Living counter-culturally in the world

imageA sermon by Rod Benson, Perth, 21 September 2014

Matthew 3:1-3; 4:12-13, 17-19

Then Jesus took his disciples up a mountain and, gathering them unto himself, he taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.

Then Simon Peter said to him, “Do we have to write this down?”

And Andrew said, “Are we supposed to know all this?”

And James said, “Will there be a test?”

And John said, “The other disciples don’t have to learn this.”

And Philip said, “Is there a handout?”

And Thomas said, “I’m uncomfortable with his bias against the rich, the happy, the proud and the status quo.”

And Matthew said, “When do we get out of here?”

And Thaddeus said, “Look at that funny shaped cloud!”

And Matthias said, “Why doesn’t he use PowerPoint?”

And Bartholemew said, “Do we have to hand this in?”

And Judas said, “What does this have to do with real life?”

Then one of the Pharisees who stood by asked to see Jesus’ lesson plan. And the scribes, desiring to find fault with him, inquired of Jesus regarding his terminal objectives in the cognitive domain.

And Jesus wept.[1]

Yes, I know. You’ve heard that there are people like that in other churches.

When we read the Gospels, God invites us to view the world as Jesus saw it, and take action in response to the priorities Jesus defined. He calls us to embrace a comprehensive view of the world, to feel with God’s heart, to get mud on our boots, to love the unlovable, to live counter-culturally, to seek peace with justice.

The first disciples discovered there was so much more to life than they had imagined. And Jesus invites all who follow him to the same new way of being and doing.

As Matthew records it, in the famous Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus (Mt 4:23-7:29), the “good news of the kingdom” to which Jesus introduces us includes healing the sick, practicing courageous virtues, the promise of real social transformation, high standards for interpersonal relationships and marriage, simplicity with words, extravagant generosity, love for my enemies, giving to those in need, radical counter-cultural prayer, private fasting for spiritual breakthrough, strategic spiritual investments, farewell to worry about material possessions, cultivating a non-judgmental attitude, the Golden Rule (7:12), a focus on making wise decisions, and whole-hearted sacrificial obedience to God’s word.

If we took just one of these awesome kingdom priorities, and applied it for a month, our lives would change – and perhaps our world would also begin to change.

We all know how much our world needs redemption and renewal: think of the ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa today, the atrocities of Islamic State militants and the violent response by their enemies (including Australia), apparently home-grown terrorist cells uncovered in Sydney and Brisbane this week, family failure, ecological devastation, the Indigenous health crisis, global financial uncertainty, random street violence, drug addiction, porn addiction, workaholism, corporate greed, abortion, euthanasia, the unravelling of marriage as we know it, political corruption, fracturing the moral foundations of society, rampant narcissism, the idolatry of nationalism, the cruel treatment of asylum seekers.

Does allegiance to the kingdom of God really speak to these issues? Does the gospel of the kingdom call us to change our priorities? Does it require courage and demand action? Yes, it does.

Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of The Jesus Creed, A Community Called Atonement, and The King Jesus Gospel. Several years ago, McKnight wrote an article, “The eight marks of a robust gospel,”[2] in which he argues we have domesticated the gospel Jesus preached to suit our individualism and middle-class sentiment.

He says the biblical gospel is much bigger than many of us have dared to believe:

The gospel is the work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) to completely restore broken image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27) in the context of the community of faith (Israel, Kingdom, and Church) through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Pentecostal Spirit, to union with God and communion with others for the good of the world.[3]

McKnight goes on to show that the gospel Jesus preached and demonstrated had a personal emphasis, and a universal vision. In the New Testament, the gospel is often linked explicitly to a person. It is “the gospel of Christ” or “the gospel of God. Jesus calls people to surrender their life “for my sake” (Mk 8:35, 10:29; cf 2 Cor 3:18-4:6).

This same gospel promises not only personal transformation but a new community and a new creation! McKnight again:

When Jesus stood up to read Isaiah 61 in the Synagogue at Nazareth, then sat down and declared that this prophetic vision was now coming to pass through him, there was more than personal redemption at work. God’s kingdom … was now officially at work in his followers. That society was overturning the injustices and exclusions of the empire and establishing an inclusive and just alternative … Any gospel that is not announcing a new society at work in the world, what the apostle Paul called the church, is simply not a robust gospel.[4]

He concludes:

The Bible is about God’s people, the community of faith. The church is not an institution that provides benefits for individual Christians so they can carry on their personal relationship with God until that church can no longer provide what they need. Instead, the church is the focus of God’s redemptive work on earth in the present age.[5]

If God has called you, this is what he called you to.

If Jesus has saved you, this is what he saved you for.

If the Spirit is at work within you, sanctifying you, this is the fruit he desires for you, the blessing he wants you to be, the mission on which he sends you into the world.

Far away there is a place called Flatland, where different geometric forms all lived in a two-dimensional universe, like a giant sheet of poster paper until, one day, Flatlanders were visited by a sphere.

Imagine a ball sliced into 100 slices that you could only observe one slice at a time. The Flatlanders could only see the sphere in two dimensions; to them the sphere seemed to grow larger, then smaller, and then completely disappear as the ball passed by.

Sphere-ness was beyond their comprehension, unimaginable.

“How did you change sizes?” asked a circle from Flatland, “And where did you go?”

“I didn’t change sizes at all. It’s a matter of perspective,” the sphere answered. “I did not disappear; I just went up.”

“What’s up?” asked the Flatlander. The sphere picked up the flat circle and stood it on its side. “This is up,” he said.

“Wheeeee!” said the Flatlander. ‘Up’ was the most wonderful experience the flat circle had ever had. So with excitement and rejoicing, he ran to tell his friends the squares and triangles about ‘up.’

But they refused to believe him and instead put him to death for false teachings.

That’s how Jesus came to us, a sphere to our Flatland, helping us see beyond the level of our ordinary existence, to seek new horizons.

Jesus gave us a new way of seeing the world, and he called it the kingdom of God, and he invites you to join him in his kingly rule, for the good of the world.


Sermon 621 copyright © 2014 Rod Benson. Preached at Lake Joondalup Baptist Church, Perth, Australia, on Sunday 21 September 2014. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).



[1] Original source unknown. This version copyright (c) 2001 Rod Benson.

[2] Scot McKnight, “The 8 marks of a robust gospel,” Christianity Today, March 2008, available at

[3] Ibid., my emphasis.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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