Sunday, January 12, 2014

Your Foundation Matters

Matthew 7:24-29

It is our final installment in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus starts out this section with a “therefore.” I learned as a kid that whenever your verse starts with a “therefore” you’ve got to go back and see what the “therefore” is there for.

Immediately before this section was the section about false prophets and about those who say, “Lord, Lord, I did all this in your name!” but to whom Jesus says, “I don’t even know you.” Jesus is making it clear that those who truly are his disciples are those who are all his – inside and out. Not the hypocrite who makes sure to follow the letter of the Law but ignores its intent. Not the one who makes a big show of their so-called righteous acts. Not the one who chases after the things of this world. And not the one who purports to speak for God but speaks on their own authority. These are those to whom Jesus proclaims, “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:23)

That is the “therefore.” So today’s passage is really not a new thought, but a summary of everything he has said thus far. So, in summary, Jesus says: if you hear his words and obey, you have a good, solid foundation. Jesus makes the point clearly, using the metaphor of building a foundation on either rock or sand.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

How important is a foundation, anyway? Even for someone who has not built a house, it should be clear. “Should be” might be the operative phrase here!  My family has always enjoyed beach vacations; Tara’s uncle has a great place on Lake Michigan with access to a really nice private beach. The best thing about being on the beach is building sand castles. Now, I’m not one of those sand castle artists – I just build structures. But one thing I always do is build near the shore. Why? Because I like watching the water rise and slowly (or sometimes not-so-slowly) crumble the castle. Of course, I’ve also seen the remains of old houses up on the dunes, places where the sand has shifted, crumbling the whole house.

How does Jesus’ metaphor work? He says the wise person, the one who builds on a firm foundation, is the one who hears his words and puts them into practice while the one who hears his words and does not put them into practice is as foolish as someone who builds on sand.

Jesus’ words themselves become the bedrock foundation for our lives, but not just listening to them, but putting them into practice. In some Bible translations, they have replaced the term “brothers,” with “believers,” which, to some extent, preserves the authorial intent, but which causes some problems. One such problem is that it can cause someone to think, “as long as I intellectually believe the right things, then I’m doing everything that I should be doing.” Jesus is saying simple intellectual assent is a sandy foundation.

Let me put that in easy-to-understand terms. Perhaps you are terribly sick, and you are going to die, and you go see your doctor, who tells you, “I have a medicine that will cure your disease.” The doctor tells you how the medicine was developed and tested and you find out that the medicine has very few side-effects and has a 100% cure rate, and better yet, your insurance fully covers it. You completely believe the doctor. You trust that the medicine will make you well. But no matter how good the medicine is, it won’t do anything if you don’t take it!

Our culture pushes us to build on all kinds of foundations. Money, power, and popularity are just three of them. But Jesus says that there is one firm foundation, and that is hearing his words and putting them into practice. We who have heard Jesus’ words have the responsibility to live them out. We are without excuse.

So Jesus equates those who hear the words and put them into practice with a wise builder building a house on a rock. No matter what came against it, the house did not fall. This world has a lot to throw at us. Some of you have experienced the gamut. The rain has come down, the streams rose, and the winds have blown and beat at your life. There has been a common misconception about the Christian life; when I was a little boy, we learned the song, “I’m in-right, out-right, up-right, down-right happy all the time; since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m in-right, out-right, up-right, down-right happy all the time.”

Even as a little boy, I knew that song was a lie. Yes, my life is filled with joy unspeakable. Yes, I have peace that passes all understanding. But I’m not happy all the time. Happiness is contingent on so many external circumstances, and the Bible never promises that our external circumstances will get better. In fact, Jesus promises his followers that we face not health and wealth, but a cross. In John 16:33, he tells his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” But that’s not the last thing he says. He doesn’t just say, “the rain will fall and the rivers will rise” but he says you will not fall if your foundation is built on the rock. And though Jesus says in this world you will have trouble, he continues by saying, But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)

Another common misconception is that God will never give you more than you can handle. Some people have twisted the scripture from 1 Corinthians 10:13 [No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.]. They have taken it to mean that God will never allow us to suffer more than we can handle. The truth is that particular scripture says nothing about suffering. It is about temptation.

The truth is, God will give us more than we can bear. He will do that to show us that the foundation we built on ourselves is shifting sand. Do you think that Job got more than he could bear? God allowed it all. A problem with us giving false advice about God not giving more than we can bear is that when people do face more than they can bear, they give up on God. Oh, and if you’re telling someone that God will never give you more than they can handle, you’re being a false prophet, purporting to speak for God, when, in fact, God never said that. God does give us more than we can bear, and God does this so we will have to rely on God to carry us through.

This is why Jesus makes such a big deal of his followers hearing his words and putting them into practice. When the rubber hits the road, it is no longer possible to get by on what we can do for ourselves. For many, this is what gets us to the place called “rock bottom.” The place where the rain and the wind beat against the house and it falls with a great crash. Because everything else will fail you. Money won’t save you. Your popularity won’t save you. Your spouse was never meant to be your savior, and neither were your kids.

Only Jesus is Savior, but if we just hear his words and don’t put them into practice, eventually everything will come crashing down.

These are Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount, but Matthew gives us an indication of how Jesus’ sermon was received. When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matthew 7:28-29)

This issue of authority is huge. The reason we spent all these weeks studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is because of Jesus’ authority and the authority of the Word of God. The experts in Jesus’ time were the teachers of the law. They would have been the most educated members of the Jewish community. Think: seminary professors. And they would have been the ones who would have weekly (or daily) discussed the Torah. Jesus had just denounced the false prophets, the wolves among the sheep, and I think it was no accident that Matthew includes the exact wording he did here against the teachers of the law.

Listen to how Jeremiah denounced the Jewish leaders of his time in Jeremiah 5:31: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?

The authority issue is huge. These teachers of the law are people who have authority, and they are teaching from their positions of authority, yet the crowds recognize that it is Jesus who has true authority. They could see his authority from his teaching. There were times in Scripture where Jesus’ authority was questioned, and it was almost always questioned by the Pharisees and the very same teachers of the law. After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went on a healing mission, and at the beginning of Matthew 9, a paralyzed man was brought to him, and Jesus pronounced him forgiven of his sins! The teachers of the law were outraged because they saw this as blasphemy; only God can forgive!

I love how Jesus responded: he knew their thoughts, so he asked them a stumping question: Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? (Matthew 9:5) I don’t know which would be easier. I guess it would be easier to say that someone’s sins are forgiven, but to actually forgive…

So Jesus continues in Matthew 9:6-8 “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus doesn’t have to do this, but he demonstrates to them that he has the authority.

Later, as Jesus is heading toward crucifixion, while he was teaching, the chief priests and elders question his authority, [Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”(Matthew 21:23)] so he fires back at them. Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by whose authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’ – we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by whose authority I am doing these things.” (Matthew 21:24-27)

Where did Jesus get this authority? Many of us know that the purpose statement of our church is to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and some of us also know that one of the key verses behind this purpose statement is the Great Commission from Matthew 28, where Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. But right before Jesus said this, he said, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)

Unlike other times, when Jesus authority has been questioned, at this point, Jesus freely tells that his authority has been given to him. The passive tone he uses is on purpose; it is what is known as a divine passive; there is only one who gives it to him in this way, and it is God.

It was God who gave Jesus the authority. In Philippians 2:5-11, we read this: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In giving Jesus the name Lord, the name that is above all names, God gave him everything that goes with it, which includes all authority. So Jesus has all authority on heaven, on earth, and under the earth. So if Jesus has all that authority, it makes perfect sense that if he says something, we should hear his words and put them into practice.

A common issue in our culture is that we allow Jesus to be our Savior, but we don’t let him be our Lord. We want our own authority and autonomy. We want to have the final say in what we do and where we go. Last week many of us came forward for prayer; part of our request is an admission that we can’t do it on our own. In fact, the very catalyst for us coming forward was that Sharon heard and obeyed when the Holy Spirit told her to invite anyone forward!

So maybe your life isn’t built on the firm foundation of the authority of Jesus Christ. Maybe you’ve tried to build on your own sand. Jesus calls you today to build on him. And he is the firm foundation that will never be shaken.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Check it Out

Matthew 7:15-23

Last week we finished 2013 with Jesus’ words: ask, seek, and knock, for whoever asks, receives, whoever seeks, finds, and whoever knocks will have the door opened. This should be our top priority for 2014: communicate with God. God is never bothered when we communicate our desires to him. Sometimes we’ll end up wrestling with God, but that is a good thing. Spoiler alert: God always wins those wrestling matches!

If you are reading along at home, the next passage is the one in which Jesus differentiates between the narrow road and the broad road and the wide and small gates  – the weird and the culturally normal. We went into great depth on that concept and into that passage in the series “Weird” based on Craig Groeschel’s book. Because we spent seven weeks on this passage and what it means in our lives, I’m skipping it this time, and we’re going straight into Matthew 7:15-23.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been focusing on motives and on the condition of the heart, and this passage is no different. Jesus starts out going after false prophets. Prophecy is one of those areas that is confusing to our culture. We think of the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Elijah, calling out Israel or Judah for her sins. Perhaps we even think of John the Baptist, calling people to repentance. However, since so many of us equate prophecy with foretelling – in other words, predicting the future – it can be confusing to read something like this. It can be confusing because not many people are trying to tell the future these days, and most of us can pretty easily and readily pick out the kooks from among them. But what makes it more confusing is that prophecy doesn’t need to be so narrowly defined as “predicting the future.” Prophecy also includes revelation from divine inspiration. In other words, any time someone purports to speak on behalf of God, it is, to some extent, prophecy.

Jesus goes after false prophets. In the Old Testament, the litmus test for a prophet was simple. If your prophecy was one hundred percent true, then you were a true prophet. If you predicted something wrong, or it didn’t come true, then you were a false prophet. Pretty simple and straightforward. All or nothing.

Jesus warns his followers to watch out for false prophets. They look really good; they blend in with the crowd, but they are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. Recently I have heard a lot about outsiders attacking Christians. In many places around the world, especially in Muslim countries, Christian persecution is at a fever pitch. In our own country, I have heard the phrase “war on Christmas” where it’s becoming less and less acceptable to call on the name of Jesus in certain places. Atheists seem to proliferate in the relative anonymity of the internet, and even our own county has not been free from this.

This, however, is not what Jesus is talking about. He is not taking on “outsiders” attacking Christians. He is talking about church people. There are times when the false prophet is the church leader. It is honestly a difficult thing preparing and delivering a sermon – not just because public speaking is one of the top fears in our culture. The difficulty is that the sermon is when the preacher stands in front of the congregation and says, “Thus says the Lord.” We then tell you, from the Scripture, what God says.

Sometimes a pastor can be trying to do the right thing, and they see a wrong that they know needs righted, and because it’s a big enough issue, we will shape a sermon around it. A difficulty here is that sometimes, in order to address the wrong, scripture has to be bent. Not thrown aside, but just bent a little, to fit it to the situation. Again, this is sometimes done with the best of motivation. So it gets used out of context… L

Other times, we pastors get caught up on our own hobby-horse or pet sin. I have seen this a lot recently. I have pastor friends who run the gamut of theological expression, from extremely conservative to extremely liberal. I sometimes hear some, um, interesting viewpoints from some of them. One friend is a universalist, which means he believes if God is love, then God wouldn’t allow anyone to go to Hell. So the dilemma is: do I go with my gut, or do I go with the Bible? (I’ll give you a hint – there is a right answer. Sometimes I don’t like what the Bible says, like when it says I’m supposed to forgive those who wrong me and love my enemies, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong).

Because the leader is often the most educated person in the church, theologically, anyway, he or she can sometimes sow doubt and confusion. And when we do that while we purport to speak for God, we end up being false prophets. This is why Acts 17:11 describes the believers in Berea as “of noble character.” [Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness ad examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)] Instead of simply accepting what the preacher says, they consistently examine the scripture.

Though I have a seminary degree, there is no reason why I should be the only one in a church who knows the Bible. One of the most disappointing moments in my entire ministry was when a beloved, faithful church member died, and I was talking to her husband, who was also a faithful church member, and I asked him if there were any scriptures that spoke to them in a special way. He told me, “I’m not like [a certain person, who taught their Sunday School class]. I don’t know the Bible like that.” So, just as an aside, if you have a favorite scripture you’d like read at your funeral, write it down and stick it in your Bible. If you don’t have a favorite, get one!

But the point here is that every one of us has the responsibility to know the scripture. We are without excuse. Check what I say with the Bible. If it doesn’t match up, the Bible isn’t the one that is wrong. Don’t allow yourself to be led astray by a slick-talking preacher with an agenda.

But pastors with agendas are not the only false prophets. Remember how I defined prophecy earlier? Prophecy is revelation from divine inspiration – when people purport to speak for God. So the false prophet does not have to be the pastor or church leader. This is another reason why all of us, as Christians, absolutely must know our scriptures. There’s an old song lyric that says: If the Bible doesn’t back it, it seems quite clear; perhaps it was the Devil who whispered in your ear!

The sad thing is that there are people in churches who have agendas, and false prophets, in this passage, are those who appear on the surface to be something they are not. Every church seems to have at least one person like this: they come across as sunshine and roses, but they are poison. Jesus goes so far as to call them wolves, and, if you know sheep, you’ll know that wolves are the ferocious enemy of the sheep. I remember cartoons with wolves wearing sheep costumes to trick the sheep, but the picture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing is nothing to laugh at.

They look the part. They say all the right things. But inwardly, they are predators. I could tell you stories, but I don’t know how to do so without falling into gossip. Suffice it to say, I have first-hand experience with wolves in the church.

What it boils down to is this: Jesus is once again talking about hypocrites of the most dangerous kind: the ones who look right from the outside, but there is something wrong. Again, these are not people outside the church; they are church people. If you want to know what someone is all about – if you want to know if they are false prophets or if they speak clearly for God, Jesus gives the formula. Now, there are some people who have a high degree of spiritual discernment, and they seem to just know. Funny how sometimes when someone is deep in sinful behavior, they don’t want to have anything to do with these discerning people, because they know that that person knows. But for others who don’t have that kind of discernment, Jesus tells his followers how to figure out if someone is a sheep or a wolf.

Check it out. Look at what they do. They may really look the part. They might really seem to know the Bible, and they might talk a big game, but the proof of it is how they behave. Not just in a one-off, because anyone can pretend to be good for a moment, but what are their regular behavioral patterns?

Jesus says that we can recognize a tree by its fruit. You might not be able to tell by other things, but if the fruit is good, so is the tree. The ultimate test of the truth is in what we do, not in our claims or pretentions.

Today is Epiphany Sunday, when we celebrate the Wise Men following the star to find Jesus. Most of us know the story of the Magi from the east who came to Jesus, bearing gifts. But did you know that they illustrate the concept Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount?

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written…” (Matthew 2:1-5)

Commentaries agree that the Magi, called “wise men” or “three kings” were not even Jewish. Many even believe they were Zoroastrian priests from what is now Iran. Whatever the case, they provide a stark contrast with the leadership in Judea. Herod was of Edomite descent, so even though he practiced Judaism, the Jews of the time, especially the Pharisees didn’t consider him a true Jew. But he wasn’t the only one disturbed; the Bible tells us “all Jerusalem” was disturbed. Now, if I said, “All Washington DC is a mess” you wouldn’t take that to mean all of the people there; you would understand I am talking about our country’s leadership. The President and the Congress. So “all Jerusalem” would also entail the leadership of the nation, and the Magi got them all worked up. Verse 4 says that Herod had called together the chief priests and teachers of the law. Here is the ironic thing: they obviously knew all of the prophecies about the Messiah. They knew where the Messiah would be born. They looked the part and knew their material, yet it was the outsiders, the Magi from the east, who were really seeking Jesus, the Messiah.

These leaders were exactly the type of false prophets against whom Jesus was speaking. They would certainly have been the type to have said, “Lord, Lord, we did all these things in your name,” but Jesus will tell them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.”

Here is the tough part; Jesus is harsh on the hypocrite, the one who looks the part and says the right things, but he immediately follows this discourse up with the part about those who say, Lord, Lord. These are people who not only look the part, but they have been busy all along. But their hearts are not right with God; righteousness means being in right relationship with God. Being in right relationship with Jesus is of absolute importance; true righteousness is inevitable for every true follower of Jesus, but it is absolutely impossible for frauds.

And if we are in right relationship with Jesus, we will necessarily do right actions. This is why James can write that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

Jesus has given his followers the task of watching out for the wolves within the congregation, the false prophets, those whose actions do not match their words, but I have another warning: beware that you don’t become one of the false prophets. As I was preparing this message, I realized that we as Christians tend to talk a lot and sometimes our fruit does not match our talk. We have a purpose statement: We exist to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Are we actually doing this? We didn’t baptize anyone this past year. We had no new professions of faith. It is time to turn this around. As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to make disciples. Whose life are you pouring yours into? Where are you having spiritual conversations? Who are you praying for regularly?