We stood overlooking a craggy, yet serene countryside that embraced the Sea of Galilee at its border. The slope is known as הר האושר (har ha-osher) or the Mount of Beatitudes, traditionally considered to be the location Jesus delivered his life-altering Sermon on the Mount. Though the scene was not overly vast or impressive, the quaint—quite rainy at the time!—countryside held a power that was a gift to experience this past January on the seminary’s trip to Israel and Palestine.
Though the precise location of the Sermon on the Mount is unsure, we do know it was on a fertile “plain” on the Galilean waterfront such as this that Jesus spoke. It was on such a “mount” that Jesus went up and took a seat, in the posture of a Rabbi teaching. The mount: the place of God’s Law and covenant spoken to his people; the space where deity dwells. So Christ sat, as the new and better Moses, as the true Rabbi, proclaiming the words of God’s Law as full deity. Here, He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Various traditions have also held that this was the location where Christ multiplied loaves and fish, where Jesus conferred leadership on Peter, and even where He proclaimed the message of the Great Commission. The “Sower’s cove,” where Jesus is believed to have taught the parable of the sower from a boat docked at bay, is said to be just beneath this mount. On a clearer day, one can even see the Golan Heights and Capernaum from the mount.
It was over these hills and on this sea, then, that Jesus served. It was in these cities and spaces that he lived out the very ministry He proclaimed in this sermon. Not only did Jesus pronounce the content and vision of the law here, but He also enacted the proper living out of that law. Not only did He fully declare how best to love God and neighbor, He embodied it. Not only did He say blessed are the merciful, persecuted, and pure in heart; but here, Jesus, the merciful one, the truly pure in heart, and the persecuted one, blessed His neighbor. Jesus, the light of the world, lifted upon this hill as He spoke, could not be hidden. His actions shone forth in darkness. Jesus, the wise builder, put the law into perfect practice as He built his church upon Peter, the rock. Jesus truly “fulfilled” the Law and the Prophets.
And it was here that I had the awe-some task of teaching as well. As part of my message, in order to recognize more fully how this calm, secluded countryside accented the sermon, I invited everyone to listen to Jesus’ call to “Look at the birds of the air…”
Just as I did so, a small bird decided to make itself known to the group, chirping in competition with my words. “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
As if Jesus were assuring us, by the sermon of this small swallow, that this comfort still remains for us today.
I continued on to note that there was a distinct risk that the calming, quiet countryside might make us think Christ’s words were merely calm and soothing, when in fact they were radical and revolutionary, commanding authority and demanding countercultural, costly action. Jesus was calling Israel to a new way of life. One that loved enemies ruthlessly attacking them; one that gave all for the needy who were ruthlessly suffering.
But as I began to speak Christ’s commission, it was clear we would not be left with such an impression. As I began to speak the words, “All authority has been given to me,” a torrential downpour began to come down, violently rattling and reverberating off of the tin roof above us. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” As if Christ were assuring us that He still has all authority and is at work baptizing all nations, whether those in Galilee or in the city of Grand Rapids. As if to assure us that He is still at work teaching us all that He commanded: to be the light of the world; to be the meek and merciful; to be poor in spirit, pure in heart, persecuted for righteousness, and makers of peace. As if to assure us that He is with us always, to the very end of the age.