AoP/FTE Preaching Camp Sermon #1: A Terrifying Sermon
[[As promised, here’s the first sermon from preaching camp. Keep in mind that the week’s them was the Sermon on the Mount. Enjoy!]]
Last year, around this time, I was having a conversation with my advisor about a course I’m taking in the fall called Jesus and the Gospels. He mentioned that many people found the class difficult and mentioned some of his previous students. “Haven’t they scared you away yet?” he asked.
“No sir,” I replied. “But sometimes Jesus does.”
We both chuckled, but there was a rather large kernel of truth in that joke.
And the truth is this: we often find Jesus to be terrifying. He’s also gentle and loving, but the Jesus who preaches the Sermon on the Mount is a fierce preacher with a sermon like fire. I imagine his eyes flashing at these powerful words, his voice raised in passion as he inaugurates the Kingdom.
But it’s not Jesus’ eyes or voice that scare me here. What makes him frightening is that he has the audacity to preach this. The thing that makes Jesus a uniquely terrifying individual is that he actually means what he says. It scares me because this is a sermon I’d never dare preach, and Jesus does more than just preach it; he lives it. He turns the world upside down.
For example, just look to the Beatitudes. Jesus blesses the poor and the meek, the peaceful and the oppressed, the hungry and the thirsty. These are not people who are blessed by the world, but they are welcome in the Kingdom, and that scares me. Do I fit in these categories? Do you? No one has ever threatened my life for sharing the gospel. Nor could I tell you the last time I actively hungered for righteousness. I am certainly not meek. I am not poor, in spirit or otherwise. I am not a peacemaker nor am I very merciful. Not that we need always be all of these things, but Jesus blesses them, champions them, and calls them great in the Kingdom.
Moreover, I’m scared because I fail to bring about the reality of the Beatitudes. I fail to bless the poor. I mock the peacemakers as cowards or as theologically inept. I tell those who hunger to fill themselves and take things the meek will not speak up for. I am always skeptical of the pure, and I always find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. These may be blessed, but it is certainly not because of me. Is it of you?
As if revolutionizing our view of these outcasts isn’t daunting enough, Jesus soon turns his attention upon us, upon the privileged. This audacious desert preacher goes on a tirade against our hypocrisy and holds our secret lives to the same standard as our outward ones. He claims a hateful word is the same as a knife in the dark; a lustful thought is on a level with the action itself. We are not supposed to resist the evil-doer and are supposed to actively love our enemies. We are even supposed to go another mile with our violent oppressors. Jesus won’t even let us wallow in our righteous indignation, demanding that the injured be the first to reach out in forgiveness. Our giving should be so secretive that one hand shouldn’t know what the other is doing. And speaking of hands, Jesus tells that if one of ours causes us to sin, we should hack it off and throw it into the fire. Eyeballs too.
If the demands of this sermon haven’t scared you yet, you are the bravest person I’ve ever met. Or a fool. And that reminds me of something a talking beaver once said. Speaking of Aslan, the Christ-like lion of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver tells Lucy, “Safe? Of course he isn’t safe. He’s not a tame lion. But he is good, I tell you!” See, we are like Lucy; we cling to our safety. We love comfort. There’s a Christian radio station in the Atlanta suburbs that claims to be “safe for the whole family.” My university uses the safety of its campus to sell the school to potential students. We want safety and comfort, and we are scared of the Jesus who offers us anything but.
But in clinging to safety, we miss out on the Good! This sermon, for all its terror-inducing qualities, is showing us a better way forward, a true mode of existence that shoves hard against the false narrative of Empire. Jesus begins to show us that this sermon, this inaugurated Kingdom, flies in the face of the Roman paradigm, and in the best way possible. Instead of war, the Kingdom embraces creative non-violence. Instead of hatred, enemy love. Instead of anger, forgiveness. Instead of wealth, eternal treasure. Instead of pride, humility. In this sermon, Jesus invites us to become a part of a radical new state. We did not crown its King or vote on its laws or decide who can enter or where its boundaries are, but in this moment, this terrifying moment, with our worlds turned upside down and our precious safety in danger, the Kingdom has drawn near to us. And it whispers that the lies of the old empire are broken.
The law that killed Christ is judged is null and void. The violence that slew the Prince of Peace is slain. The old economy of scarcity is bankrupted by the God who turns five into five thousand. The God of secret things reveals more than just the outward appearance. The God of love has loved so strongly that no hatred could bear it. The world is broken and made new. Heaven has come to earth and the two are becoming one. It is not safe, but those of us who have heard heaven whisper know that it is wholly and utterly good.
And while it may be true that this is a sermon we’d never write and a Kingdom we would never create, it is indeed a sermon we are called to live and a Kingdom we are blessed to inhabit. It shatters our egos and flips the world upside down and sometimes scares us stiff, but it is real and good and powerful.
In those moments when the fear dominates, cling to the good. Remember it. Dwell in it. Tell it. Live it. Seek ye first the Kingdom. Stare empire in the face and refuse to back down. And as you watch heaven breaking through, as you dwell in that in-between space, you do something amazing: you start to be that sermon. You start to incarnate the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And for all my words in this pulpit, I have the easy job. Being a sermon is much harder than writing one.
So as we depart from this place, fearful and excited and hoping for the good, I invite you to be that sermon. Love your enemies. Forgive quickly. Seek justice. Bless the poor. Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. And when you do that, you just might find that no matter how much Jesus scares you, no matter how much safety you sacrifice, you are following wholeheartedly after the one wholly Good thing in this world. And that’s worth a little fear and trembling.