by: Denise Robinson
The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached
Matthew 5 – 7
Today’s sermon has a bold title, “The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached.” It’s certainly not one of my sermons, nor is it a John Wesley sermon. You may have caught on from the call to worship: it’s a Jesus sermon and we know it as the Sermon on the Mount. Part of the seminary experience is learning how to preach. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that how to preach classes are often taught by professors who have never actually preached a sermon. But whether you learn it in a seminary class or from a “how-to” preaching book, there are some common words of wisdom in preaching: speak clearly, use stories or humor on occasion, give your congregation practical application for living, preach to challenge and convict but not to anger or alienate, and condense your sermon, whenever possible, into three or four bullet points that can be written down and remembered. Wesley offered other recommendations for his pastors: suit your subject to your audience, take care not to ramble but stick to your text, preach Christ, preach grace but not without preaching sin, and speak in plain language with plain truth for plain people. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount just about breaks all these rules.
First, the sermon was long. It takes up three chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, and what Matthew wrote down is only a summary of what Jesus said. We don’t know how long the sermon lasted, but it had to have lasted hours. Second, there’s no humor or personalized story in this sermon; it’s one hard-hitting point after another. Third, there are way too many bullet points. Jesus jumps, seemingly randomly, from one topic to another leaving his audience, and us, not only breathless, but frequently confused. His words can be difficult to understand, but he doesn’t stop to explain them. He just forges on to a new topic. And, fourth, by the end of the sermon, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus hadn’t totally lost, angered, and/or alienated everyone in his audience.
If we were to try and summarize, what does Jesus preach in the Sermon on the Mount? It opens with what we read in our Call to Worship: those verses known as the Beatitudes. The verses beginning with “Blessed are.…” Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. For many of us, these verses are, at best, disconcerting. We want to put ourselves in one or more of these categories but if we’re honest, we’re not there. We are not poor, we tend to be proud of ourselves and our accomplishments, we are not sure what “pure in heart” means but it doesn’t sound like us, and we are certainly not persecuted. And whether you’re sitting with Jesus expecting him to take up a sword against the Romans or reading his words centuries later in our times of division and anger, what do we do with “Blessed are the peacemakers?”
Next, Jesus jumps to “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” These words sound inspiring until we get to if the salt has lost its flavor, then it’s good for nothing and if your light is hidden you are not giving glory to God. What does that mean? How can we be good salt and bright light? What is Jesus telling us to do? Before we can ask such questions, Jesus is on to his next bullet point: he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, although there is something yet that has to come to pass before this can happen, and, by the way, there’s this thing called the kingdom of heaven and to get in your righteousness better exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Any preacher worth his or her salt (so to speak), would stop now, give the congregation a breather, and then do some explaining. Not Jesus. He jumps to his next series of bullet points, so many it’s hard to count, calling out one issue after another: anger, lust, divorce, not honoring what we say we will do. He tells us when someone wrongs us, we are to turn the other cheek, and that we are to love and pray for our enemies. He ends with the words, “Be perfect as your Father is perfect.”
Certainly, the sermon is winding down now and Jesus is going to explain some of this, right? No, just the opposite. Jesus is just getting started. More bullet points start flying at us: how we are supposed to give, how we are supposed to pray, and how we are supposed to fast. The Lord’s Prayer is tucked away in the middle of the sermon, and we will be praying those difficult words as part of Communion later in this service. Next come bullet points containing warning signs: where your treasure is, there your heart is; keep your eye focused on the light or you will be drawn into darkness; and you cannot serve God and wealth.
At this point, Jesus finally offers a few words of encouragement, allowing his audience, and us, to breathe a short sigh of relief. Don’t worry about tomorrow or the things of this life because God loves you, knows what you need, and will care for you. But before we can relax, he starts up again: don’t judge others unless you want to be judged, do to others as you would have them do to you, and be a tree that bears good fruit, because trees that bear bad fruit are cut down. Finally, Jesus closes his sermon with our Scripture reading for today – “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” Those are certainly tough words to hear, particularly for someone on the fence of this kingdom living message.
Preachers today craft weeks of sermons out of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, breaking down what was said, and analyzing every word. That’s fine – even important to do – and yet that’s not as Jesus taught it. The danger comes when we focus on one part of what Jesus had to say and forget that this is one sermon where all the bullet parts point to a single message. The message of this sermon is in its focus on the kingdom of heaven; a way of thinking, believing, and acting right now that will prepare us and the world for the kingdom that is to come. In this sermon, Jesus introduces the concept of what the kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God is, how we become part of the kingdom, and the consequences of what it means to reject the kingdom. There are his three, true, bullet points. There was an urgency to Jesus’ message because he was telling them the kingdom of heaven wasn’t merely for after death; it was already here in the present and they better begin living the kingdom way now, while there was still time.
Jesus’ point number 1, tells us that the kingdom of heaven is a way of believing, feeling, thinking, and acting that, Jesus warns, looks very different from what the world teaches and expects. The kingdom is life turned upside-down and inside-out. It is a life that believes God has a plan and an order for our world that is not the way things are right now but will be someday. Jesus’ point number 2 tells us we enter the kingdom by changing the focus of our lives. It requires an inward change of heart and mind, where we think of God first, others second, and ourselves third. It is a life that requires us to turn inward changes into outward behavior. It is change that goes to the very core of our being. And that brings us to Jesus’ final point: it’s important to enter the kingdom now, in this life. Jesus provides two warnings for opt against his teachings. He first warns of a narrow gate and hard road leading to life and a wide gate and easy road leading to destruction. Secondly, he warns that on the final day many will come and call him “Lord” – good people who did good things – but who didn’t put God first in their lives. To those people, he will say, “I never knew you, go away.”
A theologian wrote, “Most people like the Sermon on the Mount because they do not really know what it says.” We are drawn to these words, but they haunt us. Because these words are contrary to what we learn today, they go against all of our social norms, they challenge and destroy our worldview. They make us face ourselves and examine where we stand in our commitment to our faith. They expose us to the reality of how we live our lives, and to what is expected of us. They remind us that what is at stake is the fate of our eternal souls.
What does “the greatest sermon ever preached” have to say to us today? First, this sermon is meant for us to examine in exchanging our world views for biblical ones. Change begins with internal transformation, a fundamental shift in attitude and in our hearts. It begins with the acceptance of Christ preaching with authority from God and with acceptance of Christ’s words about how we are to live in relation to God and one another. It begins with less of us and more of Christ in us. Second, this sermon is meant to draw us closer to Christ and to the gift of grace. How can we be more righteous than the Pharisees or be perfect as God is perfect? We can’t. Not on our own. It’s too hard and the lure of the world is too strong. So, we better keep our focus on Jesus, pray constantly, read the Bible daily, and ask for forgiveness often. And, third, once we get the internal “us” on the right path, then we need to put into practice, live outwardly, this new life. This means doing what pleases God, rather than what pleases ourselves. The Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than a call to living a transformed life – not because it’s the “Law,” but because this life called kingdom living restores our relationship with God, accepts the gift of grace and mercy offered by Christ through his death on the cross, changes not just our lives but the lives of others around us, and leads us through the gate that leads to eternal life. It’s a sermon that gives us, at the end, options: chose the narrow gate or the wide gate, be a tree that bears good fruit or a free that bears bad fruit, build our house on sand or on solid rock. Jesus’ sermon demands an answer. How do you respond to the greatest sermon ever preached?