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Being counter-cultural

Sermon on the Mount  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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To make a good difference in the world, we need to be different, but different in a way that aligns with Jesus.

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Being Different

Are we any different to the people in the community around us? Or maybe the question should be: do we even want to be any different to the people around us?
I suspect our natural inclination would be to answer the question with a yes. We do want to be different.
As we answer that, I suspect our minds are probably thinking about the dysfunction we see in society. And it’s true, there is a lot of dysfunction out there. There are broken families. There is abuse… Lives ruined by addictions. There are confused ideologies that try to normalize abnormalities. People lie and cheat to get ahead. People have turned their back on God, and instead makes gods of the stupidest things.
So naturally, of course we want to be different from this. We know there is a better way, and so we strive for it.
But there is a catch...
You see, it would certainly seem that we try to be different by actually doing the same thing as everyone else.
When we try to be different by doing the same thing, as good as our intentions might be, we actually don’t end up all that different.
That being said, I will acknowledge at this point that we do have an advantage. The Holy Spirit is in our lives and He does transform us.
But there is a partnership we need to enter with the Holy Spirit. And unfortunately we can allow the world to be a bigger influence in our lives.
You see, this is what I think happens. We look at that dysfunction that I just described, and we think, okay, the way to do better, is to try harder.
And so how do we try harder? Well, this is where we take our lessons from the world.
We try harder by asserting ourselves more. We try harder by showing everybody how good we are. Because, after all, whats the point of doing something good if we don’t get credit for it???
We try harder by being the strongest and the loudest. Believe in yourself! Reach for the stars! Try and try again.
You could probably reach for any of the copious quantity of self-help books that exist today and just apply it to our endeavour to be different. In fact, I somehow get the feeling that many of the books in Koorong may just have done that.
And what happens when we try harder like the rest of the world? Well, sadly, I think the answer is that we don’t end up that different to the rest of the world.
The fights that exist in the church end up just as ugly, maybe even sometimes uglier then the fights in other groups. We end up with just as much abuse, addiction, confused thinking, fraudulent behaviour, and misplaced gods as the rest of the world.
We want to be different, but when we try to get there by the same means as everyone else, there isn’t much of a difference. The only real difference is perhaps some different beliefs, but not much more.
But if rather than looking to the world to achieve our intended difference, and allowed the Holy Spirit to be our guide, we’ll actually find the way of Jesus - something that is very different in its approach.
As we’ll soon see, it will be counter-intuitive. Because it is the opposite of a strength based approach.
But its the approach Jesus teaches and its the approach that Jesus modelled for us.
This year, an overarching theme that I’ve been trying to weave through all of the messages is that we want to be people who are making a difference in the world around us.
Well, to make a difference, that is to say, a difference pleasing to God, then we’re going to be best placed to do this when we live in this counter-cultural way that Jesus has showed us.
And that’s what I’m going to explore this morning.

Sermon on the Mount intro

I’m going to be doing so by looking at the opening section of the sermon on the mount, known as the Beatitudes. I’m going to spend a few weeks in this section known as the Sermon on the Mount, so let’s give ourselves a bit of context.
We’ve given it the name, ‘Sermon on the Mount’, because at the start of Matthew 5, we’re told that Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down and began to teach the disciples. Now when you read disciples in this context, remember that sometimes ‘disciples’ can refer to the 12 disciples chosen by Jesus, at other times, it can more generally mean anyone who has decided to follow Jesus. On this occasion, it would be safe to assume the later, given that at the end of this section of teaching, the people listening are described as crowds.
Now the name is perhaps a little misleading as the place that is commonly thought of as the location for this teaching, is not exactly a mountain - more of a hill with a flat top. But perhaps this isn’t something we need to worry too much about.
What’s more important is the fact that the three chapters that follow represent the radical teaching of Jesus that shapes the way Jesus wants to approach life.
As we go through various sections of this, we’ll see just how counter-cultural Jesus was. It wasn’t just a superficial difference that closely resembles everything else - it was rather a completely different approach which quite frankly, has shifted the whole way the world now thinks.
We’ll see lessons that are well known in society, even if they don’t always follow, or perhaps I should say, rarely. Lessons such as, turn the other cheek. Or the so called golden rule - do to others what you would have them do to you.
We’ll explore these and more over the next few weeks.
What we essentially have, is Jesus setting the direction for his ministry. We’re not exactly at the start of his ministry years, but it would seem we’re pretty close.
It’s not going to tell us everything about the gospel - the wonderful news of the salvation that will come through Jesus, but rather, it is a way for us to strive towards.
And the opening section, which we’ll look at right now, will start by turning everything upside down.


We call the opening section the beatitudes. The word “beatitude” actually derives from the Latin word for Blessed - the word that will feature a lot in this section. Why we use the Latin word, and not the Greek word as it originally appears in the Bible?? Well, I guess that’s tradition for you.
So what follows is actually Jesus calling people blessed who by the reckoning of most people, are certainly not blessed.
I’ll explore them in just a moment, but take a quick look through the passage, and we’ll see things like people who mourn, people who are meek, and even people who are persecuted.
These are not the people you would expect to be called blessed - so what in the world is Jesus going on about?
Well, let’s unpack it a bit and see if we can figure what’s going on...

Poor in Spirit

First off, Jesus call blessed, those that are poor in Spirit.
Now, immediately we need to ask, what does it mean to be poor in Spirit?
Actually, before I answer that, it is interesting to note, that if you compare this passage, with what is essentially the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel, (namely Luke 6:20), you might actually note that Jesus is quoted as saying there, “Blessed are you who are poor”, leaving off those two words, “in Spirit”.
So I think an argument could be made that there is a blessing in this on those who lack some basic needs. However, I believe there is more in the thinking of Jesus on this matter .
You see, if you look at the way the Old Testament uses the word poor, while it can mean lacking of the material possessions, but it also often talks about those being poor as being contrite and with a humble spirit.
Therefore, to be “poor in Spirit”, is to acknowledge our spiritual poverty… our spiritual bankruptcy before God.
We recognise our sinfulness… recognise that we deserve nothing.
There was a very simple parable that Jesus spoke which I believe points us to what he is talking about here.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus describes a Pharisee who prays loud and proud… who does all the right things.
But then describes a tax collector, who just beats his breast and says: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
This helps us get a picture of the blessed person who is poor in Spirit.
And what is the promise for this person - well, they get to inherit the kingdom of heaven. That seems pretty amazing - but actually this is really an early glimpse of the fuller picture of the gospel that we will see more later.


So let me move to the second blessed… blessed are those who mourn.
Now it could almost seem a little ironic, as being blessed could be translated as ‘Happy are the unhappy’.
So what’s going on here?
Well, while Jesus can provide comfort to our general sorrows, I’m actually going to suggest that there is a bit of a progression happening in what Jesus is saying here.
He started with the poor in Spirit, which I’ve suggested is primarily focused on our contrite heart before God. There’s a second stage to this, and that is in mourning over our sinfulness. You could say, the first stage is confession, the second is contrition.
But the beautiful thing is that as we do, we actually find comfort.


There’s more that could be said, but let’s move to the third - blessed are the meek.
Now a prominent picture that is often painted of Jesus is the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. He’s weak, and often effeminate.
Let me suggest this is a poor image to hold.
For Jesus, the meekness comes from being in very nature God, but rather made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant.
For us, meekness comes in having a true estimate of ourselves. As we do this, we actually see others better.
We can actually see a third step in a progression here. We start with poor in Spirit - we’re sinners! We grieve over it… and we see who we are.
But as we do, we gain the whole world - “… for they will inherit the earth”.

Hunger and Thirst for righteousness

But I think there is even a fourth step in this progression.
In our spiritual poverty… in that true estimate of ourselves, now we are in a better place to seek after righteousness, but we actually find we have a hunger and thirst for it.
And this is the fourth blessed… “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”.
I think there is good reason to think Jesus chose this order on purpose. Because it is in getting ourselves in the right frame of mind, that actually allows us to move in the direction we intend to.


As we keep going through, we start to see the natural flow on effect for the person who has undergone this progression.
Blessed are the merifcul, for they will be shown mercy.
At the heart of this, is mercy - something we should be eternally thankful for, because had we not been shown mercy, our sins would have crushed us.

Pure in Heart

This is followed with… “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”.
The purity we’re talking about here, is not the outward show. It’s very easy to put on a show to let people see how amazing you are. Sadly, there are too many stories of the good churchman who goes home and beats up his wife. Or the preacher getting caught in sexual sin.
You’re not trying to impress the others in this building - you’re trying to impress God.


The seventh is “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.
I just love this idea of a peacemaker. Notice, it’s not just peace keeper… it’s peace maker.
We don’t just: not start a quarrel. We actively work towards peace.
And when we think peace - we should actually think of peace in God’s terms - the Shalom we often talk about. The unity and harmony that can be found in Christ.
But I want to suggest that if we’re not seeking after the qualities we’ve just been talking about, then this sort of peace is not really going to happen.


Finally, we come to the one where we perhaps will really throw our hands in the air and think - really!!!
This time, Jesus says: “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness”
Now really??? We might be able to come to an acceptance that there can be blessings to be found in the other things we’ve spoken about - although sometimes even some of them can be a bit tricky.
But how can we be considered blessed when we are persecuted.
Now it’s perhaps worth noting that we can think of persecution on different levels.
Sometimes we might talk about being persecuted for being a Christian here in Australia. We might point to things like the criticisms we face… the attacks on values we hold dear… Public ridicule...
And it’s true, these things do happen. But then there’s the persecution we see in other countries. We’re literally your life is at stake. You can be beaten, even tortured for your faith.
Particularly, when we talk about this level of persecution, but even when we talk more in terms of being ridiculed - how can this be considered a blessing?
Well the answer comes in the verse - “…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
It’s reiterated in verse 12: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”.

A new attitude

These beatitudes might be difficult to get our heads around. They’re difficult because they are so counter-cultural.
You see, we’re taught that pride is a virtue. We want to get ahead, whatever the cost. You’re strong enough, just find that inner strength.
You know what? That actually leads to a path of disappointment.
We try to Christianize those same worldly pursuits, but it leads to the same worldly disappointment.
The path we take is a very different one. It’s a path that recognises that we’re not worthy. It recognises that righteousness is not something we find in ourselves, it’s something we find in Christ. We then start relating to one another the way Christ does.
And it’s not always going to go smoothly. In fact, more than that, we can actually expect difficult times.
But in that, we find a blessing unlike any blessing this world can offer. The blessings that this world offers is superficial at best. The world might promise - work hard and you’ll earn a lot of money. Even if this were always true (and there are plenty of times when its not), that money you’ll earn is hardly a blessing.
The blessing we get is ultimately a heavenly blessing. But don’t just think it’s a future blessing. That blessing starts now. Because when you follow this way of Jesus, you find comfort… you find mercy… you even get to see God. But you get to be part of a kingdom that has already been established, and is growing like a mustard tree.
When we understand this blessing, then we begin to understand why it is that we can be blessed, even when we are persecuted.

our challenge

The challenge for us is to not be tempted to shift into the worldly mode.
The devil is constantly there trying to push us into a different way.
I mentioned that we might face ridicule here in Australia for our beliefs. Or the attacks against various values we hold. It is easy to shift into combat mode.
Now, while we can legitimately stand up for ourselves, we need to do so in a way that as far as practically possible, we recognise our own spiritual poverty… that we show mercy… that we seek after peace… and ultimately that we recognise that persecution is inevitable. This is not easy. But it is what we are called to.


We want to make a difference in this world in which God has placed us.
We know that we have something beautiful that the world around us, for the most part, can’t see. We have the gospel. The good news that though we’re not worthy, God has made a way for us. We know that there is hope to be found in the midst of a life and a world that can seem so hopeless.
And we want to make a difference in this world.
We want to make a difference by standing apart and showing a much better way of living. One where there is peace. One where we live like God’s kingdom is already here.
But we come unstuck. We come unstuck because we try to do this the worldly way.
What if instead of following the world, we actually start following what Jesus actually said. You see, even though it is going to go against our natural instinct, it is only as we shift into this way, that we’re actually going to be different in the way Jesus wants us to be different.
And when we’re this kind of different, then we’ll start making a difference with others.
There are blessings to be found in the ways of Jesus. They might not look like the blessings that the ads on TV promise, but believe me, the blessings offered by Jesus are so much better.
So let’s try this better way.
Let me pray...
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