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Measuring the Clouds

In order to experience a true change in our hearts, we must see the world like Jesus sees it.


Turn in your Bible to Matthew chapter 5, beginning with verse 38. Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

Now, if you were an African American living in the south in the 1950s, how would you hear this? If you were a Jew living in Europe in the late 1930s, how do you hear this? If you're a victim of injustice, bigotry, or persecution, how do you hear this? The problem we have with Jesus' teaching both here and throughout the Sermon on the Mount is a lot of it does not fit with our experiences in this world.

Many of us experience hatred and violence and injustice and persecution, and then we come to the words of Jesus and he says: Turn the other cheek? Do good to those who mean to harm you? Give your shirt when they've already stolen your coat? It doesn't make sense. And even if you've grown up your whole life in the church, even if you've been taught these verses, even if you have them memorized, the fact is when you come up against some kind of evil or danger or threat, a lot of times these words get thrown out the window. They don't make sense when we're in that moment.

To illustrate that point, I want to tell you a story from Eugene Peterson about his experience as a school boy. He says:

I grew up in a Christian home with good parents. I was told the story of Jesus and instructed in the right way to live, and then I went off to school and discovered the world. This knowledge came into my life in the person of Garrison Johns. Garrison was the school bully. About the third day in school he discovered me and took me on as his project for the year. I had been taught in Sunday school not to fight. I had memorized "Blessed are those who are persecuted." And I learned to turn the other cheek.
Most afternoons after school Garrison would catch up with me and beat me up. I tried to find alternative ways home by making detours through alleys, but he stalked me and always found me out. And then one day something unexpected happened. I was with my neighborhood friends, seven or eight of them, when Garrison caught up with us and started in me, jabbing and taunting, working himself up to the main event.
That's when it happened. Something snapped within me, totally uncalculated, totally out of character. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest, and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn't believe it. He was helpless, at my mercy. It was too good to be true.
I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good, and I hit him again. Blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on—"Black out his eye; bust his teeth." A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them. I said to Garrison, "Say uncle." He wouldn't say it. I hit him again. More blood, more cheering.
And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said to him, "Say I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior," and he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert!

Here's the problem with the Sermon on the Mount, particularly these verses of Jesus about vengeance. We can learn them, we can study them, we can memorize them—but when we come face to face with the Garrison Johns of this world, the Bible verses disappear and we face the reality of a dangerous, threatening, scary world in which justice is hard to come by, goodness is often hidden under the shadow of evil, and hatred seems stronger than love. The problem with Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is that it just doesn't fit with our experience of the world.

So we have two options: either we dismiss Jesus as absurd, or we need to reevaluate our understanding of this world. Those are your two options, because they can't both be right. One of them has to give. That's the core tension I want to look at this morning with you.

Jesus' confirms that the Law doesn't rehabilitate our hearts.

In order to truly get at that, though, we need to do a little bit of background and understand what Jesus is saying here in Matthew chapter 5. He begins with, "You have heard it said, 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.'" He's quoting the Old Testament, the Torah. Now, what we often fail to recognize is that at the time this law was given to Moses by God, it was actually quite revolutionary. You see, there was a major problem in the ancient world (and in a lot of our world today) with vengeance escalating out of control. Consider it this way: You insult me, I hit you; you hit me, I cut you; you cut me, I shoot you; you shoot me, I shoot your whole family. It's the plot of every gangster movie that's ever been made.

So God steps in and he gives his people a command that is supposed to put a check on how far vengeance is allowed to go. He tells them, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," meaning the punishment should not exceed the offense. You are not justified in retaliating worse on somebody for what they have done for you. He's putting a boundary, a check, a guardrail around how far vengeance can go, and his desire was to preserve his people—to protect them from this escalation of vengeance.

The reason this is important is because we often come to the Sermon on the Mount, particularly these verses about vengeance, and we think that Jesus is saying that the Old Testament law is bad. I don't believe that's what he's saying. In fact, earlier he said, "I didn't come to abolish the law, I came to fulfill it." He's not saying that "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" is wrong or bad or evil or unjust. He recognizes that it's a good command given by God to put barriers, parameters, guardrails around how far vengeance is allowed to go for the preservation of his people. But just because a law is good and just doesn't mean it's best. And that's how we have to understand what Jesus is saying here.

A couple of months ago I rented a film that I've wanted to see for a long, long time. It's the 1962 film The Birdman of Alcatraz. Burt Lancaster plays a convicted murderer named Robert Stroud. This is loosely based on a true story. Stroud is a convicted murderer, and he's in Alcatraz. The core tension of the film is between Stroud, the convict, and the warden named Harvey Shumaker. After three decades together in the prison system, these two gentlemen get into a really interesting conversation toward the end of the film—a tense conversation about the nature of real rehabilitation. And I want to read you a bit of the conversation because I think it illustrates something important about law.

Stroud, the convict, says this to the warden: "I wonder if you even know what rehabilitation means. The Unabridged Webster's International Dictionary says it comes from the Latin root habilitas, meaning to invest again with dignity. Do you consider that part of your job, Harvey? To give a man back the dignity he once had? Your only interest is in how he behaves. You want your prisoners to dance out of the gates like puppets on a string with rubber stamp values impressed by you, with your sense of conformity, your sense of behavior, even your sense of morality. And that's why you're a failure, Harvey. Because once they're on the outside, they're still lost. Just going through the motions of living. And underneath there is a deep, deep hatred. So the first chance they get to attack society, they do it. And the result, more than half of them come back to prison."

Now, Stroud's critique of the prison system helps us understand the limitations of law in general. Laws may be good, laws may be just. Laws may give us a sense of what's right and wrong, a sense of morality. Laws can put barriers, hedges, gates around how far evil is allowed to go. But what law cannot do is truly rehabilitate us. It cannot restore the dignity to us that God wants us to have as the creatures made in his image. What law cannot do is truly take the evil, the anger, the hatred out of our hearts.

Sometimes we make the mistake when we read these verses in the Sermon on the Mount of believing that Jesus is setting up just a more stringent law. But that's not what Jesus is saying. He's not giving us another law. Because as we've explained, law cannot truly rehabilitate. Jesus isn't giving us more rules to follow. What he is doing is illustrating a life for whom the law has truly come to reside in their hearts. He's illustrating what a life looks like that has been truly rehabilitated by God and is living fully immersed in his kingdom.

There's another way of putting it. Jesus is not saying that you now have to walk the second mile, and that you have to turn the other cheek, and that you have to give your tunic and your cloak. He is not saying you have to do these things. What he is saying is that when you are set free from anger and hatred and evil, when vengeance itself has no root in your heart, when you have been completely rehabilitated, these are the kinds of things you want to do. You will love others so much that you want what is truly good for them. You want to walk the second mile, you want to turn the other cheek, you want to give of those who ask of you. Jesus is not laying out another law for us to obey. He's illustrating for us what a truly rehabilitated heart looks like.

Jesus' words point to a God-bathed world.

Now, you might be thinking: Okay, got it. It's not another law, it's a rehabilitated heart, it's transformation on the inside, it's being set free, all that. Great, Skye, but it still doesn't help. Because how on earth do you become that kind of person? You're facing a Garrison Johns in your life. You're facing hatred, persecution, evil, injustice. How do you keep the fists from flying? How does this transformation actually take root?

To answer that question let me begin with a story. In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a young, 20-something Baptist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama. Through some odd circumstances, he found himself as the leader of the bus boycott that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. And as the boycott progressed, King started hearing rumors that the white authorities in Montgomery wanted to get rid of him. In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956, if you were a black man and someone wanted to get rid of you, you knew what that meant.

It came to a head on the night of January 27th. King was asleep in his small home with his young wife and their 2-month-old baby girl when he was awakened by a phone call. I can't quote exactly what the caller said—that would be very inappropriate. But the essence of it was that if King was not out of town in three days, they were going to kill him, and they were going to bomb his house. He hung up the phone, but he was so bothered, so disturbed by this that he couldn't go back to bed. So he poured himself a cup of coffee, sat down at his kitchen table, thought about his wife in the bedroom next door and his 2-month-old baby girl. And to use his language, he was paralyzed by fear. He was frozen by fear.

I can't imagine most of us have been in circumstances exactly like King faced that night. But I think many of us have probably had that all too common human experience of being frozen by fear, absolutely paralyzed by it. Is my child okay? Is the diagnosis bad? Am I losing my job? Is my draft number up? The scenarios go on and on. When we feel threatened by an outside force, we turn inward, we become paralyzed. You may have been there. Contracted inward.

That's where Martin Luther King, Jr., was that night over his cup of coffee at his kitchen table. And then something unexpected happened that changed the course of King's life, and a case can be made that it changed the course of American history. As he was sitting there with his hands and his face over his cup of coffee, confessing his fears and his anxieties to God, King said that he felt a stirring in his soul that he'd never felt before. And then he heard a voice, an inner voice—not an audible voice but an inner voice. And this is what the voice said to him: "'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth, and lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.' The voice promised to never, never leave me. Never leave me alone. Never, never, never. He promised that he would never leave me alone."

In that moment, in the middle of that night, in that hour when darkness reigned, King had a supernatural, inexplicable encounter with the living presence of God. What radically changed Martin Luther King was an inexplicable sense that God was with him, that God had drawn near to him. It changed his life. It changed his outlook. It changed his mission. It changed his perspective. And this, I believe, is the key to understanding Jesus' words about vengeance in Matthew chapter 5. In fact, I would argue that it's the key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount in general. If we don't get this, the rest of it doesn't make sense.

Now, turn back to the beginning of Matthew chapter 5. I know you guys have been in the Sermon on the Mount for a number of weeks and the danger is that you isolate one bit of the sermon from the rest of it. We can't do that. I have to take you back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins in chapter 5 with the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes are lists and various forms regarding those who are really blessed. Jesus begins by saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." I like one translation that says, "Blessed are the spiritual zeroes." The people who have no credibility spiritually whatsoever, they are blessed. "Blessed are those who mourn." Blessed are those who cry. Blessed are those who are sad, who are afraid. Blessed are those who are awake at 2:00 in the morning over the cup of coffee, paralyzed by fear. "Blessed are the persecuted." When you are marginalized and hated and set apart, blessed are you. What Jesus is saying, the overwhelming message he has at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, is that God is with you. In other words, God is on your side.

Now, the reason why this is so important is because if you truly believe that—and I don't mean just intellectually, but you have come to experience the reality of God with you—it changes the way you see the world.

I like the way Dallas Willard puts it. He says that we live in a God-bathed world. Once you come to believe that, Willard says, then the only conclusion you can draw is that this world is a perfectly safe place in which to live. I remember the first time I read that I thought he was nuts, because I've experienced enough in my life to go, "This world is not safe." But think about it. His logic is sound. If this is a God-with-you world, if this is a God-with-us universe, what do we have to be afraid of? It truly is a perfectly safe place in which to live.

Our perception of the world is that it's a place where justice is hard to come by. Our perception of the world is that it's a place where goodness is always marred by the shadow of evil. Our perception of the world is that life itself is in short supply and must be defended and fought for. But what if we're wrong? What if this really is a God-with-us universe, a God-bathed world. Because if it is, to use the words of the apostle Paul, "If God is for us, then who could possibly be against us."

If this is a God-with-us world, then we don't have to worry that injustice is going to have the last word, because God promises that all things will be made right. Justice will have the last word. If this is God-bathed world, then goodness is not forever under the shadow of evil, but goodness is expanding and breaking forth with the expansion of his kingdom. And if this is a God-with-us world, life is not in short supply; life is in abundance, and our lives will never end, but are hidden with God in Christ. If this is a God-with-us world, I don't have to be afraid. I don't have to contract inward in self-defense. If this is a God-with-us world, I don't have to hit the person who hit me. I don't have to worry about giving my shirt as well as my coat. In fact, in a God-with-us world, I am so set free from anger, from hatred, from fear that maybe I can actually love the person who means to harm me.

What kind of world do you see?

Here's the core problem we have with the Sermon on the Mount: it isn't that Jesus' teachings are absurd, it's that we don't see the world that Jesus sees. We see a world of injustice and anger and hatred and violence—a world where everything is in short supply and life itself is fragile. But Jesus saw a world in which his father was in control, in which justice was guaranteed, in which goodness was breaking forth, and in which life itself is without end. And if you see that world through the lens of the Gospel, then what Jesus tells us to do and how he informs us to live makes perfect sense.

So the issue here is not whether or not we resist evil. We are called to be agents of righteousness and justice in this world. The question is, why do we pursue that righteousness and justice? Jesus forbids us from pursuing it out of anger, hatred, or vengeance. We pursue righteousness and justice and goodness because we love God and we love others, even the perpetrators of these evils. So I don't want you walking away thinking that this means you just have to tolerate everything that happens to you. It means that in everything, we seek what is good for the other, not ourselves.

Just four days after Martin Luther King's coffee-cup conversion, his new vision of the world was put to the test. Four days after this sleepless night at home, he was speaking at a rally for the bus boycott when, around 9:00 at night, a young man ran into the service and announced that Martin Luther King's house had just been bombed—the house where his wife and 2-month-old daughter were staying. King ran out of the rally, ran down the street, and found his home still on fire. The police were there, the fire officials were there, and a large, angry mob of black citizens from Montgomery, Alabama, were around the house with guns and rifles and baseball bats, ready to riot because of this attack on their leader's home.

Once King found that his wife and daughter were safe, he got on the porch of his home that had just been fire-bombed by the Klan. He stood on that burning porch and he looked out on this angry crowd of black citizens ready to riot, and King preached a sermon. Listen to what he said to them: "I want you to love your enemies, be good to them, love them and let them know that you love them. What we are doing is right. What we are doing is just and God is with us. Go home with this glowing faith."

Now, this is what I love about King. He was first and foremost a preacher. His house is on fire and he thinks, This is a sermon illustration. "Go home with this glowing faith, with this radiant assurance." Can you just hear him saying that with a night sky ablaze with the fire from his own home? "Go home with this glowing faith, with this radiant assurance. With love in our hearts, with faith and with God in front, we cannot lose." And then this angry mob put down their guns, put down their baseball bats, and spontaneously broke into "Amazing Grace." They sang, they cried, they hugged, and they peacefully went back to their homes. How do you explain that shift from a posture of inward contraction to one of outward courage and love? No law can do that; only the presence of God himself does that. God with us.

Earlier I told you about the Birdman of Alcatraz film. Toward the end of the movie Robert Stroud is released from prison, which actually does not happen in real life, but with artistic license for the movie they let him out. And he takes the boat from Alcatraz to San Francisco. He gets off the boat, and there's a reporter there waiting for him. He asks him, "What are you going to do now that you're out of prison?" And Stroud gives a very bizarre answer. He says, "I don't know. Maybe I'll go measure the clouds." What a strange response, but rather poetic if you consider the circumstances. He had been in prison for almost 40 years—something symbolic of that contraction, that fearful, law-based conformity. And now he is set free. And the imagery of going from a prison cell to up measuring the clouds is kind of beautiful.

For me, that imagery also illustrates the absurdity of the Christian life. If we live the way Jesus lived, if we do the things that Jesus says to do in the Sermon on the Mount, people are going to think we are completely out of our minds. We are going to appear as silly as some guy on a ladder holding up a ruler trying to measure the clouds. Think about it. Turn the other cheek; go the second mile. The reason why we look so crazy as Christians is because we see a world that the rest don't see. We see a God-bathed world in which we are perfectly safe. So safe, so set free from fear that we can even love our enemies without thought of the consequence.

Now, before I wrap up, I want to make sure you've heard what I've intended you to hear and not what I haven't. In a group this size, no doubt, there are experiences of unbelievable evil and injustice. Some of you are struggling deeply with the thought of, How do I begin to show goodness and kindness even to those who would harm me, or who have harmed me? The last thing in the world I want is for you to leave this morning feeling burdened that you just have to try harder. Remember, Jesus is not giving us a new law. His intention is not to burden us with a heavier, more stringent interpretation of the Old Testament Torah. Because the law doesn't rehabilitate.

The question you should be asking yourself this morning is not, "How could I try harder to love people?" The question you should be asking yourself is, "What kind of world do I see?" Do you see a world of evil and danger and threats and Garrison Johns—a world in which your life is in constant peril, in which you must contract inward even to the point of paralysis? Or do you see a God-bathed world, a God-with-you world, a world of justice and goodness and life without end?

If you're still caught in the vision of the world that we receive all around us of fear and threat and danger, don't leave here feeling guilty about that. I'd encourage you to do what Martin Luther King did: Confess to God your fears, acknowledge the vengeance and the hate that is still in your heart. Be honest with him, reveal it. And then invite him to come near. Invite the Spirit of God to inexplicably, unbelievably, supernaturally draw near to you so that you might experience the reality that he is with you always, even to the very end of the world.

And as you experience that truth more and more in your life, you might just find that you are being set free from your fear, that you're not contracted as much, that you're expanding in courage and grace—maybe even to the point of loving those who have been unlovable to you. You might just come to be an agent of justice and goodness and life in this world rather than selfishly hoarding it to yourself. You might live a life so absurd, so ridiculous that it seems like you're standing on a ladder holding up a ruler, and that's okay. We are not to be understood in this world, because we are the people of Christ. But first we must learn to live in this world with him so that we can learn to live like him.

To see an outline of Jethani's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? _____________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? _____________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ______________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ______________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ______________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.

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Sermon Outline:


We have two options: either we dismiss Jesus as absurd, or we need to reevaluate our understanding of this world.

I. Jesus' confirms that the Law doesn't rehabilitate our hearts.

II. Jesus' words point to a God-bathed world.

III. What kind of world do you see?


The question you should be asking yourself this morning is not, "How could I try harder to love people?" The question you should be asking yourself is, "What kind of world do I see?"