Now don’t get me wrong. The professors that I had at the seminary were very smart guys. There were among them minds that were not just bright, but also dedicated to pondering the depths of God’s Word, and what that revelation from God means for the lives of Christians and the Church as a whole.
Among the best of them, their command of the material – the depth of their knowledge – was something that initially blew me way. But it didn’t take very long before I realized something that put things into perspective. Yes, these professors were talented and knowledgeable. But on the other hand, they taught and talked about this material every year. Many of them had been doing this for several decades. The amazing insights were things that they shared year after year. For the most part, this was not stuff that they were coming up with on the fly. Instead it was a stock body of knowledge that they had acquired, and over the years, and they had honed the delivery of this material through repetition in class after class.
This is really just the nature of teaching anything. Certainly one always is looking to learn new things. But there is usually a certain body of knowledge that needs to be communicated. Do this enough times and you figure out the best and most helpful ways to do so. This is not a matter of completely reinventing the wheel every time you are going to teach a group of people.
Our Lord Jesus was no different. Yes, he was the omniscient Son of God and Creator of the universe. But he also had a body of knowledge – essential truths about the Gospel, about the kingdom of God – that he was teaching people during his ministry. And while Jesus was incredibly gifted as a teacher – something even non-Christians recognize – that does not mean he said something completely new and different every time that he taught a group of people. During three years of teaching in different parts of Israel, with different groups of people, he certainly repeated things. This fact in itself helped the apostles lock into their minds the content that we now find in the Gospels – something that they were far better at than would could ever be, because they lived in an oral culture.
Our text this morning is part of a sermon – a time of teaching – by Jesus. Luke introduces it by saying, “And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” Now you will notice that Jesus stood “on a level place.” For this reason, it has often been called “the sermon on the plain.” Yet when you look at Matthew’s Gospel you find much of the same material, and there it is introduced with the words, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.” This, of course, we know as “sermon on the mount.”
So was it a sermon on a plain or a sermon on a mount? The answer is yes. Surely our Lord shared this same teaching in sermons like these, and lots of other places as well. At the same time, the fact that Jesus repeated it should catch our attention. Because this morning, he sets it before us. He repeated it because he really means it. It really is true. And it is really is true for us.
Our Lord begins our text by saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Jesus says that we are to be merciful and compassionate, just as our heavenly Father is merciful and compassionate. This statement concludes one section of the sermon, and also introduces the part that we have in our text this morning. The mercy that God the Father has for us, becomes the pattern for how we are to treat others.
Jesus has just said, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who harm you. Treat all people the way you want to be treated.
This is not how we naturally act. This is not how we want to act. So in case there is any confusion on our part, our Lord adds, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Anyone can love the person who loves them in return. Anyone can do good to the person who does good to them. You don’t have to be a Christian to act in that way.
But what Jesus describes is something very different. And so in the verse before our text he says, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” This action that looks nothing like the world finds its source in God. As Jesus says, God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. That’s the way God is, and so Jesus says in our text, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” It turns out, that’s the way we are supposed to be too.
Now we haven’t even arrived at the main part of our text, and no doubt you are already thinking: “I don’t do those things. I don’t want to do those things. I am not able to do those things.” And you are right – at least in part. You often don’t do those things. You don’t love your enemies, or pray for those who wrong you. And you are right, that you don’t want to do those things. That’s how the old Adam is – the fallen, sinful nature that clings to us. But when you think, “I am not able to do those things,” well, that’s where you are wrong.
The sermon on the plain is introduced by a description that people “came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all.”
Jesus Christ wasn’t just there teaching to order to give good advice or to tell people what to do. We see this in the way that power came out from to Jesus to heal all. In fact, his word itself – his teaching - was different. When our Lord first began his ministry in Capernaum we learn that the people “were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. Indeed, Jesus’ teaching and miracle went hand in and hand we are told, “They were all amazed and said to one another, ‘What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!’”
Jesus Christ taught and healed as the Son of God anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism. At the synagogue in Nazareth he read these words from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And then he declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Anointed by the Spirit, our Lord came to bring the kingdom of God – the reign of God to fallen people in a fallen world. That mission was always directed towards one place; one moment; one event. He, the sinless One, defeated sin and the devil by taking our sins and making them his own on the cross. He received God’s wrath and judgment that culminated in death.
And if that were the end of it, I would agree that you are not able to do the things Jesus describes in our text. But on Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead through the work of the Holy Spirit. And as the ascended and exalted Lord, he has poured forth the Spirit. Through the world and baptism you have received the Spirit of Christ. And so it is Christ who is at work in you, both to will and to do those things that Jesus teaches.
Jesus begins our text by saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” You have received God’s mercy in the ministry of his Son, Jesus Christ. You have received compassion. You have been forgiven. And so now Christ’s Spirit leads and enables us to act in mercy and compassion towards others
What does that look like? Jesus says in our text, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.” In those settings in life where God has not placed us in the vocation with a responsibility to oversee the actions of others, we don’t look to judge and tear people down. We don’t look for opportunities to condemn.
Our Lord illustrates this by saying, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.”
We confess the sin in our own lives. We admit it and live in the forgiveness that God has given us in Christ. When we are living in this way in Christ, then we are able to speak to our neighbor in love and care – in ways that are meant for their well being, seeking to help and build them up, rather than to tear them down.
Jesus says in our text, “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Our Lord’s ministry to bring the reign of God, has given you forgiveness. You are baptized. You hear absolution spoken to you. You receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. But to be forgiven in Christ, must result in you forgiving others. It will have this result, that is, if we want Christ to continue to forgive us.
Like love, forgiveness is not an emotion – though it can indeed at times be accompanied by moving and powerful emotions. In its essence, forgiveness is the recognition that I cannot choose to hold something against another person. I cannot choose to return to the wrong and bring it up. I can’t do it, not if I want God to forgive all of my wrongs and treat them as if they never happened because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It is the Spirit of the risen Lord who makes this possible. And we pray that over time the Spirit will also bring about healing in us so that we feel at peace with those we have forgiven; so that our emotions “catch up” as it were with the act forgiveness worked by the Spirit.
How does this happen? Well, we listen to Christ’s word, because it is still a word that has authority. It is still the word in which the kingdom of God – reign of God – comes to us. We receive all of his Means of Grace regularly, because through them the Spirit is at work to strengthen the new man in us.
And we engage in something that Jesus tells us to do in our text as he says, “pray for those who mistreat you.” Just do it. Pray for that person, even if at first those prayers seem to be nothing more than rote words that we force ourselves to say. Pray for that person. Keep praying for that person. Praying for that person is forgiveness put into action. And over time the Spirit uses this to change us so that the whole of our person is brought into sync with Christ’s forgiveness for us that we are passing on to others.
In our text today, Jesus says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” God the Father has been merciful and compassionate to you in his Son Jesus Christ. Yet this action of being merciful is not something you now do on your own. The very act of being merciful to us in Christ was achieved through the work of God’s Spirit. Conceived by the Spirit; anointed by the Spirit; raised by the Spirit, Jesus has now given us the Spirit who makes it possible for us to be merciful, and to do those things that Jesus describes in his sermon.