Saturday, September 29, 2012

Taking Jesus at His Word -- A Review

TAKING JESUS AT HIS WORD: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.  X + 166 pages.

                The Sermon on the Mount, three chapters of text found in the Gospel of Matthew (and in briefer form and separate location in Luke), is a perennial challenge to Christians.  We like pieces of it – especially the Lord’s Prayer, which many of us recite each Sunday – but many other statements are difficult to receive.  Oh, we like the words; we just don’t see them being a realistic vision for this life.  Maybe in the next life we can love our enemies and turn the cheek, but in this life, especially in places where Christians are the majority, we feel the need to relegate them to a rather spiritual reality.

                  Having preached on this sermon myself, I know the difficulty of receiving the word that is present here, but are we who claim to be followers of Jesus willing to take him at his word?

                Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and college chaplain, has taken up the sermon and has tried to exposit it for the contemporary Christian.  He believes that it not only speaks to life in the coming kingdom (that heavenly one so many Christians pine for), but to life in the present.  Here we have a word that offers guidance and direction for living the Christian life in a welcoming and ethical manner. 

                In this book Hart takes us step by step through the sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes.  Actually, he starts by inviting us to take the sermon seriously and then sets up the context.  Then, the exposition begins.  Hart writes that his wish for this book is that we’ll join him in a journey up the mountain to where Jesus shares this word.  He invites us to do so with imagination and with notebook in hand.  He goes up the mountain in the later stages of life, having already experienced life’s sorrows and joys.  His intent isn’t to theologize too much or even do too much exegetical work.  He writes that “this is a book of reflections; and I want to put any tendency to rationalize and categorize to one side, as best I can, and try to hear Jesus speak” (p. 2).  His focus isn’t on doctrines about Jesus, but the words of Jesus, seeking to hear them anew in a way that will transform life lived in this realm.   This is a book about living faithfully as a follower of Jesus.  He writes as one who had a priest, but who left the priesthood because he found it too hierarchical.  And as you read the book you’ll hear in his words a challenge to our institutional tendency to take a hierarchical road.  Though he writes for Christians, he welcomes all who would hear the words of Jesus to take the journey with him through the sermon. 

                After setting the context by getting us up the hill to where Jesus is teaching about God’s realm, he asks us to consider the question – what does this sermon have to say to us?  This is where the question of its realism comes into play.  He notes that many have suggested that the sermon is an unattainable ideal, but while a difficult road, he doesn’t think it an impossible one.  It takes patience and commitment, however.  At the same time, he warns us not to take the words too lightly, so that we think we can with little difficulty take up the quest.  The words aren’t merely inspirational.  We are called upon not only to hear, but to do.

                And so we take the journey.  We begin with the beatitudes, which define for us in nine statements the way of discipleship.  These words, taken seriously, should challenge the way live.  After all, how does one be a peacemaker and don a military uniform?  In the course of the next several chapters, he speaks of how Jesus invites us to internalize – not spiritualize – the Torah.  It’s not enough to keep the letter if the heart remains unchanged.  He speaks too of Jesus’ discussion of the spiritual practices that define the life of the kingdom – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  He writes about the way we deal with riches and anxiety, about judgment and the golden rule.  As he brings the exposition to a close, he notes that Jesus offers us a narrow pathway, one that involves doing not just hearing.  It’s not merely, saying yes to Jesus and then going on with life as usual.

                The title of the sixteenth and final chapter is instructive – he entitles it “The Sermon that has No End.”  By this he means, it’s a sermon that we must continually come back to so that it might challenge us and guide us into the future.  What this sermon does is call us to “examine our lives at their deepest levels and to work strenuously on our own, ongoing transformation.  It is a handbook for disciples who wish to shape their interior lives in such a way that, no matter what the practical daily functions of a community of disciples may look like the disciples personal ethic and behavior remains consistent with the character of God’s kingdom and righteousness” (p. 131). 

                Hart’s book doesn’t offer us any new and unique insight, but he does continually reinforce the importance of attending to these words as we live lives before God.  These aren’t simply words to hold up as an ideal that we celebrate but never seek to live into.  The challenge is difficult, but the life lived with this sermon will be transformative. 

                The book includes a study guide that makes it useful for study groups.  It also includes two appendices, one dealing with Jesus’ words and how we interpret them, and then one that focuses on the perennial issue of judgment.  As with most appendices, these chapters illuminate matters previously discussed, but which go beyond the scope of the sermon itself.

                It’s a good book.  It’s readable, challenging, and it reminds us that these are words to take seriously if we seek to follow Jesus.

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