Raising the Bar
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Lewie Donalson laid the foundation for a proper understanding of the Sermon on the Mount in our Heritage Lectures a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to build on that foundation this summer with a series of sermons based on passages from the Sermon on the Mount.
As Lewie pointed out, the Sermon on the Mount lies at the heart and soul of Jesus’ teaching, so that to come to grips with the Sermon on the Mount is to come to grips with Jesus. And so, over the course of the summer we’ll work our way through chapters five, six and seven of Matthew, taking one section at a time.
If you’re a stickler for detail, there are thirteen Sundays between today and Labor Day. Today’s sermon will give us an overview. We’ll continue with the Beatitudes next Sunday and proceed from there in chronological order.
My hope in offering this series is to reinforce Lewie’s central thesis – that the essence of the Sermon on the Mount is a restatement of Torah and a renewed vision of the type of people God created us to be. As he said, it’s God’s Word without the wiggle room. And, as he made painfully clear, the point is to do it – i.e., to take Jesus’ teachings seriously and follow them to the best of our ability. This is why, in his first lecture, he started out with this little parable in the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said,
“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them,
I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock.
The rain came down, the floods came,
and the winds blew, and beat on that house;
and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock.
Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them
will be like a foolish man, who built his house on the sand.
The rain came down, the floods came,
and the winds blew, and beat on that house;
and it fell—and great was its fall.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
The operative words are, “…and doesn’t do them.” It’s not enough for us simply to understand the Sermon on the Mount and appreciate it and marvel at its beauty; we’re to apply it to our everyday lives. We find this imperative throughout. For example, Jesus said,
“Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments,
and teach others to do so,
shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven;
but whoever shall do and teach them
shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
Underline these three key words: “whoever shall do.” Jesus said the basis for judging our righteousness would be what we do, not what we intend to do or say. He said,
“A good tree can’t produce evil fruit,
neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit.
Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down,
and thrown into the fire.
Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven;
but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
The problem is it’s a lot easier said than done. Doing the things Jesus teaches us to do in the Sermon on the Mount seems virtually impossible. For example,
• Rejoice when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you? (Matthew 5:11)
•Don’t get angry? (Matthew 5:22)
• Turn the other cheek? (Matthew 5:39)
• Love your enemies? (Matthew 5:44)
All of these things run contrary to our natural instincts, and they’re just the opposite of the values of the world in which we live. Growing up we’re taught that, if someone slanders you, you have every right to defend yourself and get even. You’re certainly not expected to rejoice and be happy about it! What’s more, everybody gets angry, from time to time. And I’ve yet to meet anyone who likes to turn the other cheek or love his/her enemies.
Jesus’ demands seem idealistic, but out of reach. And so, what I’d like for us to think about is how we can do the things Jesus teaches us to do in the Sermon on the Mount without throwing up our hands up in despair … or worse, without softening Jesus’ demands so as to bring them down to our level. That leads to the title I chose for the sermon this morning: Raising the Bar.
Here’s where I’m coming from. When our youngest son, Christopher, was in high school, he tried out for the track team. He was tall and lean and liked to run. Track and field events suited him better than contact sports. So he got on the track team and, among other things, competed in the high jump.
The first thing the coach taught him was how to do the “Fosbury Flop.” Have you ever seen anyone do the Fosbury Flop? It’s pretty amazing. The jumper takes long strides running up to the poles, then leaps with all his might and, as he jumps, he rolls his body upside down, arches his back, and goes over the bar totally inverted, landing on his head and shoulders on the cushions below.
I can’t remember exactly how high Chris jumped doing the Fosbury Flop, but what I do remember is how, after every series of jumps, the officials would raise the bar to the next level. The jumpers would catch their breath, screw up their courage, and jump again. The officials would keep raising the bar until only one jumper was left standing, and, of course, he’d be the winner.
That’s how I’d like for us to think about Jesus’ admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount: Christ has raised the bar to its maximum level and is challenging us to discipline ourselves until we can clear it with room to spare. He has set the highest standard possible – the righteousness of God – and implores us to,
“Therefore you shall be perfect,
just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
That’s not necessarily to say we’ll ever be perfect; it’s only to say we ought never stop trying.
When Chris first starting high jumping he could barely clear five feet. By the time he graduated from high school, he could jump well over six feet. The world’s record is just over eight feet. Following this analogy: None of us is perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination, but, by God’s grace, we can strive for perfection, if we’re willing.
It takes two things – persistence and a clear vision of the goal for which you’re striving.
In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul listed all the reasons he had for being confident and sure of himself. He said,
“(I was) circumcised the eighth day,
of the stock of Israel,
of the tribe of Benjamin,
a Hebrew of Hebrews;
concerning the law, a Pharisee;
concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly;
concerning the righteousness which is in the law,
found blameless.” (Philippians 3:5-6)
Yet Paul went on to say that, when it came to knowing Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of his life, none of this mattered. (Philippians 3:7-11) He said,
“I count all things to be loss
for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord.”
What Paul wanted more than anything else was to know the joy of full salvation in Christ. And he got close. Most would agree he came as close to living in perfect unity with Christ as anyone who has ever lived. Yet, here’s what he told the Philippians:
“Not that I have already obtained,
or am already made perfect;
but I press on, if it is
so that I may take hold of that
for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus.
Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold,
but one thing I do.
Forgetting the things which are behind,
and stretching forward to the things which are before,
I press on toward the goal
for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Like competing in the high jump, when it comes to living by faith, you start where you are and do the best you can, then you raise the bar to the next level. You never stop striving for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. It takes persistence.
It also takes clarity of the goal for which you’re striving, which is the righteousness of God. This is important to remember because we live in a world that’s all-too-willing to lower the bar in order to make things easier.
In the summer of 1967, I studied music at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Eastman, along with Julliard, is one of the premier music schools in the country. Nowhere will you find a higher standard of excellence than at Eastman and, to reinforce this standard of excellence, there’s a watchword that all Eastman students learn as soon as they walk in the door: Mediocrity is the Enemy. A note is either in tune, or it’s not. A rhythm pattern is either precise or it’s sloppy. There are no two ways about it. You’re evaluated by the standard of perfection, not whether you happen to be a better musician than the student next to you.
We all have this tendency to compromise and settle for less than the best – whether on the concert stage or at school or in the workplace – to accept a mediocre performance and call it good. Jesus would have none of this. He told his disciples, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) You may never get there, but to strive for anything less is a copout.
I got a taste of this right out of college. As a band director, I taught beginning band students how to play their instruments. It was great fun. They’d start out making dreadful noises and, in time, they’d be able to play a recognizable tune. All along, I’d encourage them and praise them for how well they were doing.
What I refused to do was relax the standard. While I was quick to applaud their efforts, I made it clear there was always room for improvement. I’d have them listen to recordings and I’d say, “This is what you’re supposed to sound like!” They’d get the message and go back to the practice room and work even harder.
When you apply this to faith and values and moral and ethical behavior, it’s easy to see the problem: We’re tempted to dumb down the teachings and example of Jesus so as to make it easier to clear the bar – to settle for being slightly above average – a little more righteous than our neighbor, perhaps – rather than to strive to be the children of God we’re called to be, reflecting the righteousness of God.
In his first lecture, Lewie said,
“In the Sermon on the Mount, God is saying through Jesus, ‘This is who I want you to be. This is the person I’ve created you to be. These are the kind of relationships I’ve created for you to have.’ The understanding of Torah is that, sometimes, we don’t do these things (we don’t turn the other cheek; we don’t love our enemies – though sometimes we do); and when we don’t these things, we’re to repent and, when we repent, God is merciful and calls us back, and we try again.”
I would add that, every time we try again, we get a little closer to the standard of perfection Jesus set. It’s like the old song, Jacob’s Ladder, where every rung goes higher, higher.
The Good News I hope you’ll take home with you today is this: You can do it!
• As you turn to Jesus and surrender your will to his good and perfect will for your life;
• As you trust him more and more to lead and guide your every thought, word and deed;
• As you’re filled with his Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22);
• And, as you continually raise the bar and strive to do these things he talks about in the Sermon on the Mount,
his teachings will not only become within your reach, they’ll become second-nature.
I don’t know of anyone who understood the spirit of raising the bar better than Charles Gabriel, who wrote:
More like the Master I would ever be,
More of His meekness, more humility;
More zeal to labor, more courage to be true,
More consecration for work He bids me do.
He goes on to offer this prayer:
Take Thou my heart, I would be Thine alone;
Take Thou my heart, and make it all Thine own.
Purge me from sin, O Lord, I now implore,
Wash me and keep me Thine forevermore.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.