Several years ago Hollywood produced a movie about the life of Johnny Cash called Walk the Line. The film includes a powerful scene every preacher should see. In this scene, Johnny Cash and his band secure an audition at a small recording studio. They sing an unimaginative gospel song. Less than one minute into the song, the unimpressed owner of the studio interrupts them. He says, “Do you guys have something else?” Unhappy with his negative response, Johnny asks for an explanation. The studio owner says, “We’ve already heard that song a hundred times.” Johnny complains, “But you didn’t let us bring it home.” The owner says:
“All right, let’s bring it home. If you were hit by a truck, and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song that people would remember before you're dirt, one song that would let God and everybody know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up—you’re telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same tune we hear on the radio all day about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re going to shout it? Or would you sing something different? Something real? Something you felt? Because I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”
Johnny then decides to sing a song he wrote years earlier about a man in prison. In his deep, penetrating voice the “Man in Black” begins to sing, “I hear that train a coming. It’s rolling round the bend. And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps dragging on …” As Johnny sings, the recording studio owner’s eyes light up. This song is real.
Every Sunday the people in our congregation come to worship hoping to hear something real. They don’t need pious platitudes or irrelevant religious information. Instead, they need something that relates to real life. Thankfully, the Bible abounds with such material. A good example is the Sermon on the Mount. In this section of Scripture, Jesus deals with compelling life issues like success, money, anger, sex, peacemaking, marriage, divorce, anxiety, and judging.
Last year, in an effort to offer my congregation “something real,” I preached an extended series on the Sermon on the Mount. It proved to be one of the most exhilarating preaching experiences of my life. It was also well received by our congregation. People genuinely want to know what Jesus teaches about real life issues. I called the series, “Jesus on Life.” It included the following sermons:
- Taking Time to Pause (Matt. 4:23–5:2)
- Redefining Success (Matt. 5:3-12)
- How to Share Your Faith Without Turning People Off (Matt. 5:13-16)
- When Religion Goes Bad (Matt. 5:17-20)
- Is It Bad to Get Mad? (Matt. 5:21-26)
- Adultery, Lust, and the Problem with Pornography (Matt. 5:27-30)
- “Till Death Do We Part?” (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9)
- People of Integrity (Matt. 5:33-37)
- Clint Eastwood Versus Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:38-48)
- Who Is Your Audience? (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18)
- Jesus and Wall Street (Matt. 6:19-24)
- Don’t Worry Be Happy? (Matt. 6:25-34)
- Jesus on Judging (Matt. 7:1-6)
- Taking Faith Seriously (Matt 7:13-29)
As the above titles suggest, this series forced me to deal with challenging subjects including divorce and sexuality. After completing the sermon called “Adultery, Lust, and the Problem with Pornography,” (Matt. 5:27-30) I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand and said, “Whew, I’m glad that one is over!” The congregation immediately broke into spontaneous applause. They did not applaud because I preached a great sermon. They applauded because they appreciated a “real” sermon on a tough but important subject. If you want to preach “something real,” it would be hard to find a better option than the Sermon on the Mount.
Martin Thielen serves as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Lebanon, Tennessee. The above sermons and others are available on his preaching and worship Web site, including sermons and series, is www.GettingReadyForSunday.com. Martin’s most recent book is “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” A Guide to What Matters Most. Complete information about the book, including a free Leader’s Guide for leading a seven-week congregation-wide initiative based on the book, can be found at http://thielen.wjkbooks.com.