A Replay of Mt. Sinai?
"Who was that masked man, anyway?" That question was asked in every "Lone Ranger" episode, and that's the question Epiphany answers in regard to Jesus. Who is this Man born of a virgin, hymned by angels, visited by wise man, and baptized by John? Matthew, the first Gospel, seems a good place to look for an answer, and the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' most famous sermon, seems the best place to start. And scholars have, and they conclude Jesus is purposely replaying Moses on Mt. Sinai. Is He?
Well, all the elements are there. The text says that Jesus "went up on the mountain." This phrase occurs 24 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Eighteen of those times it refers to Moses. Ten of those times it refers to Moses going up Mount Sinai to meet with the Lord, Yahweh, to receive the Law. Four of those times it uses the exact wording Matthew uses of Jesus going up.
Moses went up Mount Sinai and was given the Law which he then gave to the Old Testament Church. Likewise, some scholars reason, Jesus goes up this mountain and gives His Law to the New Testament Church. His followers are to be poor in spirit, mourners, meek, and hungerers and thirsters for righteousness. They are to be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.
At the end of the episode when someone asked, "Who was that masked man, anyway?" Someone else would respond, "Why, he's the Lone Ranger." So far, based on the parallel wording describing where Moses and Jesus go and based on the fact that they both speak Law, many people answer who is Jesus with "Why, He's a new Moses." And that's what you think too if Christianity is about what you must do or not do. On top of the 10 Commandments Moses has given you Jesus gives you seven more!
But wait. This doesn't have to be a replay of Mt. Sinai. Jesus doesn't have to be a new Moses. John in his fourth Gospel highlights that there's a difference. Possibly already in the church of the apostles there was a problem with this because John, writing after Matthew, emphatically says, "The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." But what about Jesus going up to the mountain and about coming down with commands?
Let's look at the facts again. Jesus does indeed go up on a mountain, but Jesus calls His disciples to Him. That's what Yahweh, Jehovah, does in the case of Moses. He calls Moses up to Him. There's a replay of Mount Sinai of sorts, but it's different. When Yahweh calls Moses up, Moses disappears into a cloud of smoke, lightening flashes, and thunder crashes. The disciples go to meet Jesus the poorest in spirit, the Man of Sorrows, the One so meek He doesn't raise His voice in the streets. The disciples go to Jesus who so hungered and thirsted after righteousness for a sinful fallen world that He went without food and drink for 40 days and night to win it for the world. And who is more merciful than Jesus whose mercy endures forever? Who is so pure in heart that not even His thoughts are impure? Who is more of a peacemaker than the Prince of Peace?
You're still bothered, however, by the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament describing Moses and Jesus going up on the mountain in the exact same words. If you want to talk about verbal parallels look at the phrase, "And he began to teach them." Literally Matthew writes "and opening the mouth of Him He began to teach them." According to Numbers 12:8 what set Moses apart from other prophets is that Yahweh spoke to Moses literally "mouth to mouth."
Did a light go on just then? It should. Jesus isn't in the position of Moses here; the disciples are. It's the disciples who receive divine revelation on the mountain. Jesus is the mouth of God. So when Jesus opened His mouth in the Sermon on the Mount and spoke to the disciples, they are the New Testament Moseses, He is Yahweh speaking. Your arms should have Goosebumps. The One who dwelled in a cloud of fire invisible and unapproachable, who when He spoke mouth to mouth to Moses left his face aglow like a lightening strike, is approachable, visible, and touchable.
It's kind of like in the "Wizard of Oz" when Toto the dog pulls back the curtain and the booming voice of the Wizard is shown to come from the mouth of a short, feeble old man. In the movie, that was a display of disappointing weakness. In our text, it's the theology of the cross. It's a display of God's glory. He comes to mankind in poverty, in sorrow, in meekness, hungering and thirsting, so that He might be merciful to sinners, so they might see God, and be called sons of God. While Dorothy and company were aghast that the Wizard was just a short, feeble, old man, we poor, miserable sinners are relieved that, Yahweh, the LORD almighty meets us on the mountain as a Man.
Yahweh coming to this mountain changes everything. He doesn't tell us be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek and hunger and thirst after righteousness. He says we are these things whether we know it or not. It's true; I've got nothing to buy my way out of my sins or even pay down the debt. I look around me and what can I do but mourn? Not just life but my life is so sinful and fallen. And can such a one as me be anything but meek? Beggars can't be choosers and they sure can't be proud or loaded with self-esteem. And I hunger and thirst, not for food or drink, but for a righteousness that can stand before God, knows it's going to heaven, and can't be convicted of even one sin.
The Collect, rightly translated, shows our true situation before God. The original Collect says, "we cannot at anytime stand upright." This is the ancient Gregorian original which Luther used in 1529. The protestant Queen Elizabeth thinking the Collect was too harsh on fallen human nature revised it in 1558 inserting the world "always." Unfortunately, we carried it in our hymnals in the altered way till the most recent one went back to the original.
And the original expressed our true plight. It's not that we can't always stand upright. No, "we cannot at anytime stand upright." A hundred times I've pledged to do better. A thousand times I thought I could. But it always ends the same, fallen, fallen, fallen. I cannot save myself, and I conclude, therefore, I cannot be saved, but then Jesus comes to my mountain. Yahweh brings His Kingdom to earth in His own Person and by His own work.
To one absolutely bankrupt in Spirit Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is mine. To one who knows nothing but mourning because of my sins and the sins all around me, Jesus promises comfort. To one who the world looks upon as weak, insignificant, whose only inheritance is scorn, Yahweh in flesh and blood promises the earth as an inheritance. And to one who knows he is empty of righteousness, Jesus promises I will be filled.
How can this major turn of events happen? I told you everything changes when Yahweh comes to earth, when His kingdom comes. He can give us the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheritance and righteousness, because He Himself gave all of them up. Jesus left the glory and honor of heaven's mansions to take up residence in the womb of a virgin. Jesus went without comfort in His sorrows and griefs, so that we might be comforted. Though the earth really was His, He allowed Satan to stand before Him and say, "Nanny, nanny boo-boo, all of this is my inheritance." And far from being the holy, righteous Man He was, He was made to be sin itself, so that we might be the righteousness of God in Him.
Yahweh coming to our lives with salvation changes us. What comes out of the Baptismal font He brings us to but a merciful, peacemaker who is pure at heart? When I send your sin of mercilessness, lustfulness, and troublemaking away from you as far is east is from west, what is left but mercy, purity, and a peacemaker? And when Jesus joins you to His Body and Blood by giving them to your body and blood, what do you think He is transmitting with forgiveness, life, and salvation? He is showing you mercy; you are seeing your God in Bread and Wine, and He is claiming you as if you were His own Son. That sort of grace, free and boundless, produces mercifulness in our lives, purity in our hearts, and peace in our souls.
I know what's happening; you're still having trouble breaking the link between Jesus and Moses. You still are casting Jesus in the role of Moses rather than the disciples, and you still hear Jesus speaking with the mouth of Moses rather than as the mouth of Yahweh. Let me help.
The only imperatives in our text, the only words that could be translated "must," "ought," "shall," are the words "rejoice" and "be glad." See how everything gets turned around when Yahweh comes to town? Saints become sinners and sinners become saints. The poor become rich with heaven and those who think themselves rich bankrupt; the mourning are comforted and the comfortable mourn. The meek inherit the earth and the proud inherit their vanities. The hungry and thirsty are filled but the full are sent empty away. And those who are insulted and persecuted because of Jesus must rejoice and they must be exceedingly glad.
Jesus doesn't replay Mount Sinai to show Himself as the new Moses but to show Himself as Yahweh in flesh and blood. The only imperative, the only command He leaves us with is to rejoice, to laugh at what the world mourns and laments. And off Jesus rides in a cloud of dust leaving some people still mystified saying, "Who was that Man?" while others confess, "Why that's the True God and Savior of the world!" Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany (20110130); Matthew 5: 1-12