Tuesday, August 26, 2008

let's go mountain climbing

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:” – Matt 5:1-2

Jesus never acted haphazardly. Jesus’ every word, his every act, was packed with symbolic punch. And Jesus’ first teaching lesson was no exception. Jesus chose to climb a mountain. But why? Why not teach from the base of the mountain? After all, the base of the mountain is where the crowds were. Why would Jesus leave the crowds - the very people so in need of saving – in order to go mountain-climbing?

Jesus had Israel’s great lawgiver in mind. The “mountain-top” was a loaded symbol for Jesus’ contemporaries. Mount Sinai is where God gave Moses the Torah, i.e., the law to govern Israel’s life as a holy and called-out people with a unique vocation to bless the world. By choosing to climb a mountain before beginning his teaching ministry, Jesus is, at a minimum, making a scandalous claim – that he is the “new Moses,” the new lawgiver. To many of Jesus’ contemporaries, this was a blasphemous act – perhaps the equivalent of a modern Christian claiming to be a “new Jesus” with a new and improved mission.

That being said, Jesus wasn’t a carbon copy of Moses. Jesus symbolically shifted things in need of shifting – things central to Jesus’ mission. For example, only Moses was given permission to climb God’s mountain. Only Moses could touch the mountain. The penalty for touching God’s mountain, for animals and humans alike, was death (Ex 19:12). And Moses would travel back and forth – up and down God’s mountain – to receive God’s law and to give that law to the Israelites. In other words, Moses was a mediator – through Moses, and through Moses only, God’s law and wisdom and holiness and perfection and grace and judgment and presence was mediated to the people. But Jesus was different. Yes, Jesus was (and Jesus is) God’s unique mediator. But Jesus’ method is radically different. You see, Jesus invited people to climb the mountain with him. And Jesus’ invitation to climb God’s mountain marks a radical shift in the history of God’s dealings with humanity. We have been invited to climb the mountain. And this must not be overlooked or taken for granted. For the first time in human history, all are invited to climb the mountain and receive God’s gracious law. All are invited to ascend God’s mountain and experience first-hand God’s wisdom and holiness and perfection and grace and judgment (which is also an act of grace – but that’s a different blog entry).

And so Jesus climbs the mountain. And he sits down. That’s how rabbis taught in the first-century. The rabbi would sit – the people would stand (as a preacher I wouldn’t mind returning to the biblical model). Some people chose to climb the mountain with Jesus. Others no doubt just scratched their heads and decided to stay at the base. Which group are we in?

FOR TODAY: Contemplate Jesus’ role as God’s new lawgiver. Jesus didn’t just hurl a few stone tablets down a mountain. Jesus sat patiently and he explained, to all who were willing to listen, God’s intent behind the Mosaic Law. It’s really easy in our world to stay at the base of the mountain. The base is where the crowds are. After all, mountain-climbing takes a little bit of effort on our part. But Jesus is at the top. He’s sitting and patiently waiting. And today’s task is simple: climb the mountain and learn.


KAM said...

Another excellent post. Thanks for teaching.

Lindsey H. said...

good one, john. very interesting, contemplative, and metaphorical... what i have come to expect.