This past weekend, I had the chance to attend a seminar at my church taught by Dr. Jonathan Pennington about the book of Matthew. One section of the seminar focused specifically on the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount is not something I’ve studied in depth before. To be honest, it always just made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. Is Jesus asking me to be poor in spirit or to mourn? Does he really expect me to turn the other cheek or to not be anxious about anything? It seems like he’s asking quite a lot of me. It seems like he’s asking me to give a lot of things up and struggle through others. I don’t particularly like being asked to go through difficult things.
I spent the weekend learning about how Jesus is using this as an invitation. He’s beckoning us to what is better. He knows where life is found, and it’s not in giving in to what’s easy, or being well liked, or having lots of leisure time. He knows there is so much more, because he designed us for it, and we were created in him for it, and he is it. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He knows where to find it, far better than I ever will.
That’s how I spent the weekend. Then, this morning, I was reading Ephesians chapter 5 with my students. The idea of darkness and light has been especially poignant to me lately, so when I read the part about taking no part in the works of darkness but exposing them to the light, it stuck with me. When we prayed together, I casually prayed for our darkness to be exposed.
I really meant it more for my students. But the Lord is faithful to answer prayers that I don’t even know I’m praying, to reply to what I don’t even know I need to ask. He revealed some of my own darkness that I’m still holding onto and brought it into the light. He exposed what I wasn’t even aware was hidden.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to a greater righteousness. He doesn’t call us only to external righteousness or piety. He calls us to complete obedience, and that includes our hearts. The hypocrisy Jesus condemns is that of the religious leaders; the people who looked shiny on the outside but whose hearts were dark. He calls them whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers. Being made aware of my own hypocrisy is not comfortable. It’s not enjoyable or fun, and often it’s quite painful. But it’s necessary for his glory and my good, and he is faithful not to leave me in the darkness.
My response to this kind of exposure is typically despair. I am overwhelmed by guilt and shame and regret. I focus on my own shortcomings and failures. The problem with this kind of response is the shame does nothing to change my heart. If my focus is on myself and my own sin, I’m left with nothing but despondency. The focus has to be shifted to Jesus. My distaste for sin grows as my eyes are fixed on Jesus and my affections are focused on him. I once heard my pastor say, “Affections drive you like discipline never will.” This is true in my life, and it is true in yours as well. My affections are what compel me. The more I learn about who God is, the more I obey his commands and find that they are good, the more I practice faithfulness to what he has called me to and I know is true, the more I marvel at his goodness and faithfulness and beauty, the more I seek him, the more I see change in my heart and my life. The more I love him, the more I long to obey.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks a lot of us. But he gives us so much more. He shows us the way to a greater righteousness. He came that we may have life, and have it abundantly, and he gently leads our reluctant souls where they belong.