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"Practice Makes Perfect"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 28, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Matthew 5

Chaplain Fred even looked a little like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., same haircut, same mustache, similar stature. And he had practiced the words of that speech so many times, too many times to count. Chaplain Fred wanted it to be perfect. I got to know Chaplain Fred when I was serving in the Air Force. He was a military chaplain, and every year during Black History Month, he would reenact Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. And one year, I got to see him do it, and it was perfect. He had practiced the words so many times that he had committed them to heart. He didn't just read them off a page. He had put those words in his guts, and he spoke them from his heart, and he transported me. I was there. I was standing on the crowded steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and I saw it with my own eyes, and I heard it with my own ears. Chaplain Fred had made those words his own. They belonged to him, and he belonged to them.

Over the last few weeks on this program, we've been talking about a speech, a different speech, a speech that was delivered in Galilee, Northern Israel, 2,000 years ago, by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most influential Person in history. And this speech that we are talking about, traditionally called the "Sermon on the Mount," may be the most influential speech ever given in history. This speech deeply influenced the words and the conduct and the character of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you listen carefully to his "I Have a Dream" speech, you can hear the influence of Jesus. When Jesus called His followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile—Dr. King's words, he says that "We should meet physical force with soul force." Dr. King was deeply influenced by Jesus, and Chaplain Fred wanted to honor Dr. King by delivering that speech. And I would like to honor Jesus by delivering His speech, for you now. Chaplain Fred did the whole speech of "I Have a Dream." I'm only going to do half of Jesus' speech. If you want to hear the rest of it in chapter 6, listen again next week.

Now, before we listen to it, we should keep two things in mind. First, background matters, and second, tone matters. So first, background matters. Nearly 57 years separate us from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and yet, if you were to read the manuscript of that speech, you would very quickly recognize that this comes from a different time. You would read about strange cultural artifacts such as public signs that say, "For Whites Only." You would hear about strange historical figures like this governor whose lips were dripping with words of "interposition and nullification," whatever that means. So you might have to do some background reading to understand what Dr. King is talking about in that speech, especially if you weren't even alive 57 years ago, like me.

And the same is true for the words of Jesus, only more so. He talks about ancient things and ancient practices like swearing oaths and bringing gifts to the altar of the temple that once stood in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He speaks of strange ancient things like being sued for your tunic and being forced to walk a mile in conscripted service. And you might have to do some background reading to understand what Jesus is talking about. But in spite of that historical distance, His words still speak—just like Dr. King's words still speak to us.

And that's the second thing we need to remember is that these are spoken words. And with spoken words, tone matters. For example, it's one thing if you were to read the transcript of the "I Have a Dream" speech. It's another thing entirely to see Chaplain Fred perform it live in person. And so also when you hear the words of Jesus, you need to pay attention to tone. What's His tone? Now, you have to imagine it based on what you can read about His character in the rest of the Bible. And His tone is really important in the last words He says in Matthew chapter 5: "Be perfect." What's His tone there? Well, you need to listen for it, and you need to imagine it. Listen for it now.

Jesus' speech starts off like this: "Great crowds were following Him, crowds from Galilee and Decapolis, from Jerusalem and Judea, and from across the Jordan River. And when Jesus had seen the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and He sat on it. And His disciples came to Him, and He opened His mouth and began to teach saying, 'The people who are poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom. Theirs is the rule and reign of heaven. The people who are mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. The lowly are blessed because they will inherit the earth. The people who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness are blessed because they will be satisfied. The merciful are blessed because they will be shown mercy. Pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. The peacemakers are blessed because they will be called sons of God. The people who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed because theirs is the rule and reign of heaven. You are blessed.

"Whenever people insult you or persecute you or falsely say all kinds of evil about you because of Me, rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

"You are that which salts the earth. But if that salt loses its saltiness, how will it, the earth, be salted? The salt is no longer good for anything except after being tossed out to be trampled under people's feet.

"You are that which lights the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Rather, they put it on a lamp stand and it gives light to all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

"Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law and the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to fulfill them. I am telling you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of the Law will by any means pass away until all things take place. Therefore, whoever loosens, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and this way teaches others, he will be called least in the kingdom, in the rule and reign of heaven, but whoever does and teaches these commandments, they will be called great in the reign of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the reign of heaven.

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' but I Myself am saying to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment, and whoever insults his brother, says to his brother, 'numbskull,' he will be answerable to the council. Whoever says, 'you fool,' will be answerable to the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar, at the temple in Jerusalem, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar and go first be reconciled to your brother, then come and resume offering your gift. Be quick to be well disposed to be friendly toward your opponent while he is still with you on the way. Otherwise, that opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the jailer, and you will be thrown into prison. And I am telling you the truth, you will not get out of there until you've paid the last cent.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' but I Myself am saying to you that whoever looks at a woman so as to desire her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And if your right eye is causing you to stumble and fall, tear it out and throw it away from you. For it would be better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand is causing you to stumble and fall, cut it off and throw it away from you. For it would be better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

"It has been said, 'If a man divorces his wife, he must give her a document, a certificate of divorce,' but I Myself am saying to you that if anyone divorces his wife, except for the case of adultery, he causes his wife to have adultery committed against her. And whoever marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep your oath that you have sworn to the Lord.' But I Myself am telling you, do not swear at all, whether by heaven, because it is God's throne, or by the earth for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head because you are not able to make even one hair white or black. Rather, let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth in exchange for a tooth,' but I Myself am saying to you, do not resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well. If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, your outer shirt, give him your coat also. And if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. To the one who asks of you, give. And the one who wants to borrow from you, do not turn away from him.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I Myself am saying to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who are persecuting you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He causes His sun to shine upon the good and the evil, and He sends His rains to fall upon the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do that, don't they? If you greet only your brothers, what greater thing are you doing? Even the pagan nations do that, don't they? Therefore, be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect."

The words of Jesus, Matthew chapter 5.

So how did I do? Did I get the tone right? However I did, I'll keep practicing. I will keep practicing, because tone matters. Tone matters, especially for those last words that Jesus says. Now, those words could be translated in a variety of ways. Be perfect, be complete, be mature. And however you translate them, just as important is the tone. And the tone is coming from the heart of someone who loves you and won't give up on you. Now, why should it matter that Jesus loves you and He won't give up on you? Well, you think about who He says He is, who He claims to be. He claims to be the Messiah, the King over all kingdoms. He claims to be the Savior crucified for your sins and raised to put you in the right with God. He claims to be the Son to whom God has given authority over all things.

Now, what do you make as someone who claims things like that? There's not a lot of categories in which to put Jesus. And if you're not willing to believe that He is who He says He is, then what is He? A psychopath? But psychopathic people don't normally talk like Jesus talked, and they certainly don't inspire people like Jesus inspired them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his lesser known speeches talked about this specifically. See, Dr. King was a Christian preacher, and at least once a year, it was his practice to preach on the Sermon on the Mount and specifically this call of Jesus to love your enemies. And Dr. King pointed out in this sermon that there had been many people who had built empires by fear and force and the destruction of their enemies: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. And Dr. King asked, "What has become of those empires? They've all crumbled and returned to dust." But Dr. King says, "But long ago, this Jesus, He built an empire that depended on love. And even today, millions are ready to die for Him."

And so, if you're not willing to call Jesus a psychopath, then maybe it's time to lay down your life before Him and call Him your Lord. Because He did lay down His life for you. And He took it up again because He loves you, and He won't give up on you. And this is the tone that you should hear in His words, be perfect. You don't have to hear it as a threat: "Be perfect or else!" It's not an ultimatum. It's an invitation. It's an invitation to walk with Him and learn with Him and practice with Him. And you know they say practice makes perfect. But practice also involves mistakes and missteps and missing the mark. And as you miss the mark following Jesus and you fall on your face and once again are confronted with your spiritual poverty, then just go back and rehearse the beginning of the speech.

"The poor in spirit are blessed. Poor in spirit are blessed." And then you try again. And you can say with the apostle Paul, as he wrote to the Philippians: "Not that I am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own." My friend, Chaplain Fred, he practiced the words of that speech. He wanted to make it perfect.

Dr. Martin Luther King inspired Chaplain Fred, but even more, Chaplain Fred was inspired by Dr. King's inspiration: Jesus. I told you that Chaplain Fred was a military chaplain that I had gotten to know, and military chaplains have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, you're there for everybody, to serve everybody regardless of their color or their creed or their conviction. But on the other hand, a Christian chaplain like Chaplain Fred is there in the first place as a servant of Jesus.

And that's how he used to sign off his official military e-mails. He'd say, "Servant of Jesus, Chaplain Fred." And he caught some flak for this because of the impression that it might be favoritism towards Christians. But if you knew Chaplain Fred, you would know that that's not how he rolled. His love for people knew no bounds. Because that was the practice of His Father. In Jesus, God had become Fred's Father. God has become my Father, and by faith in Jesus, God is your Father.

It's like how Chaplain Fred adopted the words of Dr. King's speech and made them his own. He practiced them and internalized them. He got them down into his guts and spoke them from his heart. So also God has adopted you as His own words in the world. He's putting His heart in you, His guts in you. He's speaking you out as His own speech into the world. God is practicing you. God is practicing you. And you know what practice makes.

Would you pray with me? Lord, Jesus, God knows I am not perfect. Help me though to press on and make it my own because You have made me Your own. I love You, Jesus. Amen.

Reflections for June 28, 2020

Title: Practice Makes Perfect

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. You'll find free online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, podcasts, and more at And now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Once again, I'm visiting with Dr. Jeff Gibbs, a beloved teacher in our church body, emeritus professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Welcome Dr. Gibbs.

Jeff Gibbs: Thank you very much, Dr. Ziegler

Mike Zeigler: We're listening to Jesus' famous sermon recorded in Matthew chapter 5. Last week we noted that Jesus was teaching God's true intention for His Law, the Ten Commandments. Why should God's Law be important to the followers of Jesus today?

Jeff Gibbs: Well, I think it's because God is our Heavenly father. Why would it be important for me, especially as a child, to learn and understand and do the things that my father wanted me to do? The answer is because he's my father. That's why. And this is why, I think a kind of a very simple sense, God loves me. He sent Jesus for me. This is His will, and I want to please Him, not in order to earn His favor or something silly like that, because I can't do that. He already favors me in Jesus. He's my Father. That's why I want to do His law.

Mike Zeigler: At the end of this section, we hear Jesus say to His disciples, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." Now that sounds impossible. Is Jesus serious?

Jeff Gibbs: Yes, He is. He wants us to be like our Heavenly father. Like father, like son. But tone of voice matters. It's not a threat, right? It's an invitation. And it comes at the very end of that last and sixth part of the teaching here in chapter 5, where Jesus says, "I want you to love even your enemies." And why would that be the case? "Because that will show that you're sons of your Father in heaven." And what is He like? "Oh, you know what, He makes His sun"—that's such a striking thing for Him to say, "His sun,"—the big yellow thing in the sky is His sun. "He raises His sun on good people and bad, wicked and righteous. He sends down His rain upon all kinds of people. That's what your Father in heaven is like. And so I want you to be like Him, and I want you to love one another. And even, I want you to love the people who are persecuting you—not to earn the Father's favor, but to be like Him because that's what He's like. Be mature, be complete, be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." See, tone of voice matters.

Mike Zeigler: There's a transition here in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus indicates that He's moving on to something new. So, as we move into chapter 6, what should we be listening for? How should we prepare ourselves to hear what Jesus is saying?

Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, that's a great question. And chapter 6 in the Sermon on the Mount has a lot of different things in it. Jesus talks about what He calls doing righteousness, which is to say giving alms to the poor, helping out the poor, and prayer and fasting. And then He moves to the topic of possessions and earthly wealth, and then to worry, and then to judging one another. So there's a lot going on.

The one thing that might bind it all together, Mike, is this phrase: "Your Heavenly Father." That all of this teaching is to be received, in a sense, under the umbrella of this truth that Jesus alone has made known, that the mighty God who owns the sun, the mighty God who made all things by the Word of His power, in Jesus, this God is made known to us as our Heavenly Father. It's an invitation—chapter 6 is an invitation—to be free from caring too much about what other people think and from worshiping the god of money, and from worry—a sin to which I am particularly prone, if I may say it. It's an invitation to be set free. Why? Because of what my Father in heaven is like, that's coming up in chapter 6.

Mike Zeigler: Well, there's a lot to look forward to. Thank you again for being here with us.

Jeff Gibbs: Yes, you're very welcome.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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