A Brief Explanation
The form of this sermon is unusual, and so I need to give a brief word of explanation before presenting the message. We have four gospels that contain many examples of our Lord’s teaching, whether in parables or in explanations to His disciples, but we really only have one example of a recorded sermon. That sermon, of course, is the Sermon on the Mount. And it struck me recently that there really ought to be more attempts on the part of Christian preachers to imitate the Lord’s homiletic style. The argument against this is that it seems obviously presumptuous for a grubby mortal to even attempt to preach like Jesus did, but there is perhaps another way to look at this. Perhaps it is presumptuous to think that we have nothing to learn from Him in this area.
“He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked”
1 John 2:6 (KJV)
That said, here is the message:
- Blessed are those who are called by the name of the Lord, for they shall be feared.
- Blessed are those who listen, for they shall be chased down by blessing.
- Blessed are those who observe and do, for they shall be set on high.
- Blessed are those who have the word in their mouth and heart, for the new commandment is theirs.
- Blessed are those who are truly fruitful in their basket and store, for they will hunger and thirst after righteousness.
- Blessed are those who serve God in joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things, for they shall be free of covetousness.
- Blessed are those whose foot does not slide, for they shall walk in the truth.
- Blessed are those who have not looked on the form or shape of any graven image, for they shall see God.
Obedience to God can only be offered up in the present, and disobedience—that unclean sacrifice—can only be offered on that same altar, the altar of the present. Whatever it is that is offered, clean or foul, must be offered in the present. Were you faithful once? Were you a faithful nation then? To offer up faithfulness then as though it were as good as obedience now, to rest on your almost-forgotten laurels, is the same thing as offering up fresh disobedience now. The clean sacrifices of yesteryear, offered up again in this repurposed fashion, are simply another form of unclean sacrifice.
Righteousness is not shy and retiring. Offer what God asks of you. Offer your heart, promptly and sincerely, and do it now. Today if you hear His voice, act as though you heard His voice today. Hearing is doing, and so it is not possible to hear one day and do on another. To hear is to do, and to not do is to not hear.
Do not think that these are words of revolution, designed to overthrow your laws and customs. Rather through your assigned representatives, you have already been diligent in overthrowing your own laws and customs, while pretending you have not done so. The impudence is such that if anybody comes to you and urges a return to the old paths, you think of him as the radical. You call him the fire-eater. If someone were to come to you and urge three senators from every state, you would hail him as an innovative progressive, and the Constitution as a living document that allows for such progress. And if someone were to resist such a novelty, you sneer at him as an extremist.
So you cannot hope to understand the past, the future, or the present, unless you are honest. Honesty lies at the foundation of all true authority.
The Heart of Obedience
You have heard it said that it was the intention of the Founders to keep and maintain a strict separation between church and state. You have even heard it said that there was to be a wall of separation between the two. But I am telling you there is a difference between separating two forms of government found under the sun—ecclesiastical government and civil government—which is a most biblical thing to do, and separating God and state, or morality and state, or righteousness and state. You who insist on separating morality and state . . . isn’t there enough of that already? Isn’t that your problem?
You do not trust the Founders because you believe that they were locked into their own place and time, and could not see beyond the horizons of their own assumptions. And you can? You believe you can break free of the cultural assumptions that surround you on every hand, and you demonstrate your ability in this by nodding your head at every intellectual fashion that passes you by?
You trust in your own heart, and in the hearts of your fellows who think just as you do. But the Founders, not so foolish as to trust themselves, built a form of government that instantiated that honorable distrust, and that form of government you dismiss.
You have heard it said, and you happily echo it, that America is exceptional. You believe in this idol of so-called American exceptionalism, and in so doing you have become one with Nineveh and Tyre. In thinking you are so different, you have become exactly the same. In believing that you are not as ordinary men, you have become ordinary men. Nothing is so predictable as haughty men getting above themselves.
And so it is that nations are brought low. They are brought low when they lift themselves up, when they vaunt themselves, when they look at themselves in the mirror, while admiring what they see.
Divorce and Remarriage
A nation cannot be as faithless as your nation has been to your God without that faithlessness also being manifested in your marriages. You treat the dissolution of marriage as a personal convenience, whenever you feel like it. You ought rather to consider divorce, even when lawful, as something more akin to having a leg amputated.
Although you register your marriages at the county courthouse, do not think that marriages are created at the county courthouse. God Himself established marriage in the Garden, and only He has the authority to dissolve it. If marriage were a creation of our own, we could modify or abolish it. But if it is not of our making, then we need to turn to the Maker of it for a right understanding of it. Because we have not done that, because we resolutely refuse to do that, the falseness of our hearts, as seen in our homes, can also be seen everywhere else.
You assume to yourself the right to prioritize all your promises. You say that promises that are about defending the Constitution are supposed to be the really important ones, but promises to remain faithful to your wife are only “about sex.” But a man who will betray his wife, or a woman who will betray her husband, is already treacherous in principle, treacherous at heart, treacherous at the core. Treachery grows, just as cancer does, and oath breaking is a gangrenous business. This is the long way around, but it is to say that a nation filled with liars, thieves and adulterers is going to be well-represented in their state and national capitals. As we are.
Good for Evil
You judge yourselves by your private intentions and motives, and you judge others by their public actions toward you. You do not take their intentions (or professed intentions) into account at all. In your evaluation of all your interactions with others, you weigh and measure the internal motives of others with meticulous care, always taking proper care to leave your thumb on the scale. But because you evaluate motives in such a crooked way, it is not surprising that your retaliations toward others are so often unjust.
If a man strikes you, you compare his action to the purity of your intention. If you strike a man, you do so because you have evaluated the impurity of his action, and have drawn conclusions about what his motives had to have been. Your own motives, once again, are self-evident to you as noble and right.
But the twisted human race is not made up of all others, with only you excepted. The tangled relationship problems that include you are problems that likely include you.
For just one day, attribute the sincerity of your own intentions to all others. And then attribute the obvious falseness of their hearts to yourself and your motives. This is will not be entirely accurate, as you might well guess, but it is actually likely to be far closer to accurate than what you usually do. You have not arrived but you are getting warmer.
And all spiteful retaliation is from the false one. Being from the false one, it is not just wrong because it is malicious and spiteful. It is evil because it is full of lies and deceit. It is wrong, and it is also almost always wrong-headed. Personal retaliation is always sinful, and almost always stupid. Spite does not just blind us to the good, but also blinds us to the facts.
And so beware of all the humility snares. You are a casual people, and you take pride in not being stuffy. But if previous generations were proud of their top hats and tails, and you are proud of your sweat pants, what is the real distinction between you and those others—apart from the fact that they had more of a plausible excuse for their pride?
Your worship services resemble classroom lectures, or assemblies, and sometimes they even look like pep rallies. And yet you are proud? No creature on earth should be proud of anything at all, but to be proud of doing something poorly is a remarkable feat.
Many generations of religious people have fallen into the trap of being proud of their piety. But it takes considerable gymnastic skill to be proud of your successful avoidance of that trap, being proud of your humility, so proud of the fact that you are not ostentatious and conceited, but rather open, transparent, approachable.
But if you have to choose, you should rather be than seem. To be rather than to seem. For a number of generations now, you have actively pursued the surface froth of personality rather than the bedrock of character. All your success manuals presuppose it. Gestures, smiles, hearty handshakes, the lot. Your fathers used to say that success came from integrity, honesty, hard work, and all over a lifetime of service. You have traded character for personality, and have come away from that sorry bargain the poorer. Not only so, but because it was the wrong choice, it will not be long before you lose what you bought so dear. You gave up character for personality, and the time is coming, and will soon be here, when you don’t even have that lesser good any longer.
Pray Like This
When you reflect on your own character in the presence of God, on your failures and successes, this is how you should do it. Pray to God in this way, and not in a way that will seal your blindness to your true condition. Do not be like the hypocrites, who use their prayers as carefully sharpened knives that they use to gouge out their own eyes.
Use a measuring rod that is true.
Father God, Father in heaven, You are holiness itself, and may that holiness come down and take root in me. May I measure my life by a heavenly cord, and cease my attempts to measure heaven with an earthly one. As you grant me my daily bread, keep me from using it to subsidize any continuing folly. Help me to see that forgiveness that does not go out from me is a forgiveness that never came into me. Keep me from becoming ensnared by all the shiny objects around me, and let me actually see your kingdom, which is the true shining. Amen, and amen.
Pray this way, and don’t let anyone know that you do. Pray this way, and let God be in charge of who might find out about it.
Don’t Be Greedy
Greed will out. There is no way for you to set your heart on things down here below, like a hog rooting for acorns, and not have what you are in the process of becoming being revealed to all. Stand upright instead, and look at the stars. Look up to the heavens. Where is your heart? Is your heart there, in the heavenly places, or is it here below, down among the acorns?
Everything down here is within reach. You can touch it, taste it, hold it, and savor it. You can do anything with all that is down here but keep it. You cannot touch anything beyond the stars. You cannot touch them, taste them, hold them, or savor them. You can’t do anything with them except possess them forever. Your choice should not be as hard as you make it. Would you touch what you cannot have? Or would you have what you cannot touch?
Why are you so beset by false urgencies? Why do you set apart important tasks for the sake of trivial but urgent tasks?
And why are you so attracted to shiny objects? Do you not know that the only way to draw the things of earth to yourself forever is by giving them away? Whatever you clutch to your chest now is for that reason somewhere else, by definition, and whatever you resolve to put away from you, for the sake of Christ, is found there, securely in your hand.
And you must not give anything away because you believe it to be bad. Why would you give your corruptions to someone else? Why would your earthly goods be bad for you but good for him? No, your possessions are good, and that is why you give them away. You give them away so that others may have these good things, and so that you might have them forever.
You must give material things to others in order to bless them, and not to unload cursed wares from your own storehouse of condemnation.
Why do you strive the way you do? Can you make the corn grow? Can you make the sun come up? Can you summon water out of the sky?
The world is staggeringly fertile. The world around you is teeming with abundance. And yet you strive because you believe that if someone else gets a bigger piece of pie, this must mean of necessity that you will get a smaller one. If you believe that God is stingy with His benefits, then this makes some sense. But we are the ones who selfishly create scarcity in a world full of abundance. It is not that God is selfish, but rather that we are.
No Double Standard
Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. Everyone is in the middle of writing a novel in the first person, writing it out in their own head, and as it turns out, everyone is their very own hero. Some will say that the word hero is ill-chosen—do not some people have very negative views of themselves? But even though it might be a negative view, who is still the protagonist? All the other characters are judged by a different standard, which is how double standards arise. We judge others by their actions, and we evaluate ourselves by our motives—which, as the first person narrator, we can easily see. And when we have lived this way for a long time, we discover to our own sorrow that if we didn’t have double standards, we wouldn’t have any standards at all.
Don’t Waste Your Breath
How many hours have you spent trying to correct people who did not want your correction? And you had no real obligation to correct them in the first place?
Do not measure the warmth of God’s heart by the coldness of your own. Because we are the merciless ones, we project that hard attitude into the heavens, and assume that God will deal with us as we deal with one another. If we continue insisting upon this that reciprocity may eventually be arranged—where the measure we use will be measured back to us—but our starting point is entirely wrong. Our initial assumption about God is slanderous and worse. God is filled with and overflowing with tender mercies. He is the everlasting font of all eternal pleasures and joys, and we are the ones who have stopped that fountain up in ourselves by means of our sins. We have stuffed our filthy rags into that spring, and then we complain that God must not want us to have any water.
So we must not charge Him with being like us. The nature of that very charge reveals the falseness of it.
The Contrary Way
The world does not follow the broad way to destruction out of a statistical necessity, but rather as a function of contagion. Finding the narrow way is not like winning the lottery, as someone had to win it as a mathematical necessity, but is rather a matter of learning how to refuse and turn away from the madness of crowds. That madness is the madness of revenge, envy, retaliation, accusation, judgment, hatred, and malice. The narrow way is, by the grace of God, to say no to all of that.
Liars and Their Fruit
Beware of those theologians who separate doctrine from life, especially if their schematic diagram of the relationship of doctrine to life appears to be accurate and edifying enough. The truer a confession is, the worse it is when it is not lived out. The very worst is when the confession that is not lived out is the confession that all truths must be lived out.
You are justified by Christ alone, and not by any of your own efforts in the course of your sanctification. And one of the things that must be justified is your own efforts to be good, and as they are justified, they will continue. They are set free to continue.
Brackish water does not come from pure springs, and neither does foul living come from fair doctrine.
Godliness is as godliness does, and godliness only does as Christ did.
Many will come to the Day of Judgment thinking they are prepared to parse theology with their Maker, but when the moment comes, all their excuses will die in their mouths.
That Day of Judgment is not the point where God loses all sense of proportion, but rather when the sinner loses all sense of proportion. Confronted with the absolute need to repent of sins and sinning, and faced with the horrible prospect of eternal torment made out of the flames of his own willfulness, the sinner who has lost his mind, soul, heart, and life, insists upon that everlasting darkness, and the misery that attends it.
The Message Itself
These words I have spoken are bleeding words because Christ is the eternal Word, and the eternal Word is the Word that bled. We all, trapped in our sin and folly, had no way out unless an Advocate could arise from within our midst. Our corruption was radical, descending to us from Adam our father. There could be no way of salvation unless a pure man could arise from an impure race. God in His inscrutable wisdom accomplished exactly that when He determined that a virgin would be with child, a child with no human father, but with a truly human grandfather. He was the sinless one, and had no sins of His own to answer for. That blameless on, that man of integrity, was treated by our authorities with all the contempt you might expect. He was slandered, mocked, railroaded, flogged, spat upon, pierced, and displayed on a gibbet to the principalities and powers. These spiritual authorities had no idea that they were gazing on their own destruction, because they were looking at the only hope of our salvation.
And so it is that any man who hears these words, and hears them with faith, is hearing the sound of all of his sins rushing away from him.
Christ, the sinless one, died. Christ, the sinless one, was imputed to be the sinful one, and died. Christ, who never did any of those things which are characteristic of one of our average days, took all of those evils upon Himself, gathered them to His chest, and sank down into death. On the third day He rose again, which means that you may walk in newness of life. It means that you can hear His words of life, and not have them be unto your words of death.
If you know what to do, if you know now what you should do now, then every witness in heaven and on earth calls upon you to actually do it. We are after the lost art of Christian character, and are mighty tired of the showy performances of Christian personality.
Character withstands the storm, like an oak tree rooted, and personality blows off across the way like a withered oak leaf, no longer attached to the tree, forever detached from the tree.
But while disobedience provides the raw material for repentance, it is no real aid to repentance. Disobedience only invites more of the same deterioration. Repentance must come from outside the process of decay; repentance must be a gracious gift.
The child of evangelical faith is righteous action, and righteous action breeds more righteous action. Obedience prepares the way for more obedience. Holiness grows. And such holiness, supremely happy, multiplies thirty, sixty and one hundred-fold.