Rob Tennant, Hillside Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 5, 2020
Happy New Year! Here we are at the start of our new venture. December 15, we celebrated the launch of our new church with a new name: Hillside. The service was beautiful and joy-filled. I loved celebrating with you, my church family.
Then we moved into Christmas. Our Christmas Eve worship was holy – that’s the word for it. We had guests, we had regular attendees and members, and together we glorified Jesus, our Savior. I hope you had a happy celebration entering into the New Year!
This past Friday, we celebrated the life of one of our beloved church members. God called Pat Antonevitch home. We had her funeral with her family. She is at rest in Jesus, awaiting resurrection.
Now we turn the page. 2020 has started. Diets, resolutions, hopes and dreams – it’s a new year. Are you with us? Are you interested in climbing the hill?
Note with tenacious attentiveness the opening to Matthew chapter 5. Veteran Bible readers especially need to take care. If you are unfamiliar with the Bible, you may have a great advantage as we move into Matthew. Later this year, we’ll devote more concentrated attention to Matthew 5, 6, and 7. This morning we simply take the opening verses as a call of God into the life He wants us to live. We could step toward answering this call at any time of the year, but with it being January and us taking a new name, the timing is especially poignant.
Matthew 5 opens what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most recognized and commented upon blocks of teaching from Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is organized around five discourses of Jesus, this being the first. Veteran Bible readers might come into this supposing they know what it’s all about. If that’s you, I don’t say you’re wrong. Maybe you know this material very well. Don’t allow that familiarity to get in the way of you hearing Jesus with fresh ears. In this often-read passage, He has something new to say to us.
Are you ready for something new from God? This applies to all who are hearing the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. This applies for anyone who has read it a thousand times. Are you ready this time to hear God’s new, fresh word for us? Are you read to climb up the hill side?
“When Jesus saw the crowds,” it begins, “he went up the mountain.” The crowds had seen him. We followed Matthew the story-teller out to the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing. When Jesus got baptized, the heavens opened up. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son.” Crowds gathered around John saw this and heard it. They stopped watching John and fixed their eyes on Jesus.
He then went out to the desert, way out in the deserted wastelands. The crowds didn’t follow him out there. That voice-from-heaven-at-the-baptism trick was cool but they wanted no part of the desert and fasting. Fasting for 40 days? No thank you. Jesus did that on his own. He faced Satan on his own.
But, when he came back and started preaching all around Galilee, and he was an awesome preacher, the crowds came back around. They loved listening to great speakers and they especially loved it when the hot new guy challenged the religious establishment and the tongue-tied scribes and Pharisees had no answer. Jesus went around Galilee healing people of leprosy and curing blindness. He drove demons out of people and cured people of epilepsy (4:24).
Man, word spread! The crowds around Jesus got bigger and bigger. Miracles? We want to see that! Great preaching? We want to hear that! Voices from heaven? We have to be there for that! Go out and fast for 40 days in the desert? There are wild animals out there. You have to search for water out there. You have sleep on the ground and it gets really cold in the desert at night. Yeah, the crowds were all for the miracles and captivating sermons and heavenly happenings. The crowds said no thanks to the scary, uncomfortable, hard stuff.
Who wants to climb the hill?
“When Jesus saw the crowds,” he separated from them. Matthew says, “He went up the mountain.” And he sat down. He had already called the fishing brothers, Peter and Andrew, and the other fishing brothers, James and John (4:21). They left their fishing business, their father – they left it all to follow Jesus. When he climbed up on the hill, they followed. When he sat down, he assumed the posture of a Jewish rabbi preparing to teach his followers. Matthew writes that his disciples came to him (5:1b).
We don’t know who all that was. We can assume Peter and Andrew. We can assume James and John. Matthew has already let us know they immediately left their nets and boats. They traded the fishing life for the life of going wherever Jesus went. They climbed up the hill with him. But Matthew doesn’t limit the description to these four. We know there were more. There will be 12 disciples specified at the beginning of chapter 10. Throughout the Gospel we will meet others positively disposed to following and obeying Jesus.
Also, the crowd will continue to be present gawking at the miracles, laughing when Jesus embarrasses the religious leaders, and calling for his head, when they fear the Roman authorities. The Sermon on the Mount begins in chapter 5 with Jesus walking away from the crowd to go up the mountain, the hill side.
It ends at the end of chapter 7. Matthew lets us know that in fact, crowds did, slowly but surely, make their way up the mountain to hear Jesus. They were astounded by his teaching (7:28). By the beginning of chapter 8, masses of people trailed after him for any variety of reasons. Read Matthew. Jesus didn’t make discipleship easy. He was watching the crowd. He wanted to see who would step out, off the easy path. He wanted to see who give up everything to follow him.
That’s what we want to find out this year in our church. Who wants to follow Jesus? We say that at Hillside church, we follow Jesus, love others, and share hope. We can only give love and share hope if it comes from the Holy Spirit at work in us, speaking through us. We will only be filled with the Spirit if we abandon confidence in earthly systems and all notions of power and security we previously held. We have to be absolutely God-dependent. He has to be Lord of every aspect of our lives.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this separation from the crowd to discipleship, from a confidence in the world to dependence on God as the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Bonhoeffer writes,
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the Gospel [and the God] which must be [actively] sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [we] must knock [and knock and knock. Sometimes we have to climb a hill just to knock on the door.]
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it cost a man his life. It is grace because it gives us the only true, eternal life.[i]
The essence of Bonhoeffer’s message is this. Following Jesus requires a total life change and demands that we be all-in. The crowds give a loud “whoop-whoop” when they see a miracle. Yeah, you go Jesus. The disciple stops what he or she is doing, climbs the hill, and sits to listen as long as Jesus teaches. The crowd, flocks to Jesus when they think there’s something in it for them. The disciple re-orients his life around the words of Jesus even when doing so requires a step of faith.
The first step is to climb the hill. We stop the maddening flow of our lives, step out of the frenetic pace of the world around us., and don’t return until we are driven by the dictates of Jesus. We will live in the world, but we’ll do it on his terms. Only when we have surrendered to him are we ready to come down from the hill, step into the world, and speak truth, give love, and spread hope.
What follows in the Sermon on the Mount is “not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered around Jesus.”[ii] Jesus does not replace the 10 commandments with the beatitudes. His message in the Sermon is this: here’s what life in the new age – the age to come and the age now here – is like.
We will begin this year going throughout the Bible to find those places where God gives a special message, a life-forming word, on a mountain or on a hillside. As a congregation, we will be formed by this life-giving hillside words. Later in the year, we’ll go in depth in the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the other sermons he gives in Matthew.
There was a definite separation, but the crowd wasn’t cut off from Jesus. He went up the hill to see who would step out of the crowd, sit down, and listen to him; and then, stand up as his follower. That’s our invitation to begin 2020. Would you step out of the crowd, climb the hillside, and discover life as a follower of Jesus?
[i] D. Bonhoeffer (1995), The Cost of Discipleship, a Touchstone Book (New York), p.44-45. Originally published in 1934.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas (2006), Brazos Theological Commentary: Matthew, Brazos Press (Grand Rapids), p.61.