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Ruminating on the Sermon on the Mount

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Local News: Mission Mississippi's next Prayer Breakfast will take place on Thursday, January 23, at Briarwood Presbyterian Church (620 Briarwood Drive, Jackson, MS) from 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. For more information, call Wendell Ruff at (601) 955-0697. The purpose of Mission Mississippi's bi-weekly prayer breakfasts is to foster greater unity in the Body of Christ in the metro-Jackson area across racial and denominational lines. To learn more, go to www.missionmississippi.org.

The most well-known sermon Jesus preached, recorded in Matthew 5-7 is known as the Sermon on the Mount. For centuries, the church has been poring over this sermon, finding fresh gems of truth within it. For example, Pastor John McArthur of Grace to You spent years in the pulpit expounding on Jesus’ words. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship, is largely a commentary on the meaning of this sermon.

The biggest impression the Sermon on the Mount leaves on is that God is far more concerned about the heart than about outward appearances. According to Jesus, God doesn’t really care how long or how impressively a person prays in public if the motive is simply to stand out in front of his fellowman. He doesn’t really care how generously a person gives to charity if the whole point of the giving is to be seen by others. God hates hypocrisy and isn’t impressed by piety that is done for self-aggrandizement rather than out of love. God is not impressed by a chastity that resists outward adultery, but is consumed by inward lust. To think the sin is to be guilty of doing the sin. To hate a person makes one guilty of the sin of murder.

The startling thing about the righteousness Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is just how practical it is. Jesus’ commands are not easy, but they are simple. Being told to love one’s enemies is as difficult as eating nails, but it’s not some incomprehensible riddle. We can at least clearly discern what God expects of us. One hears complaints of how difficult the Bible can be to understand, and this is certainly true of some passages. But if we occupied ourselves for the rest of our lives trying to understand the immensely understandable parts, such as the Sermon on the Mount, we’d never come to the end of it.

What the 19th century philosopher Nietzsche found so contemptible about the Christian faith—the lifting up of the weak and the abasement of the strong—is exemplified by the Sermon on the Mount. Natural desires are forbidden while behavior that is altogether unnatural is commanded. Jesus said his disciples were not to hit back when they were hit, nor were they to return insult for insult. They were to bless those who cursed them and do good to those who treated them hatefully. As psychologists argue that at least 60% of communication is non-verbal, “blessing those who curse” is not just a matter of words, but it’s also a matter of tone. Few evangelical churches say they look down on non-Christians, but if that’s the vibe that’s being sent out, something is tragically wrong.

God save us from theoretical holiness, the kind that is easy to pontificate about, but hard to put into practice in the face of actual peer pressure. God save us from ignoring the planks in our eyes while worrying over the specks in others’ eyes, and God also save us equally from speaking lies with love or speaking truth without love. God save us from comparing ourselves to others and feeling dissatisfied over the lot God has given us, and God also save us from ever taking pleasure in anyone else’s misfortune. God save us from thinking of Christ as someone we possess, as if he were ours to do with whatever we like; the truth is that he possesses us. We see, pretty quickly, in the Sermon on the Mount that God is holding us to an impossible standard.

What’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount? Is it to give us moral guidelines that we, if we try hard enough, can achieve, and so enter into a state of blessedness? Christ comes to us not to burden us with impossible laws which we, in despair, look to for our salvation. Rather, Christ comes to show us how desperately we need him. The Pharisees of the first century often fell into the mistake of thinking of God’s laws in terms of external obedience—do the right thing, and God will love you. The heart behind the actions wasn’t always on the radar.
The only kind of person who would utter out in desperation, like the Philippian Jailer “What must I do to be saved?” is someone who knows that God expects him to be perfect and knows that he doesn’t measure up. The Sermon on the Mount forever obliterates any hope we have of being considered righteous by God on the basis of some merely external obedience. It also obliterates any watered down version of religion which says, “Nobody’s perfect, so God must overlook our little imperfections.” Nobody is perfect, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t expect us to be. The Sermon on the Mount shows us that, if we’re stand before the judgment of God, we’ll need to be clothed in a righteousness not our own—ours just won’t measure up.

The Sermon on the Mount, rightly understood, serves the same sort of purpose as the Old Testament Law—it is a tutor that leads us to Christ. It brings us to the end of ourselves. Only when we come to the end of ourselves are we really able to “seek the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). If we still perceive discipleship as something we’re embarking on for our own enrichment, our own benefit, if our religion is something we wear in public simply to get applause, then we’re still subconsciously trying to build our own kingdom. Our hearts are impure. May God make them pure, so that one day we will see God.

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