And here we are – at the close of the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached – and if we've been receiving it and putting it into practice, our lives and our life as a church can never, never, never be the same.
- Jesus has been throwing his arms open wide to the outcasts, the broken, the poor, the meek, the humble, the unsatisfied and hurting, to become children of his Father and citizens of his kingdom – a new Israel, hearing a new Moses give a new word on a new mountain, becoming a kingdom-ready church. This is the blessed life (Matthew 5:1-12).
- Jesus has been shaping us as a salty church, a shiny church – as children of God the Father, with hearts washed clean and with his Spirit in us, we flavor and brighten the world with Jesus' unique savor and Jesus' special glow (Matthew 5:13-16).
- As the greater Moses, Jesus has been opening up the Law – not canceling it out, but showing us how the Spirit leads us deeper into God's heart and leads us to love and life faster and more surely than the Law ever did – and only that Spirit gives righteousness enough for the kingdom (Matthew 5:17-20).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a conciliatory church – not only don't we commit murder or do harm to others, but we let the Spirit cure us of unrighteous anger, and we live in radical peace instead, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 5:21-26).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a chaste church – not only don't we commit adultery, but we let the Spirit cure us of lust, and we live in radical purity instead, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 5:27-30).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a contented church – instead of divorce, we do all we can to live by our commitments in marriage or in pure singleness, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 5:31-32).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a candid church – we have no need to make oaths or promises, but we let the Spirit cure us of deceit and manipulation, and we live in radical honesty instead, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 5:33-37).
- Jesus has been calling us to be what some would call a crazy church – instead of retaliation, we let the Spirit give us God's heart, and we live by radical forgiveness and radical love for our nearest neighbor and our furthest enemy, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 5:38-48).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a covert church – instead of hypocritically seeking human praise, we avoid temptations to spiritual pride and let the Spirit turn our focus to heavenly praise from God; we live in humility and anonymous good works, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 6:1-18).
- Jesus has been training us in prayer, to learn how to talk with our Father about what really matters, to his glory (Matthew 6:9-13).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a celestial church – instead of focusing on or relying on earthly treasures or wealth or property, which is so easily lost or destroyed, we let the Spirit free us from the idol of security and prompt us to invest in heavenly treasures that last eternally, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 6:19-24).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a carefree church – instead of living by anxiety over the necessities of this earthly life, we let the Spirit free us from the idol of security and lead us to seek the kingdom first, trusting the Father to supply our needs, to his glory (Matthew 6:25-34).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a clear-eyed church – instead of hypocritically setting ourselves up as judges, we let the Spirit draw our attention to our own sins, to deal with them and then to help others as equals so far as they'll let us, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 7:1-6).
- Jesus has been calling us to be a craving church – instead of contenting ourselves with a mediocre life and mediocre pleasures, we let the Spirit fill us with true hunger and thirst for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and we cry out ceaselessly and confidently in prayer, to the glory of God our Father (Matthew 7:7-11).
- Jesus has been showing us that the only hope for life is to fulfill the Law through love – loving God with all we have, and loving our neighbors and enemies like we love our own selves, even to the point of treating them as we see ourselves treated in God's kingdom (Matthew 7:12; cf. 22:37-40).
- Jesus has been calling us, finally, to be a critical church – instead of following just any teacher, we let the Spirit train us to examine teachings and inspect fruit, so that we stay on the hard and narrow road that leads to life, not the easy and broad road that leads elsewhere.
Because Jesus, in all his teaching, has invited us, commanded us, to be this kind of church; he came to create no other. And there are really only two options – the narrow gate versus the wide gate; the hard road versus the easy road; heeding true prophets like Christ, his apostles, and his faithful undershepherds, versus false prophets like so many teachers and leaders today; being Christ's sheep versus Satan's goats and wolves; basing our plea on faith and fruit, versus anchoring our credentials on our gifts and achievements (Matthew 7:13-23).
And now Jesus tells us this is foundational – literally! He invites the crowd to picture a scene – and it's not hard for them, because they've all done it. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And 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” (Matthew 7:24-27).
For a villager in Galilee, it was hardly unheard-of to build their own house. They wanted to build as close as they could, usually, to the riverbed, so that when rain did come, it would supply them and their crops with water – that only makes sense. But the rain came with peril, as Jesus points out. So it matters how you build. Houses tended to be built during the summer, and the trouble was, at first glance, it might not be easy to tell what was firm rock and what was just hardened clay.
To get down to the rock during summer, you had to dig. You will get there – there's always rock under the soil, maybe an inch down on the hilltop, maybe ten feet down in the valley – but you have to dig. And the clay is very hard. The builder spends days, weeks, toiling under the hot sun if he wants to get to the rock. It's backbreaking work – you know what that's like. Galilee had no backhoes. This is manual labor, and it's exhausting, sweaty, perilous work. You almost can't blame the foolish builder for wanting to stop digging – for rationalizing that the clay is sturdy enough. Just build it, already! Or so he thinks, if he's foolish. So he thinks, if he lets the sweat and the sun anchor his mind too much in the here-and-now, and not enough in the more important there-and-then.
It won't always be summer. Winter is coming. For Galilee, that's the rainy season. Not a good time to build, but a very good time to have built – if what's built is built to last. As summer draws to a close, you may not be able to see a difference between the wise man's house and the foolish man's house. They both look fine. Both builders are quite satisfied. But not for long. The rainy season begins. A hard storm comes. It gushes through the river bed. The water level rises and soaks through the ground.
The rock stays firm – that's what rocks do. But the rest of the ground gets soft – that's what clay does. Beneath the foolish man's house, the clay softens and shifts. And given that the walls are made from uncut stones, with mud for mortar, some start popping out of the shifting walls. And the wind beats on the house, and the holes widen, and the foolish man's house collapses – and he either dies in it, or gets swept away in the flood. The wise man may get a bit wet, but his house is on the rock. His foundation doesn't shift. His walls stay firm. He keeps a roof over his head. He lives to see another sunrise.
When the storm is raging, even the foolish man wishes he'd dug deeper in the summer, even under the hot sun, no matter how hard it had been. In the storm, it's obvious. But wisdom is planning ahead for a storm you may not yet see. Wisdom is planning now for the storm by following Jesus and his words. And Jesus isn't saying his words are easy to follow. They may be backbreaking labor for us. But we all have to build a home somewhere, and it's wiser to do it on him and his teaching with difficulty than anywhere else with ease – because what's built on him is built to survive the storm.
One thing that jumps out to me is how audacious this is to say. When Jesus says “these words of mine,” he puts the emphasis squarely on 'mine.' There's no distance between Jesus and this message. You cannot accept the teaching without accepting the Teacher, and you cannot respect the Teacher without accepting and following the teaching.
Throughout history, many have tried to do just that. Some people have tried to say that they like the Sermon on the Mount, they think it's the high point of ethics, it's a wonderful code of living – but they don't see how it centers on Jesus. This message is wisdom for disciples. The Sermon on the Mount would be nonsense if Jesus were not who he says he is. It makes sense only because Jesus is the Son of God sent to die on the cross and rise again to open the gates of God's kingdom and invite sinners to repent, believe, and join the Father's family.
The Sermon on the Mount is explicitly Christian truth. And it depends entirely on who Jesus is. That's what makes it so audacious. This parable – there was another parable a lot like it, told by a rabbi born a generation or so later named Elisha ben Abuyah. And Rabbi Elisha told a story a lot like this. He said that a person who studies God's word, the Law, and then does the good works in it, is like a person who builds with stone first and then bricks, so that even when a flood comes, it stays standing. But a person who studies God's word, the Law, and doesn't do the good works found there, is like a person who builds with clay bricks first and then stones on top: “even when a little water gathers,” he said, “it overthrows them immediately” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 24A). What Rabbi Elisha said about God's word, Jesus insists applies equally to his own words in this Sermon – he's putting them on par with anything Israel ever heard from God.
This is not a pretty message from a nice teacher. This is not a list of helpful suggestions. This is a message from a man who ranked his words equal with God's – and the only way that isn't lunacy or blasphemy is if Jesus really is the Son of God, the Word made flesh.
He is inseparable from his teaching, no matter how often we try to divorce Jesus as Savior and Redeemer from Jesus as Lord and Teacher. You can't drive a wedge between him and what he says – you can't really practice his teaching without receiving his saving grace, and you can't look to him as Savior without committing yourself to his teaching. His identity, his teaching – it's all him, and he is the Rock. He is the foundation stone the Father laid for us in Zion, and whoever believes and builds on him will not be shaken in the storm (Isaiah 28:16).
We cannot claim to be building on the Rock when we divorce his person and his teaching, whichever one it is we claim to be clinging to. Jesus is who he says he is. And the difference between wisdom and foolishness, between survival and destruction, between life and death, comes down to this Man and these words of his. We cannot afford to build on any other ground. Nothing else is safe. Christ alone, when all else is sinking – that is solid ground.
We dare not put our trust in princes – in politicians of any party, of celebrities of any fame – or in our might or power. Salvation's found in none of them (Psalm 146:3; Zechariah 4:6). We dare not follow any guru, we dare not subscribe to any philosophy, we dare not join any faction – only build upon Christ the Solid Rock. A new covenant with God through Christ is the only hope, and anything else is a “covenant with death” (Isaiah 28:15, 18). All other ground is sinking sand.
Sometimes, we're tempted to be half-Christian. We want to believe in Jesus, but we don't want to believe Jesus. Or we like what he says on one thing, but we don't like what he says on another.
Maybe we find it easy to obey what he says about adultery and divorce, but we think we're exempt from what he says about not storing up treasure on earth, or about not judging others, or about loving those who hate us.
Maybe we can handle loving our enemies, but we think examining teachings or inspecting fruit is just beyond our reach.
Maybe we practice what he says on prayer, but when he tells us to let our yes be yes and our no be no, we see no problem with a cherry-picking the facts.
Or maybe it's prayer we don't want to do, or maybe we want to cling to our lust, our anger, our resentment, our manipulation, our judgmentalism, our wealth, our property, our security blanket, our so-called 'rights,' our lifestyle, our idols.
Or maybe we do try to follow what he says, until he tells us to gather together in his name – because it's just so early, we say.
In so many ways, we're tempted to be half-Christian. We want to build some parts of our life on the rock, but other parts of our life on the sandy ground around it. We like to split the difference.
In a Jerusalem suburb twenty-five years ago – August 28 was the date – there was an apartment building that suddenly tilted to the west, without even a little warning. Twenty-eight families had to be evacuated from their homes. And when geotechnical consultants investigated the cause of failure for this fine model of modern engineering, do you know what the report said? The southeastern corner was built on the rock – on limestone – but the rest of the building was built on clay and gravel. So when the sewage pipes started leaking, the clay grew soft, the load shifted, the foundation columns “failed catastrophically” – and then, worst of all, lawyers had to get involved!
The serious point, though, is that the whole problem was caused by building only partly on the rock, and resting partly on mere clay. A corner of the building was well-founded, but it was only a corner; and, sooner or later, the unequal parts couldn't stay standing tall together. Ask yourself: Is your life like that? Is a part of it on the rock, but not all of it? If so, you need to shift to one foundation, just one, just the Rock, just Jesus and what he's done and what he's said.
It isn't enough to look at the rock. It isn't enough to appreciate the qualities of the rock. It isn't enough to understand the rock's mineral composition. It isn't even enough to stand on or over the rock. Jesus is talking about building on the rock – founding your home there, deep down. You need to rely on the rock in practice. It isn't enough to read about Jesus. It isn't enough to like Jesus. It isn't enough to study theology and be able to somehow explain things about Jesus. It isn't enough to visit Jesus in times of need, or to hear him on Sunday and do our own thing on Monday. It isn't enough to call him “Lord, Lord,” without knowing and loving him and bearing his fruit. A construction project has to begin.
See, this crowd that day in Galilee, gathered on the mountain slope beneath where Jesus was sitting – they had two real options how to respond to this sermon. They could do what we often do. They could go up and shake Jesus' hand and say, “Good sermon,” and then go back to life as usual – not really think about it, not listen to it, not let it up-end their nice village lives. I've been there; I've heard plenty of sermons and reacted just that way, same as any of us. Jesus is warning us that doing that now, with this power and truth, is not going deep enough, not getting to the steady rock.
We cannot afford to passively hear and not actively respond. We cannot afford to let the message fly in one ear and out the other. We cannot even afford to take notes, stick 'em in a binder, and move on. We must build on it. We must take practical action to put it into practice, all of it, through the Spirit Jesus breathes into us here.
And maybe you'll ask, “But why? Why is it so important to be built on the rock?” You probably aren't asking that, actually – at least, I hope you already know the answer. But some of your neighbors might not. Some of your neighbors, and yes, maybe some of us, act as though it doesn't matter what the foundation looks like, as long as the rest of the architecture is pretty. When the skies are sunny and the air is calm, all those practical questions don't seem important to us.
The problem is, the skies ain't always sunny. The air ain't always calm. There are storms in this life. If this year has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that. This building, the one we're in right now, had to weather a very literal storm in February, and our lives have been rocked by turmoil ever since. There are storms in this life, and if our foundation is shallow, all the shelter we build is at risk of being swept down river.
But even if the skies of this life were nothing but sunshine, even if no cloud ever entered our view, we'd have a problem. Because Jesus is making us ready for another storm – the storm that will be all around when we stand before God's throne and listen to that final verdict. And Hurricane Matthew, with all its devastation, has nothing on that. And the storm of God's presence will make one thing, and one thing above all else, perfectly clear. It will expose every foundation. Everything built on this Rock will survive. Everything else will be swept away. You do not want to be swept away to destruction. You want to live on the Rock to see God's new day, you and all your house.
There is only one reaction to Jesus and his sermon that makes sense. There is only one reaction that is wise – he said it, not me. And that reaction is to build on his solid rock, and not the shifting sand of our shallow heart or the muddled clay of our addled minds, not the pretenses of politicians or the satisfaction of human desires. But build securely on Christ the Solid Rock. Build entirely there, trusting in sunshine and storm.
For three chapters now, Jesus has been spelling out the blueprints. We may have to dig through plenty of layers of our own sin and baggage to reach bedrock, but there's no other way – no other way than to “trust and obey.” That goes for our own lives, and it goes for our life together as a church. We have to put the whole sermon into practice together – and be a complete church. May the Lord fill us with relentless determination to do nothing less, so that after all storms are past, we can celebrate together in the eternal sunrise of a new creation. Amen.