Sunday, August 31, 2014


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 31, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 7: 24-29

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. [1]

I was inspired looking at the Sermon on the Mount last week, to take another look this week. And this week I decided on looking at the end, which would allow me to go look back at the whole of the sermon, looking back at some of the key points, in the context of this ending and the reaction of the crowds. At the end of the three chapter sermon, Jesus finishes, and it says that the crowds were "astounded." I get that. . . I get astounded. . . especially in light of teachings like last week's where Jesus says we are not supposed to stand up to evil. . . yes I get astounded. Because "Astounded" means overcome with shock and wonder. Yes if you take a look at the sermon on the mount. . . Matthew 5-here at 7:27. . . you look at it with careful fresh eyes, trying your best to recreate the environment of the folks hearing it live. . . and yes astounded. . . I think would be the word to describe it. It is hard for us to do that though. This sermon has been picked apart, studied, examined. . . its teachings have become cliche to an extent. . . its teachings have been watered down. . . its teachings have been taken out of context. . . and from our familiarity with them we have lost a bit of that astoundedness. . . but if we can try to recapture it this morning. . . to become astounded again. . . do you have room in your heart for shock and wonder. . . when it comes to the teachings of Jesus Christ?
But amazingly it isn't the teaching that astounds the crowd at all. As amazing as the teaching is. . . as challenging as the teaching is. . . as seemingly new and fresh, and original as the teaching is. . . it is not the teaching that astounds the crowd, but instead it says. . . it is the fact that Jesus speaks with authority. The Greek word is "exoosia" . . . do you hear that word. . . "exoosia" . . . it means the kind of guy that can get stuff done. . . a guy with bonifides. . . a guy with liberty. . . a guy with real power. . . and interestingly enough it says, "not like the scribes." It is interesting because the scribes are the people that should have the authority. . . they are the ones who should be in the know. . . who should know what they are talking about. . . who have the authority to preach the scriptures to say what's what. . . for people to listen to them, but they obviously do not. . . they should but they don't, and Jesus does.
As I was thinking about this, this week. . . I was drawn to thinking about this idea of speaking with authority. . . and what it's all about. I was deep in the throws of three a day football practice. . . we had football players looking to us for direction and guidance and motivation, and correction, and care, and concern for them. . . these are new students, some of them freshman, many of them first time away from home, and doing something harder than most of them had ever done before. We had to teach them and get them in shape enough to play a game yesterday and we only had a week to do it. But it was interesting to think about what it is that gets people's attention. . . because it really is that idea of speaking with authority.
We have four coaches and each of us have our own style at how to speak. . . how to compel attention with the right authority. The head coach is older, reserved, intelligent, caring. . . we have a young coach who is an alum. .. a former player. . . not much older than them. . . We have another coach who is 6'7 really big, played division I football in college at Indiana University. . . and me, reserved. . . yet not afraid to get intense and yell if the time is right. Somehow though we all speak with authority. . . at least so far. . . its a good mix. . and we have the boys listening to us at this point.  . . I've also coached now with four different head coaches in my career, too, and all of them have had different styles. They had different styles, but they all came through, they all spoke with this idea. . . authority. Some people think you have to yell and be intense to get the attention of football players. . . maybe. . . some people think you have to have been a player yourself. . . some people think you have to be old. . . some people think you have to be young. . . to be able to relate. . . some people think you have to be fun. . . some people think  you have to be stern and serious. I've seen it all and all coaches are different. But I think what really matters is being genuine, that  you care, that you show up, that you are there in the first place. . . people respect people who show up. . . kids certainly do. . . they have a respect for people who are there for them, and are not just there, but real and present. . . sometimes the other stuff fades over time. . . you may have their ear early because they like you, or because you are fun, or because you are scary and yell and scream, or that they are impressed with your resume as a player or as a coach, but those don't last. . . if you are genuine you'll speak with greater impact, and it seems to be the kind of impact that will last. People will look to  you and see that you are someone who is real. Is that what we have from Jesus here? Is it that Jesus has shown these people he cares, that he's there, that he's genuine?
I think so, it has to be a part of it. . . I know it's hard to separate our concept of Jesus from the movie versions. . . like the idea that Jesus comes up, and you can see the glowing halo above his head, or his crystal blue eyes. . . the caring stare that heals the pain in Charlton Heston's Ben Hurr, that makes him forget his quest for revenge. . . It's hard to get beyond the idea that Jesus would be walking around and every one would automatically know that he was the son of God. . . remember that even those closest to him. . .those following him. .. his disciples. . .though they do follow, it is not until much later that they begin to identify Jesus as something more than just a really powerful rabbi. . . but a Christ. .. a messiah. . . but something does draw these people to Jesus. .. this thing Matthew calls "authority" "exoosia". . . because some of the things Jesus is saying are a major challenge to us. . . and certainly would have been to his contemporary audience. Obviously last week's, "Don't stand up to evil" would be hard. . . for they had evil all around them. They were occupied, oppressed, by a foreign and cruel empire from a distance, and a corrupt sellout governmental system closer to them. They knew what it was like to walk down the street and have occupying soldiers there, who had the military might and authority to use force and intimidation tactics to get whatever they wanted. It is in this situation that Jesus says for the crowd not to worry. . . that their needs and wants would be taken care of. . . that like the birds of the air and the lillies of the field their needs would be supplied. . . hard sell for people who have been poor, but yet they listened, yet they were intrigued, yet they followed, did they believe? Did they yet? He had authority. . . but what is it? What is it about what he is saying? Is it how he is saying it? Or is it just that he has "it". . . that hard to pin down idea of charisma. . . the gift.
Matthew's gospel has this sermon early in its pages. Jesus hasn't done all that much yet. . . but it would seem there is already a growing reputation. He has done some healings and some ministry, but they are only talked about in generalizations in the text. . .  never as  yet has the narrative slowed down enough to really tell one of those stories. . . so here is Jesus' first big moment for the crowds. . . and without doing any real miracles he's up there talking. . . and he has authority. He has exoosia. . . . I wish I knew more about this idea. . .
One of the things that we do as people, people who try to speak with authority is that we are always trying to figure out what our authority is. . . so that we can hold on to it. We want to know, hey why do people listen to us? What is it? Is it my credentials? Is it my ability to turn a phrase? Is it that I am telling people what they want to hear? Is it that I haven't stepped outside my comfort zone, nor the comfort zone of my audience? What if I challenge the people? What if I offend? What if I say something wrong? Will I lose all of my credibility if I do? These are the things that go through our minds. It certainly does for me. . . as a teacher. . . constantly we are taught as teachers to teach to the students, to teach in ways that they will receive the information, to meet them wherever they are and help them get up the mountain. I don't think I could be effective of doing that if I didn't speak with that whole authority thing. And even here. . . I am much younger than most of you. . . yet you listen. . . yet you come back. . . I do sometimes ask myself what is it. . . is it the building . . . is it the tradition. . . is it the fact that you always have. . . But what about new people and visitors, what makes them come? What will make them stay? Certainly it is partly what is going on up here. . . I think we as humans worry about that. . . and I do to some extent. . . but I think that if you are worried too much about that stuff, you'll end up losing that authority. . . because what you are saying might get curbed. . . it might become safe. . . and it might stray away from the truth.
Jesus speaks with authority because not only does he care and is genuine to the people, but because he speaks the truth. . . he is the embodiment of the truth, and there is something within all of us, despite our fallen nature, and our self interested blinders that we tend to put on, when faced with the truth we can't deny its existence. Without halos and miracles, Jesus' words come forth from his mouth to our ears and we recognize them as true because they are. . . even when they push our minds, hearts, and souls beyond where we want to go.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart the peacemakers
You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city built on a hill cannot be hid.
Don't hide your light under a bushel, let it shine, let it shine let it shine.
I have not come to abolish the law but fulfill the law, righteousness is important
You have heard it said do not murder, don't even be angry
You have heard it said do not commit adultery. . .  don't even look with lust
Just let your word stand. . . why swear
You have heard it said and eye for an eye. . . turn the other cheek
You have heard it said love your neighbor. . . yes but love your enemies as well
Don't practice your piety in front of others. . . but in secret. . .not for credit
Don't pray long. . . pray like this. . . not heaping up empty phrases for undue praises
Fast without making it look like you are suffering
Don't store up treasures on earth where they will rust
The eye is the lamp of the body
No one can serve two masters
Do not worry. . . consider the lilies of the field the birds of the air
Strive for the kingdom of heaven. . .
Do not judge lest you be judged
Why do you see the speck in  your neighbor's eye but do not notice the log in  your own eye
Do not give what is holy to dogs
Ask and it will be given to you, seek and ye shall find, know and the door will be opened
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.
Enter through the narrow gate. . . the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life
Beware of false prophets. . .  know them by their fruits
Build your house upon the rock. . . for the house build on sand. . . the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!"
Be astounded. . . for this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 7:24-29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.