In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The One God. Amen.
For decades one of my favorite quiz programs on TV has been Jeopardy. I have always loved the final jeopardy question. For a long time I have wanted to write a final jeopardy category, and if I were given the opportunity to do so, the category would be “Mount/Mountains in the Bible.” And the final jeopardy answer would be: The mount in the Bible that is totally under sea level. I have also worked out in my mind’s imagination how the contestants would respond.
Jesus would have been a student of a rabbi, and the means of teaching in the synagogue was didactic: teaching and discussing, most likely arguing.
After all the suspense of looking at the three contestants writing their questions on the screen, contestant number 2 reveals his question, “What is Mt. Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration?” WRONG! Contestant number 3 reveals his question, “What is Mt. Nebo, where Moses surveyed the Promised Land?” WRONG! Finally, yesterday’s winner, contestant number 1, gives her question: “What is the Mount of Beatitudes?” CORRECT!
That’s right. The Mount of Beatitudes is the correct answer. Just in case you are curious, the Mount of Beatitudes is 35 meters below sea level. The Mount of Beatitudes, a small mountain, is really only a hill, on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee. It is here the church remembers the site where Jesus preached what we call today the Sermon on the Mount.
That Mount is certainly not a mountain as we think about the mountains of Virginia, New Hampshire, or the Grand Tetons; instead one can do a meditative stroll from the top of the Mount of Beatitudes down to the Sea of Galilee in only 40 minutes. If a person is not doing a reflective walk, one could easily walk down this Mount in 20 minutes. In other words, to call this Mount a mountain is really a stretch of the imagination, particularly when comparing the Mount of Beatitudes to Mount Sinai, where Moses, the lawgiver, received the Ten Commandments. Now Sinai is really a mountain as anyone who has climbed it will testify. But Matthew wanted Jesus not only to stand in the tradition of Moses, but by having Jesus go “up on the mountain,” Matthew introduces Jesus as the new Moses, the new lawgiver.
When the first verse of the Gospel for today was heard by the early followers of Jesus— “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying”— Jesus would have been immediately identified as the new Moses by those hearing those words.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes up on the mountain and gives the new law. For those of you who have studied the Sermon on the Mount, I am sure you are thinking, “John, you know that the Sermon on the Mount is not one sermon that Jesus preached. Instead it is Matthew’s way of bringing order to all the core instructions of Jesus. Consequently, the Beatitudes are themes that are played out throughout Jesus’ ministry.”
There is one critical verse that we must consider in light of Jesus’ “new law,” the Beatitudes. That verse will be a part of the Gospel for next Sunday, but I want to mention it here: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (v. 17). The Greek verb that has been translated “to fulfill” can and frequently does convey the meaning “to clarify the true meaning” of something. What Jesus is saying here in the Beatitudes is that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets; instead in the Beatitudes Jesus is clarifying the true meaning of the law. In the Beatitudes Jesus comes and gives a new understanding of the law and the prophets.
It is in the lesson we heard from Micah today that is so important in our understanding of the Beatitudes. The setting of Micah 6 is in a court room—well, not quite, the venue are the mountains—but the mountains are playing the same role as the courtroom. The Lord has a controversy, a legal brief, with his people.
The Lord says in his opening statement:
Oh my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Then the Lord recites his history with his people:
I brought you from the land of Egypt.
I redeemed you from bondage.
I sent you before Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Then the Lord asks a series of questions of what needs to be done:
Do I bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come with burnt offerings?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?
Shall I give his first born for my transgressions?
But then in a single sentence we are shown the legal, ethical, and spiritual requirements of the law and the prophets: “He has showed you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah gives us a portrait of the faithfulness of the Lord as well as the controversy that God has with us when we are not faithful. At the same time Micah paints for us a self-portrait of what we are called to be: “to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God.” I would want to argue today that Jesus has Moses and Micah “on the brain” when Jesus goes up the mountain, opened his mouth, and taught crowds. The first requirement is always justice. Hence, the legal setting of Micah, and might I quickly add, the legal framework of the Sermon on the Mount. Go with me today to Gamla, a Roman city, which is located only a few miles to the east of the northern part of the Sea of Galilee. To get to Gamla one has a half-hour treacherous walk down the ancient basalt rocks. But what a treat when one finally arrives at the ruins of Gamla, because at Gamla one has the only synagogue in the world, built as a synagogue, which has been dated to the first century. We have no idea if Jesus ever visited Gamla, but the synagogue there helps us to understand the purpose and function of first-century synagogues.
One of the functions of the synagogue was teaching. As a boy, Jesus was educated in the synagogue. Jesus would have been a student of a rabbi, and the means of teaching in the synagogue was didactic: teaching and discussing, most likely arguing.
One of the teaching tools in the synagogue would have been Moses’ law. Great discussions would have taken place, discussing “what does it mean”: You shall not kill. You shall not steal. Honor your father and your mother. Do you think you know the answer to those questions? Try something when you get together with six or seven friends, ask the question, “What do you mean, you shall not kill?” and you will get six or seven radically different answers. Every time I go to Gamla I ask that question, “What does it mean: You shall not kill” and I am always stunned by all the different interpretations of that commandment.
And the Beatitudes are written in the same legal style as the Ten Commandments. What does it mean, Blessed are the peacemakers?
This last week we have been thinking a great deal about the twentieth anniversary of the Gulf War. On January 16, 1991, the night the Gulf War began, the sky over Baghdad was lit up at the same time as the Nightly News broadcasts were beginning in the United States. Kirsten and I were living in Jerusalem with our two small daughters, Emily and Carrie, as missionary appointments of the Episcopal Church. I would like to share briefly with you a personal story that has recently been told in a new book of the memoirs of Edmond L. Browning, the twenty-fourth presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, a book entitled The Heart of a Pastor: The Life of Edmond Lee Browning.
As we were having supper on January 16, 1991, in our kitchen in Jerusalem, our telephone rang; it was the presiding bishop calling us. Ed was calling from Washington. For those of you who remember that day, you will recall that there had been a large protest against the war outside the White House that day. One of the protesters was the presiding bishop. Following the protest, the presiding bishop went to the State Department to have a meeting with Secretary of State James Baker. Ed called because he wanted to reassure us of his and Patti’s love and care for Kirsten, Emily, Carrie, and me.
While Ed did not know when the war was going to begin, he knew from his conversation with James Baker that war was imminent. Ed wanted to let us know that the Episcopal Church was praying for us. Eight hours later, the siren in Jerusalem went off and Kirsten and I carried our two young daughters up three flights of stairs to the sealed rooms that we had prepared in St. George’s College. That experience has been etched into my mind forever. Every time I go to Gamla and we think about what does “Blessed are the peacemakers” mean, Ed Browning always comes into my mind.
That day, January 16, 1991, who were the peacemakers? President Bush, who was praying in the White House with Billy Graham or the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church protesting with hundreds of others outside the White House at the same time as the president and Billy Graham were praying? Who were the peacemakers that day? Who are the peacemakers today? Answers to such questions are never easy, and frequently painful.
But at the core of the Sermon on the Mount is always justice.
“The Lord has shown you…what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Does God have a controversy with us?
In the name of God. Amen.