Isaiah 62:6-12, Luke 6:27-36
March 4, 2012
In our journey through the new year, which has now become the journey through Lent, we’ve been taking a journey through the life of Jesus. And as we’ve done so, I’ve tried to get us to “tweak” our mental imagery. I’ve tried to give us some concept of the kinds of crowds that followed Jesus. I’ve tried to give us clearer pictures of the scenes we’ve encountered. And I’ve tried to help us get a feel for the emotions, and the shock, and the controversy that often accompanied the things Jesus said and did.
Well, now we come to a passage for today that is seen by Matthew and Luke as one of the major speeches of Jesus’ life. I have a book entitled “Speeches that Changed History” written and compiled by Owen Collins and Andrew Young. And it’s a collection of the great speeches of all time, and the impact they had on the world. And right there, right near the very front of the book,” one of the first speeches listed is this speech of Jesus which we call “The Sermon on the Mount.”
Now, I know what you might be thinking here. Being good Bible scholars, you’re thinking, “But this isn’t the Sermon on the Mount.” That’s in Matthew. This is Luke’s Gospel, and here it’s called ‘The Sermon on the Plain.’” And you would be right. That’s what it’s traditionally called. Your Bible may even have a page heading or a footnote that calls it that. Mine does!
Well, I want you to know that this has been a matter of some debate over the years. Some Bible scholars say this is a different speech in which Jesus used a lot of the same materials and stories. (Though that wouldn’t be consistent with Jesus. He rarely repeated stories!) Then there are those who believe that this is the same speech. And I have to go on record as siding with them. They would say that we need to be careful what we read in verse 17. There it says, “And he came down with them and stood on a level place.” Some would tell us that too many people have pictured that as Jesus coming all the way down the mountain and standing on a level plain that stretched out from its base. But that’s not what it says here. If you have that picture (or no picture at all!) I’d like to invite you to “tweak” it.
Here’s the picture I’d like you to consider. Jesus and his disciples – a great crowd of them, if you read on – were up on the mountain. There, he had just chosen twelve of them to be his “official” students, and their names are listed. And when that part was done, he came down the mountain with them until he reached a level place. Notice, it doesn’t say he came all the way down! (Read it again!) They came to a level place on the mountainside where he still could be above the people and they could see him. And that makes even more sense when you read about the huge crowds that came to hear him that day. Luke described it, not just as a multitude, but as a “great multitude.” And again, tweak that image and try to see a much bigger crowd than you might have pictured before!
Now, why do I say all that? “Enough with the Bible history lesson, already!” Well I say it because I think this is all completely consistent with Matthew’s account. To me it makes much more sense that this is actually Luke’s version of that same “Sermon on the Mount.” Actually, I think that makes the Bible hang together even more, as opposed to saying that Jesus preached a similar sermon to a similar multitude, in another place, at another time – on an open plain.
Remember also, that the Gospel writers recorded these events for us, but they didn’t do so in exactly the same way. Matthew certainly recorded more of Jesus’ words that day. Luke recorded a lot of his words. But neither likely recorded all of his words! So if you’ll go with me on this, we’ll say that this is indeed the Sermon on the Mount – one of the “Speeches that Changed History.” And if you need more proof of that, the one who first suggested this to me was a professor at Seminary, Dr. Bruce Metzger. And we always said he knew the most about the speeches of Jesus because he was probably there at the time!
Ok, now let’s get into what Jesus said that day. I want us to move ahead, past the “Beatitudes” portion of this. And again, if you read them, (later on, please!) you’ll find some differences with Matthew’s account. Luke’s version is shorter. But, along with the “blessed’s,” you’ll also find a series of “woes” that Matthew did not include. Again, no one recorded all of Jesus’ words!
So before long, we arrive at verse 17, where we started reading today. And what we find here is what I’ve described as “A New Way of Living.” Because, here Jesus tells the people to do something that was difficult for them to hear – and for everyone since then. He told them, “Love your enemies!”
That’s one of those things we hear, it sounds good, but when we go to put it into action, we find it nearly impossible! And the biggest reason for that is that too many people see love as all about emotion. You’ve heard me say this before. That message is all around us today. And it’s huge! For too many people the definition of love is found in those cheesy “coffee cup pictures” – pictures of a cute little child, with a puppy, and with big eyes, and the caption “Love is a warm fuzzy feeling.”
That’s true for too many people. Love is emotion, and that’s it. So, when Jesus said “love your enemies,” they cannot begin to understand what he meant by that! How can we get warm fuzzy feelings for people about whom we often have the opposite feelings?! And those opposite feelings are very strong! I hope we’ll remember that question as we look at what Jesus said that day. Because, if we look carefully, we’ll see that he clarified himself in the very next phrase. “Do good to those who hate you.” Those are not two separate thoughts! To love is to do good to someone else. Love is what we do! It is about our actions! Love is how we choose to treat people. It’s not just “Warm, fuzzy feelings.” In fact, it is a choice we make despite the fact that our feelings – the emotional part of us – might not yet be on board!
Love is about actions! And Jesus went on to describe the kind of actions that constitute love. And to the people listening, these things had to have been shocking! And I think it would do us well to recapture some of that shock! “Bless those who curse you.” Jesus said. “Pray for those who abuse you.” “Give your shirt as well.” By the way, I wonder if that expression, “He’ll give you the shirt off of his back” came from this passage. If so, that kind of person is even more generous, because they’ve also just given their coat!
Well, as if to punctuate all that, Jesus asks this very important question in verse 32. “For if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even those who you would consider sinners do that!” What he’s telling them at that moment is what he lived out. That is, real love is shown when it is love without strings attached. We didn’t deserve the love he would show us on the cross. And we’re not obligated to return that love. It is one way!
People don’t understand that. For many, love always has strings attached! To many people the words “I love you” really mean, “I want you to love me.” They use those words “I love you” begging a response. They even say them with an upward inflection, like an answer is expected! Sometimes I think we should practice saying those words and quickly leaving the room, or quickly changing the subject, so there’s no room for a response. In other words, we should practice saying the words “I love you” without expecting a response.
Star Wars fans will never forget the moment in the second movie, when Han Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite, while Princess Leia is forced to watch. And as he is lowered into the freezing chamber, she says, “I love you!” And his response is, “I know!” That was a wonderful moment! And it was funny because it was not what we expected! It broke our “statement and response” mode of love!
True love is not some romantic dream, some heavenly infatuation with another person. Jesus told us, Jesus showed us, that true love is a new way of living. It is loving by doing, it is loving without expecting. And the truest love carries with it the possibility that the love will not be returned. It might even be rejected. But that doesn’t matter to God. And he wants us to learn that purest form of love, too!
Our world is filled hurting people wishing for love, hungering for love, craving love. And in that world, too many people set standards for love, standards based on appearance, on personality, and on reciprocity, “I will love you if… you look a certain way, if… you are a pleasant person, if… you love me back. And Jesus tells us that’s not love in it’s purest sense. He offered us a new way! And it didn’t just apply to our “loved ones” but to all people – even our enemies!
Now, that’s not easy is it? Because our emotions often get in the way. They often guide our thoughts and actions. They are strong forces in our lives – both positive and negative! If we let them, they’ll direct our actions. And they’re hard to break through. We need to think about these words from this famous speech. We need to remember the savior who said them, and how he lived them out!
That’s what Lent is for. It is a time when we think about the way God wants us to live our lives. It’s a time when we think about – when we take seriously and practice – the love and service to which God calls us. It’s a time to remember his words, “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?” And I would add these words, which Jesus didn’t say, but which he implied in all of his words to us. “If you are living the way everybody else is living, what credit is that to you?” “I have for you a new way of living! And by the way, it’s the best way you can imagine!”
Eternal God, you sent your son to show us how to live, and how truly to love one another. We know the ways of love can be difficult. So we ask for your strength. We ask for a vision of Jesus that we can follow. We ask for your peace in all circumstances. For these things we pray in his name, and for the sake of his kingdom in our midst, Amen.