Greatest Speech of All Time?

 

I am told and have indeed read that I missed perhaps one of the greatest speeches ever given by an American President last night as the latest State of the Union Address was delivered.  I have also heard or read many of the speeches delivered by some of the world’s greatest orators, so I started pondering the question, what was the greatest speech ever given?

There are several that quickly come to mind.  Based on their content and the climate of their times, it would be difficult to select just one.  Would it be Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, of maybe Winston Churchill promising to “fight them on the beaches”? How could one not consider the great Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, still quoted today, or Nelson Mandela’s numerous anti-apartheid speeches?  There’s Patrick Henry declaring “Give me liberty or give me death” and Abe Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address.  And in stark contrast to the current Build a Wall rhetoric, there is the ever memorable “Tear down this wall” speech by my favorite President, Ronald Reagan.  And even more impressive than these is the oration delivered by history’s first recorded Christian martyr, Stephen, a Christian apologetic speech delivered to the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts Chapter 7 just before he is stoned to death for Christ.  So with so many great speeches to choose from, who gets the nod as Numero Uno?

In my most humble of opinions, I don’t believe there has ever been a more meaningful, impactful, history-changing speech ever given than that which Christ gave and first recorded in Matthew 5-7, now commonly referred to as The Sermon on the Mount. In it is contained the essence of all good and proper living.  One does not even need to be of the Christian faith in order to appreciate the heart of what is being taught, but as a believer it may be the most concise delivery of the Christian tenets of faith ever composed in one sitting.  Much has been written throughout history pertaining to the sheer content of this incredible sermon.  In his Fifth Century book Saint Augustine says;

“If any one will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as w read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards to the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian Life“.

The great sermon can be broken down into several sub-sections, each worthy  themselves of being considered great speeches. The oration starts with the Beatitudes, or as some refer to them, The Blessings, or even more literal, the Happy sayings.  “Happy are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom; Happy are those who mourn for they will receive comfort; Happy are the meek for they will inherit the earth, and so forth.  These were not new revelations necessarily as many came from previous Old Testament writings, but Jesus shed new light into the heart of each blessing that focused on the ideals of living a life of love, service and humility, a lesson not confined to political or religious views alone.

Then Jesus begins to speak of salt and light, metaphors rich in context as to how believers should live their lives of faith openly and unashamedly.  Jesus refers to himself as the Light of the world.  As believers, we are each imparted with that same light so that we may be lights in the world.  He also uses the terminology of being salt, and how ineffective we become if we lose our faith, or saltiness, good for nothing more than filling in holes on a walking trail.

Then He goes into a discussion where He gives teeth to Old Testament Law with such phrasing as “you have heard it said…but I tell you…”.  Christ doesn’t abolish the law but fulfills it to the “nth” degree with things like, “you say don’t murder but I say don’t even call someone an idiot” or you say don’t commit adultery but I say if you even look at a woman and think about having sex with her you are just as guilty-harsh and difficult teachings for sure.  He goes on with exchanging the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy with instead praying for your enemies and those who wish you evil.  His statements turn their thinking and beliefs upside down!

Form there Jesus teaches his disciples and ultimately the world how we are to pray.  Whether you consider The Lord’s Prayer as a literal and perfect daily prayer or you use it as a model to fashion your own prayers after, it may be the single most cited, recorded and printed piece of literature of all time!  And he immediately follows it up by giving us the key to unlocking the beauty and promise of the prayer, that being the importance of forgiveness, by reminding us that “if we do not forgive others their sins against us, our Father will  not forgive us our sins either“. The prayer has five components, acknowledgement of God’s deity, submission to his will, Petitions for our provisions, forgiveness of our sins and triumphant living over temptation; all we need, any day, every day!

Jesus then reminds us of the folly of worrying with the familiar verse reminding us that if he sees even the tiniest of birds and takes care to feed them, how much more is he concerned with the affairs of the lives of his children.  And as for possessions, if even King Solomon was not as adorned as the flowers in any wild field, how much more God wants to clothe us with all good things.  There is simply too much good stuff to chew on here, basic, sound biblical rules of conduct and promises of God’s provision and sufficiency for our daily lives.

This sermon goes on to deliver so much more than we can take in.  From warnings about being judgmental when we should be more aware of our own faults, to the famous “ask and receive, seek and find, knock and come in” teachings about approaching God in prayer.  And on it goes, the wide and narrow gates, true and false teachers, Smart and stupid builders, Mind Blown!  He left the crowds who had gathered to hear him in shock and amazement as they had never been taught by anyone with such insight and vision or with overwhelming authority.  And it hasn’t changed up to this day, over two thousand years later!

Greatest speech of all time?  I confidently contend that you can’t find one better than the Sermon Christ delivered in Matthew, but what, you may ask, is the differentiator for this speech compared to any of the other worthy candidates?  It’s easy actually, Credibility.  If you were just to read the speech in Matthew 5-7, it would be impressive on its own merit, but what happens immediately after, recorded in Matthew Chapter 8, seals the deal. As Jesus comes down from this famous speech on the mountain, large crowds still followed him.  Among them was a leper, an outcast due to his condition.  The leper humbly bows before Jesus and asks in all good faith for Jesus to heal him.  With the simple words “Be Clean” the leper’s skin condition immediately disappears and his skin is renewed and pure again.  For thousands of witnesses, this elevates Christ from just a good speaker to the Divine Son of God with all power and authority to back up his previous words.  All other speeches that deal with the heart of decent living from that time forward are directly connected in every decent and moral way to the words Christ delivered to us and to the world on the mountain that day, the greatest speech of all time!

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Oh Holy Night-an Unlikely Composition Makes History

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All who know me know that Christmas is my absolute favorite time of the year. Being a native of the snowy mid-western state of Indiana I cherish the memories and traditions of Christmas past and have tried my best to create similar memories for our family in Las Vegas, sans the snow and cold temps. For me Christmas was always ushered in by the seasonal carols-I knew the holiday was close when the radio began playing Joy to the World, White Christmas, Silver Bells, Silent Night, and all the carols that have survived through the decades.  But no carol moves me to this day more so than Oh Holy Night. Of all the carols this song does more to transport me back to what must have been a magical night all over the earth as God the Son and Creator became flesh to dwell among us. This carol has been covered by the best voices in the world, each adding their own touch, from Celine to Groban to Crosby, and my favorite, Transiberian Orchestra.  There is no carol that sets the mood for Christmas among believers more than Oh Holy Night.

What many people don’t know is how God orchestrated the most unlikely characters and unusual circumstances in the composition of this song.  The lyrics were written by a man who would later walk away from the church to join the socialist party, and the music by a Jewish man who did not believe in Jesus the Messiah.  I was fascinated when I first read this story.

Placide Cappeau was a well known poet and commissioner of wines in France but not so well known as a church attender.  It was in 1847 that the priest of his parish asked him to compose a poem of religious origin that would be appropriate for Christmas Mass. Cappeau relied on texts from the Gospel of Luke and his imagination of what that blessed night must have been like and penned the words to Cantique de Noel on a stage coach ride to Paris. Upon its completion, Cappeau was so moved by his own composition that he decided these words should be put to music but music was not his strength.  So he called upon his good friend Adolphe Charles Adam, equally well known for his musical compositions.  Adolphe was Jewish. It was miraculous how the words to Cappeau’s poem moved Adam so much that he composed perhaps the most beloved and recognizable hymn about an event he did’t celebrate and personally didn’t believe in. Oh Holy Night, words by a socialist and music by a Jew!

The score was performed for Mass just three weeks later and quickly accepted across France.  However its fame was short lived as Cappeau joined the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church discovered that a Jew composed the music.  Oh Holy Night was banned for lack of content and musical taste for decades after, that is until John Sullivan Dwight, a struggling Unitarian minister and publisher of Dwight’s Journal of Music found the words and was moved by the composition.  You see, Dwight was an abolitionist and when he saw the lyrics, “for the slave is our brother”, he was inspired. It was Dwight who translated the lyrics into English and first introduced it to America.  But wait, there’s more!

In 1906, six decades after the song was composed by the most unlikely sources, another miracle was about to take place. The alternator-trasmitter had recently been developed allowing voice to be transmitted to ships and newspaper publishers by radio waves produced as a result of the high spinning alternator. Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden, a former employee for Thomas Edison, first tested this new radio device by reading the first few verses from the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter two. Fessenden, also a musician, then picked up his violin and played Cantique de Noel, Oh Holy Night!  This beloved Christmas carol made history and is acknowledged as the very first song ever broadcast over radio, and all at the hands of a socialist, a Jew, a failed Unitarian minister and an Anglican through the orchestration of events by an all inclusive God!  Awe inspiring and yet, not at all surprising-He is after all, God!

Christmas is all about inclusion, and in light of recent events revolving around police actions and injustices, what a better time to reflect on the commonalities of our races and status and not the differences. Dwight, being a witness to the evils of slavery, fell in love with the lyric “change shall He bring for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease“. Paul would write in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ”.  You see, if you read the story carefully you will see that the young are represented by Mary, thought to be no more than fourteen years old when she gave birth, and the old are represented by Simeon, who would die shortly after seeing his Messiah. The rich are represented by the Wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Savior, and the poor by Jesus own parents who could barely afford doves for their sacrifice at the temple. The women are represented by the Theotokos, Mary, the bearer of God and her cousin Elizabeth who bore John the Baptist, while the men are represented by Joseph, a hard working everyday man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. And the outcast are represented by the shepherds, the lowest of the low deemed indispensable enough to guard the flocks against bears and other predators. This was God’s plan all along-unity through love and a common hope and equal inheritance.  We are to blame for creating the racial, societal and even the religious divisions among us. God’s gift of His son was to unite us and reconcile all of us, each different but all the same in Christ, to Him.

So this Christmas season, when you hear or sing this beautiful and beloved hymn Oh Holy Night, I want to challenge you to consider each other as you sing, the poor, the homeless, the black or the white, the Republican or Democrat, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Atheist, the immigrant-those who would never come to mind normally, and imagine a time and a place two thousand years ago when the world for one night was at peace and as one as they ushered in with great celebration and Holy awe the creator of us all, the Christ child Jesus.  Surely, it must have been one holy night!  When you do, I can promise you that the spirit of Christmas past present and to come will dwell richly within you and the world around you will seem just a little less hostile, and each other a little less different.  God Bless you and Merry Christmas.