Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Musings: The Sermon, The Scholar, and The Stick


I had been going about this the wrong way for pretty much my whole life.

Through my teen years in the home-school system, every one of my peers had memorized the Sermon on the Mount. All three chapters, Matthew 5-7. In King James English. Sometimes with hand motions. We could rattle off the Beatitudes in a single breath, because it was the next part that was tricky: all the "Ye have heard that it was said"s that you couldn't get mixed up with the ones that started "It hath been said" or even "Ye have heard that it hath been said." Jesus had prefaced this whole thing with the admonition that He "had not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it." If then He dispenses instructions beginning with "I say unto you," shouldn't we follow those instructions? Wasn't that vital to working for (er, I mean with) Jesus to accomplish His mission of fulfilling the Law?

I had always assumed yes; so did a lot of curriculum developers in the home-school program we used. There were even helpful little booklets covering each verse with insightful applications on how we could demonstrate our adherence to the words of Jesus, and fascinating scientific explanations on how the negative situation Jesus warned against actually carried biological ramifications and sound medical judgment. I was so enamored with the idea of actually being able to apply even the verse that said "Be ye therefore perfect," that I followed hard after these "basic principles" and "seven-step processes" with every intention of turning Jesus' Sermon on the Mount into my own Holy To-Do List. (Jesus got up early and fasted regularly? I better do that too! Paul says to dress modestly? I guess I'd better make sure the clothes I wear do not even hug my body and cover from my collarbone to my calves! David made a commitment not to put any vain thing before his eyes, so I guess for me that means not reading any book that isn't by a Christian author and not reading/writing anything that does not have a clear, direct Gospel presentation! Wow! Look how much Holy I can get done all by myself!)

I was so intent on the words of Jesus 
that I completely missed hearing His voice.
I was so enthralled at His eloquence  
that I forgot His audience.

Who was Jesus talking to in these chapters? It's the first two verses of Matthew 5, the ones I would always mumble through when I quoted the passage because it was just preliminary stuff: "And seeing the multitudes, He [Jesus] went up into a mountain. And when He was set, HIS DISCIPLES came unto Him, and He opened His mouth and taught THEM..." (emphasis mine)

Oh wait. Haha, silly me. So often, I had carried this image in my head of Jesus broadcasting His sermon to scads of people in a valley that was shaped just like an amphitheater, making Him the first Christian open-air preacher.

But when I look back at the verse, it's not the crowd He's addressing. His voice probably didn't even reach the front of the crowd. Jesus saw the multitudes, but it doesn't say "the MULTITUDES came unto Him." 

They were like me, absorbed in their own thing while every so often glancing over to see if they could pick out a word or two, but never bothering to move any closer. Being within sight was close enough, right?  Proximity was next to intimacy, right? No doubt there was some scholar there who fancied he could read lips, so his friends all elect him to watch Jesus closely and relay what He's saying so they could all play at being disciples too. I can just imagine it....

"What's He saying?"
"I think He's saying that looking lustfully is adultery."
"Ooh, hear that, guys? No more looking lustfully! In fact, just avoid any kind of admiration of physical appearance altogether. You want to pay a compliment, just say how pretty their smile is. Easy enough! What else?"
"Umm, I think He said if we get angry at someone that's the same as murder."
"Okay, wow! So as long as we just stop getting angry (at least as far as anyone can tell), no one can accuse us of murder. What else?"
"Hang on, I think that last one was something like turn the other cheek and love your enemies."
"Man! This Jesus must be one tough Rabbi! How are we ever going to qualify to be His disciples?"
"Oh.... snap..."
"What? You're looking really pale."
"He... He just said..."
"What? There's more?"
"He said we had to be as perfect as He is."
"WHAT?"
"I'm not kidding."
"Well, that's it, we're screwed." 
"Say, I have a better idea: why don't we just take all of these things and figure out the best and most efficient way to live them out?"
"Yeah, I mean, a person can only do his best, right? I'm sure Jesus will understand."

I would probably be the one lip-reading. Pretty sure I picked up on Jesus' meaning. I better repeat the words to myself hundreds of times to make sure I get them all in the right order. I want to be thorough when it comes to the Word of God! I'd trot my merry way down the Christian Walk, making sure I was DOING everything a Christian disciple DOES.
Never realizing that what Jesus was trying to tell me was that He already DID everything, and all I needed to DO was live in light of what He had DONE. While I am furiously scanning the fine print in my To-Do List, Jesus is behind me, picking up the slack paper and checking ALL the boxes. 

I get to the end, and throw the paper away like so much confetti.
"I can't DO this!" I scream.
"DO what?" Jesus asks, calmly stopping beside me as I throw myself on the ground and bury my head in my arms.
"The Sermon!" I grouse. "All these admonitions and instructions! I can't help admiring good-looking guys—is it really that wrong? I get mad at people without even realizing it, and I think I prefer the eye-for-an-eye law instead of this turn-the-other-cheek stuff! I'm tired of getting slapped around! Being a disciple is not HARD, it's IMPOSSIBLE!"
Jesus is gathering the list in His hands; it must be my imagination, but I can almost see it shrinking to the size of a single sheet.
He chuckles. "Aren't you glad you came to Me, then?"

I sigh. "I don't know; it just seems like this Sermon of Yours makes everything just that much harder."

"Why?"

I give Him a look. (Shameful of me, but I do!) "Because there is no way I can control my inner self! The thoughts and desires just happen before I can take them captive, and the heart is deceitfully wicked, as Jeremiah says!"

He's got my whole list in just one of His hands now, and He's glancing at it with an amused glint in His eye. "I KNOW, child," He says. "What you've said about your thoughts and your desires is true... Which is why I GAVE you Mine on the day we met."

I don't quite understand; when am I going to get the "Sermon Application" section that tells me HOW He wants me to DO all the things on my list? "Huh?"

"My heart, My desires; when you gave yours over to Me, I didn't leave you empty-hearted, now did I?"

"Well, no," I admit, "You did come into my heart—"

"And from that moment on, I MADE it completely Mine, as much of it as you would give Me."

As I listened to His voice, I began to breathe easier. "I gave You all the rooms You wanted," I said. The list—what list? Lists didn't matter anymore. Jesus mattered.

"And since your heart is Mine, and I LIVE in it, how do you think I feel when you call My dwelling 'deceitfully wicked' like you did just now?"

........ Oh, well... When You say it THAT way...

"So..." I sigh, "what am I going to do about that list?" I point to it in His hands. It must be an optical illusion, because there is no way all that long list could be so tiny as it looks now that Jesus holds it!

He laughs. "Weren't you listening? I didn't give these things as a checklist," He holds out the paper, which looks more like a rod. "It's a measuring stick."

"Oh great." I can already tell that the length of the stick extends way over my head. Echoes of Romans 3:23 ring in my ears: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

I look back at Jesus. The measuring stick reaches the top of His head, but no higher. 
"How are You helping, exactly?"
"Look at Me, child."
"I'm looking."
"Do you not see that no matter how hard YOU try, how much YOU do... you still won't be any taller?"

I nodded. (Matthew 6:27, "Which of you by giving thought can add one cubit to his stature?")

"Do you also see that I, who live in you, who have given you all that I AM and made you Mine, have already achieved the height of this rod?"

Realization. An epiphany breaks across my feeble brain, that I thought was so smart for coming up with all these ideas for personal convictions and restrictions so that I could qualify on every level of that list—
The list that Jesus is now showing me. Every item is checked, marked with His blood--even the "extra credit" ones I added to replace those things I had never been able to do. The list has been covered. 

"DONE," He says. 

"So now what?" I ask. "That's it?"

He shrugs. "You gave it to Me. That's all I wanted. I didn't tell you these things for you to carry them away by yourself. The Sermon was about everything I have done to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Weren't you listening when I said 'I have come to fulfill the Law'? Father knows We didn't create YOU all for that purpose!"

"What about the Christian Life, though?" I still want to know. "What about excelling still more?"

"Let Me live and love through you, child," He says gently, hugging me close. "Let Me do what I want in your mind, soul, and spirit. Don't push Me off or run ahead of Me. Don't ignore Me when I call or forget about Me when your day gets busy. Focus on Me and letting Me work in and through you, don't get distracted by how much you and others are not measuring up. You can't ever measure up—but don't let that stop you! I'll keep walking right beside you till we reach The End, and you don't have to walk any more. As long as you walk with Me, you are walking with the One Who is perfect; you are following the One Who fulfills all of the Law AND the Prophets, the One Who measures up. 

"Child, ask yourself: how much MORE excellent do you really need to be than I AM?"
"But—"

"Just promise Me that as long as I AM still walking, you will still be walking, too; can you DO at least that much?" He winks as He throws my own words back at me.

Can I? Looking at Him, so full of love and tenderness and every good and perfect thing, I know in the very depths of my soul I would rather do nothing else. "I promise to keep walking," I say.

"That's My girl!" Jesus takes my hand and pulls me to my feet. "Let's keep going, and I'll show you exactly what My Sermon was all about."
------------------------------------------

It's not a To-Do List, that I should be able to convince myself that spiritual success consisted of being able to mark down my own achievements. It's a measuring stick, where that which is measured is entirely not up to me. There is no diet or discipline that will make me any "taller" in the sight of God, any more than the tallest structure on earth will bring me nearer to His Sight. My only option is to walk with Jesus, follow His lead and His pace, keep in step with His Spirit, and He will lead me in the Way Everlasting.