06/24/2013 08:31 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

The Best Advice Ever Given

Rolf Lium was a sharp-looking Norwegian-American with blond hair, strong physique, and square jaw, six-foot-three, a member of the swimming team at Minnesota's Carleton College. He spent the summer between his junior and senior years in the Black Hills as student pastor for a small church, though he had never before preached a single sermon. He wasn't prepared for what happened when he stood in the pulpit in Hermosa, S.D., on his first Sunday. As Rolf began his message on Sunday, June 19, 1927, a rustling disturbed the congregation. In walked President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, who were vacationing in the Black Hills. The New York Times reported: "The President and Mrs. Coolidge walked in, the congregation standing, while the boy preacher clasped his hands nervously and looked as if something serious was about to happen to him. But he maintained his poise."

The paper said:

"He had not gone far when he broke for a moment and hastily consulted his notes, then he started again and concluded without hesitation. All great men, said the boy preacher, require a time for meditation for the accomplishment of real things -- Moses and Jesus were quoted as examples -- time to get away from the turmoil, so they could recover their poise, get their bearings and work out in quiet the ideas that must be put into execution in periods of stress."

Afterward camera crews gathered around Rolf for movie newsreels. "I have a girl back home," he said. "When she and her mother see me in the movies, say, won't they just drop dead?" When reporters asked the young preacher about his sermon, he said, "Well, I did the best I could, but I'm glad it's all over."

I'm glad no presidents or pundits were present for my first sermon. I was 15 or 16, and scheduled to preach on Youth Sunday at our church. I prepared as best I could, but when time came I froze, bungled my opening, finished my half-hour sermon in five minutes, and collapsed into my seat determined, at the time, to never try again. Most speakers don't want to be reminded of their first attempts. Just as in any other profession, it takes time and practice to develop proficiency.

And yet there was one fellow who, at age 30, hung up His carpenter's apron, laid down His hammer, gathered a crowd on a hillside, and attempted a sermon. His first recorded discourse was the greatest message the world had ever heard. The preacher was Jesus of Nazareth and His first recorded sermon is the Sermon on the Mount.

The existence of this homiletical masterpiece indicates Jesus was more than a carpenter, more than a preacher, and more than a mere man. From His first utterance, He spoke as if He were the author and interpreter of Scripture. His words and their tone amazed the crowds, as they astound us today. In the Sermon on the Mount we have a set of ethics that has never been bettered, a set of images that have never been forgotten, and a set of instructions as relevant today as when first spoken.

Within the 107 verses of this sermon, we have the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, the Golden Rule, the City on a Hill, the Salt of the Earth, the Narrow Gate, and the wise man who built his house upon a rock. Here we discover the internal dimensions of morality and spirituality, and we discover how to deal with anger, lust, divorce, retaliation, anxiety, oaths, and hypocrisy.

In Matthew 5:7 we have the greatest advice ever given, in the greatest sermon ever preached, by the greatest man who ever lived. The Sermon on the Mount provides evidence for the truthfulness of Christ and Christianity, for if Jesus were any less than he claimed his message would have been less than it was. How otherwise do we explain the fact that His first recorded sermon is still, 2,000 years later, regarded as the most famous speech in world history and the greatest message on practical ethics and moral psychology ever delivered?

His listeners were astonished at His teaching, for He taught as "one who had authority." It wasn't His delivery that impressed them, though it must have been flawless. It wasn't the passion in His voice, though love exhaled with every word. It wasn't His superior knowledge, though He possessed all the treasures of wisdom. He spoke with heavenly authorization, as though He were commanding angels or ruling nations. From His first utterance, He spoke as Lord of heaven and earth, with governance over the hearts and minds of humanity.

Saint Augustine called this speech "The Sermon on the Mount" because its location symbolized its lessons. It's no accident, said Augustine, Jesus chose this location. He wanted to teach higher truth and show His followers how to live above the world, on a higher plain.

Imagine being in the original audience! There were the disciples, green as bean shoots, wondering what they'd gotten themselves into. Encircling them was a multitude of all ages, shapes, sizes, smells, accents and dialects, representing a range of nationalities from Near Asia and an array of opinions. But all were drawn to the Teacher because they needed answers for life. We can easily drop ourselves into the picture. Because of the personal, Spirit-inspired nature of Scripture, the Sermon on the Mount is as tangible to us as to its original auditors.

Let's dust off this Sermon, teach it to our children, talk about it in our schools, and practice it in our lives. No education is complete without knowledge of the greatest treatise on practical ethics in history. As Harry Truman rightly said in his plain-spoken way: "I do not believe there is a problem in this country or the world today which could not be settled if approached through the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount."