SERMON ON THE NORTH SLOPE TRAIL
(A Twentieth Century Paraphrase and Interpretation of Matthew 5-7)
(Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God is called the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the sermon on the Plain in Luke, and probably was the subject of his teaching as he walked the roads of Palestine with his disciples until they were imbued with its content. Since my favorite place of fellowship with the Lord is the North Slope Trail of the Pisgah National Forest, I have pictured a group of us walking with Jesus there and being taught again, and in twentieth century setting, the same principles and thrilling overtures. In the course of the conversation and the walk, the imaginary, but not so imagi-nary, and familiar-sounding words from Jesus, Son of the Father…).
You ask how I feel about my church here in this country. I suppose that along with my joy over so many amazing things that are happening among those who bear my name, I am distressed at how easily distracted you are. You have put together an enormous church institution, that is true. And yet there is so little real power, so little real aware awareness of who you are and what I have called you to be. It is at times as if my coming, my life, my teachings, my death and resurrection had never happened! That hurts.
Do you all remember the heart of my preaching? Do you? Quite simply it is this that in my coming a new creation, yes, and more, the sovereign rule of God, a whole joyous new reality was invading this present reality. This sovereign rule of God is so total and so irresistible, so ultimate that there is only one proper response to it. That response has always been my invitation. It is to turn from all other competing lords and loyalties, and accept my offer of new life, new hope, forgiveness, and a new direction under my sovereign rule!’ You see my future has invaded your present, and nothing will ever be the same again.
But let’s begin at the beginning. Take this present human community. It is my world after all! But … it is a race of men and women in rebellion. From the beginning my own creatures have sought to fashion a life and a society without me, … on their own. It is a rather dismal history of failed attempts and dashed dreams. Oh, I have never forsaken my own. I sent gifted folk and prophetic voices to preserve them and to remind them, … even to give them, from time to time, a taste of what I really purpose for them. Here and there have been bursts of civilization and creativity. Yes I continued, in my mercy, to send the rain on the good guys and the bad guys!
Yet, … there was an alien spirit abroad, and that, not just a rebellious spirit. More than that, there was and is a destructive, personality, an evil one who keeps seducing and distorting, reducing and smashing hopes. Ah! Apollyon, the destroyer, the prince of darkness, and his, rebel dominion.
Little did the dark lord and his darkened people reckon with the sovereign creator, the giving God, and his plan for the ages, … that word of hope, that “seed of a woman who would “bruise the serpent’s head”. That joyous hope, though, did burn in the breasts of some over the centuries. And in the darkest hour the Father sent me right into the dominion of darkness vested with his sovereign authority to inaugurate another dominion, a new creation, his sovereign rule right amidst the dominions and nations and loyalties of this world.
Only, the design of my Father’s sovereign rule didn’t fit any of the patterns of humankind. I came in hiddenness. Would you believe, through the womb of a peasant girl? I came in weakness, not in power. I came as one of the marginalized of this world, not in royal splendor. I came in mercy and in justice and in love. I was utterly vulnerable to the powers of this world. Even those closest to me could not understand. They expected that there would be wealth and power and grandeur and triumphal success (and so many of my own still fall into this trap!).
Listen carefully, my sisters and brothers: my calling of you, and my new creation, they are to be a visible sign of my Father and of me! And my dominion is not like the expectations of this present age and society. Confusion at this point is where the distraction (which I spoke of earlier) comes.
Can you see the graphic, the even frightening clash of values?
The darkened society in which you live thinks, for instance, that true fulfillment and happiness are to be found in prosperity, in seeking and having wealth. But what I am saying to you is that you need to look at me. True wealth is a life of stark simplicity and a heart for the poor.
And it thinks that if it can entertain itself and laugh enough it will be truly happy. Do you know who is ultimately going to laugh the most joyous laughter imaginable? Those who hurt and weep because of the brokenness of this darkened world. They are the enviable ones.
Yes, and this society puts its blessing on the “somebody’s” of this world, the big egos and the famous. But in my Father’s dominion it is the “nobodies”, the meek, who will ultimately have it all.
And the children of darkness think if you get your belly full of choice food that you are happy and satisfied, even if half the world is hungry and starving. But these folk really are missing the point. In my Father’s family the hungering that really brings fulfillment is an insatiable desire for justice on earth. It is these who will really be fulfilled and satisfied.
In the dominion of darkness men and women are demanding of each other and impatient and accusatory and intimidating of each other. Yet, my Father is full of mercy. And I require mercy. And my children are merciful, and they will be shown mercy.
What really sets a person free is to have a heart set on God, a singleness of heart for the Father and me. Oh, you can count on it: they will see God. They are fulfilled and happy beyond words.
Listen, these two dominions don’t live in harmony. You live in a human community and a nation that is fraught with violence and wars and sword-rattling leaders. You live with human conflicts because of race and greed and ideology. You live where it is popular to be a militarist, to be macho, to be violent. But such is only the way to destruction. I am the Prince of Peace and my Father is the God of peace, and I have called you to be instruments of peace, yes, peacemakers. And those who are, are not only joyously fulfilled, not only people of my kingdom, but more: they are the sons and daughters of God!
You need to know that though you live in the presence of these two dominions, as the people of the dominion of God, they are not compatible. You will always be tempted to make peace with the people and dominion of darkness. And if you do, then you will cease to be part of the light. And if you don’t, then you must know that it will harass you and persecute you and make life most difficult. But, in this suffering you will join me, and I want you to know that in the midst of the flames, you are and will be joyously fulfilled!
Don’t you see? My new creation supersedes and announces the destruction and end of this dominion of darkness. And so it creates antagonism. And in the midst of the antagonism you are to walk as lovers and peacemakers and preservers and creators. When you do this, you are salt and light. If you don’t, then you really are good for nothing!
Does all of this sound strange and new?
It really is not! My Father’s person, his character and will are not fickle. They have not changed. He is the Great Blessing. Even when He gave laws to his people it was for their good. It was His purpose that those who bear His name in the world be His blessing to the world. The commandments were simply his mandate for justice. That law insists that life is sacred, and must not be demeaned or destroyed or dehumanized verbally or emotionally or physically.
My Father’s purpose also insists upon the sacredness of sex and of the marriage contract. These are not toys to be abused, or vows to be cast aside lightly. The dominion of darkness in which you live has “garbaged” this sacred relationship and ridicules those of you who maintain its sanctity. But the Father’s law stands, and in its fulfillment you become light and salt in the dark corruption.
Yes, in my new creation all human relationships are to be redemptive. You are to be reconcilers. It is a costly calling. You are not to go to the mat with bad characters. Give them what they ask and more than they ask. And when needy folk ask of you, for heaven’s sake, don’t turn away!
After all, you need to realize that in my Father’s dominion there really aren’t any enemies. As the Father sent me among a bunch of enemies as the evidence of his saving love, so you are to go as children of your Father and behave toward enemies just as He has!
Listen! Compassion and mercy and generosity are to be a way of life for you. It’s not some big deal you go out and make a lot of noise about. My Father has always had a heart for the helpless of this world. Look at His provision in His calling of Israel. And you are to be Children of your Father. You don’t announce it. You just do it.
And while we are talking about trying to make a big splash, let’s talk about prayer. There are folks who think that they are supposed to impress everybody with eloquent, pious-sounding prayers. Forget it! After all, it is not as though the Father was in the dark about the deepest needs of your lives. He simply wants you to come to Him as Father and relate to him with all love. Let me give you a place to start. Pray like this:
Daddy-God, whom we have not seen, we stand in wonder and awe at who you are we give ourselves to you, that your sovereign rule would come and your saving will be done right here on earth just like it is in heaven. Give us what we need to live this day. Let our forgiveness of others reflect your forgiveness of us. Be our deliverer as the evil one and his dominion of darkness seek to seduce and destroy us.
You will always need to remember that your life is a ministry unto the Father; it is a relationship with Him through me. So when you are praying and fasting, you are not doing that so that people will know you are praying and fasting. You are doing it so that you will have that undistracted time with God who is your Father. As far as other folk are concerned all they should see is a happy Christian.
There is a major idol that is a danger to you. You live in a whole cultural climate of sophisticated greed and selfishness. You have a whole economy and political philosophy that is geared to get and use prosperity without much thought of me and my purpose. Money and prosperity become a god. And you must make a choice between me and that other god who would consume you! Do you understand that?
Again, your calling is not to prosperity but into my dominion of light and in that dominion everything is mine, and your welfare is mine just as the adorning of the flowers and the feeding of the tufted titmouse is my responsibility. Yours is to live a life of trust, of contentment, of simplicity and of celebration that you are children of your Father. If you put your priority on the new creation, my sovereign rule here, and if you become an instrument of my justice, then I will take care of the rest. Count on it!
And, hey! I call you to be children of light, not judges of others. Look after keeping your own vision clear. Don’t go round sniffing out ills in others. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t go around talking spiritual talk among folks who can’t even compute what you are talking about. They will just think you are a nut, and will probably tell everybody else that you are a nut!
In this new life that I have called you into, you will soon find that it is humanly impossible. It is but you have access to the Father who really wants you to come and ask Him. Know well, that if you come with real desire, He desires to answer you and to bless you more than you want to be blessed!
It is a calling into utter newness and into a new community where God rules sovereignly. The doorway into it is very small. That door is by wholehearted repentance and faith in me. And after you have entered, there is a very narrow road of discipleship that will demand your full attention. This is why so many would rather coast along on the broad and easy way to destruction.
And there are all kinds of religious hustlers and con artists out there. If they don’t walk my walk and talk my talk, then you will know they are phonies.
Listen, a lot of folks think if they talk a lot of Christian talk that that’s what counts with me. And a lot of folks also think that if they spend their life doing a lot of busy work in the church and make a lot of dust, and even do some things that are near miraculous, that this is what I am looking for. And both are sadly deceived. What I want is for men and women to know me, to invite me into the very heart of their lives so that I can relate to them and they to me, and I can use them then to say the words and do the deeds that are part of my new creation. The walk and the talk that I am looking for come out of that living relationship with me. And, oh, that relationship is so beautiful!
When a person lays his foundations deeply on this word of my new dominion, when a person responds to my call to turn from all the allures of the dominion of darkness, and when that person is trusting me and loving me and obeying me and rejoicing in me and then turning all of that out to the world that I love and long to set free, then that person is the kind who will go right on when all the storms of life and the fury of hell rage around. But if a person is trifling with me and my word and goes along as though I had not lived and spoken and died and risen, then when life’s roof caves in they are on their own, and it all falls apart for them.
I love walking with you here on this trail. I love your company. What I want for you is to be so enamored of my Father’s good purpose, and mine, that your light will burn brightly and your joy will be full. You see, when you have seen me, you have seen the Father! Now, let’s go get to work.