiah!” was the witness Andrew gave to Simon his brother. Messiah is a Hebrew word that means anointed, and the Greek equivalent is Christ. To the Jews, it was the same as Son of God. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed and thereby set apart for special service. Kings were especially called God’s anointed (1 Samuel 26:11; Psalm 89:20); so, when the Jews spoke about their Messiah, they were thinking of the king who would come to deliver them and establish the kingdom.
There was confusion among the Jewish teachers as to what the Messiah would do. A few saw him as a suffering sacrifice (as in Isaiah 53), but most saw a splendid king (as in Isaiah 9 and 11). Jesus had to explain even to his own followers that the cross had to come before the crown, that he must suffer before he would enter his glory (Luke 24:13–35). Whether or not Jesus was indeed the Messiah was a crucial question that challenged the Jews in that day (John 7:26, 40–44; 9:22; 10:24).
Simon’s interview with Jesus changed his life. It also gave him a new name—Peter in Greek (Cephas in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke)—both meaning a rock. It took a great deal of work for Jesus to transform weak Simon into that rock, but he did it! “You are…you will” is a great encouragement to all who trust Christ. As his disciples, Jesus gives us “power to become” who we, in him, truly are (John 1:12 KJV).
January 22, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Sermon: Jesus Launched Into Public Ministry
In Matthew chapter 3, Jesus is baptized for all humanity, anointed by the Spirit for his ministry to all humanity, and accredited by the Father as his Son with authority over all humanity (and all the cosmos). Then in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus is led by the Spirit to be tested in the desert, further preparing him for his ministry and further accrediting him as God’s Messiah. Then in the second half of chapter 4, which we’ll look at today, Jesus is launched in the power of the Spirit into his now public ministry. His first task is to call his first group of disciples. Let’s walk with Jesus:
1. Jesus moves to Galilee (4:12-16)
12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali– 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– 16 the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
Jesus does not enter fully into his official public ministry until John the Baptist is imprisoned (Matt. 14:3). When Jesus learns of John’s imprisonment, he leaves his hometown of Nazareth and settles further north in Capernaum in the region settled in the time of Joshua by the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 9:1-2) that light would come to this region, and Matthew sees Jesus’ coming to Capernaum as fulfilling that prophecy.
This light of the Messiah comes to both Jews and Gentiles, as evidenced by the name given the region: “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15), an area geographically, politically and culturally cut off from Judea. Its people were regarded by Judeans as uncultured and irreligious, leading to strained relations between the regions. As a Galilean, Jesus is viewed as virtually a foreigner in Jerusalem.
Galilee now becomes headquarters for Jesus’ public ministry—one well-received by the Galilean masses. In contrast, Jerusalem, in Judea, became the place of the Messiah’s rejection and death. Matthew intentionally contrasts Galilee and Judea throughout his Gospel, culminating in the return of the resurrected Jesus from Jerusalem to Galilee where he launches his post-Easter Christian mission that will be accomplished in and through the church of which we are a part (Matthew 28).
2. Jesus’ proclamation (4:17)
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
From that time is a key phrase in Matthew used to signify a new phase in Jesus’ ministry. Here Jesus begins to preach publicly and his message picks up where John the Baptist’s left off—declaring that the kingdom of heaven is near and calling people to repent. To declare the nearness of the kingdom is to claim that the rule of God is being made effective. That, of course, is because King Jesus is present and is being made known. How will the people respond? That is the question.
3. Jesus calls his first disciples (4:18-22)
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Jesus now begins to assemble what we’d call his “ministry team.” It was common for Jewish Rabbis to call disciples to follow them. And here Rabbi Jesus calls two pairs of brothers, both fishermen by trade. He calls them to leave this vocation and join him as “fishers of men”—winning new subjects of God’s rule (kingdom). We see here the complete commitment that being a disciple (follower) of Jesus entails.
Conclusion: summary of Jesus’ ministry (4:23)
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.
Our passage concludes with this important footnote, highlighting the prominent place of healing in Jesus’ ministry (an important sign that he truly is God’s Messiah). These miracles mark a significant advance beyond the ministry of John the Baptist. The power of the kingdom of heaven, to which John looked forward, is now being experienced in Jesus’ distinctive, miraculous actions.
The Messiah is at work; now everything will change!
January 29, 2017
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon: The Beatitudes
As we continue in Matthew’s Gospel, we come to Jesus’ well-known, but not always well-understood Sermon on the Mount. Its first section is referred to as The Beatitudes. Let’s read today’s passage:
1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Some see this as Jesus giving a new law, but that is not the case. Jesus is declaring his gospel—the truth of who he is, and the blessings his followers experience as they share, by the Spirit, in his living and loving. Jesus’ words are thus first (and foremost) about himself, and his perfection, not ours. Jesus does not say “blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit.” Rather the poor in spirit are somehow “blessed” in spite of, and in the midst of their deplorable spiritual poverty. They are blessed because the rule of the kingdom has moved redemptively upon and through them by the grace of Jesus, and as a result, they are now sharing in Jesus’ own blessedness. So the beatitudes are about the gifts of God’s grace in and through Jesus, not the fruit of human effort or the rewards given for human achievement.
The ancient church leader and preacher Chrysostom referred to the beatitudes as a golden chain—a progressive experiencing and manifesting of Christ’s own life—one blessing leading to the next as the Spirit draws a follower of Jesus ever deeper into experiencing Jesus’ life and love. The first four beatitudes describe the Christian’s relation to God, while the second four describe their relations and duties to fellow humans.
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In the Old Testament, a “poor man” is one afflicted and thus unable to save himself, and who therefore must look to God alone for salvation, recognizing he has no claim upon God. This sort of spiritual poverty is commended in Isaiah, for it is “the poor and needy,” who “seek water” where none exists, to whom God opens “rivers on the bare heights” (Isaiah 41:17-18). Yes, to be “poor in spirit” is to be truly impoverished, but it also means being able to acknowledge that spiritual poverty before God, knowing that we have nothing to offer, nothing to plead, nothing with which to buy or in any way earn God’s favor. It’s as one of the verses in the hymn Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me proclaims:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless come to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
God’s kingdom rule, which brings salvation, is an absolutely free, utterly undeserved givt. It is gratefully received with the dependent humility and enthusiasm of a little child. Thus, at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, here in these Beatitudes, Jesus contradicts many of the popular expectations of the kingdom of God as it was viewed in his day (and sometimes still in ours). The kingdom is given to the poor, not to the rich; to the feeble, not to the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to soldiers who boast they can obtain it through their own prowess. Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
2. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
One might translate this sentence, “Happy are the unhappy” to draw attention to the startling paradox it contains. What kind of sorrow brings the joy of Christ’s blessing? The context suggests that the ones being promised comfort are those who mourn the loss of their own righteousness—the standing with God they thought they possessed by virtue of their own efforts or goodness or pedigree.
This second beatitude flows from the genuine repentance implied in the first. It’s one thing to be spiritually poor and acknowledge it, but another to grieve and mourn over it. In Luke’s version, Jesus says “Woe to you who laugh now” (Luke 6:25). Jesus wept over the sins of others, over their bitter consequences in judgment and death, and over the impenitent city that would not receive him. We are called to share in Jesus’ weeping over the evil in the world and within ourselves. We remember Paul’s anguished cry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Such mourning will be comforted by the only comfort that can relieve the distress, namely the free forgiveness of God. Matthew wants us to remember that in the Old Testament one of the Messiah’s offices is said to be “consolation.” The Messiah will be the “Comforter” who will “bind up the broken hearted” (Isaiah 61:1). That’s why godly men like Simeon looked and longed for “the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Look to Jesus, you who join with him in mourning, and you will find comfort!
3. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The word in Greek translated meek means gentle, humble, considerate, courteous, and therefore possessing the self-control without which these qualities are impossible. Jesus called himself “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). But what sort of gentleness is this, on account of which those sharing in Christ’s meekness are said to be blessed? Note how in this list of beatitudes “the meek” come between those who mourn over sin, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Evidently the meekness referred to here has to do with that sequence. It’s about holding a true view of oneself expressed in attitudes and conduct with respect to others. The truly meek person is amazed that God and people can think of him as well as they do and treat him as well as they do. This person, therefore, shares in Jesus’ own gentleness, humility, sensitivity, and patience. Perfectly? Well, not me. But then we’re on a journey with Jesus.
Whereas one would expect the opposite, Jesus says these meek people will “inherit the earth.” In our fallen world, it’s often the overbearing who get the goods, not those sharing in the meekness of Jesus. But though they might be deprived and disenfranchised by people, the meek know what it is to live and reign with Christ, where they enjoy and even “possess” the earth, which belongs to Christ. On the day of Christ’s return in glory, there will be “new heavens and a new earth” for them to enjoy (Matthew 19:28; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). Come Lord Jesus!
4. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Followers of Jesus share in their Lord’s hungering and thirsting for righteousness. The supreme ambition of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual, not material. Rather than being engrossed in pursuing possessions, they share with Jesus in his commitment to “seek first the kingdom” with its kingdom righteousness (Matthew 6:33). What is this righteousness? It is Christ himself, for he is our life (Romans 9:30-10:4).
5. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Mercy is compassion for people in need. Jesus does not specify the categories of people he has in mind here, but there was no need to elaborate. Our God is merciful and shows mercy continuously, and the citizens of his kingdom share in that mercy. When it’s being true to its fallen nature, the world is unmerciful, preferring to insulate itself against the pains and calamities of people and the rest of creation. It finds revenge delicious, and forgiveness, by comparison, a sign of weakness.
But those who share in Jesus’ mercy will find it. “How blest are those who show mercy; mercy shall be shown them” (NEB). The same truth is echoed in the next chapter: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14 NRSV). This is not because we merit mercy by being merciful, or forgiveness by being forgiving. We don’t do either one of those as well as we should. Instead, through repentance, our hearts are opened wide to receive (experience) the mercy and forgiveness that God has extended to us already in Christ. Nothing moves us to forgive others like marveling at the fact that we ourselves have been forgiven. Nothing proves more clearly that we have been forgiven than our own readiness to forgive.
To forgive and to be forgiven, to show mercy and to receive mercy– these belong together, and are found in Jesus, just as our Lord illustrated in his parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Interpreted in the context of the beatitudes, it is the meek who are also the merciful. For to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners, and to be merciful is to have compassion on others, for they too are sinners.
6. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
In biblical imagery, a pure heart is a single-minded heart, and stands parallel to the single eye Jesus mentions in Matthew 6:22 (AV). To be pure in heart is thus to be free of falsehood in dealings with God and with other people. In Psalm 24:4, the person with “clean hands and a pure heart” is one “who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully.” Thus the pure in heart are “utterly sincere” (JBP). Their whole life, public and private, is transparent before God and other people. Their very heart (thoughts and motives) is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them—they are without guile. This is who Jesus is, and in communion with him who we (by his grace) are becoming. Yet how few of us are truly that way? We are tempted to wear a different mask and play a different role according to each occasion—the essence of hypocrisy. Alone among humans, Jesus was (and is) absolutely pure in heart—entirely guileless. In union with him, by the power of his Spirit, we share in his purity of heart. And through the singleness of Christ’s heart (his “single eye”) we are able to “see God.”
7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
The sequence of thought from purity of heart to peacemaking is natural, because one of the most frequent causes of conflict is intrigue, whereas openness and sincerity are essential to true reconciliation. Jesus is the great Peacemaker, and as his followers, we are instruments of his peace.
True, Jesus says later that he came “not…to bring peace, but a sword,” for he came “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matt. 10:34-36.). What he meant was that conflict is the inevitable result of following him, even in one’s own family, as we seek to put him first in all things (Matt. 10:37). However, it’s clear throughout Jesus’ teaching that we should never seek conflict or be responsible for it. On the contrary, we are to “strive for peace with everyone,” and so far as it depends on us, “live peaceably with all” (1 Cor. 7:15; 1 Pet. 3:11; Heb. 12:14; Rom. 12:18).
Peacemaking is divine work, for peace means reconciliation, and God is the author of peace and reconciliation. The same verb used in this beatitude for us is applied by the apostle Paul to what God has done through Christ. Through Christ, God was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things… making peace by the blood of his cross.” Christ’s purpose in doing so was to “create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” (Col. 1:20; Eph. 2:15). It’s hardly surprising therefore that the particular blessing that attaches to peacemakers is that “they will be called children of God.” For they are seeking to be agents of the Father’s gift of reconciliation in Christ—loving people with Jesus’ own love, as our Lord makes clear in Matt. 5:44-45. It’s the devil who is the troublemaker—the one who is the destroyer of peace. The God who loves reconciliation and has accomplished it in and through his Son, is advancing his peace through his children who are following his Son. Thus as disciples of Christ, we pursue peace and reconciliation in every way possible—which includes asking our heavenly Father to change hearts supernaturally so that true peace may be achieved.
Suggested musical interlude (in the words of Francis of Assisi’s prayer):
8. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Though we join Jesus in working for peace with all people, some refuse to live at peace with us. Indeed, some people will take the initiative to oppose us, and in particular to “revile” or slander us (Matthew 5:11 KJV). This is not because of our foibles or idiosyncrasies, but “for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10 KJV) and on “my [Christ’s] account” (Matthew 5:11 KJV), that is, because they find distasteful the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst (Matthew 5:6), and because they have rejected the Christ we seek to follow. Persecution typically results from the clash of two irreconcilable worldviews.
How does Jesus expect his disciples to react to such persecution? We are not to retaliate like unbelievers, nor sulk like children, nor lick our wounds in self-pity like dogs, nor just grin and bear it like Stoics, still less to pretend we enjoy it like masochists. Instead, we are to rejoice (Matthew 5:12), even “leap for joy” (Luke 6:23). Why? Jesus gives these reasons:
- We rejoice because “great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). Though we may lose many things on earth, we will inherit everything in a new heaven and earth—not as a reward for our merit, but because the promise of the reward is free.
- We rejoice because persecution is a token of our genuineness, “for in the same way they persecuted the prophets” (Matthew 5:12).
- We rejoice because our suffering is on account of our loyalty to Jesus and his standards of truth and righteousness (Matthew 5:10-11).
It’s important to note that persecution is considered a blessing like the rest of the beatitudes. Indeed, it is a double-beatitude, for Jesus first states it in the third person like the other seven: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness” sake (Matthew 5:10), then repeats it in the direct speech of the second person: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:11). Since all the beatitudes describe what Jesus is (and does) and thus what his followers will experience in their life with him, we conclude that the condition of being despised and rejected, slandered and persecuted, is as much a normal mark of Christian discipleship as is being pure in heart or merciful.
Sharing in Christ’s love and life, every Christian is a peacemaker, and that will often bring about opposition. As Jesus says here and elsewhere, those who hunger for righteousness will suffer for the righteousness they crave. It has been so in every age. We should thus not be surprised when it happens in ours. Following Christ means sharing his sufferings. To do so is a joy and a token of his grace.
These eight beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of Christ himself, and thus of those who follow him, sharing, through the Spirit, in his living and loving. Jesus, of course, is perfect in these characteristics and we are not (though he is leading us to deeper experiences of who he is and what he does). Jesus congratulates those whom the world most pities, and refers to those the world rejects as “blessed.” Jesus holds up as the ideal a little child and bids us become, in and with him, as one of them.
Jesus, we are blessed simply because we are children of your Father. Come Lord, by your Spirit transform us more and more into your likeness—the likeness of the one and true Son of God. Amen.
February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Cor. 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Sermon: Kingdom Influence and Kingdom Living
Today we continue with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If in the beatitudes Jesus describes who he is, and how citizens of his kingdom participate in and express who he is (his character), then the passage in Matthew we’ll look at today indicates how that participation influences the surrounding world. Let’s read together the first part of today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 5:13-16).
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 underfoot. 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 others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Perhaps in looking at the beatitudes last week you wondered, what lasting good in the world can the poor and the meek do; the mourners and the merciful; the peacemakers? What can they accomplish whose only passion is an appetite for righteousness, and whose only weapon is purity of heart? Are not such people too feeble to achieve much of anything?
Well, Jesus is a realist—but his reality turns the “unreal” world on its head. Jesus’ way is decidedly counter-cultural. His kingdom clashes with the kingdoms of this world. But note this—his kingdom, his personal presence, always influences the world for good. That is his modus operandi-–that is what he does, because that is who he is. And he invites us to walk with him in his way, sharing his life, including his mission of serving and saving the world.
Incredible as it may sound, Jesus says that a handful of Palestinian peasant disciples in the 1st century, and a handful of comparative nobodies in this century, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus is describing their profound (though often unseen) influence using two domestic metaphors. Every home, however poor, used (and still uses today) both salt and light. During his own boyhood, Jesus must often have watched his mother use salt in the kitchen and light the lamps when the sun went down. There is a powerful message here for us to consider.
1. You are the salt of the earth (5:13)
This point is straightforward, with salt apparently being referred to in its vital role as a preservative in the era before refrigeration. When the world is true to its (fallen) nature, it decays like rotten fish or meat, and when the church (“you” here is plural) is true to its (redeemed) nature, it hinders that decay. God has set other restraining influences in the world, including certain institutions that, in his common grace, curb selfish tendencies and prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Chief among these are the state (with its authority to frame and enforce laws—see Romans 13) and the home (including marriage and family life). By God’s grace, these exert a wholesome, stabilizing influence in the world. Nevertheless, God intends the most powerful influence for good in the world to be the personal presence of Jesus in and through his followers—those actively sharing Jesus living and loving in the world.
Note, however, that the effectiveness of salt as a preservative is conditional: if it loses its saltiness it loses its preserving qualities. So too for Christians: “Have salt in yourselves,” says Jesus on another occasion (Mark 9:50). Jesus himself is this salt—the preservative of humankind and as we share in his living and loving we are part of the solution to the world’s ills. But as we embrace worldly values and display sinful behaviors, our influence for good is diminished.
2. You are the light of the world (5:14-16)
Though Jesus says we are the light, remember that he says later, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Thus we understand that our light is derivative—it is from the Lord, reflective of his glory, making us, in Christ, like stars in the night sky (Phil. 2:15). This life-giving light, says Jesus, is manifested to the world in and through our “good works.” When others see those works, he says, they will “give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” What are these good works? It seems that the expression covers everything a Christian says and does that somehow reflects the life-giving light that Christ is for a dark and dying world. Good works are the visible expression of Jesus himself, and include deeds of compassion as well as our verbal testimony to the truth and joy of Jesus’ kingdom presence in our lives. The Old Testament prophecy that God’s Servant would be “a light to the nations” is said to have been fulfilled not only in Christ himself, the light of the world, but also by Christians who bear witness to Christ (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6; Luke 2:32; Acts 26:23, 13:47). With this in mind, we should consider evangelism as one of the “good works” by which our light is to shine, thus glorifying our heavenly Father.
As with the salt, so the light, where the affirmation is followed by a condition: “Let your light…shine before others.” We must allow the light of Christ within us to shine out from us, so that people may see it. We are not to be like a town or village nestling in a valley whose lights are concealed from view, but like “a city set on a hill,” which “cannot be hid” and whose lights are clearly seen for miles around. Again, we are to be like a lighted lamp—“a burning and shining lamp,” as John the Baptist was called (John 5:35)—one set on a lampstand in a prominent position so that “it gives light to all in the house,” and is not stuck “under the meal-tub” (NEB) or “under a bucket” (JBP), where it does no good.
Our calling is to be true to who Christ in us is—openly allowing our actions and words to point people to Christ. People will recognize that it is by the grace of God that we are what we are, that “our” light is really “his” light, and that “our” works are really “his” works being done in and through us. So it is the light they will praise, not the lamps that bear it.
3. Kingdom living, part 1 (5:17-20)
Note to preacher: You may want to omit this part of the sermon if needed to save time.
Now we come to the second part of our Gospel passage for the day. To understand it, we must remember that Matthew’s purpose is to show his Jewish audience that Jesus is the promised Messiah—prophesied to descend from father Abraham through King David. Furthermore, this kingly Messiah is the prophesied Savior as noted in Matt. 1:21-23:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” which means, “God with us.”
With Jesus’ arrival, the promised kingdom has appeared (Matt. 4:17):
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
And then Jesus calls his 12 disciples, and begins his work (Matt. 4:23-25):
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 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. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
In Matthew 5, the scene changes as Jesus goes up on a mountain and teaches his disciples. Beginning with the beatitudes, he talks about the way that he is, and the way in which his followers will be blessed by sharing his living and loving in the world. Then he tells these formative citizens of his emerging kingdom that they are the salt and the light of the world, and then comes a pivotal passage: Matthew 5:17-20. Let’s read it together:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does this say about kingdom life and about Old Testament law? Notice what follows in Matt. 5:21-48 ─ Jesus illustrates what he has just said with several “You have heard…But I say” statements. In some cases (as with murder and adultery), he confirms but deepens the requirements of the old covenant. In others he overrides them as with divorce and swearing. Some of what he overrides are not precepts of the old covenant, but laws added by the scribes and Pharisees. So Jesus was not simply magnifying or clarifying the Law of Moses, nor was he abolishing it. Rather, he was showing what he, the Messiah, requires in contrast to what others (including Moses) required; and he sums it all up with the rather shocking statement in Matt. 5:48:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus requires of his disciples a standard that is far above and beyond what is being exemplified by the law-based righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Citizens of Jesus’ kingdom are to express a higher and deeper righteous—that of God himself! Now how on earth can that happen? Let’s explore Jesus’ statement phrase by phrase:
- “Do not think I have come to abolish….”
Why think that? Likely because the Jews thought in terms of Messiah ushering in a new age that would replace what they called the age of the Law. And in a sense they were right. But Jesus says that the emergence of the Messianic age through him does not mean abolishing (tearing down) the Law and Prophets, rather it’s a matter of its fulfillment.
- “…the Law or the Prophets.”
Many people think this passage is referring to the law (as in the Ten Commandments), but that is not the case—Jesus is referring to the “Law and the Prophets,” which is shorthand for the Old Testament (as in John 1:43-45 and John 10:34). Jesus says about these Old Testament scriptures:
- “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.“
Jesus shows that his arrival, his Messiahship, is not an abolishing of the Old Testament but the fulfillment of all it teaches. Jesus does this fulfilling in many ways, including by what is covered here in the Sermon on the Mount: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Jesus shows that the Old Testament has continuing validity and authority in certain ways which he specifies using two “until” phrases:
- “Until heaven and earth pass away.” This is a way of saying that the Old Testament is permanently valid ─ but how? The second “until” explains:
- “Until everything is accomplished.” All that the Old Testament points forward to, all that it calls for, will happen, down to the smallest detail. What is the timing of this accomplishment? Notice Luke 16:16-17 (REB):
“The Law and the Prophets were until John: since then, the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone forces a way in. It is easier for heaven and earth to come to an end than for one letter of the law to lose its force.”
Here Jesus speaks both of the continuing authority of the Old Testament and also a change to it once “everything is accomplished.” The New Testament tells about this accomplishment, which is monumental and changes everything—including the Law. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, a great transition occurred—from the Law and the Prophets to the kingdom—from the old covenant to the new covenant. On our side of this great transition, the Old Testament continues to have great authority, but in a new way. Jesus is the one of whom the Old Testament “testifies”; he has accomplished all that it speaks of. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets—all it contains. As the Old Testament prophesied, the Messiah came, fulfilled his mission, and as a result the old covenant law codes are now obsolete.
But how then are citizens of Jesus’ kingdom to live? Jesus, in his person, actions and teachings is the “law” of a Christian. In that sense, what the law codes of the Old Testament were to the old covenant, Jesus is to the new. And Jesus took great care to show that what he was teaching (his “commandments”) was not contrary to the Old Testament. What he taught, rather than abolishing the Old Testament, brought about its ultimate and final fulfillment. And so Jesus continues in Matthew 5:19:
“Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
What are “these commandments”? Is Jesus referring to commandments in the Law of Moses (such as the Ten Commandments), or to his own commands, which he is about to give? We must take into account the fact that Matt. 5:19 begins in Greek with the word “therefore” (unfortunately missing from some versions of the NIV). This word creates a direct connection between Matt. 5:18 and Matt. 5:19. Is it, “The Law will remain, so these commandments should be taught”? If so, that would imply that Jesus was talking about the Law of Moses. But there are commandments in the Torah that clearly are not applicable to Christians who don’t have to circumcise their children, build booths out of tree branches for the Feast of Tabernacles, and wear blue threads in tassels. Jesus cannot be saying we should teach all the laws of the Old Testament as applicable to his followers under the new covenant. Doing so would contradict the rest of the New Testament. More likely, the logical connection between Matt. 5:18 and Matt. 5:19 is focusing on “until everything is accomplished,” which is the closest phrase. The thought, then, would be like this: “All the Law will remain until everything is accomplished, and therefore (since Jesus did accomplish everything), we are to teach these laws—the laws of Jesus he is about to enumerate instead of the old laws he proceeds to critique.” This makes better sense in the context of the sermon, and the rest of the New Testament.
We conclude that it is Jesus’ commands that his followers should teach and obey under the new covenant (Matt. 7:24; 28:20). Jesus explains why: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). There is an ultimate righteousness that is the true expression (fulfillment) of all that the Law and Prophets spoke. And that perfection is found in one place only—Jesus himself. We then share in his perfection as we, by the Spirit, participate in his life and love.
And so we look to Jesus as the perfect expression of the entire word of God, including the Law and Prophets (the Old Testament). And we look to his words and the teachings of his apostles under the new covenant (preserved in the New Testament) to direct us in living in our Lord’s presence, enabled by the power of his Holy Spirit. With this revelation of the New Testament, we go to the Old to learn how it points us to Jesus ─ to the ultimate fulfillment and accomplishment of all we find in the Law and the Prophets. As we do, sharing in Jesus’ life and love, in the power of the Spirit, we become the world’s salt and light. Amen.