5 Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

By Matt Sapp

We’re working through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) together at Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia, this summer.  Jesus’ sermon is the most important body of ethical teaching in the history of the world. It redefines how we relate to one another and clarifies how we relate to God. As we grapple with what scripture means in our world today, there’s no better place to start.

Here are five things the Sermon on the Mount encourages us to “BE” this summer.

Be Blessed
Jesus defines what it means to be blessed. God’s blessings aren’t always conferred on those we might expect—or in ways we might expect them to be.

Money, power, and status are nowhere to be found when Jesus talks about blessings. Instead, Jesus teaches that there is blessing in mercy and in mourning, in peacemaking and in poverty, in seeking righteousness and in the pure in heart.

Be blessed this summer by finding ways to align yourself with the things and people God blesses.

Be Interesting
Don’t be boring this summer! God calls us to live vibrant, engaging, interesting lives. You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Act like it.

Your life is meant to be full of flavor and warmth, light and love.

Salt enhances and preserves everything it touches. You should seek to do the same. Light is the source of life and the instigator of activity. Jesus says you are, too.

Be Holy
We often think of holiness as a path toward self-improvement, but improving our individual behavior is only a small part of holiness. Jesus teaches that holiness is really about how our conduct impacts our neighbors.

When talking about holiness, Jesus shifts the emphasis from personal righteousness (the righteousness of the Pharisees) to that which is characterized by the protection of one’s fellow man.

For many of us, a new understanding of holiness requires a significant shift in thinking. Maybe this summer is a time to “be holy” by starting to make the mental transition away from a holiness defined only by personal righteousness toward a holiness that demonstrates concern for those around us.

Be Generous
This summer, stop asking, “What’s fair?”, and start asking, “What’s the most generous thing I could responsibly do in this situation?”  Fairness is about keeping score. Generosity lets you tear up the scorecard.

When fairness ceases to be your standard, you’ll never have to feel the urge to “get even” again. You just get the blessing of being generous to those around you. So go the extra mile. Turn the other cheek. Give more than what is asked of you.

If you could just do one thing this summer, this is the one I would suggest. Jesus thinks it’s pretty important. Try it and see what happens.

Be Humble
Prayer forms us into humble people. When Jesus teaches us how to pray, he’s teaching us to be God-directed rather than self-directed. Even the posture of prayer—head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded—is an act of humility.

In prayer we learn to rely on God’s providence, we come to accept and extend forgiveness, and we recognize that we cannot overcome our temptations alone.

So pray this summer. And pray as Jesus teaches. It will help you be humble.

These are our first five lessons from the Sermon on the Mount: Be Blessed. Be Interesting. Be Holy. Be Generous. Be Humble.  Take a look at all five. Find one that’s a strength of yours and celebrate it, and then choose one that you can work on.  It’ll make for a great summer.

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The Spiritual Discipline of Unplugging from Social Media

By Joe LaGuardia

My wife and I have “unplugged” from Facebook just short of two months ago.  It was part spiritual discipline, part ethical choice.  It brought with it some ground rules–like checking Facebook a few times a month for professional reasons, building a professional profile to administrate the church Facebook page, and continuing to communicate with friends and family on Messenger and several private group pages.

It also brought some difficulties, like missing out on a few things, such as a friend’s near-death experience with electricity that hospitalized him for a time.  We caught the post on FB and prayed; we just happened to “tune in” that day.

The first few weeks of being unplugged was torturous. I would wake up and instinctively(!) grab my cell phone only to remember: “Oh, yeah, no more Facebook like this.”  When I put the phone down, I tried to remember what I did before I had a cell phone and social media.  I’ve been praying a lot more as a result!

Another re-occurring hardship was not being able to post ideas, articles, and accomplishments that I wanted others to enjoy.  At times, I thought, “This would make a great FB post!”, only to remember that my goal in unplugging was to escape the need for affirmation all of the time.  Why do we feel the need to publish everything?

I also learned recently that getting published, receiving “Likes”, and reading comments do indeed release chemicals that make us feel great, so the “high” appended to this type of attention is very real.  Even negative comments or discussions release chemicals that we start desiring on a daily basis.  It helps us feel relevant and perhaps even remembered–we do not want to be forgotten or set aside, meaningless, useless, or vacuous.  This creates an addiction that sociologists and scientists have begun to catalogue.  It won’t be long before the CDC coins social media usage a public health risk.

Wanting recognition is nothing new, but it was not always so accessible.  Before the internet, recognition came by way of picky publishers, agents, and local newsletters.  You earned your place in the sun.  Now everyone is published, but not everyone knows the downfall of recognition–it is a problem as old as sin, the one we once called pride.

Some years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary.  Nouwen, a famous author and priest, entered the Genesee monastery for a sabbatical.  There, he struggled with the daily routine of silence, work, and disconnection from the outside world.  He missed publishing articles, and he wrestled quite openly about his desire to be read and to interact with fans and students (he taught for many years).  The book was published in 1976, well before the internet!  In this memoir, he wrote:

The monastic life is indeed very unsensational.  I keep catching myself with the desire to do something special, to make a contribution, to add something new, and have to remind myself constantly that the less I am noticed, the less special attention I require, the less I am different, the more I am living the monastic life.  Maybe–when you have become fully aware that you have nothing to say that has not already been said–maybe then a monk might be interested in listening to you.  The mystery of God’s love is that in this sameness we discover our uniqueness” (Nouwen, p. 66-67).

I resonate with Nouwen’s struggles, and every time I want to give up on this spiritual discipline, I go through my mental map: Why do I feel the need to publish my thoughts?  What is the benefit?  What are the costs?  How much time away from my family and ministry will this take?  And so it goes.

Several weeks ago, I went through my FB feed to check in.  As I mentioned above, I do this about every two weeks to help manage notifications and the like.  We are not Amish, you know.  In about 15 minutes of checking, I realized that I only saw one thing that was pertinent–I think it was an article that came out of the Southern Baptist Convention general assembly (see, the fact that I can’t even remember is telling!).  That’s one thing.  In 15 minutes.  The rest was business as usual, not necessarily without value, just not beneficial in the larger scheme of things.  It was a reminder that our social media was made for man, not man for social media.  It helps to put things in perspective and not be enslaved to the gods of technology, threatening to minimize the size of our world to a 3″ x 5″ screen that is, now, as powerful as nicotine and as pervasive as sugary cereal.

The God of Terrors, and other nightmares

By Joe LaGuardia

The Bible says that God is love, but it also says that God is terrifying.  In a recent study on covenants of the Bible, my congregation and I read Genesis 15 as a refresher on the promises God gave to Abram.  The covenant ceremony which God initiated states:

“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him” (Gen. 15:12).

We think that the promises of God are beautiful, that the land and offspring set aside for Abram was bountiful and blessed.  We forget that the promise was just as much a nightmare as it was an inheritance whereby God assured Abram that the Lord would be a “shield” of protection (v. 1).  Protection against what?

At the time, Abram was well on in years.  He doubted God’s promise of offspring because his wife Sarai remained barren.

“I remain childless…you have given me no offspring,” Abram told God.  And the biblical text is sympathetic. Genesis 16 begins, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children.”  Besides, God said that Abram’s offspring was destined for slavery, not for one season, but for several generations–400 years.  What kind of promise is that?

We spend many hours if not days avoiding those things that terrify us.  We spend large amounts of money alluding death and vulnerability.  We encourage one another, as if to exchange favors so that we sustain the illusion that we are not fragile, that life itself is not terrifying.

Perhaps, in all of this bluster, we fail to recognize that it is God who resides in the terror as much as in the celebrations of life.  We do not sleep because we are afraid of the nightmares.  We are afraid that God might answer our prayers and show up.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard quoted mystic Jacob Boehme: “The whole Deity has in its innermost or beginning Birth, in the Pith or Kernel, a very tart, terrible sharpness, in which the astringent Quality is very horrible, tart, hard, dark and cold Attraction or Drawing together, like Winter, when there is a fierce, bitter cold Frost, when Water is frozen into Ice, and besides is very intolerable.”

That is the writing of someone who has experienced the presence of God, an intimacy with God and an urgency of one who recognized his own fragility in the face of God.  It is the writing of someone who also knew the hardships of cold winters–a season very much a part of God’s creation as spring or summer.  It is the “know this for certain” of God (Gen. 15:13), a conviction that not every calling or anointing or divine intervention is set to the music of Chris Tomlin or Cheers.

Boehme’s reflection is not words crated to talk about divine experience, but crafted to describe the experience itself, in its most honest poetic horror.

If God is not terrifying, then why avoid God as much as we do?  Why not pray more or kneel more or intercede more?  Why not listen more or dig deeply into God’s Word beyond the mere parts we enjoy reading, the ones that make us feel good or reinforce our preconceived notions of who we think God ought to be?

Perhaps it is because God is a God of nightmares as much as visions and dreams, that God is in the darkness as much as God is the “Light of the world.”

God is the “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” that passes in night, threatening to scorch those who get too close or wander carelessly into Presence with too much hubris.  It threatens to consume anyone who yearns to domesticate that Fire and wield it to do her bidding.

It is easier to look at what we long for — our longings are safer than God.  We find the Hagar in our household who can bear the offspring promised to us.  We pass each other off as invaluable pawns to the powers and Pharaohs that exploit us.  We laugh when God returns to us yet again, even when we pass on God’s promises to us.  We are too old to birth something new, to raise a child.  We are too frightened to tell the truth that the one we claim as sister to Pharaoh is in fact our wife destined for something greater than settling on the shores of the Nile.

We want to be left alone, but God does not leave us alone.  God does not seem to have it or want it that way.  So God visits again, and deep darkness settles upon the earth.