Sunday, February 22, 2015

Clash of Kingdoms: Meeting God on the Mountain

In her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit tells the story of her friend Sallie. Sallie is part of a search-and-rescue team in the Rocky Mountains and she still remembers the frantic search for a lost eleven-year-old boy. But this search was different from most others. This little boy was deaf and he was losing his eyesight. The boy wandered off during a late afternoon game of hide-and-seek. Because he was deaf, he was particularly hard to find. He had been blowing a whistle given him for just such an occasion. But he could not hear how close he was to a nearby stream. The roar of the water made his signal impossible for those searching for him to hear. After a harrowing night on his own, the sun finally came up, and he started blowing his whistle again. The search-and-rescue team finally found him, very cold but okay. Sallie and other search-and-rescue experts say that the key to survival often hinges on two things: Knowing that you are lost and admitting you are lost! Those two things are not always connected! That's why kids are found more often than adults. Kids don't stray as far. They usually curl up in a sheltered place and wait for their rescuers. And unlike many adults who get lost in the Rockies, kids don't desperately try to save themselves. Instead, they aren't afraid to stop and admit that they need help.

This morning, we are going to meet a group of people who found themselves on a mountain, and I don’t think they made it there by accident. I think they went there to find…something. There was something missing in their lives. There were unanswered questions. But more than anything else, I think they went there because they were not afraid to stop and admit they needed help. They were lost. But on that mountain, many of them finally found what they had been searching for their entire lives.

I love mountains, don’t you? I know Steven loves them—he’s taking a group of teenagers and their families to the mountains this summer. I remember taking many trips to the mountains as a teenager and even as an adult. As a 16 year old, I saw a blizzard in the middle of August on Mount Elbert! There was a trip to the mountains near Albuquerque with my dad and brother. One time when ministry was difficult for my family and me, we headed up the mountains near Red River for a few days to be alone, and we came home refreshed.

Mountains sometimes have that effect on us, don’t they? Did you know that mountains are important in the Bible? People in the Bible often times meet God on the mountain. It was on the mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. It was on that same mountain, years later that Elijah fled when he thought he was only one left who loved God! God found him there, if you remember, and God healed him there!

In the Gospel of Matthew, which we have been studying, mountains play a prominent role. In Matthew 4, Jesus confronts Satan on a mountain and is tempted by him for 40 days. In chapter 14, after feeding 5,000 people, Jesus went up onto a mountain alone to be with God in prayer. In chapter 15, Jesus was teaching on a mountain and a whole bunch of people came to Him there to be healed. In one of the greatest texts in the gospel, Matthew 17, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with Him up onto a mountain. There, Jesus meets with two other men—who had their own mountain stories—Moses and Elijah. Jesus is transfigured right there on that mountain. So, Peter, James, and John see Jesus in all of His glory! It’s also on a mountain, in Matthew 28, where Jesus’ disciples receive their marching orders. When I leave, said Jesus “Go into all the world and make disciples!” In the Bible, people meet God on mountains and I think that truism is very important to the words I am about to read to you. I think everyone knew that God had a habit of doing exceptional things on mountains! That is why a group of misfits followed Jesus up onto a mountain one day and when they arrived, this is what they heard…
Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
(Matthew 5:1–11, CEB)
Many of you who have been coming to a place like this for some time are probably very familiar with these words. You’ve probably heard them in a little bit different way. You’ve probably heard “blessed” instead of “happy” but the meaning is the same. And, you’ve likely heard sermons about these words that went something like this…we need to have more hope, we need to have more humility, we need to hunger and thirst after righteousness more, we need to show more mercy and if we do, then The Kingdom of Heaven will be ours, we will inherit the earth and we will see God.

Now, those things might be true, but that is not what Jesus said that day on the mountain, not exactly. Jesus was not encouraging these folks to be more merciful or more humble. Jesus was acknowledging that that is exactly what they were! In fact, that is the reason they were on the mountain! In reading this text over and over again all of these years, I’ve wondered, just whom was Jesus speaking to? Who would follow Jesus up to a mountain? Who would want to spend their day climbing a mountain only to listen to a preacher give a sermon? I’ll tell you who… People who are desperate! People who are looking for answers, people like those described by Jesus in these so-called “Beatitudes”:
Hungry and thirsty for goodness (because they haven’t seen much of it)
Merciful (because they’ve had to show a lot of it)
People who love peace (but haven’t seen much with their own eyes)
Persecuted people
Insulted people
People like that would follow a rabbi onto a mountain because they knew that God had a habit of showing up on mountains and they desperately needed to see God! And I have to be honest, once they arrived, and Jesus started talking, I bet some of them almost left! Because Jesus calls them “happy.” Didn’t he understand whom He was talking to? Why would these people, of all people, be happy?

According to every measure of this world, these people should not be happy. They were broke, they were without power, they were subjugated, and they were desperate. How could Jesus describe them as “fortunate” or “blessed” or “happy”? Let me ask you this, what do poor, hopeless, grieving, humble people have in common? They have nowhere to go but up. They know they do not have the power to fix their problems… because most of them have tried! They commonly look for help and that is exactly what Jesus is offering.

You see, sometimes you cannot be found unless you admit you are lost and so sometimes those who admit they are lost are closer to happiness than anyone else!

I remember being on a door-knocking campaign in Nashville, Tennessee years ago when I was a youth ministry intern. We drove to a government housing project area and began knocking doors. Looking for people who wanted to talk about God, looking for people who might be receptive to reading the Bible with us, and we found open door after open door after open door. We spent several days in that one housing development reading the Bible and talking with folks about God. Toward that end of that week, our hosts told us to move just outside that housing development, to a lower-middle class neighborhood. Their response could not have been any more different. No one wanted to talk about God. No one was interested in reading the Bible, they didn’t have time, and they didn’t have interest. The more we “have everything together”… the less likely we will be to go looking for God.

Jesus has an interesting way of beginning this sermon. You see, the Jewish people did not often say the name of God. Still today, Jews will not say the Divine name out loud. Many will not even write it. So, they came up with numerous ways to express the idea of God without coming out and using the name of God. One of the ways they referred to God was with the phrase: “Kingdom of heaven.” So, when you see that phrase, “Kingdom of heaven” in the Bible, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, written to a Jewish audience, know that this could be a reference to God! Jesus begins His sermon this way…

Happy are the hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs…

Isn’t that interesting? If you find yourself hopeless this morning, consider yourself happy. Because God might be closer to you than you think. God doesn’t need you to “get right” in order to be found. God just needs you to admit you are lost. God comes to you just as you are, grieving the loss of a loved one, humbled by the brokenness of this life, longing for peace in a world filled with violence, longing for goodness in a world filled with depravity, insulted, harassed and desperate. You don’t even have to climb a mountain to find God. Because of what Jesus did, God comes to us, just as we are… just where we are…

The church has not always been a place for people to come just as they are. God is better at accepting us “just as we are” than we are! Nevertheless, the church provides the physical hands and arms and embrace of God for this world. So, if you are hurting, we want to embrace you as God would. In fact, as we embrace you… it is God who is embracing you. In spite of the imperfections of His people (even of His church), God is perfect. And even when the church fails, God succeeds in accepting us just as we are—fallen, broken, doubting, and selfish.

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