For several weeks we have been focusing on the teachings of Jesus. And in a few weeks we're going to work through some of the parables of Jesus. But here for a couple weeks we're going to do some actual stories about Jesus himself and the things he did, not just what he said. By the time we get to chapter 14 this morning, we are halfway through the gospel of Matthew, and at this point, something really terrible happens. John the Baptist is killed by Herod. Jesus cousin and his friend, the one who baptized him, the one after whom Jesus originally modeled his message.
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This week we are going to read the most radical thing that Jesus ever said. Jesus says a lot of great things. But this is world-changing, mess-with-your-head, everybody's-going-to-hate-this, radical. It's so good. And it's part of the pattern that we saw established last week. Jesus is revealing to his followers the principles behind the Old Testament laws. This Law was given to the ancient Hebrew people as they came out of slavery in Egypt, for their own well-being and as a testimony to the other people groups who lived around them.
We are going to spend two more weeks on the Sermon on the Mount before we keep moving through Matthew but then this summer we're going to come back to it. In Matthew's spiritual biography of Jesus, the sermon on the mount is Jesus' core ethical teaching, his manifesto on how his followers are to live in the world. If you've ever read it you know it's not easy. And so I begin by reminding us that the things that are really worth it are rarely easy. But they are possible. This sermon was not given to high-minded religious scholars anxious to debate the finer points of theology.
A few weeks ago we read the origin story of Jesus from Joseph's perspective and realized that Immanuel means "love with us." On Christmas Eve we mixed all our gospel stories together in one bowl, which is what we usually do. But really they are very different. From now until Easter, we are going to focus our discussions on the gospel according to Matthew. The genre of gospel is something unique in literature. It's not a novel, but it's also not a strict biography. The gospels are not concerned with the hard facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
This morning, I am starting a new tradition of foregoing a sermon on the Sunday after Christmas in favor of a story. Although, really, we read a story every week when we read our Scripture. The genre of our sacred texts include poetry, origin story, philosophy, personal letters, spiritual biography, and others. It includes a little persuasive rhetoric, but much more narrative. And all together, the Bible is one big story. Stories reminds us that truth is more than hard facts. Many stories are true, even if they aren't factual.
This morning we turn a page in our reading from the Old Testament to the New Testament so I want to set the stage for you. (Much of this little intro comes verbatim from this book, which I love and would heartily recommend if you want an interesting and helpful way to frame the Scriptures.) We have spent the fall in the Old Testament, journeying with the ancient people of God through creation and crisis, their calling of "blessed to be a blessing," their cycles of following that calling then drifting and rebelling.
Before we hear our text this morning, I'd like to drop back for a minute and think again about what the Bible is and why we bother reading it together. This is the holy record of one particular people's experience of God in their individual and corporate lives, as they interpret and reinterpret God's presence and actions in their situations. Over the course of thousands of years, Christians have accepted it as an authority for our individual and corporate life.
This morning we have another reading from the prophets, this time the prophet Isaiah, first a story and then a prophecy. In order for it to make sense, let me give you a little background. After the kingdom split into north Israel and south Judah, things continue to degrade until 721 BC when Assyria invades the northern kingdom of Israel and destroys it. After that the southern kingdom of Judah pays tribute to Assyria so they don't get invaded. Eventually they get tired of that and make a pact with their old enemy Egypt and rebel against Assyria.
For the next four weeks we will be reading from the prophets. Prophets in the ancient Afro-Asiatic world were messengers, delivering words from God to the people. Sometimes these are words of warning, sometimes they are words of comfort, usually they are a combination of both. The prophets we are reading from are referred to as the classical prophets. They aren't miracle workers and they speak mainly to the common people, instead of to the king and the power brokers. Sometimes they do strange things, called prophetic acts, to make a point.
This morning as we continue through our discussion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we are going to hear to some verses that may get some us in areas where we feel sensitive. They might remind us of harsh things we've heard in church in the past, or times when God has not been presented as loving. But the fact that other people have used these texts poorly is not a reason for us to ignore them. This is our sacred text, and we are not afraid of what's in here. When the Bible gets difficult, it is tempting to pull out all the reasons that it might not speak to our culture. For example, the Bible doesn’t account for the range of gender roles, sexual identity and expression that we now understand exists in the world. Our topics for this morning—adultery, marriage, divorce and making promises—were different in the ancient world. And this is important for us to realize, especially because it can keep us from using the Bible against other people.