Yesterday I preached my first sermon of the year 2012. New years often open new doors to new paradigms, so this year I really wanted to rethink how I approach my sermons. How does one go about preaching the gospel?
Well Jesus was the first preacher of the gospel, the real O.G. (you know I’m funny…), so I decided to turn directly to Jesus for inspiration. No, not just to his words, but more specifically to his sermon: the Sermon on the Mount.
I asked the logical first question: how would Jesus begin a sermon?
Answer: with the Beatitudes.
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Preaching is different from teaching. Teaching is all about cultivating the mind and the spirit into a deeper understanding of the Divine. Preaching is about affirmation, inspiration, and action. Those are the essential qualities of the Beatitudes.
Have you ever heard Aragorn’s famous battle speech in Tolkein’s Lord of the Ring’s: Return of the King? Here’s the film adaptation of that speech:
This speech is reminiscent of a good sermon. There is repetition, gusto, and almost poetic prose. Not only does it inspire the soldiers who hear it, but it affirms everything they hold dear, their loyalty to their home and their people, their unwavering faith in their comrades, and their decidedly cosmic purpose.
Note the repetition. Aragorn repeats, “But it is not this day!” just as Jesus repeats, “Blessed are those…!” Jesus is marshaling his troops with a battle cry. The kingdom of God is near; indeed, it is “within you.” The Church’s primary task is to usher in this kingdom.
But also note the context. This speech is not designed to teach the soldiers anything new or profound. They have been training for years, learning the art of combat at home or in training camps. They aren’t getting a lesson in lancing today. Today they fight.
Many people interpret the Beatitudes as a theological proposition. View from that perspective, this text might suggest that we must make ourselves “poor in spirit,” “meek,” “hungry and thirsty,” etc. in order to receive God’s blessing. Another interpretation proposes that these qualities are unattainable, and that Jesus is talking about an ideal spiritual state which we must only strive for. But if a sermon is a call to action, and not a theological treatise, then these interpretations cannot do the sermon justice.
It seems Jesus means that we should already be these things. If we had been listening to his teachings up until then, we would already be hungry, thirsty, mournful, meek, and merciful peacemakers, though (admittedly) poor in spirit. We must recognize these things about ourselves, and we must bring that knowledge with us onto the mountain to hear Jesus preach.
There, on the mountaintop, in the sacred place, the Church gathers as one body. When Jesus tells them, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is telling them, “Blessed are YOU.” He is speaking to the brokenhearted, those who struggle with life, those who suffer, those who long for peace and righteousness when there is none. He is speaking to the depth of the human soul, all of humanity, and telling them, “Blessed are YOU.”
Jesus is sounding his rallying cry. He’s telling the people to take up their lives and literally become the kingdom of God manifested on earth, to become the blessed Church. To use the battle metaphor, Jesus is calling this Church to arm themselves with love, kindness, and prayer, especially toward their enemies — in short, to bless each other.
You see, the “blessings” in the Beatitudes are intended to be real blessings for the here and now. Jesus says “blessed ARE . . .” This is a manifesto to all Christians to go out and bless others. These blessings will be fully realized in the kingdom to come, but the kingdom is already arriving, and we, the Church, are its blessed citizens.
The ideal sermon is a battle cry. It is an affirmation of faith and a call to act on that faith.