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The Sermon You Never Want (But Always Need) to Hear

San Williams

February 13, 2011
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

02-13-2011 SermonGenerally speaking, my sermons rarely conform to the old three-point sermon formula.  But this morning I’ve got a three-point—why, what and how—sermon.  Why is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount so hard?  What is it about?  And how does it matter to us today?  

The why is this a hard sermon question is the easiest to answer. Not only does Jesus lay down the law, but he does so in a most radical way. We can summon any number of witnesses who will attest to the difficulties inherent in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The Apostle Paul might be the first to speak up.  Can’t we just hear him saying, “Be careful, preacher. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works of the law.  As I said in my letter to the Philippians, knowing Christ comes ‘not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.’”

Martin Luther is even more forceful in his warning about the dangers of this passage. Luther wrote about this particular scripture:  “The infernal Satan has not found a single text in the scriptures that he has more shamefully distorted and into which he has imported more errors and false teaching than this very one.” 

Surely Luther’s warning is well taken.  This is a sermon in which law can overwhelm gospel, judgment trump grace, and the good news become buried under a pile of weighty commands.

No doubt we could voice our own difficulties with Jesus’ sermon.  Maybe Jesus’ use of hyperbole—we hope it’s hyperbole!—about plucking out an offending eye or cutting off a hand seems a bit over the top. And the “hell of fire” talk in this sermon is especially problematic for many of us today. We could go on, but it’s clear to all of us that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount contains many challenges.

But what’s it about?  In a phrase, the Sermon on the Mount is about restoring broken relationships.  Jesus came to proclaim God’s Kingdom, to reveal God’s will for our lives, to show us God’s vision of the beloved community.  So, not surprisingly, he takes on those things that endanger, prevent and even destroy the life that God sets before us. The Sermon on the Mount makes a number of points, but they are joined in a common theme:  God’s will is for all human relationships to be healed and made whole.

In the part of the Sermon on the Mount that we read this morning, Jesus takes on four issues that threaten or diminish the life God wills for us:  murder, adultery, divorce and  oath-taking.  All these issues are addressed in the Mosaic Law.  Jesus affirms the Law, but in each case he probes more deeply, expanding and transcending the familiar interpretations. 

For example, Jesus affirms the commandment of old, “Thou shall not murder,” but he goes even further.  He also condemns anger, insults and abusive language; because these are the sparks that can explode into destructive behavior and violent acts.  Jesus’ concern is less the having of anger than what one does with it.  If we become angry with another person—and we all do at one time or another—Jesus insists that we let that anger be a prelude to reconciliation. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister.”  In a nutshell, that’s the theme Jesus hammers home in his sermon.  All of the commandments found in this sermon aim toward a single goal:  restoring human relationships in order to make manifest the Kingdom of God in our midst.

And this holds true for his injunctions against adultery, divorce and oath-taking.  Adultery is a betrayal of relationship.  Divorce, while not strictly prohibited, is not God’s intention for marriage.  It may sometimes be necessary, but still it entails the breaking of a promise and very often results in considerable suffering for individuals, families and sometimes even whole communities. What is striking in Jesus’ pronouncements on adultery and divorce is his concern for the rights of women, which were totally ignored in his day.  

Jesus takes on lust because it turns a person into an object.  Like former President Jimmy Carter, everyone has lusted in his or her heart, but lust is sinful because it doesn’t consider the whole person, or care about that person’s wellbeing. It only wants to use the other person to satisfy one’s selfish desire. 

Today, the taking of oaths is not the issue it was in antiquity. But here again, Jesus commands that our human relationships be restored to a fundamental honesty and  truthfulness. God’s will for human discourse is for it to be trustworthy, direct and civil.  Jesus says, in effect, that the there is to be no deceit in our speech, and thus our yes means yes, and no means no.

Taken as a whole, Jesus’ Sermon aims at total restoration of life and community—our words and our deeds, our actions as well as our intentions, our hearts and our minds.  This sermon is not about a new law; it’s about a new way of life.

So how does Jesus’ sermon matter to us today? Why do we need to hear this sermon even if, as Luther said, it’s often distorted and prone to error?  I was struck by a letter in Christian Century magazine this week.  The author of the letter was pleading for a kind of gutsy church, one that can counter the destructive religious fanaticism and terrorism of our time.  He wrote:  “We need people who match terrorists’ intensity with acts of peace and love.  When terrorists are willing to give their own lives to destroy their enemies, we must be willing to give our lives to love and possibly save our enemies…Our time calls for [people] who are willing to engage in a battle against religious terrorists, not with missiles, not simply with reason, but with unshakable conviction based on the Sermon on the Mount.”

We Christians today tend to be casual toward those things about which Jesus is passionate. Jesus preached his sermon with the same intensity and conviction that we heard from the reading in Deuteronomy.  Jesus sets before us life and blessings on the one hand, or death and adversity on the other.  His plea for us is to choose life. With the Apostle Paul, we know we have not yet attained the high calling set forth in Jesus’ sermon.  But still we press on toward the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Every Sunday morning our liturgy includes this imperative:  “Hear and trust in the good news of the Gospel.”  And everyone responds: “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, healed and made whole.” In Jesus Christ, the good news is that we are unconditionally, unequivocally and irrevocably forgiven.  But we sometimes forget that forgiveness is not the good news in its entirety. We are forgiven in order to be healed and made whole.   The Sermon on the Mount is also good news.  It points to the healing and the wholeness of life that God wills for all people. 

Let’s stand and, with full assurance and unshakable conviction, say again what we believe.

Friends, hear and trust in the good news of the gospel:

In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, healed and made whole.