Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Sermon Starters: The Winner Isn't Who You Think

I'm creating six sermon outlines to go along with a devotional I wrote called, The Wisdom of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. These also go along with a book I wrote on the special themes of the Gospels.  I already wrote one on the "Be perfect" section of the Sermon.

So here is a sermon starter on the Beatitudes: Matthew 5:3-12.

Start with an example where the winner was unexpected. It could be a personal story, an interesting story from  history. It could be a clip or snippet from a movie. I like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. You would think the rabbit would win because it is faster, but the turtle wins by steady persistence. I have a personal story of running with my son just before he started high school. Although he was able to run a mile faster, I would pass him by the second mile because of steady persistence.

Now give a little context to the Beatitudes. Week 1 of The Wisdom of Jesus is on the Beatitudes (pp. 6-17), as well as pp. 61-63 in Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels. Being "blessed" is honor-shame language. It has to do with being honored more than being happy. And where we will most be honored is in the Kingdom of God, which is already started but will arrive fully after Jesus returns (See Jesus: The Mission, pp. 21-33).

The Beatitudes turn everything upside down. Those who would seem honored now (the wealthy, those with power and prestige) will not necessarily be those "on top" in the coming Kingdom of God. Rather, those who suffer now, will be most honored then, when Jesus comes as King.

1. The Poor are Rich
Several of the Beatitudes indicate a reversal of fortunes in the Kingdom of God. Those whose situations make them mourn now, will find themselves comforted in the kingdom (Matt. 5:4).

In Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount (called the Sermon on the Plain), Jesus boldly states that those who are poor now will be blessed then, while those who are rich now will not be comforted then (Luke 6:20 and 6:24). Similarly, he baldly states that those who are hungry now will be fed then, while those who are full now will be hungry then (Luke 6:21 and 6:25).

Matthew gives the spiritual version: blessed are the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) and who hunger for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). In both, those who seem to be "on top" now, because their values are the values of the world now, will not be the winners then in the Kingdom of God. The ultimate winners are those who are part of God's kingdom, those who have a spirit of dependence on him rather than on the world.

Illustration: Bring the point home with an illustration that concretely shows how being on the right team in the long run is more important than being on the team that seems to be winning now. You might give an example of someone who took a chance on a job that involved a pay cut now or a loss of prestige now but that in the long run ended in security. I have a couple illustrations from my father's life, one about changing jobs, another from his army days. You might also use the biblical story of Joseph in Genesis. He endured some hard years of "poverty" but in the end he saved his family and the kingdom of Egypt (Gen. 50:20).

2. The Meek Excel
It is counterintuitive in the world to think that the winners will be those who do not strive to win. Yet Jesus consistently taught that "the last will be first" (e.g., Matt. 19:30). Several of the Beatitudes fall into the category of "those who do not fight to win will win in the end."
  • The meek will inherit the earth (those who are not pushy will end owning the whole thing, 5:5).
  • The peacemakers are like God (instead of those who fight to win, 5:9).
  • The merciful obtain mercy (while those who have to inflict defeat will lose, 5:9).
  • The pure in heart get to see God (while those with a heart for the world go down with it, 5:8).
You can go any number of ways with these, depending on which one you want to spend the most time on. You won't have enough time in one sermon to linger on all of them. There are any number of illustrations from movies or pop culture, from history or the business world.  You can use an illustration from relationships or politics.

American culture tells us that you have to be assertive to get ahead, that you have to promote yourself to win. There is certainly truth to this. But in God's eyes, winning isn't everything. In fact, winning in this world is nothing. Christianity is primarily about promoting others rather than ourselves.

3. The Persecuted Win
A final theme in the Beatitudes is that those who are persecuted and mocked today will be "on top" in the Kingdom of God. Victor Frankl, a Jew who was in a concentration camp in World War II, came to realize that a person can live with any "how" if he or she has a "why" to live. This makes an excellent illustration or you can come up with another one about someone in the Bible, history, movies, or your experience who endured a period of suffering and persecution only to emerge with honor at the end. For Frankl, he did not give up hope under the Nazis, and he survived his experience where others gave up.

In the same way, while we do not want to ignore the opportunities of the present, we are ultimately living for another time and another kingdom. At times we may feel like we are foreigners in our own country (cf. Heb. 11:13-16).

I was thinking of the Capital One commercial that ends with the tag line, "What's in your wallet?" What are you depending on in this life? What kingdom are you living in? Are you living in the one that is destined to end soon enough? Or are you living in the one that is going to last?

If you started with a particular illustration, you might return to it here as part of the closing and complete the loop. Also you will want to call the congregation to commitment to live as citizens of the kingdom.

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