Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lenten Sermon Series: "God-Centered Living in a Self-Centered World"

Book Review: Jesus' Sermon on the Mount
By D.A. Carson (Baker Books, 1999)

Editor's Note: This book is the companion resource to St. Peter's Lenten Sermon Series and can be purchased in St. Peter's Book Cellar.
As D.A. Carson notes, two unfortunate tendencies now mark popular interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. The first tendency is to read the Sermon as if it were an ethics lecture; this tendency wrenches it out of its original context and places it in a foreign context which completely distorts the meaning. The second tendency follows from the first, the tendency to view the teaching of the Sermon simply as a set of instructions which the more "spiritual" of us are to put into practice. With these two tendencies at work, proper interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount will be nearly impossible.
Carson's exposition of the Sermon on the Mount actually begins not with Matthew 5:1 but with Matthew 4:17 where Matthew records the substance of Jesus' preaching and where Jesus provides the context within which the Sermon is to be interpreted: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It is crucial to note that for Jesus the Sermon on the Mount is not primarily about what human beings do but about what God is doing. There is, to be sure, plenty of room for human action but the action which Jesus anticipates is made possible by the action of God. The "kingdom of heaven" in 4:17 refers to the "kingdom of God" and reflects the Jewish preference for indirect references to God. As Carson notes, the kingdom of God is not a "place" so much as it is a state of affairs, the state of affairs that results from the exercise of God's sovereign lordship. As the whole of Matthew's Gospel makes clear, Jesus understands himself to be the locus of the exercise of God's lordship. The Sermon on the Mount, thus, is primarily about what God is enacting in Jesus and only secondarily about human behavior; apart from the exercise of God's lordship the teaching of the Sermon is not only impossible to live out but finally makes no sense.
This becomes clear in Carson's exposition of The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12). Here Jesus pronounces a series of blessings, the blessings of the kingdom of God. To be blessed is to be approved by God; this is, of course, the ultimate blessing. The blessings are not arbitrary but rather describe what results from the possession of a certain type of character (remembering that the character mentioned in each blessing is understood to be a gift of God). A quick look at Matthew 5:3 will make the point. What is the principal character trait of those who, to use Matthew's phrase, "enter the kingdom"? They are, above all else "poor in spirit". For Carson this means "the personal acknowledgement of spiritual bankruptcy" which is "the deepest form of repentance" (p. 18). Jesus addressed the Sermon to those who have recognized that they lack the spiritual resources to live into what the Sermon teaches; only God can supply the needed resources. To read the Sermon as a mere ethics lecture is to completely miss its real meaning.
Another key to interpreting the Sermon comes in Matthew 5:13-16 where listeners are exhorted to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven". The witness to God's kingdom is provided by the character described in 5:2-12. All of this, of course, presupposes a community of disciples whose collective life constitutes "a city set on a hill" (5:14).
Matthew 5:17-48 may be the most daunting section of the Sermon since here Jesus relates the demands of God's kingdom to those of the Old Testament. Clearly, Jesus sees continuity between the kingdom and the Old Testament and rejects even the slightest suggestion that the kingdom involves the negation of the Old Testament (see especially 5:17-20). Carson discusses the senses in which Jesus relates to the Old Testament (a relation which is ultimately about fulfillment and fruition rather than about attenuation). But the key to this whole section is given in 5:48, a verse which intentionally parallels Leviticus 19:2. The meaning of discipleship and the purpose of God's kingly activity is not to be found in mere moral improvement ("living a good life") but in the restoration of human beings to their role as creatures who reflect the glory, goodness, beauty, and holiness of God. We may settle for much less but God will not. The whole Sermon is demanding, overwhelmingly so, but it also presupposes that God is acting through Jesus to bring about what is being described.
Another key to the Sermon is Matthew 6:9-13, commonly referred to as the Lord's Prayer. As Carson notes, the prayer is organically connected to the Sermon in that prayer is crucial to the kingdom's realization. The kingdom of God is not a "project" or even a "ministry" of the Church; it is something for which the Church prays and to which it bears witness. It is not coincidental that the first three petitions deal with God's Name, God's kingdom and God's will. This prayer presents us with a God who is both intimately present to us and at the same time infinitely transcends us. The prayer is also about character: those who pray this prayer and really mean it will be people who are passionately concerned about God, God's glory, God's reign and God's will.
We tend to avoid Matthew 6:19-34 with its rather starkly phrased admonition "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). Of course, this section only continues the emphasis of the Lord's prayer (and calls one of our central assumptions into question!). Jesus recognizes that one of the central obstacles to living a God-centered life is simply our anxiety about having "enough". If our anxieties eclipse God a God-centered life will simply be impossible. As Carson notes, "...our whole lives drift relentlessly toward the spot where our treasures are stored, because our hearts will take us there. To follow Jesus faithfully entails therefore a consistent development of our deepest loves, to train ourselves to adopt an unswerving loyalty to kingdom values and to delight in all that God approves" (pp. 83-84). It is important to recognize that one of the central features of our culture, the acquisition of "stuff", works against genuine discipleship.
Another important clue to the interpretation of the Sermon is found in 7:7-11. Clearly, 5:3 is still in view here and the emphasis is still not on moral heroism but on complete confidence in God. The God-centered life begins not with our decision to make ourselves God-centered but with the recognition that we must ask for it from God. As Carson notes, "No one is capable, by himself,of even approaching the quality of life characterized by the Sermon on the Mount. And certainly no one will ever enter the consummated kingdom simply because he has determined to improve himself and make himself presentable to God" (p. 118).
The Sermon on the Mount describes a God-centered life and we need to avoid being so self-centered as to believe that such a life can simply begin by our deciding to live it.

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