This is a sermon I wrote. You might recognize some of the text from earlier posts, thoughts from Derek Webb, and from the New Interpreter's Bible Commentary on Matthew (M. Eugene Boring). The text is Matthew 5:4-16. It's always a dangerous thing to let others see the manuscript of a sermon. It's quite a different result to read it than it is to hear it. But I thought I'd post this one. If you're near me (in KC), I can get you a digital video file of it for your computer .MPEG or .AVI. Just let me know.
We used to call him “the Jesus Guy”. My friends and I saw him all over the place throughout Boston and the Boston Metro area. He was one of those who wears a poster around his neck with a picture of Heaven and Hell with a cross bridging the gap between the two. He’s got really thick glasses that he’s probably had for decades. He rarely says anything. He wears a red hat that he obviously paid to get made or perhaps even made himself that says, “Jesus Saves” on it. He just walks around wherever crowds gather, sign hanging off his neck, handing out flyers or tracts about God. I went to Red Sox games, he was there. I went to Celtics games, he was there. I’d ride the “T”, as the subway in Boston is affectionately called, he was there. I went to Phish concerts 45 minutes away from Boston in Worcester, Massachusetts, he was there.
The situation is always the same. The best response he gets are those who actually take the tract and wait 15-20 feet before throwing it on the ground or in the nearest trash can. The more common response comes from people who simply ignore him, passing by without acknowledgment. But the worst ones are those who challenge him or yell at him. They swear at him to see what he’ll do. They shout, “Jesus Sucks!” They even push him. He just takes it all in stride, handing out his tracks.
We cannot let our American ideals modify what it means to follow Christ.
It's certainly not that I have never been guilty of this. I imagine that pretty much every Christian who lives in the United States has dealt with, is dealing with, or is ignorant to the fact that American ideals are watering down Christian ideals. Certainly, hope and peace come with Christ. The problem comes in our expectations of these promised words. It is easy to let the dreams and "hopes" of our society define biblical hope, peace, and blessings with results like financial success, career success, and family stability. Even further, we say that if we are doing "what we’re supposed to", we’ll be content in each of these life endeavors. Our hope and peace comes in Christ, not the practical and desirable results of a satisfactory life. Desire and need are not equivalent. (Those living in the United States, including myself, seriously have to consider what "need" is.) Following Christ has nothing to do with American ideals. American ideals have nothing to do with following Christ.
Do you know why we struggle today so much with the topic of sanctification? Because we struggle with accepting what really comes with selling out completely to Christ. Rather than sell out to Christ, in our hunger and expectation for the immediate, we sell out to happiness Christianity:
- We hear, “Victorious living” and think that, with Christ, we’ll always win, here and now.
- We hear, “Jesus is the hope” and think that hope is success here and now.
- We hear, “God rewards the faithful” and think that the reward should be seen now.
- We hear, “Make God your purpose and life will straighten out” and think that the way of the world and the success of the world defines the straight path.
- We hear, “Become people of faith and God will reward you”, only to put faith in the bank and money in our heart.
- We hear God’s promises of the future and expect them now.
There is a value system today that says that if something is going wrong for someone, then he or she is not living correctly. Similarly, the value system says that if a group of people – a family, an organization, or even a church – is experiencing “bad times”, then that group is doing something wrong or incorrectly, something must be modified in their behavior or policy. Something must be changed to bring better days.
Trouble in the Biblical World
But, the decision to follow Christ is filled with trial. It is to be expected. Jesus expected it and accepted the cup. The disciples were well-warned that it would come and experienced it. Paul knew it and experienced it. So when we say "Give to God and he will take care of you" it must be said with the realization and acceptance of the way of the cross.
The beatitudes declare an intentional reality as the result of God’s way – the way of the Cross – not subjective or personal feelings. God’s way cannot be redefined by people. Jesus is telling his listeners that his way is not the easy way.
It’s no wonder that the disciples were scared and shocked at the arrest of Jesus. They didn’t know what to do. It’s not what they expected. They expected the Messiah to come and rescue the world, making a kingdom in which everything is perfect, everyone is happy. Instead, a band of soldiers came and arrested him. He was beaten, whipped, mocked, spit at, derided, much to the fear and dismay of those who had been following him. And then he died a horrible death. Where is the glory in that? The glory comes later.
Christ’s Answer in the Biblical World
And we can see this in what Jesus says. It is good to note that the beatitudes come in two parts – “Blessed are the blank, for they will blank.” There are two verbs – “are” and “will”. “Are” is present tense, telling us of things that happen now. “Will” is future tense, alluding to what will happen later because of what is happening now.
The move to the future tense in the beatitudes (from “blessed is” to “for they will”) resists all notions that Christianity is a “philosophy of life” – a self-help method – designed to make people successful, content, satisfied, and calm today, in the present moment. So we often hear it preached or taught that “Jesus is the answer” or “Got problems? Get Jesus”, but following Christ is not a cure-all solution to make straight the path of life as defined by today’s value system. Following Christ is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance in one’s career, or preserve one from illness.
Following Christ does not give success here and now. Rather, just the opposite, following Christ is a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness is the way of God, that righteousness and peace will finally prevail, and that God’s future will be a time of mercy and not cruelty. So, blessed are those who live this life now, even when such a life seems foolish, for they will, in the end, be affirmed by God.
Then Christ gives his followers the analogies of salt and light to define who they are.
I want us to think of the phrase, “rubbing salt in someone’s wounds.” What does that mean? Have you ever put salt on a cut? If anything, it’s gonna get your attention. It hurts. It stings. It is not pleasant. It does not bring immediate relief, but rather pain and annoyance. But man, does it heal. Just as intense as the pain that it first brings, it brings a clean and pure healing.
And then there’s the analogy of light and the city on a hill. Light cannot easily be hidden. Imagine the city up on a hill at night. You can’t hide it. In the darkness, the individual lights from homes all corporately make a magnificent sight. Have you flown in an airplane at night and looked below you, especially as you approach your city of destination? It’s quite obvious where you are going. I love driving into and around Boston at night. It’s an incredible sight when you think to stand back and see it - thousands of lights all shining together as one.
And this is not simply our call, but who we are to be. We can’t hide our message. When we do, it ceases to be the message, the gospel.
There’s a story about Martin Luther that says the people of his parish came to him one time and asked, “Pastor, why is it that week after week all you ever preach to us is the gospel?” His response was, “Because week after week you forget it. Again and again you walk in here looking like a people who don’t believe or live the gospel.” This is also an indictment for us today.
We must realize that when we preach and teach the gospel, we are bound to experience trial.
Christ’s Answer for Today
In my mind, I used to question the “Jesus Guy” in Boston. I questioned his motives and his method, thinking, “No one’s listening to him, why’s he do that?” One time, my brother, in an attempt to encourage the guy, stopped and said, “Hey, we’re already Christians…” and before he could say anything else, the Jesus Guy said, “Oh, great, here, hand some of these out” and gave him a stack of tracts. But I questioned him in my mind. I wondered how he could waste so much time and money with nothing more in return than pushes and jeers. How ineffective his method was. All he was getting was derided and insulted and making it harder for people like me to bring any sense to the Gospel for the world today.
But now, as I think about it, I realize the Jesus Guy’s place – his hope. He is doing that to which he feels called, without thought of how he looks or what people might think. His hope is that someone – anyone – will hear the same message he knows. Sure, I can question his method - and I'm sure I probably question his theology - but I can’t question his motive. He readily accepts the derision and persecution and revilement on the account of Christ. He readily sacrifices his time and money, rejoicing in gladness for the reward in the terms of the kingdom of heaven, rather than the terms of the kingdoms on earth.
Now that I think about it, he kind of reminds me of the wild-haired, crazy people I read about in the Old Testament called prophets. Crazy people who eat locusts and honey and wear animal skin, crying out in the wilderness, “Make way for God.” “Prepare ye the way for the Lord.” For, in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you, they persecute you.
The joy to which followers of Christ are called is not in spite of persecution, but because of it. Rejoicing because of persecution is not the expression of a martyr complex or something to be sought out, but it is the joyful acceptance of the badge of belonging to the community of faith, the people of God who are out of step with the value system of this age.
Consider this today, “What does it mean for you to follow Christ?”