The Challenge of Preaching Jesus

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to guest speak at a local church. The pastor is a friend of mine and he asked me to fill in for him one Sunday while he was on holidays. His church is going through a series on the Sermon on the Mount and the passage assigned to me was the one about not taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-37). It was an interesting challenge to speak in a context where I had little to no connection. I was able to attend a service there at the end of my holidays and catch a bit of my friend’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount, and a couple of their young people attend our youth program, but otherwise I had little context for this community.

But the biggest challenge was the text itself. There is a long history of trying to explain away the Sermon on the Mount, finding ways around Jesus’ challenging commands to the point of some suggesting that the point of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was for his followers to recognize how impossible the demands of Jesus’ teaching are so that they would fall back on his grace rather than their own effort. I’m okay with falling on God’s grace instead of my own effort, but I’m not convinced that that means I am just a passive agent with no responsibilities to act. Jesus, after all, calls us to obey his commands. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he identifies his followers as the light of the world, whose good works the world needs to see, and he ends the Sermon with the parable of the wise and foolish builders, imploring his followers to do what he says.

But what does this mean, practically speaking? Even asking this questions feels a bit like trying to get around the commands, but it’s a relevant question given his command about not making oaths. One commentator says that Jesus is speaking specifically about a court of law: Christians should not “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” but just let their “yes be yes.” Jesus’ teaching is about nothing else, said this commentator. Other commentators suggested the much broader category of honesty and being people of our word.

With some hesitation, I went with the broader approach. But when it came to applying Jesus’ teaching, I experienced some serious inner turmoil. What could I honestly call us to? And what does “honestly” mean, when I wasn’t sure I completely grasped Jesus intended point? The general truth of being people of our word can be found in the text, but is that really what Jesus was intending? On the other hand, was I comfortable telling people not to take oaths in court, when in some sense that kind of nitpicking seems akin to the legalism Jesus challenged the Pharisees about?

Afterwards some people asked me about the implications for court, etc. I was honest and said I wasn’t sure, but that I wasn’t comfortable giving blanket statements about how to apply this teaching in every situation.

The week before I had preached at my own church and faced a different challenge: how to preach a truth scripture is pretty clear about that will challenge some of my church’s deeply-held values. It wasn’t an issue of sin, but about belief and values. Evangelicals hold family (that is, parents and children, and sometimes extended family) very dearly, only less important in life than God himself. But the New Testament fairly clearly envisions a new family created in and through Christ that demands a loyalty over and above the nuclear family, and marriage itself is not the bedrock of God’s kingdom.

How does one preach that reality in a way that can be heard and understood? It’s difficult. Both of these recent sermons were probably the most challenging I’ve prepared for and preached. I’m not sure how well I did (in terms of content).