Sunday, October 30, 2016

Critical Church: Sermon on Matthew 7:13-23

Back to the Sermon – the Greatest Sermon. Jesus has been teaching us from the mountain for the past thirteen weeks now. He's inviting us to the kingdom. He's inviting us to be the sort of people ready for the kingdom. He wants to make us a church filled with the Spirit – a people who get to the Law's goal of love and life because we submit to the Spirit's work in our hearts before the rules can even direct us with all their do's and all their don't's. 

He wants to make us a church that craves the kingdom of God and his righteousness above all else, and are willing to topple idols like popularity, wealth, and security in order to live for him. He wants us to clear our eyes of anything that gets in the way of seeing clearly how to worship God and serve those around us. He wants to teach us how to depend on God, how to live by faith, how to see with his hope and burn with his love. We need a righteousness, a way of living, that sums up everything in the Law and the Prophets. And that means loving God with all we are and loving our neighbor like we love ourselves – and that means to treat our neighbors, even our enemies, the way we'd be treated in a better world (Matthew 7:12).

And now Jesus is wrapping up his great sermon. He's the New Moses. God used the Old Moses to lay out his will in the Law, and then give the people choices. There are two ways they can go: either live the way he said, or live some other way – and which other way doesn't really matter, because that's a broad road. There's the narrow way, the first way: “If you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth … if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or the left, to go after other gods to serve them” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 14).

That's the narrow way. But then there's the broader, easier way: “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15) – in other words, this broad road leads to destruction. 

And then Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and good, or death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you will live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15-19). But they had to choose.

And so must we. So it's no surprise when Jesus, the New and Greater Moses, wraps up his New Torah, his new instruction for a new kingdom-ready people, in sort of the same way. Jesus also tells us to choose between two roads. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Two roads. One is a thoroughfare – wide, pleasant, scenic. There are lots of fun stops along the way. Plenty of tourist attractions. Looks like the perfect place for a road trip. And there are more lanes than you can count, and there's tons of room at the on-ramp. But the destination isn't good. It's even worse than New Jersey. It's destruction. Death. Hell. And Jesus tells the crowd on the mountainside, “Most of your neighbors are on that road.” That's a shocking thing to say. But it was the truth. The easy road with the wide gate is popular; it's trendy; it's got something for everyone.

Not so with the other road. It winds its way up over the mountain and down through the valley. It's a one-laner. The view isn't always pretty. It's long, it's slow, it's difficult, and you will probably suffer if you take it. The on-ramp isn't easy to squeeze through; it's very narrow. And once you're on, you'll find yourself tempted time and time again by the exit ramps, with plenty of signs advertising the many delightful attractions along the broader road. 

But there's one thing to be said in the hard road's favor, and it should be decisive: it's the only road that gets to the only destination worth the trip. It's better than the beach, better than Disneyworld, better than the Poconos or Cancun or Hawaii or the Bahamas. It's life. It's the kingdom of heaven. The very presence of God, with blessings and treasures galore. There's only one way there, and there's only one gate leading onto the road: and Jesus Christ and his offer of costly grace are that gate onto the challenging road of discipleship. It may not be an easy road. But if you don't want to end up burning in the bottomless ditch, it's the road you want to take.

This is vital! This is important! And Jesus wants to warn us that not everybody is going to lead us safely down the narrow road. You can't listen to just anyone and everyone. Some will steer you wrong. Yes, even in the church, there are counterfeits, impostors. At first glance, they may look great. They may look like perfect examples; they may look like ideal models; they may have all the trappings of religion, or they might entice with what the world finds valuable. Paul had to deal with some like that. He sarcastically called them “super-apostles” – the celebrity preachers of his day, who came to town and wowed the people with their razzle-dazzle (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).

Jesus just calls them “false prophets,” and he wants us to be on the lookout. Not paranoid. Vigilant. We shouldn't see every sheep as a wolf, but we shouldn't be content with the outward trappings of a wool costume, either. Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). On the outside, they pretend to be teachers of the truth, faithful to God or to Christ, friendly and supportive of all real seekers. And they may look so cuddly, so fluffy. But as bad as a sheep bite can be, it's got nothing on the sharp fangs and fierce jaws of a hungry wolf, slipping in unnoticed to tear the sheep apart and drag them away.

The Old Testament has a lot to say about false prophets. They pretended to speak for God, but they really didn't. They tried to give the people an easier message to swallow – or they tried to discourage the people when they needed to hear joy. They tried to divert the people from the road God had set before them. The New Testament has plenty to say about false prophets, too. It says there will be a lot of them (Matthew 24:11; 1 John 4:1). It says many will be popular (Luke 6:26). Some will dazzle us with lots of flash and power (Matthew 24:24). Revelation portrays a false prophet assisting the beast – John probably means the corrupt religious establishment in Jerusalem and elsewhere, endorsing the worst pretenses of Roman power.

Moses already gave us key ways to recognize false prophets. Someone who tries to lead us to any god other than God as he's revealed himself – that person is a false prophet, no matter what other credentials he's got. “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass, and if he says, 'Let us go after other gods,' which you have not known, 'and serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. … You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 13:1-4).

The same goes for anyone who points to the right God but misuses and abuses his name to bolster what they're saying that just ain't so. Like God said through Moses, “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?' – when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Any prophet, any teacher, any leader, anybody at all who spreads a fraudulent angle on God, is false. Any prophet, any teacher, any leader, anybody at all who brings a different gospel, is false. Anyone who twists the faith into something unrecognizable – that's false right there. And it's everywhere. For her entire life, the church has been plagued by heresies – false ways of thinking that were so dangerous, they led people astray. They offered a phony God, a phony Christ, a phony Bible, a phony gospel, or they got just plain kooky.

The ancient Docetists said that Jesus wasn't really human, wasn't really flesh and blood; he just looked like it, like a hologram, because bodies are icky and bad. The ancient adoptionists said that Jesus hadn't always been the Son of God; he was a man God adopted, just like the rest of us. Marcion said that the God of the Old Testament was a bad guy, and his scriptures were false, so we should get rid of them, and Jesus had come to teach us about a different god. The Cainite Gnostics went further and said that, if the Old Testament God is the bad guy, then his enemies like Cain must've been the heroes, and we should be more like them.

The Patripassians said that Jesus was the same person as the Father, and that when he prayed, he was just talking to himself, and the whole thing was a great game of charades. Arius taught that Jesus was a second god, the Father's first creation before the world; and some of his followers admitted that meant that even Jesus didn't really understand God's essence. Nestorius taught that Jesus was really two people, one being the divine Word and the other being the man Jesus; and so for anything we see Jesus do, we have to decide if it's the God or the man doing it. Eutychus taught the opposite: that in Jesus, deity and humanity became fused and mixed together into one new nature.

And throughout the ages, plenty of systems have kept twisting around Jesus and the Bible. You've got Islam, which some Christians originally viewed as just another heresy – one that reduces Jesus to just a great prophet, denies he's the Son of God or God at all, says he never died for our sins, and tells us to listen to Muhammad and his message instead. 

You've got Jehovah's Witnesses, who think Arius got it basically right about Jesus being the first creation and not God at all; and they deny Christ's physical resurrection, and say that the Second Coming happened invisibly in 1914, and that most of what the New Testament says is only for 144,000 special followers, and that the only way to escape the coming end is to obey their Governing Body of leaders.

You've got Mormonism, where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three Gods among possibly infinite Gods out there, and we're just the embryo form of the same kind of exalted being, and the plan is for us to become Gods just like them, but only by going through special rituals in their temples and listening to what their prophets and apostles say, now that Joseph Smith brought the true gospel and priestly authority back to earth in these latter days – whew! 

And you've got plenty of churches these days that fall into other heresies, like thinking that Jesus is only one way to God among many, or teaching that we can pick and choose what we like and what we don't like in the Bible, or telling people that what matters is living according to their own desires – and that is all far more common than we'd like to think. Even some in the professing evangelical world have fallen into it, and make no mistake: it is heresy, and it is spread by false prophets.

And any prophet, any teacher, any leader, anybody at all who abuses God's name, is false. And sadly, you find this a lot. Maybe you remember a couple years ago, there was a radio broadcaster out in California named Harold Camping. He liked to fiddle around with numbers in the Bible and try to tell his listeners when the end was going to come. One time, he predicted Judgment Day would be September 6, 1994. Apparently, that didn't happen. Then, he said there would be a rapture on May 21, 2011, and five months later the end would come. Well, first May and then October came and went. Only afterwards did he repent and admit that his attempts to prophesy were sinful. He was a false prophet in the most obvious sense of the word – and it's no surprise that he taught that all churches had fallen away from God and that it was best to just study your Bible at home and listen to his radio broadcasts instead. That's how false prophets work – and Camping was far from alone.

How many times have you heard someone try to manipulate you – maybe they're barely aware they're doing it – by prefacing what they're saying with, “God told me...,” or, “I think what God is saying...,” or something like that? In some circles, it's dreadfully common. And I'm not telling you that everything that starts with those phrases is automatically false. But before you buy it, test it. Because there is a very real danger that it's a lie meant to manipulate, that it's a word God never really spoke, and it matters whether the voice we're hearing is God or somebody else.

So when Jesus starts talking about false prophets here, he's building on what the Law already said. But he isn't leaving it there. He's expanding it. He's folding those truths into what he's saying, but he's amping up the challenge and giving us newer and deeper ways to test. “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). When Jesus says 'fruits,' he's including teaching and truthfulness, but he's adding to it, because in the way Jesus talks, a fruitful life is about more than what we think and what we say; it's about what we do, and who we are, and why we do what we do and are who we are.

And there's a difference between real fruit, good fruit, healthy fruit, on the one hand, and fake fruit, bad fruit, diseased and rotten fruit, on the other. Some fruit is good for eating, and some isn't. Grapes I like; little berries on thorn-bushes, not so much. “Are grapes gathered from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? So every good tree bears good fruit, and every bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree can't bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18). “Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). 

In other words, we can recognize a false prophet because, even if they point to the right God and say all the right things, they don't live this way. Their fruit doesn't bear it out. Their lives look nothing like the Sermon on the Mount. And that, too, makes them false prophets; it makes them unreliable guides; it makes them dangerous to follow, because if we lean on them and eat the fruit they give us, we'll get sick and fall off the hard and narrow road, or miss the gate entirely. We have to inspect the fruit.

That's what Martin Luther did. Today is Reformation Sunday. Four hundred ninety-nine years ago as of tomorrow, Professor Luther took a hammer, and he took a nail, and (as the story goes) he went up to the church door that doubled as the town bulletin board, and he posted a list of ideas he wanted to discuss. Because as he took a gander at the way the church around him was looking, and the way it was perverting the gospel and pretending you could buy pardon for money, he thought to himself, “This is awfully stinky fruit.” He never meant to start a revolution, not at first. He just wanted to start a conversation and help clean up a mess he at first thought was local.

And it really was a mess. The religious establishment of the time was corrupt – more than corrupt, notoriously corrupt. And Luther did not want to risk people being led down the broad and narrow road that leads to destruction – which is exactly where he saw the indulgence-sellers sending people, with dire delusions about the destination. To Luther's surprise, the corruption went to the top, and they weren't keen on the challenge. They told Luther to quit inspecting their fruit and start toeing the party line. He declined, even after they excommunicated him, even after they threatened him. In spite of his foibles and failures, he persevered to the close of his earthly pilgrimage. And his revolution of reformation didn't stop there.

To this day, that Reformation continues. Because to this day, that Reformation isn't done. We need to be reformed; we need to be pruned; we need to inspect our own fruit, just as much as the fruit of those we'd like to guide us. We can't afford to be complacent. We can't afford to lean on a false hope. And you can't rest your confidence in the things you do, no matter how impressive. No gift can ever substitute for fruit, and neither can any work that grows out of a faithless soul, which is just the wrong sort of plant in the scorched soil of sin. 

And yet the day will come, Jesus says, when people will be surprised they went down the wrong road. They thought they had all they needed! They'll say, “But Lord, but Lord, didn't we do this, and this, and this – and all in your name?” Picture it:
  • “But Lord, Lord, I was a Sunday School teacher; I was a trustee; I was a steward; I was a pastor.”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I went to church every Sunday; I put my two cents in the offering plate.”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I may not have gone to church, but I prayed at home and watched those preachers on the TV and even read the Bible sometimes!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I liked to hunt, I liked to fish, I felt close to God in the great outdoors, and I was a really decent person, and if anybody asked me if you were who you said you were, I would've said yes!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I believed all the right things; I always agreed with whatever you said!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I respected you, I called you a great teacher!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I gave money to the homeless, and I donated to all the good causes!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I stood up to the evil in society, and I was against racism and sexism and every other nasty -ism or sick -phobia, and I spoke out against oppression and fought for justice in your name!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I told them to put God back in the schools, and I voted the way I thought you wanted, and I said the Pledge of Allegiance, I supported our troops, I defended the Constitution, I was so good!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I always shared Bible verses on my Facebook page and typed 'amen' whenever the cute picture told me to!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I told everybody about you, and I always gave you credit for my success!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, people got healed when I prayed, and in everything I did, it looked like you were blessing me!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I was a Methodist, I was a Baptist, I was a Presbyterian, I was Greek Orthodox, I was Lutheran, I was Reformed, I was Catholic, I was Mennonite, I was Amish, I was Evangelical – isn't that enough, Lord... Lord?” (cf. Matthew 7:22).
And none of it will matter. Some of those things are good, even necessary; others, maybe not so necessary, maybe not even so great or so good. There will be people who stand before the Judgment Throne of God, and say all those things to Jesus. But if it doesn't come from faith, if it doesn't match truth, and if it doesn't bloom in love and look like the fruit Jesus has been describing, it isn't what he's looking for. All those defenses will be heard. And still they will hear those frightful words: “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). “Every tree that doesn't bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). 

Because not everyone who just says, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, no matter their gifts or worldly achievements or even miracles and exorcisms and prophecies; but it's only those who do the Heavenly Father's will as the Son has made it so wonderfully known – trust, follow, be fruitful (Matthew 7:21). The only right answer on that day will be, “Lord, Lord, I trust you; your grace is my only credit; and you can see the fruit that your grace worked in my life, because I trusted you and followed you.”

It's not that we're saved by works, or that we become Christians by bearing fruit. Far from it! Like Luther pointed out, “The tree is known by its fruits, but is not made by its fruits.” The fruit is the inevitable outcome of what the tree actually is. Do we really trust in Jesus as Savior? Are we really devoted to him as Lord? Those are two sides of the same coin; you can't have one without the other. If we have faith, then it will bear good fruit. If we have faith – which is an active relationship with Jesus, and with his Father through him – then that can't help but become the defining feature of our lives. If we have faith in the Jesus who gave the Sermon on the Mount, then we will long to live by it; we will learn to seek the kingdom first; we will do what we can to follow his footsteps. 

Like Luther said, fruits or works make us publicly what genuine faith in Christ has made us already in the sight of God. “Work here, work there, only cut out of it all confidence and trust, and don't put your trust in works as a god, but let them only serve your neighbor … Your confidence for your salvation must rest alone in Christ, for which you dare not trust in your works a hair's breadth.” But from that salvation, we together bear fruit that makes our salvation public and puts God's gifts to good use in patience, in mercy, in teaching, in charity and all kindness.

And if we stay true, through the narrow gate that is Christ himself and Christ alone, walking on the hard road that too is Christ himself and Christ alone – it's all Christ, the whole Christian journey from beginning to end – then we will find ourselves in his kingdom. That's the only way. Don't let anyone lead you to another destination. Don't let anyone suggest to you a shortcut. Don't let anyone shift your eyes away from Jesus and onto himself, herself, yourself. Don't settle for a counterfeit God, a counterfeit Jesus, a counterfeit gospel, a counterfeit teacher, or a counterfeit road. Don't settle for less than what the real Jesus has been teaching you, by his own lips and by the writings of his prophets and apostles in Scripture, and by the gentle nudge of his Spirit and the witness of his Church so long as that stays faithful to what he's already said.

Don't lie down with wolves; don't be duped by thorns and thistles; don't be infected. Instead, let's be a critical church – not in the sense of seeking to tear down what's good, but in the sense of putting everything to the test, inspecting fruit, looking past the outer wool, and navigating our road wisely. “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the [one and only] founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Amen.

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