What is the best sermon you ever heard? What was good about it? How did it change you?
I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the course of my life, even preached quite a few myself, but one of the stark truths I have come to realize is that sermons, in an of themselves, are not that memorable. Every preacher believes he or she is God’s gift to preaching, but the reality is that while a particular sermon may have impact on certain people for a time, the effect tends to fade pretty quickly.
We don’t remember a lot of sermons, but we do tend to remember preachers. Stu Perrin was the first preacher I ever heard. I can’t remember a single sermon he ever preached, and I listened to him from the time of my earliest memory all the way through high school. I remember him, however, because he was the one who seemed to me to be the embodiment of holiness—kind, caring, always encouraging, smart. When he took the time to sit down and chat with me, a skinny kid with thick glasses, it was like talking with God himself. He embodied the Word of God for me, regardless of what he said.
Randy Jessen is one of my mentors. When I worked on staff with Randy, I remember him saying that preaching wasn’t his best gift. But I am fond of saying that Randy is the pastor I want to be when I grow up. He embodies the gospel. His sermons are preached through his passion for others.
I remember other preachers, too…preachers who didn’t have a theological degree and who would have been terrified to speak in front of a crowd. They preached less with words than they did with actions: the Miller family, who made sure that I got a good meal every week in those high school years when things fell apart at home; the Cubbisons, who gave me a home when I no longer had one; the families we’ve known in every parish we’ve served who have offered me and my family encouragement and love.
Yeah, the best preaching is the kind that uses more than just words – the best sermons are the ones that are embodied in the preacher.
Today we begin a new series of sermons focused on the greatest sermon ever preached: the Sermon on the Mount. It’s one of the few that we all can remember, which is ironic because it seems to violate all the tenets of proper sermon preparation. It’s a sermon that wouldn’t get good marks in a preaching class—the introduction is too stark, the structure is somewhat random and repetitive, there are no interesting illustrations or stories, no three-point outline, no restatement of the theme, no rapt conclusion. And yet, it is the greatest sermon ever because more than any sermon ever given, it is one that is completely and fully embodied in the preacher.
Matthew is the one who records the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7 of his Gospel. You might recall that Matthew writes his gospel to a Jewish audience, and the first four chapters are important for setting up what Jesus will preach in this sermon. In the genealogy in chapter one, Matthew reveals that Jesus is the long hoped for Messiah, a descendant of David and a Abraham, and then in chapter 2 connects Jesus’ birth to the story of Moses—a child who escapes death as an infant, is raised in Egypt for a time, and who then is prepared to lead his people out of slavery—in Moses’ case, slavery in Egypt. In Jesus’ case, slavery to sin and death. Matthew is thus telling us in a not so subtle way that Jesus is thus the culmination of the whole story of Israel.
In chapter 5, Matthew tells us that Jesus went up on a mountain and began to speak. Notice that Matthew doesn’t name the mountain (though if you go to Israel, they will take you where they think it was). It’s not the location that’s important, it’s the symbolism. In the Old Testament, significant revelations of God took place on mountains, and there was no more significant revelation than the one that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.
It was there that Moses received the Ten Commandments—the law of God for Israel, God’s people. It was the law that defined Israel and set her apart. It was a covenant between God and God’s people—a rule of life that gave them their identity and their mission as people who were to be a light to the rest of the world.
Israel rebelled against that rule of life, however. The story of Scripture is the story of repeated breaking of the covenant on the part of Israel, and repeated faithfulness to the covenant by God, who continually called them back into relationship through forgiveness and restoration. Eventually, Israel became so unfaithful that God gave them over to exile in foreign lands.
And yet, even in the midst of the despair of exile, God offered them hope—the hope of a Messiah who would come and do for Israel what she could not do for herself. The Messiah would be the one who would restore God’s people and restore the law, the rule of life. He would be God’s anointed one, the one who would bring God’s justice and peace, the one who would protect Israel from her enemies and be faithful to God in ways they never could.
All of that story is bound up in the beginning of chapter 5 of Matthew. When Jesus ascends the mountain, he does so not just as another preacher, but as the one who embodies the faithfulness of Abraham, the royalty of David, the law of Moses, the promise of the Messiah and, most amazingly, the very person of God. The sermon that Jesus preaches is the ultimate sermon because he is the ultimate preacher—the messenger is the message. The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest sermon ever because it is fully embodied in the one who speaks it.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” says Jesus. Don’t think that I have come to negate the story and the covenant that defines God’s people. No, says Jesus, “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” What does it mean to fulfill the law and the prophets? The word “fulfill” here means “to bring to actuality by doing.” The way that Jesus fulfills the law, in other words, is by embodying it in his life and teaching. And he calls his disciples to do the same.
What Jesus is preaching here is not just a philosophy, a doctrinal statement, or another set of rules to follow. Philosophies and doctrines can be debated. Rules can be put on the wall and ignored, or they can be codified and then broken down by lawyers and others seeking loopholes. The scribes were the lawyers and the Pharisees were the morality police of Jesus’ day. They knew the law and spent most of their days commenting on it, debating it, adding to it, discussing the loopholes, enforcing the letter, and telling the people where they were falling short. But Jesus says to his disciples that their righteousness, their faithfulness, must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, the lawyers and moralists. The righteousness of the hyper-religious is most often a self-righteousness that sees the faults of others more than the brokenness in their own lives.
What Jesus is offering here is not a list of rules, but a rule of life—not an external law code, but an internal orientation to the world, an orientation toward the kingdom of heaven.
Now, a word about the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God (they mean essentially the same thing). We may be tempted to think that Jesus is referring here to a faraway kingdom, somewhere out there way beyond the blue. But “kingdom of heaven” or kingdom of God is a term that carries a lot of freight in the first century. Rather than referring to a distant heavenly place, it instead refers to the reign and rule of God on earth—God’s transforming mission of making all things good and new. The purpose of God’s mission is to bring heaven and earth together in such a way that it transforms both. The old “passes away” in the face of the new, and Jesus says that this is happening now. His first sermon is in 4:17 – “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s here, and it’s also coming. Indeed, Jesus is announcing it and demonstrating it in his own person. The king embodies the life of the kingdom. At the end of the sermon, Matthew tells us that the crowds were “astounded” at his teaching because he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes—Jesus’ authority comes from living what he preaches.
The rule of life that Jesus gives his disciples is nothing less than a way of living and being citizens of the kingdom of heaven on earth, a way of living like the king himself. Jesus doesn’t get rid of the old law, as though it had no meaning. Instead, he fleshes it out. He doesn’t call his disciples to follow a list of doctrinal propositions, instead he says, “Follow me—follow me, live this way, love this way, and you will know the reality of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus called his disciples not only to pray for that reality, but to live it.
The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones once wrote, “The greatest need of modern Christianity is the rediscovery of the Sermon on the Mount as the only practical way to live.” (14). I could not agree more. As I have studied this sermon for several weeks in preparation for this series, I have become more and more convicted of the fact that the major reason Christian faith is becoming more and more of an outlier in the Western world is because we have been more concerned with admiring Jesus than following him. We’ve become more concerned with doctrine than discipleship, more excited about the size of our congregations than about showing compassion in our communities, more focused on creeds than on following the Christ they point to. We’ve made the core of our faith more about what we believe in our heads than what we do with our hands.
Don’t get me wrong, our creeds are important. They tell us about the nature of Jesus in relationship to the triune God. What they don’t tell us, however, is what we are to do with that knowledge. The creeds emerged out of a need to define the nature of Jesus in the early centuries of Christianity, but they were never meant to be the sum total of Christian faith. We are not called to merely believe things about Jesus, but to follow him. As the Apostle’s Creed now stands, for example, it is quite possible to accept every word of it and still leave the essential self untouched. Like Christian scribes and Pharisees, we can believe all of the creeds’ assertions about God creating the world, about Jesus’ death and resurrection, about the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the holy catholic church, and yet have it make no difference in the way we live. This was already in evidence when the creeds themselves were formed.
Take the Nicene creed, for example, which was hammered out in the fourth century after the emperor Constantine brought together all the bishops of the church to settle the question of Jesus’ divinity. After much debate, and even violence, the creed was complete and Constantine, the previously pagan Roman emperor, was hailed as a “bishop of bishops” by the church. And yet, after his alleged “conversion,” Constantine murdered his brother-in-law, sentenced his 11 year-old nephew to death, killed his eldest son and his second wife, and took the nails that were supposed to come from the cross of Christ and put one in his war helmet and the other in the bridle of his war horse. Despite all that, he was canonized as a saint.
Could this have happened, says E. Stanley Jones, “if the men who had gathered there [at Nicea] made the Sermon on the Mount as essential part of the creed? Suppose we had written it in our creeds and repeated it each time with conviction: ‘I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and the way of life [Jesus calls me to] and, God helping me, I will embody it.’” How might the history of Christianity been different? Would there have been the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust? Would there have been such fragmentation between churches and individuals over doctrines? Would the Christian church be less known for its scandals, its fights and its hypocrisy and more known for its love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control?
I agree with Stanley Jones, and with John Wesley, and Martin Luther, and John Calvin, and so many other pillars of the Christian church that the Sermon on the Mount is the key to unlocking what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. This is how we should live. This is how our faith in Jesus becomes realized. This is the way.
But as we will see, it is not an easy way, not a comfortable way. Jesus will challenge our assumptions and our comfort zones. This sermon, and other teaching like it, got Jesus crucified, after all. Doing a sermon series based on it carries some inherent risk. I can guarantee that there will be something here that will push your buttons. I know that because it has been pushing my buttons as I prepare the series. There may be some things that you wish Jesus hadn’t said…but he does say them, and he embodies them, and he calls us to do the hard task of following him in them.
Think about today, for example—the anniversary of 9/11. On a day when we remember the horror of terrorism, the evil of people flying planes into buildings, the deaths of thousands of innocent people, two resultant wars that are almost ten years old…on a day like this, the Sermon on the Mount confronts us with Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile.” We may be tempted to explain those words away so that they will fit into our categories, but Jesus won’t allow us to do that.
We might throw up our hands and say that loving our enemies is impossible, and that Jesus is just being hypothetical. But it is possible, and it’s not hypothetical.
Remember that the one who preaches this sermon is the one who will himself be an innocent victim of human violence and evil, enduring the terror of the cross. And yet, hanging there, he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” The Sermon on the Mount forces us to process that reality today.
The reason that the Sermon on the Mount makes us uncomfortable is the fact that it transports us to this foreign world—one with which we aren’t familiar because we’ve rarely seen it.
There’s a story about a child in India who lived with wolves from the age of 2 to age 11. The child ran on all fours, his legs had adapted to run that way. He only ate raw meat, and when he was captured and put on a regular diet, he contracted dysentery and died. E. Stanley Jones, who knew of the child, commented, “A human being had lived on a wolf diet for nine years. Human nature had so accommodated itself to it that it seemed the natural way to live and our more human ways seemed unnatural. We have lived so long on the wolf-principles of selfishness and competition and strife that the Christian way of unselfishness, cooperation, and love seems to us a foreign way.”
In a world where sin makes people less than human, a world where people often act like wolves seeking to devour one another, Jesus calls his disciples to a foreign way—a way that he wants to make native within us.
When the early church was first formed, as we read in the book of Acts, before they were called Christians, before they were called a church, they were called “The people of the Way.”
Oh, how we need to get back on that way—the way of the kingdom, the way of Christ. It is not an easy way, but it is the only way that leads to life.
I want to invite you to spend some time this week reading through Matthew 5-7. Joe and I will be posting some devotional thoughts and reflections throughout this series. I want to encourage you to immerse yourself in these Scriptures for the next 12 weeks. Wrestle with them, argue with them, deal with them… but most of all, I want to challenge you to try and live them—every day. And see how that changes you and everyone around you.
We are all preachers, every day, more through what we do than what we say—may sermons reflect the Way.