“Homiletics” is the art of preaching or writing sermons. Someone once defined “preaching” as the art of talking in someone else’s sleep. I had a class in college called, “Homiletics.” Believe it or not, I passed that class. For years after college I read books about homiletics and read sermons from people throughout history who were considered great preachers. In other words, I studied preaching.
One thing you learned early in homiletics (and in any speech class you may have taken) is to know your audience. Know to whom you are preaching or teaching or giving a speech. This is an incredibly important principle! You can have a great sermon (or speech) but if it is not geared to the audience, it will fall flat and no one will remember it, except for how bad it was.
However, giving a speech and preaching a sermon are quite different. A good speech can be based on a number of things. But a good sermon is always based on (and in) Scripture. So, in addition to knowing the audience who will hear the sermon, a good preacher must also know the audience of the people who would have first heard the Scripture being used in his or her sermon. That’s called “hermeneutics;” the art of interpreting Scripture. In addition to Homiletics, I also add a class in college (and graduate school) called Hermeneutics. There are basically three questions to ask while studying any passage of Scripture: (1) What does the text say? (2) What did it mean to the first readers/hearers? (3) What does it mean for us today? Every question is important. The most overlooked question is #2, What did the text mean to the first readers or hearers? Answering that question can be time consuming. It involves studying history and culture and context. It can lead you down many dead-end streets and rabbit holes. But you can’t really apply the bible to yourself until you first know who it was written to, what they thought it meant, and how they would have applied it.
A Mountain of a Sermon
Today I want to begin a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is the most important of all of Jesus’ teachings. It is also the most well-known of everything He said. The Sermon is found in Matthew 5-7. This sermon is foundational to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. This single sermon has been instrumental in changing history. Its importance cannot be overstated. St. Augustine described the Sermon on the Mountas “a perfect standard of the Christian life.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, was based upon his exposition of this Sermon. The Sermon on the Mount greatly influenced Mohandas Gandhi. Considering this Sermon, Gandhi said, “The message of Jesus as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole. If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’ But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.” Likewise, the Sermon on the Mount greatly influenced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the entire Civil Rights Movement. Because of the unparalleled importance of this Sermon, I have switched it around a little, and called these series, “A Mountain of a Sermon.”
But before we begin our journey through the Sermon, let’s first take a look at the context and who was Jesus’ original audience when He spoke these words? Understanding this will affect how you read the entire Sermon.
Who were the first people to hear this Sermon?
The answer to that question is found in the last paragraph in chapter 4 (Matthew 4:23-25) and the first two verses of chapter 5 (Matthew 5:1-2). Matthew writes, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, whose suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan followed him. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying…”
What do we learn from these verses? First notice that Jesus’ main focus in all His teachings and healings was (and is) “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). So, Jesus’ audience would have listened to His Sermon and understand it to be about life in God’s kingdom. The Sermon begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). In fact, no less than seven times this Sermon refers to the “kingdom of heaven.” Jesus clearly stated He came announcing, “The time has come…the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Central in all Jesus said and did was (and is) the kingdom of God. And proclaiming God’s kingdom is “good news.”
The kingdom of God refers to the sole sovereignty of God. If refers to a different way of living. A better way of living. It means living life in such a way that God is in control of all things. The kingdom of God is both now and not yet. In other words, the kingdom came with Jesus Christ. Right now, there is a different way of living. A way that is contrary to way most of us live. Right now, we see snapshots of the kingdom. Right now, the kingdom is here, it just not yet fully realized. That will not happen until Jesus returns in all power and glory. At that time, God will rule and justice will prevail. In the meantime, we are to live as if the kingdom of God has already been realized. What does that look like? It looks like the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, notice Jesus’ audience. This is vitally important. His audience were the sick, the suffering, and the oppressed. His audience were those everyone else had given up on. His audience was not the rich and powerful, but the down and out. His audience were those on the margins of society, with little hope. So, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger” etc. (Matthew 5:3-6), the people who heard Him would understand Him to literally mean those who were poor and suffering and powerless and destitute. Sure, there is a spiritual component to “poor in spirit” and “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But for most of the people hearing this sermon, including His disciples, they were literally poor and hungry and destitute. This sermon had to mean something to them! Remember, Jesus Himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
So, imagine the scene. A large crowd of people who were sick and destitute and in need of hope and healing are surrounding Jesus. This is a crowd of misfits and people on the margins of society, and many of them are Jesus’ “disciples” (Matthew 5:2). Surrounded by this crowd, Jesus goes “up on a mountainside and sat down…and he began to teach them…” (Matthew 5:1-2).
Matthew is painting the picture that Jesus is the new, and better, Moses. In Exodus 24 Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God Himself. The Ten Commandments were the basics of the entire Law of Moses. They outlined how the people of God where to live. Now, Jesus, goes up on a mountain to teach the Word of the Lord. The Sermon on the Mount, like the 10 Commandments, outline how a follower of Christ is to live and what life in the kingdom looks like. Jesus’ sermon does not replace the 10 Commandments. Rather, the Sermon fulfills them. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
By sitting down, Jesus is taking on the role of a Rabbi; one who teaches with authority. At the conclusion of this sermon, which probably lasted several hours, Matthew writes, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).
Sermon Challenges and Response
So, today we begin a journey exploring this mountain of a sermon. I am not sure how long it will last and where all the journey will take us. But I do believe it is an important journey for us to take. As we embark together, I want to issue three challenges. First, recognize the radical nature of this sermon. This is no ordinary sermon. Jesus is calling His disciples to a radical way of life. A life that is completely contrary to the way most of us are living now. Properly applied, the Sermon on the Mount will push you beyond your comfort zone.
A friend of mine, speaking about the Sermon on the Mount, always asks the question, “What if Jesus really meant what He said?” We have tried to spiritualize and normalize this text. As a result, we have lost its true meaning. What if Jesus really meant being persecuted was a blessing? What if He really meant it when He said anger was the same as murder and lust was the same as adultery? What if He really meant it when He said to turn the other cheek and to love your enemies and to not worry about anything? What if He really meant what He said? What if we really lived out what He said? If we did so, it would be radical and revolutionary.
The second challenge is to understand how real and raw this sermon is. Jesus words cut to the core of who we are and who God has called us to be (or who we aren’t and why we aren’t that way). The Sermon on the Mount cannot be ignored; it cannot be pushed aside; and it cannot be softened. These are the words of Jesus. This is what life in the kingdom looks like.
The third challenge is to embrace how relevant this sermon is. Jesus spoke these words two-thousand years ago. But the sermon could have been delivered yesterday. The gospel is still about the kingdom. The gospel is still about a different way of living. The gospel is still for the poor and the sick and the broken and the disenfranchised. We still live in a day where hate and adultery and divorce and revenge and worry and violence and war are the norms. We are that crowd of misfits whom Jesus wants to challenge, encourage, and comfort.
What should our response be? At the end of His sermon, in introducing His illustration of the wise and foolish builder, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of min and puts them into practice…” (Matthew 7:24). The only acceptable response to this mountain of a sermon is to listen and obey. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The overall theme of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the overarching theme of all Jesus taught and did, is the kingdom of God. The question this morning is, how does a person become a citizen of God’s kingdom? Jesus answers that question right after His baptism. He said, “The time has come…the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) Entrance into God’s kingdom is repenting of your sins and believing that in Him, and through Him, is God’s kingdom.
Have you done that?
Have you repented?
Do you believe?
Before embarking on our journey through this mountain of a sermon, make sure you are a citizen of God’s kingdom by repenting and believing the good news.
 From author’s notes.