Red Letter — Blessings on a mountain

This is an edited transcript of a sermon on Matthew’s Gospel from City South Presbyterian Church in 2022. You can listen to the sermon here, or watch it on video here. The running time for those options is 35 minutes.

We took the kids to the Brickman exhibition at the museum last week. Amazing. The wonders of the world, built in Lego — recreations of icons from human kingdoms built around the world and through history — it was crazy clever.

Here are the crown jewels made from Lego.

We do not think much about belonging to a kingdom anymore. Rumblings about a republic are getting louder, in part because this idea of royalty seems so passe. Because the royals do not seem to do anything for us. They just make trouble.

But I wonder what you would do if you were king or queen for a day — or if you actually had power and could rebuild the world. Creating wonders.

Or maybe if someone turned up promising to rebuild your life for the better.

If a king or queen — or a politician — or a CEO — or a pastor — turned up tomorrow and said they were going to rebuild the world. Or rebuild your world. And they could build a kingdom like Brickman and his team build Lego.

What would they build?

Who would it serve? Would it be like Egypt?

Where the people of the kingdom enslaved others to build their wonders… and where only the Pharaoh was the “image of God”… Or like Babylon? With its hanging gardens — built from plunder and wealth pillaged from the surrounding nations…

Who would it serve? What sort of kingdom would you build with your blood, sweat, and tears — your time, and your money?

What does fullness — or fruitfulness — or happiness look like for you, or for others made in the image of God there with you? And maybe more importantly — who is missing out? Who is pushed to the margins? Enslaved. Dominated? Not recognised as the “image” of God…

These are questions about kingdoms, really — places where our gods are revealed as images of these gods represent them in the world. We saw how the kingdom idea is there in Genesis 1 last week.

What if you imagine God building a kingdom now — what would he fix?

Who would he exclude?

And what might that reveal about your heart — how much do you think your picture aligns with the character of God?

This “kingdom” language might feel foreign for us now but it is a very real question in the first century when Jesus turns up preaching that God’s kingdom has come near (Matthew 4:17). Now, at this point in the story we readers know where this is heading — the cross, and Jesus declaring that all authority has been given to him (Matthew 28:18). But, for those who have just started following Jesus, they are wondering what it is going to look like and imagining what is coming for them in their immediate future; building little kingdoms in their minds.

They are thinking they are on their way to the top. I want you to imagine that you are the disciples. Living under Roman rule — after many generations living under foreign kingdoms — hearing Jesus announce blessing is coming with this kingdom that you get to be part of, God’s heavenly kingdom (Matthew 5:3,10).

What you would be imagining — and how different that might be to what Jesus offers?

They have got certain things they are imagining here — as first-century Jewish people — but their picture falls to pieces pretty quickly as Jesus speaks. His words are about to expose their hearts, because he is going to expose God’s heart, and show that his kingdom is turns their expectations upside down.

Matthew sets the scene for these words with some vivid Old Testament imagery — first up, geography matters — Jesus has just been in the Jordan, where Israel’s exodus into the land happened. He has been in the wilderness. He has been in the temple and on high places.

And all this scenery matters because it is part of him reliving big parts of Israel’s story. Here Matthew wants us to see Jesus as a new Moses — someone arriving to lead God’s people into God’s kingdom. When Jesus goes up a mountainside (Matthew 5:1-2). This might seem like a good decision to make for acoustics or something, but it is significant too. It is Moses-like. This phrase in Matthew is one that occurs just over 20 times in the Greek version of the Old Testament — and 11 of those times are about Moses on Sinai. It is the same phrase we get here — when Moses goes up a mountain and meets with God (Exodus 19:3), before being sent by God to his people to deliver the law — the basis of the covenant.

He hears the Ten Commandments — then God tells him to come up the mountain again and meet him and he will get the Ten Commandments written on stone as he meets with God on a high place — a little bridge between earth and heaven. He is there 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18), like Jesus in the wilderness. He gets the tablets and comes down from the mountain after and finds Aaron leading the people in idol worship with the golden calf, and when he finds out Israel has broken the covenant — the promises that mark them out as God’s kingdom — he goes up the mountain again; to make atonement for sin — to try to turn God’s judgment aside as he represents their cause to God (Exodus 32:30). And he goes up the mountain again for another forty days and forty nights as the one who does not live off bread, but off God’s presence (Exodus 34:4, 28). Just like Jesus, who spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and then quoted Moses to tell Satan that we do not live off bread alone, but God’s word.

Moses receives God’s words of the covenant — his description of how to be God’s partners in the world — his kingdom. And all this happens on a mountain — a leader of God’s kingdom goes to meet God, so that he can speak for God, and he comes down from the mountain representing God and inviting people into partnership with God in the world. Moses becomes more and more the shining image of God; a mediator between heaven and earth. He gets to see God’s goodness and hear God’s name from God himself. And Israel is waiting for a new Moses — because way back in the words of Moses, in his second reading of the law (that is what Deutero — two — nomos — law — means), Moses says when God’s people are trying to figure out how to get back to God, another intercessor will come along, to represent humanity’s case to God, and God to humanity. Another prophet will come along, speaking God’s word — and when he does, they have got to listen (Deuteronomy 18:15). Because he is going to speak for God. He is going to speak God’s word (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). He is going to be like Moses — the same Moses who went up a mountain, over and over again, and then met with God. Matthew uses this phrase, off the back of Jesus quoting scripture — quoting Moses — after forty days and forty nights of fasting. Going up mountains and down mountains and then up a mountain. Where he begins to teach.

The Moses bell is meant to be ringing in their heads.

Moses is not just the law receiver, or law giver, he is a mediator who goes to bring heaven and earth together by meeting with God, interceding with God on the people’s behalf, and then offering the terms by which heaven is going to get brought down to earth as God’s glorious, shining, image-bearing people represent him. We will see this again in the transfiguration later on — another scene on a mountain, where Moses actually shows up. And Jesus shines with God’s glory.

But here we have got the guy Matthew has called God with us, teaching people on a mountain. Teaching people about God’s kingdom. Speaking God’s word. Bringing a new covenant.

And whatever little brick picture they have built with their metaphorical Lego, he shatters it into pieces. Because here is a little glimpse into what God’s people are expecting — from the words of Moses — they were the people of blessing — in the land — their idea of being “God’s kingdom” is being “set high above all the nations on earth,” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). It is about blessing and prosperity and power. Moses tells them they will receive blessing over and over again — and if you wanted a summary — this is a pretty good one — abundant prosperity. It will be like Eden and like being fruitful and multiplying (Deuteronomy 28:11). And the nations around them will fear them (Deuteronomy 28:10).

Maybe this is what we imagine when we think of being blessed as God’s people too? If they do not obey, they will get curse (Deuteronomy 28:15). It will all turn upside down, instead of prosperity and fruitfulness there will be poverty and famine (Deuteronomy 28:18). Hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty (Deuteronomy 28:47-48). They will be cursed and turfed. Sent out of the land — captured and dominated by nations like Egypt — like Babylon. And this is what happens — as we saw last week — exile. A powerful nation coming against them, and Israel is hoping for a reversal.

Israel is hoping for a king who will come and upend the status quo — turfing out the enemies who oppress them and restoring their fortunes. It turns out Israel wants an Eden without God — they do not want to listen to, or worship him. They want something that looks a whole lot like Babylon. A worldly picture of prosperity. And maybe that is us. They want a king like Pharaoh, rather than God ruling as king.

And they get it. That is what exile is… And when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17). And he starts teaching about who it belongs to — they are thinking “yes please”…

They have all these projects they are imagining. Only the picture of the kingdom he paints in his words — it does not sound like the blessing they have been hoping for…

It sounds more like curse…

And it turns out that the people pursuing blessing like Deuteronomy describes it, on their own terms — without God in the picture — they end up looking a whole lot like Egypt and Babylon.

We have already met Pharaoh… I mean Herod… But the message Jesus wants his disciples to take out into the world, bringing fruitful relationship with the world as he mediates between heaven and earth — like Moses did — and represents God, and is with us always; the message he wants his disciples to teach as they invite people into a new exodus — through baptism — is the message he teaches them. The message he begins to teach them — his disciples (Matthew 5:2) — here on a mountain as the new Moses, revealing God to his people. Only, this is not just a human mediator, this is God with us. And Jesus’ teaching begins with this series of blessings (Matthew 5:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11).

Now — I have referred to the Greek version of the Old Testament a couple of times — because it is the Old Testament it seems most people at the time of Jesus were familiar with, and the New Testament authors often quote from it, as they are writing in Greek, this word blessed that he uses a bunch of times in a row, it basically means “happy” — and it is not the word for blessing from Genesis 1, or even the one that is commonly used in Deuteronomy — where this one is used just once, towards the end of Deuteronomy, in Moses’ last recorded words. Words about being a people saved by the Lord, and a promise that God will deliver them (Deuteronomy 33:29). It is the word that launches the Psalms — and is used over and over again in the Psalms to speak of the people who listen to and delight in the word of God (Psalm 1:1-2). An idea picked up in Psalm 119 — that famous psalm about the place of God’s word — his law — in the heart of his people (Psalm 119:1-2). In those who celebrate God’s rule as king, who kiss his son — who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:11-12).

And remember it is this that Israel absolutely fails to do — they want all the pictures of blessing from Eden, without the presence of God, without him there as the source of blessing. Without listening to what God says he requires.

And I wonder if that is us sometimes?

Jesus goes up a mount as a new Moses, and then he speaks words loaded up with royal meaning — the Psalms are connected more to David, than Moses — which is interesting, a bit, because God’s king — the son of David — was meant to lead God’s people to blessing in God’s kingdom, by taking his word to heart — carrying a copy of God’s word everywhere… So here, God’s word who gives life, turns up looking like Moses, to speak a word about life in God’s kingdom, listening to his word…

And the disciples are thinking blessing is going to pour out as the king turns up.

But Jesus is going to flip their ideas upside down.

They think being in the kingdom of God means receiving material blessings from God — Jesus says, actually, blessing — happiness — in the kingdom of God is about receiving God.

Just like people do not live by bread alone, but by the word of God, so people are not really blessed or even wealthy, unless they get God — blessing, happiness, is grounded in God, so that you can endure anything the world throws at you. It is not going to be those who think they have it all, and can build God’s kingdom on their own back, that will bring God’s kingdom.

God’s kingdom is going to come from God, and for those who realize they bring nothing to the table; the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). It is not those who find joy in the state of the world — exile from God — and try to build happiness on their terms — who will receive comfort, but those who mourn the state of the world, the oppressive empires, and their own sin, who will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

It is not “happy are those who are happy” either — blessing, paradoxically, comes not from seeking our own happiness, but seeking God. It is not those who seek to dominate others — who use power to secure their kingdom who inherit the task of ruling the earth with God, but those who love and serve — God and neighbor — without trampling others (Matthew 5:5). It is not those who hunger and thirst for the things of this world, but for the character of God — righteousness; and that righteousness filling them so it might fill the earth — it is those people who will be filled (Matthew 5:6). We have just seen Jesus demonstrate this hunger in his temptation.

The kingdom cannot belong to those who hunger and thirst for the things of this world — the hunger that led to exile from Eden for Adam and Eve, to sin in the wilderness for Israel, and to exile for Israel as they hungered after the gods of the nations — and it cannot belong to us when we are hungry for the things that lead us to sin, and away from God — because the very nature of God’s kingdom is receiving life from God himself — hungering for him.

And I wonder if that is how any of us can describe ourselves? It is not those who take revenge and act harshly who display the character of God’s kingdom — but the merciful (Matthew 5:7). Jesus will pick this up later when he says we will be judged by the standards we used, and forgiven when we are able to forgive others. It is those who are pure in heart — not operating from divided hearts, hearts that love other gods, or people, or the world in the place of God, who will see God (Matthew 5:8). And those who bring peace — peace with God, and with others — who will be called children of the God who seeks peace (Matthew 5:9). And here is the real sting in the tail — the second time Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven to those who will be made happy by God — and this time it is those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matthew 5:10).

That is not the picture of happiness a Deuteronomy reading Israelite has in their head, and Jesus doubles down on this one with his summary of the upside-down kingdom he is bringing. I want you to imagine you are one of the disciples who has just started following Jesus hearing this. You think he might be the Messiah. You have heard him say the kingdom is coming.

You have been schooled in Deuteronomy and the vision of the blessing and kingdom of God being abundance and prosperity and you are hearing Jesus saying “you have missed the point” — the point of blessing and the kingdom was not the material fruit of your belonging, but the relationship with God and your love for him.

And here is Jesus promising they will be insulted, persecuted, and people will say evil about them (Matthew 5:9), but they should rejoice and be glad while they suffer, because the fruits of this pursuit are life with God in the kingdom of heaven — and faithfulness has always looked like this because just look at how Israel treated the prophets. Jesus gives a whole list of the characteristics — the posture and character and virtues of those whose lives align with God and his word — the characteristics of a person who knows that God is God. And what God is like.

It is a list that does not sound like the victorious and materially prosperous fruitful people of Deuteronomy 28 — but that is because that fruitfulness flowed out of covenant relationship with God, expressed in these characteristics — and what people get if they are blessed like this — is God.

The disciples might be thinking happy are those who are wealthy and feared by all the nations. But Jesus says happy are those who are marked by God’s glorious presence in the world.

And when that list is full of stuff we do not want — maybe it reveals something about our hearts, that we do not want God — we do not want his kingdom — just the benefits. Happiness. Prosperity. And we want it now. Because Jesus says who live with this character — the object of this way of life is God, and relationship with him — that is what drives these behaviors — a heart given to God. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They will be comforted. They will inherit the earth. They will be filled. They will be shown mercy. They will see God. They will be called children of God.

The key to blessing is a relationship with God — receiving comfort and an inheritance. Being filled by God — rather than their own hands, or Satan — compare all this to the promises of Satan in chapter 4, from last week — receiving mercy from God. Seeing God, like Moses — who only saw God’s back, but face to face — as God’s children in his kingdom of heaven.

This is what it looks like to be part of God’s kingdom — it is to receive God as our God. The alternative — the alternative way of living — pursuing happiness without God — it will produce an alternate set of qualities. Imagine an anti-Matthew. Anti-beatitudes. Flip the qualities and you see both why Jesus’ words are so revolutionary and so compelling.

Imagine a world built on these values.

Blessed are the proud. Those who cause mourning. The powerful. Those who are self-righteous and hunger for glory. The harsh. The self-seeking in heart. The warriors. Victorious because of unrighteousness. Theirs is the kingdom of Satan.

You actually do not have to look hard — because it is the world around us — and it is the world our heart often wants to build for ourselves without God — if we are honest and we are sitting there with the Lego blocks of our lives imagining the world we would like, and the way other people would view us and treat us. And our success.

But these are the behaviors that lead to curse. To exile. To death. Flip those promises that God will give us himself — and all the benefits and blessing that flows from that — and you get a picture of the sort of life Jesus comes to save people from as he brings God’s kingdom.

Cursed. Theirs is the kingdom of Satan. They will be rejected. They will be cast out. They will be emptied. They will receive justice. They will be cast from God’s face. They will be called children of Satan. Theirs is the kingdom of Satan. But here is the thing — the dilemma for the Old Testament people of God is that it is their hearts, not the politics of the world around them — that lead them away from God. The empires outside Israel are just empires built from the human heart — attempts to build Eden without God — and Israel does not love or listen to God — so they do not live according to his word.

The dilemma for a world living in exile from Eden — and for Israel living in exile from the land is that heaven and earth are at odds with each other. And our hearts just keep wanting the things of earth instead of the things of heaven. Which is what led humanity, and Israel, into exile.

We keep trying to build heaven-away-from-heaven. Heaven-without-God.

And so we need a new intercessor — someone to go up the mountain and meet with God, to reveal what God says and to lead us — but we also need God to come down onto the mountain to meet with us to speak, and to invite us into life with him — and in Jesus we get both — the son of God, and the son of Man — the king of heaven and earth.

And so in this moment, as he goes up the mountain, and speaks these words from God, and as God — as this mediator between heaven and earth — he is giving us a picture of what it looks like when heaven breaks into earth, and we get swept up into the kingdom of heaven. It looks like God’s character shaping people who want God. Not what God gives, but God. And then these words become the pattern he displays as he lives an obedient human life, life in the image of God, life listening to God.

As we work through Matthew these are going to be themes that come up in his teaching — teaching we are called to obey — but they are also patterns that come up in his life. This could easily be a description of Jesus’ trial — as Matthew records it — where Jesus is beaten, mocked, crowned with thorns, found guilty of claiming to be exactly who he is — by both the Roman Empire and Israel’s leaders — persecuted just like the prophets. Jesus turns up and lives the life of the kingdom, as the new Moses, and the new David — the king who will lead God’s people home to God.

But the people are not interested in this sort of upside-down kingdom. They want the kingdom of the earth, the kingdom of Satan. They want Eden without God’s presence. Babylon’s gardens or their own little kingdoms. And just like Herod tried to kill Jesus as an infant — a new Pharaoh — the Israel who will not get with the program of the kingdom conspires to kill Jesus. This is what happens any time we have a picture we want to build of the world — the life — we want to build for ourselves that does not treat God as God, that is not us joining in his kingdom.

We look for a leader who will give us what we want — like Satan — or we will become that leader. Jesus is the righteous one who brings God’s righteousness and is persecuted for it because he pursues the kingdom of heaven — and the bringing together of heaven and earth — above all else. Because he is the one who truly mediates — truly bridges the gap between heaven and earth — and is truly the righteous one who fulfills God’s word.

What we get a taste of as he goes up the mountain in our passage, like Moses, we see fulfilled when he bridges the gap between heaven and earth on the cross. Where he goes up to make atonement for sin through his death; a death he takes that models the meekness of the beatitudes in the face of Satan’s power, and the world’s might, so that he might model receiving the kingdom of heaven, and so he might inherit the earth.

And a death he takes on to invite us to cross over from the kingdom of Satan — the kingdom of this world — into the kingdom of heaven through him, and through the baptism of the Spirit, where we receive forgiveness of our sins, and God’s presence, and new hearts, and the ability to start listening to God and living a life of repentance — a life that sees God’s kingdom through eyes given to us by God.

And he is the one who does this so he can bring in God’s kingdom as the one who has all authority in heaven and earth — the new Moses has arrived to lead a new exodus — are we going to listen to him? And the words of Jesus from chapter 4 should be ringing in our ears as we see the character of God’s kingdom spelled out in the red letters of the beatitudes, and poured out in the red blood of Jesus on the cross.

This is what God is like. He would go to these lengths out of love for you because he is not like Satan, and his kingdom will not be like the grasping and destructive kingdoms of the world. This is what his kingdom is like. He is the God who gives life because he gives his life to people.

And when we see God this way, and his kingdom. We need to repent. We need to have our false values and dreams and kingdoms exposed. Of our Babylon projects — attempts to build Eden without the presence of God.

Attempts to secure blessing without the word of God having anything to do with how we live. Repent of the gods we make in our own image — just like Israel with the calf — gods delivering blessing on our terms, according to our designs, rather than us imaging God as we listen to him and live according to his design.

And for Christians — this means repenting of our Lego Jesus’s — the Jesus’s of our own making who come to bless our own wondrous building projects. The ones we build and shape to justify the kingdoms we want.

If we have a plastic Jesus — a Jesus of our own making, and not the Jesus we meet in the gospel, and at the cross, then we will end up with a plastic kingdom. One that has no substance and will not deliver happiness or blessing, or life with God. Smash all those pictures, and see life and God’s kingdom through God’s eyes, and join his building project.

The things you build are likely to disappoint you, likely to damage people around you, and unlikely to last — unlikely to be memorialized in a Lego exhibition in thousands of years — and even if they do, it is God’s kingdom that lasts for eternity; and life pursuing God’s kingdom — because God has pursued you — that delivers happiness for you, and it delivers blessing to those around you, and it delights God.

Smash those false images of false gods, and false kingdoms, or a false Jesus and realize that we bring nothing. When we come to Jesus in the spirit of the upside-down kingdom we are pursuing his righteousness, not our own. When we pursue our own righteousness we become self-justifying and self-righteous. When we come to Jesus and his kingdom as it is these words do not just become words fulfilled by Jesus, but give and shape our lives. Words that help us realize the pictures of happiness and fruitfulness the world gives us are empty because they are not just disconnected from God, but they take us away from God.

And follow Jesus towards the heart of God, love him with all our heart, and mind, and strength, so that his heart is revealed in our actions. And when we repent — when we turn to Jesus from false kingdoms — when we are saved from those kingdoms and their consequences.

We will not live up to the standards of the Sermon on the Mount, or the beatitudes — we will fail — and we are not saved by displaying these characteristics. We are saved because Jesus did. We are not saved by these characteristics — not in ourselves — but we are saved for these characteristics, saved in order that God might produce these characteristics in his people as heaven breaks into the world, led by the king who is God with us, as his disciples — his image-bearing people who represent God to the world because we are reconnected to the heart of God — as we receive God’s Spirit — and as we obey all that our king commands. Then we will share in this blessing, this happiness — to live in his kingdom, to be happy, as our love for God — our union with him — changes us as we become disciples and listen to his teaching and are changed. Because of Jesus, and because if we trust him and follow him as the king who brings heaven and earth together, we become one with him. In communion with him. Ours is the kingdom of heaven, and this can shape the lives we build here on earth.

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