I used to be a youth pastor. You’re probably thinking that makes perfect sense. I’m young. I’m hyper. At the time, I was a college student earning a Bible degree. It’s a great fit! Right?
I’m cut-out to be a youth pastor like Noel is meant to be a punk rocker. Don’t get me wrong; I think I did a lot of good during my three years of youth ministry. Erin and I developed some good relationships with the kids and took them to some valuable events. But what I really wanted to do was teach the Bible. And since I had been pegged as youth pastor, the teenagers were the lucky recipients.
The thing is, they never seemed to be interested in learning what I was interested in teaching. Hebraic wordplay in the Psalms. Archaeological insights into the book of Judges. The presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van TO (ah, Van Til). And of course, the life-shaping brilliance of The Man, John Calvin. They were more into Backstreet Boys and Pokemon.
It was not uncommon for me to spend half an hour meticulously laying out a concept that I found riveting, only to discover that no one had absorbed a single thing I’d said. Once, after walking them through a complex argument for the inerrancy of Scripture, I asked how we know we can trust the Bible. “Because it’s written in language that sounds old, like thee and thou and stuff” came the confident reply. On another occasion, upon completing a study of hospitality in Paul’s prison epistles, I desperately asked, “Does anyone even know what we’re studying tonight???” Three people responded in unison, “A hospital.”
And, of course, my favorite miscommunication: We’d been studying the Bedouin lifestyle and how it informs our understanding of the patriarchs. By way of review, I asked the class, “Does anyone remember what a nomad is?” A high school freshman tentatively ventured, “Someone who doesn’t get mad?”
Eventually I left the youth work to someone more gifted in that area. And while I was more suited to teaching adults, I also learned to contextualize things a little more—to present the Bible as relevant to the lives of the people studying it. The Bible is a book about living real life, not just a collection of poems and tales from several millennia ago. If only I had realized that in the late nineties, I could have spared those youth kids some brain-numbing boredom.
That’s why I’ve loved preaching through the Sermon on the Mount so far. Jesus is teaching us things that connect as well in 2006 as they did in A.D. 25 (don’t forget, Jesus was born in about 6 B.C... I have a half-hour long lesson about it, if anyone wants to hear it). Today, just as in Jesus’ day, men and women have a tendency to be stingy with our mercy. To allow our hearts to be corrupted with sinful, prideful thoughts. To refuse to be a peacemaker if it means accepting blame or giving up the right to say, “I told you so.” These tendencies have never changed and never will until Our Lord comes back to make all things new. The venue of these sins might change with the times, but at our core, people have the same deceitful wicked hearts as the Sermon on the Mount’s original audience. Only when we submit to the renewing work of the Spirit will we exhibit the kinds of “beautiful attitudes” described in the beatitudes. When God is having his way with us, the inexplicable happens: we have compassion on that driver who cuts us off and don’t tell him he’s “number one;” we banish thoughts of lust, pride, and covetousness before they even set up camp in our minds; we let those snide comments designed to draw us into a verbal war slide off instead of sink in. Not to steal my own thunder from an upcoming sermon, but that’s partially what Jesus meant when he instructed us to be “salt and light.” This kind of behavior is so weird in our world that people can’t help but take notice. Before you know it, your friends have nicknamed you “Nomad.”
You know what would make me ecstatic? If you would take fifteen minutes this week and read through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Imagine what It would have been like to sit and hear it when it was first preached. ..and think about how it is every bit as relevant to life today as it was then You know, Jesus likely followed the rabbinical form and allowed his disciples to ask questions at intervals throughout the sermon. What would you have asked if you were there? Please, share your questions and observations with me.
Soli Deo Gloria,