A sermon based on Psalm 31 and Matthew 7:21-29 preached on April 2nd, 2017
Throughout Lent, we’ve been traveling our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s sketch of the countercultural ways of discipleship. Jesus himself teaches His people how to follow Him.
All of the Sermon on the Mount adds up to create one picture, one snapshot. This is our value-system, our rule of life, our compass pointing the way in a world that wants to give us a million different ways to walk. All these words add up to a direction-giving, disciple-making manifesto. If you want to know what Jesus is up to, come back to these words. If you’re ever unsure what the heart of God looks like, cares about, is filled with, what God yearns for, come back here to these 3 chapters of Matthew’s gospel. But don’t simply read them. The Sermon on the Mount is not a constitution, it’s not a set of guidelines; it’s not a rulebook or an owner’s manual. It is a Way to walk. A way to talk, and live, and breathe. A way to hear and see. Watch and discern everything. If we treat what we’ve heard over the course of this Lenten season as merely sound advice that we may or may not take, depending upon our circumstances, then we’ve misheard Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to us as just another voice among many other voices, with suggestions about how to get along day by day. Discipleship is a take it or leave it affair. It’s all or nothing. Jesus is the Way, and with Him, there is no halfway.
We should confess that many of us get really uncomfortable with that idea. That “all or nothing, take it or leave it” language from the Gospel. Jesus saves the hardest part of His message for last. This idea that maybe one day we might call Jesus Lord and His reply will be,
I’m sorry, do I know you?
All the way through this Lenten season, coming back again and again to the next parts of this Sermon on the Mount, I tried to keep in mind who Jesus is teaching these words to. He’s talking to His disciples. These words are for them. For us.
I imagine that as Jesus made his way through this 8-minute long sermon, folks gathered around Him and His circle of 12. Maybe they were interested to some degree or another in the ideas that He had about the way the world works. Maybe they stood within earshot of Jesus and leaned in a bit to hear Him a little better.
I can picture a crowd slowly gathering around. Maybe some of them paced along the periphery, too scared to come any closer. The closer an onlooker came, the easier others might mistake them as one of His disciples, so, for the timid, it was best to keep some distance, to appear nonchalant; yes, interested and curious, but not too interested or curious. Let’s just play the casual observer. One can hear or even consider what Jesus has to say and still walk away. One can even agree with what Jesus has to say, ponder all these things in their minds, thinking He makes some good points, but still remain uncommitted.
Good ideas, Jesus! Maybe you should write an opinion piece with all these ideas of yours and put it in the local section of tomorrow’s Galilee Times.
But the disciples weren’t listening from the periphery. The disciples were gathered in a tight bunch, circled around Jesus as he told them all of these things.
Try to put yourself in their position. Try to imagine Jesus staring straight into your eyes as He talks to you about murder, adultery, divorce, loving your enemies, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking. What would you be thinking? How would you feel by the end of it all? Would you wonder if Jesus was giving you advice or simply passing along some new ideas that came to Him. Was He expecting you to take all of this on and live in these ways? No, that can’t be. It all sounds too hard! Would you think it was all too much?
Slow down, Jesus, I need time to digest some of this!
What if being one of Jesus’ disciples meant you and I had to accomplish all of this—to stick to this narrow path that we heard about last week? Imagine how glazed over the disciples’ eyes were getting. They had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Do we even? And if all these things He’s had to say wasn’t enough to knock you over with a feather, certainly the ending is:
Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a man who builds his life on unsteady ground.
How high is this hurdle, Jesus! And who could ever jump over it! Who stands a chance here?!
I wonder if the disciples were thinking something like that.
Two wonderful families build two houses. They build them out of the same material. Good solid wood. Only the best will do. They go down the local Home Depot: Galilee’s Home Improvement Warehouse. Then they go down to the local blacksmith and with the same exact amount of money, they buy all the nails they need—really solid ones. They draw up plans, they learn them inside and out—pored over the blueprints more times than they can count.
Their houses are going to be the best on the block! These two families, they’re all really hard workers. They’re ready to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into this project. Both see their houses as lifetime investments, and they have made all the right choices along the way. But, no matter how costly or well-built a house may be, it can never out-last its foundation. If the foundation gives way, the house will give way right along with it.
One family takes that into consideration; sadly, the other does not. That’s the parable Jesus tells. It doesn’t matter how well you have it together. All of it will crumble into a pile of splinters if it’s not founded upon something solid underneath. Something sound. Strong. Storm-proof.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the Sermon on the Mount:
Most people are willing to take these words as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.
It’s not what’s over your head that counts. What matters most is what’s under you. The exact wrong way to respond to Jesus’s words in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is to lift them up and worship them. To gaze up at them once in a while, to make some sort of symbol out of them by which we define ourselves. That’s not discipleship; that’s mere observance. It might even be idolatry. Jesus’ words frozen into a collection of principles we simply align ourselves with, gather ourselves under, pledge our allegiance to with hands over our hearts as we do so. Jesus, as well as His sermon, is no emblem.
The only right way to respond to the Sermon on the Mount is to live into it. To jump inside of it. To let it carry you. Animate you. Jesus as well as all the words He says are the Word of the living, breathing God who is here to steer you and I in all our directions. The right response to Jesus isn’t observance; it’s movement. Let Jesus be the power underneath your feet. Allow Jesus as well as His words to take you places.
If we approach the Sermon on the Mount the first way Holmes suggests: as our flag, we assume control over Jesus, continuing to live our lives in first place, in all the ways we would like. But, if we let Jesus’ words become the rudder by which to steer, then we give up control. The power won’t be ours anymore, it will come instead from something underneath us, something bigger that moves us. Jesus, our direction-giver. Someone who guides us. The One under us that carries us in the Jesus Way.
If we look at the Sermon on the Mount as a list of things to pay attention to, Jesus remains an icon like a flag; some self-righteous statement we make; some personal slogan of ours. But Jesus doesn’t belong on top of a flag pole, as a word on a bumper sticker or as something shouted into a megaphone. Jesus isn’t a position we take. We don’t use Jesus. Jesus uses us. Jesus is a moving, living breathing person who has the power to breathe new life into us. And discipleship is a choice we make each and everyday to have Jesus be the very bedrock that upholds, giving shape and integrity to everything we are, do, and say. That’s the life of discipleship. It’s a life where we come in second place, because Jesus always claims first place.
The word obedience comes to us from three different languages: Middle English, old French, and Latin. It literally means to hear in the direction of. By now, we’ve figured out that the Sermon on the Mount is a direction-giving message from a direction-giving Messiah.
Having faith in Jesus isn’t about standing in one position and declaring it as the right place to establish ourselves. It’s a movement forward. If we think being Christian is a place to plant ourselves, we will quickly find ourselves alone. Jesus is a mover, and the Way of Jesus is a chasing after Him in every aspect of our lives. As Presbyterian Pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it, discipleship isn’t about building monuments. It’s about leaving footprints. Discipleship is a travel song we sing to give witness to our God along our way.
Poet William Faulker once said something like that. The way of Jesus, he said, is not filled with monuments but with footprints. A monument says, “At least I got this far,” while a footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”
All foundations sink after a while. All ground gives way. That’s why we build our traveling faith upon Jesus—the Rock that’s never in one place but also never fails, never gives way.
May we build ourselves upon this Jesus, so that our journey will be carved along pathways made strong and sure by the One who always goes before us. And because this pathway is steep and demanding, because it asks us to hand over every bit of who we are, may God be gracious and merciful as we stumble along. And when our legs shake and the ground gives way, may God become our help. May God be our solid footing.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!