A week ago, we had our first monthly Sermon on the Mount drop-in conversation. I love the Sermon on the Mount, for its beauty and its challenge. I think it’s essential reading for those of us who want to think about what it means to follow Jesus in our daily lives.
One thing that really stood out to me, this time around, is that Matthew (the gospel writer) tells us that Jesus went up the mountain, away from the crowds, and his disciples followed him. It’s particularly the “away from the crowds” part that I’ve been thinking about. I think paying attention to this is instructive for how we read and live this most foundational of Jesus’ teachings.
Crowds, in the Bible, are a mixed bag. Crowds often gather around Jesus to hear him preach, to experience his healing, sometimes just to see what all the fuss is about. And often we hear that Jesus had compassion on the crowds. He attends to them, makes time for them, feeds them when they’re hungry. But there’s also a sense that what the crowds tend to want, and what Jesus wants are not always the same thing. At one point, Jesus says that the people are just following him around because they got free bread. The crowds both sing Jesus into Jerusalem, and cry out for his crucifixion.
Crowds aren’t all good, or all bad. But at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we have this image of Jesus and his disciples separated from the crowds. As Jesus lays out his kingdom of God manifesto, what life in his way will look like, we have a clear indication that what he’s about is a new way of being in the world—not indifferent to the crowds, but distinct from them.
It’s a good reminder that to follow Jesus means that we need time away from the “crowds” for our own discipleship: away from the distractions and noise, the excitement and the daily grind, to just listen to him. He went up the mountain and his disciples—the ones committed to being shaped in his way—came to him, and he taught them. This is important for us. What Jesus says and does, the stuff he calls us to, is strange in this world. And in order to hear it well, to learn it, and begin to live it, we need undistracted time in his presence. This is why regular devotions (Bible reading, prayer, journaling and meditation, worship etc.) are so important. That’s where we learn to hear his voice over the din of the crowds.
And we need to learn to recognize his voice in those quieter, more intentional moments, because then we’ll be able to recognize his voice when things get noisy again. This is not a call to be against the crowds, simply to be distinct. To be “in the world, but not of it.” Notice, by the end of the Sermon, the crowds are paying attention. They’re not forgotten, or left out, but they are amazed at the things Jesus is teaching his disciples to do. And the testimony of Scripture is that the crowds will be even more amazed when his disciples come back down the mountain and live his teachings out. So amazed, they’ll want in on it.