A Sermon based on Matthew 7:21- 29
The text Dottie Haase read for us this morning is the conclusion of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” – a sermon which occupies three whole chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. (!) My sermons over these past four Sundays in Lent have discussed Jesus’ sermon... things like the list of Beatitudes which indicate the kind of “identity” Jesus looks for in his followers: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, & those who mourn... blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, & the persecuted.” I know you know all that stuff! You’ve heard it all before!
I’m not going to take the time this morning to review the issues that Jesus addressed in his Sermon – such things as his low opinion of calling people “fool”, of adultery & of divorce; his call for us to be boldly different, like salt and light in the world (because people see who we are by what we do!); to never hate or hold grudges, never indulge in anger, but be the first to reach out a hand in reconciliation; to practice clear, straight-forward speech, where “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no”; his desire that we reject revenge and not take retaliation against one’s enemies – but instead we should love our enemies... and pray for those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek, and go the second mile… oh, and yes, we should stop judging our neighbors. But, again, I know that you know all that already! You’ve heard it lots’a times in church.
I won’t even get into Jesus’ famous “Golden Rule” about doing to others what you would have them do to you -- if the situation were reversed… if the shoe was on the other foot (so to speak). (!)
No, I’m just going to skip all that and start my sermon this morning with the very last thing that Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount... Hear again his stirring conclusion -- his ultimate punch-line -- the last words that hung in the air on those hills in Galilee...
“The rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was the fall of it!”
Uh-oh..! It fell? The house collapsed? Is that any way to end a sermon?? What a downer! bummer! I’m not sure Jesus would’ve gotten a passing grade in any of my preaching classes with an ending like that!
Jesus concluded his sermon not on a high point of faith, but with the tragic picture of a Hurricane! It’s an image of rain falling on the Galilean mountainside and rushing down swollen rivers of mud to meet the rising flood-waters. This is not at all a happy picture! It’s what we saw just last week flooding the Great Plains – Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, as well as Southeast Africa: Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique. “The rain fell and the floods came,and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell ... great was its fall!”
Years ago, I went to Honduras with ten members of the UCC & the Disciples of Christ and (together with our Honduran work partners) built a half-dozen houses in a banana plantation for families who had lost everything in Hurricane Mitch. We did not build on the ground, nor on a slab; unlike the workers in Jesus’ parable, we built neither upon sand nor upon rock. We built them on stilts! Each floor was set upon nine concrete pilings imbedded in the earth...
We hope that the houses on stilts will be above the waterline when the river floods again. It is our hope that each one-room second-floor house is so well-balanced on those nine concrete & rebar columns so that it will not blow over in a storm, nor collapse into a raging flood. That is our hope...
The fact is we won’t really know how well our efforts will stand up to the brunt of another hurricane until the next one hits Honduras. You see, life itself has a way of revealing the strengths and flaws of what we do.
When the storms hit, that’s when we discover together whether or not our preparations and diligent efforts are enough. Before those amateur efforts at house building, I had never really noticed the inherent anxiety produced by Jesus’ concluding words: “The rain fell and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- (oh no!) -- and great was the fall if it!”
Now, when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching! (Matt. 7:28)
Maybe they expected something more “inspiring” from Jesus as a concluding statement to his sermon! Maybe they expected a punch-line more in keeping with what their scribes (and teachers of Torah) would have done. You know, like: “Hey, everything’s gonna be alright, don’t worry, be happy!” God is in control. You are blessed! You are chosen. Good folks don’t have to worry about bad things happening... Just follow the rules and God will keep you safe!
But Jesus doesn’t cooperate with the sermonic norm... He tells it like it is -- chaos and all! Real storms come, and floods happen! Tragedy strikes... yes, even to those people who are listening to Jesus. (!) In the real world (Jesus reminds us) even those things we build in utmost good faith -- with good intentions and to the best of our ability -- may falter & fail & fall in the end!
With those words said, Jesus turned and headed back down the mountain. That’s no way to end a sermon, Jesus! Where’s the “blessed assurance”? (!) How can Jesus leave it like that -- leave it up to us to decide how we are supposed to interpret his words? But that’s the way Jesus is! He leaves it to his listeners to act on his words, or not.
The crowd that day had listened, I’m sure. They heard what Jesus was saying. In fact, I think they listened well, because we still have (after 2,000 years!) a relatively good sense of what Jesus taught... I believe the people did hear him say all those radical kinds of things that Matthew reports to us. But I wonder how many people in that crowd actually believed what Jesus was saying to them? I mean: They heard him, but did they HEAR him?
If you are like me, we often fool ourselves into thinking that if we hear something, then we know it. We don’t need to be told again, right? “We got it.” Let me put it this way: if we hear something, and we believe it, then we say that we know it. And knowing something to be “true” means we assume it will affect our actions in some way.
But the fact is that we quite often fail to do anything about what we say we believe! We may know something to be true, but that knowledge in itself doesn’t necessarily motivate us to action. (!) We hear something -- we may even say it to others, because we know it to be true – but hearing it, and knowing it, and saying it, isn’t enough!
The UCC slogan on the magnet I passed out a couple weeks ago reminds us that “To believe is to care; to care is to do.” Saying that we believe, is good, but it’s not enough. Even caring deeply about something is not enough. We have to move our faith from our mouth to our muscles! From knowing with our brains to “doing” with our behavior!
“Believing” itself does not always come easily. I have sometimes found myself refusing to believe what my eyes and ears were telling me. As Mr. Spock used to say on Star Trek: “This does not compute.” If what we have come across does not fit our expected pattern, we tend to miss it – or else we dismiss it. “It just can’t be true.” “I don’t believe it.” “Nobody has ever told me that before.” We hear it, but if it strikes us as “odd” -- as “unusual”, a novelty, a “new thing” utterly unexpected & maybe unbelievable -- we don’t “take it in” very well.
As we’ve seen over the past four weeks, much of what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount went against the Bible scribe’s traditional interpretation of the Law. Jesus’ ideas ran “counter” to the cultural norms and standards of his day. ! ! And let’s face it -- most of the things Jesus said in that Sermon -- about the identity of his followers, about the new path ahead, the ethical demands of loving one’s neighbor wholeheartedly, and the rest -- still goes against our “common sense”! We hear you, Jesus, but we’re just not buying it! “Love your enemies..?” C’mon! Get real, for God’s sake!
We must admit that Jesus did not agree with “conventional thinking” or with the dominant religious ethic of his day; instead, he taught something new. Jesus was a novelty. He was an oddity.
I suppose the Jerusalem-oriented people in the crowd could dismiss Rabbi Jesus as just another radical activist from Galilee. After all, in his day, the region of Galilee (in Northern Israel) was rich with Zealots; with prophesiers, founders of charismatic movements, performers of miracles, divine healers, and demon exorcists... Jesus seems to be just another Spirit-filled activist from Galilee.
Except that he says, in his conclusion to this sermon: “Many will say to me: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will say to them: ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evil-doers.’ ” (Matt. 7:22-23)
Whoah! Hold on a minute there!
I can imagine the good, faithful scribes and Pharisees and Teachers of the Law thinking: “Just when I thought I had my spiritual house well-built on the solid foundation of my good religious activity, Jesus knocks the pillars out from under me.” -- “I never knew you!” -- Me?... Look, I’m God’s “go-to” guy!
You see, the group Jesus is critiquing -- dismissing, in fact, as workers of evil -- are people like me (and maybe some of you!). Active insiders, faithful people who use Jesus’ name freely, and who engage in good works… people who appear to be very religious. He isn’t complaining about out-siders or hypocrites, about lazy loafers or mean-spirited megalomaniacs... He’s talking about us -- religious activists who claim to be doing things “in Jesus name!” “Lord, Lord! Look what we’re doing in your name!” Can’t we get some credit here for all the good we’ve done & the rules we’ve kept?
What’s wrong with that? I would expect Jesus to commend these folks for their faithful service, for their piety, for their devotion to duty, for their extraordinary accomplishments... I mean, when I went with the work team on our first Mission trip to Honduras, we built three houses in four days, for goodness sake! -- six houses in nine days the next time! C’mon, Jesus, can I hear a little applause here?
No, friends. It’s not about applause. It’s not about being noticed as religious, or being held up as a role model of Christian ministry. You see, the ones Jesus rejects at the end of his Sermon on the Mount are people just like us, who confess the highest Christology, saying “Lord, Lord” before everything they do. They pronounce prophecies and they even work miracles...! It shocks me to hear Jesus dismiss them. What’s up with that?
So far as I can tell, these folks Jesus is talking about (in the final sentences of his Sermon on the Mount) really do extraordinary deeds, and they really do preach powerful sermons, and they really do all their deeds in Jesus’ name! And everybody knows it! So it is unsettling to think that Jesus dismisses them -- saying, “Sorry... Only the one who does the will of God in heaven is a true ambassador of God’s Realm.” And since I don’t get what you are trying to do, and I don’t know why you’re doing it... but do I know it’s certainly not anything you have been asked to do in my name.... Sorry, Charlie. It don’t count.
It disturbs me to think that the people Jesus has described are not only found in the church, they are most likely church leaders! They are involved in the public mission of the congregation; these are people whom others look up to.
Maybe it’s the Pastor-teacher; or the Church Board member! Others stand in awe of them for their apparent faith, and their words, and their public pronouncements. They are the ones people place on pedestals. They are the ones who’ve made a name for themselves.
Brought closer to home, it is as though someone were to say: “That ‘Rev. Dr. Lance’ at First Church Alpena… now don’t HE be somebody!” (I know you wouldn’t say that about me, but you know what I mean.) In looking up to someone as really closer to God than you… might just make yourself feel small, un-able, dis-empowered. From what I know of the Church, miracles do not a minister make!
If “religiously active” people can be so decisively renounced by Jesus, I must face the fact that my own progressive assumption -- that what you and I are doing in God’s name (obviously) must be what God wants us to do -- might also be dismissed by Jesus in the end as my own self-serving agenda and something that makes me proud.
It may be that my 6 years of efforts at mission & ministry have been building my own little empire here in Alpena instead of listening for God’s will and building the “heavenly city” which God has in mind for us all. (!) Something which will be to God’s glory which may not have my name attached to it at all.
The reality is -- both for those of us who go on mission trips, and help raise funds for needy people, who sing in the choir and help with the children, as well as for those who don’t do any such things in the church -- that the life of faith is not measured by our level of religious activity (no matter how well intended), but simply in terms of how much we trust God and whether or not we’re walking our journey in faithfulness to the ways of Jesus. That’s the criteria of success.
Jesus describes the solid foundation of the wise builder as “one who hears and does these words of mine.” That’s the solid foundation upon which we can build God’s heaven on earth. Not just by what we’ve heard from Jesus, and not so much even what we believe; it’s not what we know in our mind nor even what we say with our lips… and it’s not by our doing church stuff … but by doing the kinds of things that God values, such as the attitudes described by Jesus in his sermon.
Another way to say it is that Jesus’ words are not really heard until they begin to transform the listener. We can’t say that we really believe Jesus unless we allow his vision to begin to direct our behavior. “Not my will, God, but Thine be done.”
To listen to Jesus’ words -- as we do in worship, and as we do in our Bible studies and classes, and in our private devotions at home -- is a positive first step in building a life that will last on a foundation of real meaning, but it is not enough.
To believe what Jesus is saying is a second step... and, frankly, there are some Christians who stop at this point. They call themselves “Bible believers”, or fundamental believers; or true believers. But believing in Jesus is not enough. Even putting what you believe into words and saying them to other people, isn’t enough. You may sound “Christian”, but you’re still stuck on step two.
To really hear Jesus is to be grasped and shaped by his perspective so as to take a third step: becoming activated to do something about it. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shook the religious foundations like a hurricane! But when the storm settled, there were plenty of houses still standing... precisely those places where just deeds (God’s Way) had followed the path set by Jesus’ words. May our houses be found standing among them on that day.
We hear God’s call and we listen to Jesus’ words. We believe him and know he is telling the truth. We might even say it to others… but it doesn’t make much of a difference until we act on it. As the Nike ad says: “Just do it” -- God’s Will, God’s Way, in Jesus’ name. Amen.