Sunday, November 27, 2016

Serve Jesus Like Santa: The Window

Yes, Church, there is a Santa Claus. No, he may not look and act like you think. But he does exist; don't let anyone tell you different. Santa Claus is real. But he may not look like you think. Take away the sleigh and his eight tiny reindeer. Get rid of the boots and the fur suit. Shrink that belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. Ditch the cheeks like roses and the nose like a cherry. Turn back the clock, from Santa Claus to Sinter Klaas to where it all started: St. Nicholas. Not a “jolly old elf.” Not a personification of the holiday, like some “Father Christmas.” A saint, a real man, anchored in history, with a birthday, a family, a story, different than what we've done with him.

The truth is, the man on the Christmas cards in the big red suit would be horrified to learn that there are people who honor him, or some version of him, as the central figure of Christmas. He would be aghast to think that anyone would pit him against Jesus Christ and tell you to choose him as a nice, safe, secular Christmas man. The real Santa Claus would hate that thought. He didn't want to stand in our spotlight, not like that. The holiday isn't about him, and he'd be the first to tell you that. He may be nice, maybe, but he's not safe and he's not secular. Santa Claus versus Christ? No falser words could ever be said!

Because the truth is, Santa Claus is a pastor. Yes, you heard that right. Santa Claus is a pastor. And dear old Pastor Nicholas, our Jolly Old St. Nick, loved Jesus – loved him with every fiber of his being – and he still does. Santa's entire life has been about serving Jesus. He would run like Dasher, he'd fly like Donner and Blitzen, to kneel beside the manger. Santa says that the most important thing you can do with Christmas is to see that it's all about Jesus and act accordingly. 

As we get ready for Christmas, Santa himself would want us to serve Jesus. So for the next few weeks, we're going to give Santa Claus a fair hearing. We're going to learn his story – the real one, not Germanic folklore or Clement Clark Moore's poem – to see better how we, too, can serve Jesus – like Santa did.

To find the start of that real story, we need to cross nearly 1750 years of time and a third of the way 'round the earth. Way across the ocean blue, on the southwestern tip of the land we call Turkey today, sat a once-great city called Patara. It stood there in New Testament times – the Apostle Paul, on his trip back to Jerusalem, changed ships there. It was one of the great trade centers of Lycia, famed for two things. One: it had a stunning lighthouse. And two: for six months out of the year, the Greek god Apollo made his winter home there, and so the local oracle was the place pagans went to get the inside scoop. It was a thoroughly pagan place, in Paul's time.

And the same was still true over two centuries later, when there lived a man and his wife, their names unknown, who were one of the town's few Christian households. They weren't quite so vulnerable as some of the rest; they, in fact, were rather wealthy. They'd prospered, possibly as ship owners or being otherwise involved in the trades. They could have let their gold, their silver, their house and all that was in it, distract them from what really mattered. But they didn't. They'd made a commitment to Jesus Christ with their lives, and they didn't shy away from that.

They lived in the middle of a pagan city, full of idol temples and the smell of heathen sacrifices, with pilgrims swarming in half the year to get advice from demons at the oracle. It was not an easy place to be a Christian. The gospel was not a comfortable fit there, the way we too easily think it is here. And you almost wouldn't blame people in a place like that for deciding they didn't want to bring children into that sort of world.

But they had faith. And so one day, around the year 270, that man and that woman welcomed into their family one child – one, and no more. He broke the mold, as it were. And this couple gave him a rather unusual name – well, it was unusual then; but the boy grew up to make it popular. And that name was Nikolaos. It's a Greek name; it means, “victory of the people.” When his parents surveyed the pagan culture all around them, when they reflected on the growth of their little church as it waxed and waned through the years, they were convinced that the real victory wasn't in some great triumph of Caesar, nor in some twist of fortune, nor in some whispered secret of Apollo, nor in a windfall of prosperity. No, the real victory was belief in the gospel. And the gospel is for all people. One day, it would spread throughout Patara and throughout all of Lycia and beyond, and that would be the real victory of the people. And so, faithful in hope for that day, thus they named their baby boy Nikolaos.

Nikolaos didn't necessarily have an easy childhood. His parents were relieved he survived infancy – not that there was anything wrong with him, but just because, in those days, one out of every two or three kids didn't pull through. He grew up in the lap of privilege, with most all the luxuries his parents could afford. He was raised on a diet of fish, grapes, figs, olives, and whatever grains the ships brought to and fro. Most important, he was raised on a healthy spiritual diet. His isn't a story of coming to the gospel late in life; he was taught the faith from an early age. And as far back as anyone could remember, he had a laser-like focus on the Christian life and its ways.

In the days of his childhood, no one heard the word 'church' and thought of a building. 'Church' – ekklesia – just meant the people, the people of God. It had been passed down from the New Testament, and really, it was – and is – a bold word to use. See, in the Greek world, an ekklesia was the town council, the assembly of citizens empowered to make all the important political decisions. The apostles said that that's what the meetings of believers were – they were the true centers of all local politics that really mattered, the politics of God's kingdom. A shocking thing to hear, and still shocking in the days of Nikolaos' childhood, when the local ekklesia looked a bit like a very strange social club and met in private houses – maybe even his parents' house.

And from little on up, whether at his house or a neighbor's, Nikolaos would have met with other Christians each Sunday before sunrise, and maybe sometimes after nightfall, for worship, for fellowship, and for celebrating a holy meal of bread and wine. Sometimes, they met outside town at the local cemetery, to remember the martyrs – not martyrs from long ago, but people they and their parents had known. Like Leo, who had been one of their own – Nikolaos' parents surely knew him personally – but one day, before Nikolaos was born, Leo grew angry at the paganism in the heart of town. So he marched into the heart of the city, to the Temple of Fortune, where people burned candles and made little votive offerings to the god in hopes of improving their luck. And Leo had stormed into the temple, smashing the offerings and toppling candles, in protest. And so he lost his head. It was his tomb where Nikolaos and his parents went, every year on the anniversary of Leo's heavenly birthday, to celebrate communion in his honor.

While the fellowship of believers raised Nikolaos in the teachings of the faith and the way Christians should live, he meanwhile got the best schooling his parents could provide. Like most boys, he went through primary schooling between the ages of seven and twelve; but unlike most, he as a son of privilege learned the classics of Greek literature, all the myths and plays and epics, in grammar school until he was about eighteen. 

 Growing up in his teenage years, with his peers enjoying entertainment at the theater and various other then-sordid sorts of amusement, Nikolaos could have been tempted, like most teens are. But his parents had warned him from his infancy not to be seduced by the temptations of the world. And he listened to all that they taught him, choosing to live his young life in a Christian way. He was determined to be holy.

But then his idyllic and privileged home life was shattered. Throughout his youth, a plague had spread throughout the countryside of all Lycia, reaching even down to the coast and its beautiful, broad beaches. Plagues don't care about rich or poor. You can't bribe them. And the best medicine money can buy is no guarantee even now – how much less then, when doctors were as likely to harm as to heal? Maybe the plague is what did it. But we know that, when Nikolaos was in his late teens, his parents' earthly pilgrimage ended. Leaving him, in terms of natural family, all alone.

And that's how, as a young man, Nikolaos became the heir of the whole estate. He may have been fatherless, he may have been motherless, but he was far from penniless. He had plenty of gold, plenty of silver, and plenty of property at his disposal. But his parents were gone. So what would he do? How would he find his way in the world? He could do just about anything he wanted – but what was right? Those were the questions on his mind at the ripe age of eighteen. Think back for a moment to when you were that age. If you had been left alone, but given a considerable fortune, what would your next step have been?

Well, I'll tell you how Nikolaos responded. He remembered that, even with no father on earth, he still had a Father in heaven. And so Nikolaos began, all throughout this day and the next day and the day after that, to get down on his knees and pray. He told God that he and his life and all his belongings were at God's disposal, and he was ready to do whatever God wanted. 

And then he turned to one of his family's prize possessions – a scroll or a codex, with the Greek translation of Psalms. And he started to read aloud to himself, in the privacy of his home. And he started finding lines like, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:8, 10). And that's exactly what he began to pray.

And then young Nikolaos kept reading. “If riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). Those words got him thinking. His riches had certainly increased. He had more than he knew what to do with. But he couldn't afford to surrender his heart to them. He couldn't afford to be tied to his gold. He had to keep wealth at a healthy distance. It said so, right there on the page, in those words penned by David over a thousand years ago. Nikolaos could have dismissed it as irrelevant, as a relic from a simpler time. But he knew better. He felt God speaking the words to his heart, probing at the depths of his soul.

Nikolaos set aside the Book of Psalms, and he picked up what comes next: the Book of Proverbs. And there, too, he began to read. “Let not mercy and truth forsake you, but bind them around your neck: so shall you find favor and honest things in the sight of the Lord and of men” (Proverbs 3:3-4). “A merciful man does good to his own soul” (Proverbs 11:17). There it was again. 'Mercy.' Nikolaos could feel God underlining that word to him. What does 'mercy' look like?

Nikolaos kept reading. “God loves a cheerful giver. … He that has pity on the poor shall be maintained, for he has given of his own bread to the poor” (Proverbs 22:8-9). There! That's mercy! Mercy is care for the poor – not out of some public storehouse, but from his own sustenance, his own bread, to care for the poor cheerfully by giving to them. That's mercy! 

Nikolaos read onward: “Deliver them that are led away to death, and redeem them that are appointed to be slain” (Proverbs 24:11). Nikolaos understood what God was telling him. Some of the poverty he saw around him led to death – not just death of the body, but death of the soul. And it was right there in the scriptures: God wanted Nikolaos to use his wealth to rescue the poorest of the poor.

Some of the most respected Christians of the age, like the desert hermit Antony far away in Egypt, had once been as rich as Nikolaos. But they had given away all their wealth to all and sundry – not being intentional in their giving, just getting it out of their hands like a lump of burning coal. Nikolaos didn't want to burn his hands with money either, but he wasn't the impulsive type. He'd read the whole way through. He wanted his giving to matter – to actually do good, and in fact to do the most good it could. He wanted to obey God's word in the best way – intentional, targeted, personal giving. And to do that, he needed to plan and study.

There are probably dozens or hundreds of now-forgotten stories about people whom Nikolaos found to give his money to. But one story has been remembered ever since. There was a man in the neighborhood who had once been rich – in the same class as Nikolaos and his parents, maybe. But things had taken a turn for the worse. He lost everything. And I mean everything. It was a catastrophe ripped from the pages of the Book of Job. And that man – formerly inclined toward the church – was desperate. Maybe he'd turned to pagan promises, maybe he'd taken offerings to the Temple of Fortune and cried out with tear-stained cheeks for relief. But he got none.

This man had three daughters. In the custom of that day, it was the dad's responsibility to provide his daughter with a dowry, in order to marry her off. But now he was poor. So poor that none of his daughters could have a dowry; he just couldn't afford it. And no man in town would marry a woman without one. His daughters were unmarriageable, pretty though they were. 

He struggled to even put food on the table for himself, let alone to provide for them. And there weren't a lot of options. He first did what a lot of us do when times are tough, sad to say: feeling abandoned, he turned his back on God. But then he made plans to do what a lot of us don't and can't. He would send his daughters to work the only work a single young woman really had back then – in the red-light district.

Somehow, Nikolaos found out what that family was going through. He watched the situation. He saw that it was important. Marriage is important. Nikolaos felt called to a different life personally – he knew that it wasn't in God's plan for him to ever get married. But that didn't mean marriage didn't matter. A lot of Christians in those days were starting to think it didn't. Some were adopting some really dysfunctional ideas against marriage – thinking that it was just a hindrance to spiritual life, and should be avoided. But Nikolaos knew better. He could see that marriage was important to God, even if it wasn't his own path.

But it was important, too, because if the man went through with his desperate act, it would lead to death. Not death of the body, but death of the soul, for him and maybe his daughters, too. Nikolaos began to plan. He made his list, his list of important things to value in the situation. He wanted to find a way to save these young women from that fate and meet their needs. But he also wanted to preserve their father's dignity and honor. Nikolaos knew that was important, too – not to embarrass the man or put him in awkward and humiliating circumstances; not to demean the man or treat him as just another charity case.

So, too, Nikolaos wanted to keep himself humble. He didn't want praise and honor for anything he might do to help. He remembered what Jesus said about giving in secret (Matthew 6:1-4). That was countercultural in that era, and especially among Greeks. Secret giving just wasn't something people did. If you gave to somebody outside the family, the whole point was to get a good reputation out of it. That was the trade: money for honor. It's why the rich sponsored so many public works projects: to see their names inscribed and celebrated for all generations to come. That was just the norm, even in Patara. But it wasn't what Jesus taught. And to Nikolaos, when culture and Jesus collide, it's culture that has to bend.

However long he mulled over the plan, finally Nikolaos sprang into action, before it was too late. One night, long after dark, he found the house of the family in trouble. Stealthily, he crept as close as he could on the public street. From his pocket, Nikolaos pulled a small bag. Back home, he'd stuffed it with all the gold it could take without bursting, and he'd tied the string tight. And now, in the midnight hour, he pulled back his arm and let it fly – fly, fly through the open window and into the man's house. Whether it disturbed those asleep inside, we don't know – but Nikolaos wasn't about to risk finding out. He quickly and quietly ran through the night until he was home.

Dawn came, and that father found the bag. And when he untied it, and saw the gold coins pouring out, he was astonished. Not just astonished – he was filled with joy and amazement. And as he wept with delight, he called out to God and gave thanks for the incredible provision. And he counted out the coins, and saw that it would make a fine dowry indeed. And without delay, he made arrangements for his eldest daughter's marriage – that meant a good life for her, and one less mouth to feed for him, and spared both of them from doing harm to their own souls.

After the wedding, Nikolaos saw that God had taken his good deed and used it to bless the family. So later that night, Nikolaos filled another bag with just as much gold. And what he'd done before, he did again: crept out in the night, took aim, tossed the bag through the window, ran home. Morning came, and the father saw the bag. He never expected it – not again. But it knocked him off his feet. He fell prostrate on the ground, overwhelmed and speechless, but grateful to God and wishing only that he could find out what angel God had sent to answer his unspoken prayers.

The father made arrangements for his middle daughter's marriage. And some night soon after the wedding ceremony, Nikolaos filled a third bag with coins of gold. He tied it tight. He crept once more through the night, during the quietest of hours. And there was the open window once again. He pulled back his arm. And there's the toss! The bag sailed through the air, through the window, and landed with a soft crash. But it did not, as before, go unnoticed. No, each night since the wedding, the father had kept vigil, waiting up and listening carefully for that sound. 

And so he was ready. He pounced into the street and ran after Nikolaos, whose efforts to flee were unsuccessful. The father caught up to him, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, saw his face – and recognized him. He knew Nikolaos, knew why he did it – he knew it was because Nikolaos loved Jesus and wanted to serve Jesus and do his will. And as the father fell to the ground and hugged Nikolaos by the legs and thanked him with great sobs, Nikolaos asked only one thing: to promise not to tell the public for as long as he lived. And so the father agreed. His youngest daughter was married soon thereafter, poverty was relieved, and they all returned to the faith of Jesus Christ.

This is maybe the most famous story from Nikolaos' life. It takes up about a third of his earliest biography. It shows up in art from some of the earliest portrayals of St. Nick we have. As the story kept being retold, it mutated and changed. In some versions, the bags of gold landed in the girls' shoes or stockings. And as the story spread to northern Europe, it came to climates where open windows at night just didn't connect with people. And so somebody tweaked the story even more as they retold it. It wasn't through an open window that the bags flew; no, no, the window wasn't open – the bags fell down a chimney. And ever since then, Santa in the public mind has sent his bag of presents down the chimney to bless all the children of the house.

The title of this series is, “Serve Jesus Like Santa.” And now we know what Santa did. The great thing about this story is that you don't need miraculous powers to imitate it. You don't even need to be as wealthy as he was then. You don't need great age or lots of life experience. You just need the desire to obey God and a willingness to take your own resources, the money of your own bread, and use it for mercy to those in distress – those in danger, not just of physical harm, but of being pressured into spiritual harm. 

It may take some thinking. But that's why we're together as a church, as the ekklesia here. And it's why we partner with groups like The Factory Ministries and the Together Initiative. None of us has to do it alone. We, too, can bless the children, and the rest, in this place – our Patara – where God has seen fit to raise us up. That's serving Jesus like Santa. And this season is surely about nothing less. Go and, as his Spirit makes clear to you, do likewise. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Kings Thanking the King: Sermon for Thanksgiving/Christ the King Sunday

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). That's how Psalm 137 opens. It's just nine verses long, but Psalm 137 is notoriously one of the harshest psalms in the entire Bible. Psalm 137 records the thoughts and feelings of the people of Jerusalem as they were taken far from their demolished homes by the Babylonians – dragged into captivity, exile, in a foreign and pagan land. It's a song of the oppressed, of the lowly and beaten down. The psalm has no real happiness. The people wonder how they can ever sing to God in a foreign and pagan land like this.

They feel caught in the crossfire between worldly powers, to whom they appear as grasshoppers in their eyes. It's like – did any of you ever see the classic Godzilla movies? King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and so on? The giant monsters struggle over Tokyo or some island village, but wherever it is, the people are like insignificant ants – they've got no hope to resist or even really be noticed in the chaos. That's how the exiles feel in Psalm 137. It's a dirge of sorrow and rage at the Babylonians' mistreatment of them. “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be repaid, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!” (Psalm 137:8).

That's why it's remarkable to me how the Psalter is arranged. We know that, sometime years later, the book had to be edited by someone – all these psalms, or collections of psalms, brought together and organized in a meaningful and inspired way, grouped into five books mirroring the Five Books of Moses. But it's remarkable to me that, when the editor made the call what to put after Psalm 137, he didn't follow it by more laments. He didn't tack on a series of extra protest anthems, songs to march to with angry signs. He certainly could have. He could have made an extended sequence exploring the people's sadness, their grief, their disillusionment, their thirst for vengeance. But he didn't. Instead, he followed Psalm 137 with, you guessed it, Psalm 138 – and Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving.

Psalm 138 is a song that turns things around. It focuses in on the phrase, “the kings of the earth” (Psalm 138:4). And it asks some very good questions – some questions that are perfect for looking back on Babylon with some healthy perspective. You can look around at the world and see that it's run by exemplars of popularity and prosperity. When you turn on the TV, you see successful rich people – the elites – who flaunt their power or play-act any other role to move the story forward. We live in a world of superstar celebrities, of politicians, of larger-than-life princes, of mega- this and mega- that – bigger is always better. These are the idols of our culture, and of the globe. Even in the church, we're prone to turn superstar preachers into celebrities. And in our own neighborhoods, we measure ourselves against the ones who seem to have it all together – the highest models of the lifestyle we claim to value. 

That's the sort of world we live in – of superstars global, national, and local. And this psalm asks: “Now wait, who's the real royalty here?” In a desert of strongmen like Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Nero, and all the petty tyrants and corrupt politicoes who litter the landscape of the modern age, are these the “kings of the earth” for real – the winners of the human race we're running?

The truth is, all of us go through times when we feel a lot like Psalm 137, when we can identify with those feelings, as chilling as they might be. The people around us seem successful, happy, prosperous, and powerful. And you feel anything but. You measure yourself beside your neighbor's happiness and success, and you feel hard-pressed on every side. Maybe you're lagging behind their upward mobility. Maybe you're watching everyone else at work get promoted, and there you are, left behind. Maybe your neighbors can afford shiny new cars, flat-screen TVs, vacations, and all you can do is enviously mutter, “Must be nice...,” while straining your brain to figure out how to pay the bills that just keep piling up. 

 Maybe your health is poor, and you wonder why you can't be like everyone else, happy and healthy. Maybe you've suffered a tragic loss – a spouse, a parent, a child – and you wonder how you could ever sing the songs of Zion again, because this new reality seems like a dark and foreign land, far from the Jerusalem you used to know. Whatever the reason, you feel hard-pressed on every side. And you look around, and all you can see is how low or insignificant you feel next to these so-called “kings of the earth.”

Several centuries ago, in the tiny English village of Scrooby along the River Ryton in Nottinghamshire – a village no bigger than our own White Horse – there lived a little cluster of people who knew how that felt. In the religious and political world of their day – the two couldn't be separated, nor can they now – the Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England. But some, like a little band of believers in Scrooby, thought the Puritans didn't go far enough. They were Separatists. They illegally established churches of their own, apart from the Anglican establishment. Against church and society, they gathered in the local postmaster's house, knowing that if they were discovered, they would be punished – but they had to do what they thought was right.

Sure enough, many of their number were soon under surveillance by the authorities; others were sent to prison; still others, fearful of the courts, went into hiding. It was no way to live. So they made the decision to leave England for the Low Countries, the Netherlands. They'd heard that it was a tolerant place, a land with freedom of religion, and several groups of English Separatists had already gathered there, away from the prying eyes and iron grasp of King James. It took a while to sneak passage on the ships – the Scrooby churchgoers were betrayed frequently. But they made it to Amsterdam and then to Leiden. Separatists from all over England joined them over the years that followed.

But in the Netherlands, it was hard to be English, and it was hard to earn a living. They were poor, not prosperous, in their self-imposed exile. And they thought about the future – they worried about their children losing touch with their heritage, their language, or worst of all, their faith and values – because the city was a difficult place to raise their children, with so many bad examples all around. Temptation was too much, too strong. Persecution, they'd escaped; but they knew that the cares of the world and the comforts of the culture were no less dangerous.

Through plenty of prayer, the majority of their church decided to cross the ocean in hopes of finding somewhere better. Negotiating with agents of the Virginia Company, promising to obey King James as far as God's word allowed, they received permission. Yet again, they ran afoul of money-grubbing merchant like Thomas Weston who made them a bad deal – all their houses in the New World would be company property, and they'd work six days a week for the company, and they had to take some less savory characters with them on the trip. And when the Speedwell, the boat they purchased, was sabotaged by its own captain, they had to cram onto the one that Weston chartered for them: the Mayflower.

The sabotage delayed their departure until the end of summer – September 6, 1620. Over a hundred people spent nearly two months in an area barely bigger than a school bus. But only two died, one a servant and the other a sailor, by the time they spotted land. Landing parties searched for weeks to find a place to settle, and they were gravely disappointed by a climate colder than they expected. One of the landing parties found a tall hill near a shallow harbor, and the land near it was suspiciously clear for planting – because it had been a Patuxet village wiped out a few years earlier by an epidemic.

On December 23, those able to work waded a mile through the harbor to reach shore, and soon found out what a nasty thing pneumonia is. In just weeks, over half the passengers were dead; all but four families lost at least one member; and of the eighteen married couples on board, only three remained intact. By spring, provisions were running out, their nets were too weak to catch the local fish, the birds migrated away, they'd brought the wrong seeds – everything was falling apart. 

All that saved them was the discovery of dried corn stored underground by the natives – and the arrival of Tisquantum, a former villager there who'd been kidnapped by the English, sold into slavery in Spain, escaped, and returned to his former village only to find his village wiped off the map. He taught these newcomers how to catch eels and how to best fertilize the cornfields, and he interpreted on their behalf with the nearby Wampanoag.

And the rest of the story, we know – or at least think we do. The truth is a lot messier than we learned in school – Squanto was less trustworthy, there was plenty of hostility on both sides, the famous meal wasn't really a thanksgiving celebration, we probably wouldn't have liked the menu, we would have missed utensils and tables, over half the settlers left by then were teenagers or kids, and the natives had a habit of showing up uninvited. 

 But one thing does hold true: the settlers kept faith. They refused to believe the world's estimation of them. They refused to accept that King James and his archbishops, or Thomas Weston and his financial backers, were ultimately the “kings of the earth.” No, the settlers – although they admitted they were pilgrims in this world – believed in Psalm 138. “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6).

What the Pilgrim Fathers knew, for all their virtues and all their vices, was that the true “kings of the earth” aren't the successful, the happy, the prosperous, or the powerful. That's not what it means. The real royalty are those who belong to Christ the King, and who follow him as pilgrims in the land. The real royalty live for Jesus, whether in the triumph of life or the fellowship of his sufferings. The real royalty can sing his praise right in the face of any of Babylon's gods or devils: “I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise” (Psalm 138:1). In the face of life and death, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, victory or defeat, the real royalty sings the Lord's praise and gives him thanks with a whole heart.

The real royalty turns their focus again and again toward Christ's holy temple. “I bow down toward your holy temple,” says the psalmist, “and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness” (Psalm 138:2a). And Christ's holy temple is the church – found manifest in every and all local gatherings of disciples who come together to give thanks to his name. The real royalty focuses there, attends there, so as to take part in what Christ's holy temple is all about: worship and witness.

The real royalty value the scriptures, the living record of what God says to his people: “For you have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Psalm 138:2b). And the real royalty are people who navigate life, not by might or by power, but by prayer: “On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased” (Psalm 138:3). That's the outer shape of their faithfulness to the King – to King Jesus, the high and lofty LORD who identifies with the lowly, whose love endures forever and whose glory is beyond compare (Psalm 138:5-8).

The truth is that Christ is King – and not just King, but “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). That's what we've come together to celebrate today. Today is Christ the King Sunday. But the kingship of Christ doesn't end there. By being the bride of Christ, the church shares in what he is. The bride of a priest is made priestly; the bride of a king is made royal. And so the members of the church, the faithful disciples, become “a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). That means us. It means each one of you, if you belong to Jesus. And we say to him: “All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD (Psalm 138:4-5).

So whether your time in Babylon is pleasant or painful, whether the winter is cruel or the harvest is bountiful, focus on that blessing. It's the one blessing that no circumstance of life can ever take from you. No matter what cancer fills your body, no matter what surgery you need, no matter what chronic pain you suffer, no matter what you career, no matter the size of your bank account or your house, no matter how much is on the Thanksgiving table, no matter who lives in the White House or who gets their own show or who makes the headlines or who marches in the streets, no matter what trouble you walk in the midst of or what enemies have wrath against you, nothing can separate you from the love of the King (cf. Psalm 138:7).

And nothing can separate you from who you are in him. This side of your redemption, you are the real royalty. You are the heirs of his promises: “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8), is something all of us can say with perfect assurance. Nothing can stop that. Nothing can take that away. Everything else is window-dressing. Everything else is a bonus. Give thanks to the Lord with a whole and grateful heart. “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Back to the Mount; or, Commissioned Church: Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20

Sometimes, you have to go back where you started. For the last fifteen weeks, we've studied the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus' key instructions for the crowd and disciples to know what his plan for a new people of God looked like. It wasn't what the Pharisees offered, it wasn't what the Zealots longed for. It was radical, and it invited everyone, even villagers in Galilee. 

 And when the sermon ended, the disciples who followed Jesus probably thought they were done with the mount. It was behind them; they moved on. But it stuck with them. For three years, they followed Jesus. They heard him use stories to illustrate his message about God's kingdom. They watched Jesus as he lived out every detail he'd spoken. They saw miracles that boggled their minds again and again; they watched the powers of darkness overthrown. And they wondered, “Is this what the Sermon on the Mount makes possible?”

But then Jesus started talking more darkly. He told stories that ended with injustice, bloodshed, murder. He talked about us marching toward death, carrying heavy crosses to be put down like criminals. And he began looking in the direction of Jerusalem. You couldn't distract him. He seemed determined to be there. Maybe, they thought, a different look passed over his face. Peter tried to talk him out of it, tried to get him to stop all this talk. He got shot down pretty quick, though. But through it all, Jesus never wavered from what he'd said in that sermon.

And then it happened. A meal after dark. A march into an olive grove for a private retreat. It's getting late; everyone's falling asleep – but not Jesus. And then the sound of footsteps. The flickering shine of torches through the trees. Soldiers come. Jesus surrenders. Everyone runs. The next hours are a blur. And his disciples can only watch in terror and heartbreak, most from a safe distance, as the nails go through his shredded flesh, as the cross is hoisted high under the brutal noonday sun, as the crowd mocks him for hours while he gasps for breath – and finally stops. The Teacher is dead, dying while hanging on a tree, which the Law of Moses called the curse of God (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13).

After the crucifixion, the disciples were disheartened. The disciples were disillusioned. Put yourself in their heads; eavesdrop on that inner monologue. They've invested the last three years in this teacher. But now he's dead. And they're still thinking a dead messiah is no messiah. If he wasn't real, if he wasn't legit, what good is his teaching? How can someone who dies under God's curse tell us anything about what kind of life God blesses? What good is the Sermon on the Mount? That's not practical. It's not useful. Because Jesus lived that way, and living that way is what got Jesus killed – for nothing. Or so they might be tempted to think.

Afraid for their lives, they hunker down in Jerusalem's nooks and crannies. But then they hear strange news from that hysterical Mary Magdalene – never the most stable person, they must think in retrospect – after all, she used to host not one but seven demons, and who knows what that did to her brain? But still, they sneak over to the tomb, and that little limestone shelf carved into the rock is topped by linen wrappings – and no body. What a confusing turn of events. And in all her babbling, Mary makes one thing clear: if you want to unravel this mystery, if you want to somehow see Jesus again, you need to go back to Galilee. And not just anywhere. He set a rendezvous point: back to the mount (Matthew 28:16).

So that's where they go, this little band of eleven beleaguered disciples. This is the only resurrection appearance in Matthew's Gospel; that's how he chooses to narrate it. So there they go, a band of disciples no more numerous than we here this morning. Up the mountain they go. Was he already visibly standing there, I wonder? Did they spy him from a distance and race up the mountain? Or did they wander back to that spot and wait, feeling profoundly silly as they just stood around? But in either case, the mystery unfolded. Because back on the mount, they saw Jesus, risen again from death, towering above them on the mountain, probably from a distance.

And seeing that, how could they not worship him? How could they not be filled with awe and amazement, and just bow down and surrender? But Matthew records a weird little detail: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Some doubted? He's telling the resurrection story, and he includes doubt? But that's what happened: some were doubting.  Some wondered if that figure could really be him, if their eyes weren't playing tricks on them. Some wondered if Jesus could really be alive. They wondered if he could really be everything he says he is – the Promised One, the Son of God, the Lord in person. 

They doubted. Does Jesus really open his Father's family to us? Does Jesus really interpret the Law with authority? Does he really give the blessed life? Can the Father be as near as Jesus says? And is Jesus' kingdom really worth going through the narrow gate and walking that hard road that leads through the cross? Some in this little crowd have their doubts – and maybe we've had a share of our own, too.

And so Jesus approaches them. He reveals himself by coming near to them, collapsing the distance. They see him up close, they handle him, his identity isn't in doubt. He makes clear to them: the answer to all the above is yes. And what does he say? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). 

Is that not amazing? Is that not awesome? If Jesus has received all authority in heaven and on earth, the kingdom has to be on its way! And this kingdom covers everything! If Jesus has all authority in heaven, then Jesus and Jesus alone sets the terms of the blessed life – he decides, he decrees what's good. He is the only way; he is the boss, he's in charge, he's heaven's Lord. He gives the true Law, he breathes the true Spirit.

And if all authority on earth is his, that means we can't stuff Jesus in a little box we call 'church' or 'religion' or 'Sunday morning.' It means that in everything we do, we are answerable to Jesus. In everything that anybody does, they're answerable to Jesus! Nothing is exempt. His throne is over all worldly powers. His throne is over all politicians, all campaigns, all governments – they all answer to him. Jesus raises up and casts down at his pleasure and in his timing; he is “the Most High [who] rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32).

We sit here this morning, and we're in the midst of one of the stranger transitions of power most of us have ever seen – it's been a bizarre year and a bizarre election. And with the results unveiled this week, some of our neighbors are gleeful and celebrating; some of our neighbors are cautious and uncertain; some of our neighbors are apathetic or resigned; and some of our neighbors are disgruntled or upset or angry or even frightened at what might come next. I've got family members, all decent and upstanding Americans, at both extremes. Some of our neighbors have reason to celebrate; some have reason to be cautious; and some, like the wonderful neighbors I met when I visited a local mosque two days ago, feel fair reason to be concerned. 

Some of us may fall into one or more of those camps: gleeful, cautious, resigned, upset, fearful. We in this sanctuary may run that same range. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep; live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15-16). But never forget: Jesus has authority to raise up and cast down. And this same Jesus will lead us through the next four years. But he asks us to walk in faith (and not fear), to hold on to hope (and not despair), and to reach out to all our neighbors in love (and not judgment). Because all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.

And so back on the mount, two thousand years ago, Jesus authorizes his disciples, his little fledgling church, to help wield that authority in heaven and on earth. It's true: he shares that authority with them, with us. That's why he brought us together in the first place. It's why he called us back to the mount. He wanted to give them, give us, a commission. A charge to keep we have. There are veterans among us this morning, those who served in this nation's armed forces – and veterans know, maybe better than anyone else in the world, what it means to be commissioned, to be given marching orders from a commanding officer who has the authority to give them. That's what we have here this morning: our final marching orders for our whole earthly deployment.

So what are Jesus' marching orders? First, they involve going. He takes almost for granted that we will go out into the world. We won't stay cloistered in our homes. We won't build a compound to keep the world at bay. We won't create a bubble of Christian subculture to insulate ourselves. (...Uh, oops.) No, no, we'll go out into society. We'll mingle with and build relationships with people who aren't like us, whether we go near or whether we go far. And while we do that, Commander Jesus' orders are to reach and train all nations, all groups of people.

That's what he says: “Disciple all nations” (Matthew 28:19a). Train America. Train Russia. Train Japan and Saudi Arabia, train Nigeria and Syria, train all nations, and don't leave any out. Go out and train Jews and pagan Gentiles. Go out and train Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and atheists and, yes, longtime churchgoers, too. Train veterans and civilians and draft-dodgers, train old and young, train rich and poor, train white collar and blue collar, train men and women, train country bumpkins and city slickers and small-town folk and suburban soccer moms, train Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and independents – train all of them, because we all need discipleship, and we all need each other in Christ Jesus. Politicians may focus on courting this or that special interest group, this or that identity bloc, to the exclusion of others. But not Jesus. He wants everyone, and his message is the same for everyone. None are exempt from Jesus' authority. None are beneath the good news, and none are above the good news.

And how does Jesus want us to do it? How do we do it? Jesus tells us, first of all, we do it by “baptizing them” (Matthew 28:19b). The disciples knew by now what baptism meant. It means that we show people that Jesus is the Gate, and we show them that you enter by faith, and we take them by the hand and lead them through the Gate. It means we introduce them to his death and resurrection – because that's what baptism is. Baptism requires repentance, decisively turning your back on your old life, your old identity; it means dying to self. Baptism is following Jesus through death, being buried with him, and emerging clean into life again. So we do that, we lead people through Jesus' death and resurrection by faith, which cleans them of their sins and opens wide forgiveness.

And we do it “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19c). One name of “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” Because we baptize by authority of, and into the life of, the whole God. And really, what does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us? It tells us that God's inner life is like a community – it's a fellowship of love, shown by the Father to the Son, by the Son to the Spirit, by the Spirit back to Father and Son, from and to all eternity. To be baptized into Christ is to be brought into that eternal fellowship of love. And on earth, that fellowship, that community, is called the church. That's just what the church is: the earthly extension of the loving oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There's no such thing as being saved alone, apart from the church and the one faith she confesses. We're baptized by one name into one body, and we travel as one. In the early church, being an 'unchurched Christian' wasn't considered an equally good choice; Paul referred to exclusion from the church's worship and fellowship together as “being handed over to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5; cf. 1 Timothy 1:20). It's sad when our brothers and sisters opt by choice to embrace a life the apostles imposed as the worst punishment; that's not how it's meant to be. We are designed and meant to live as one body, not just in theory but in practice. So when we baptize people, we introduce them to the church's fellowship. We're stronger together.

And then, as they share in the faith and the fellowship, we carry out our commission by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a). And the word 'observe' here means to 'keep intact,' to safeguard, to practice as one entire lifestyle. And what does Jesus mean by what he's commanded us? Well, where did he ask the disciples to meet him? Back on the mount! Everything we've covered in the last fifteen weeks, everything we unpacked from the Sermon on the Mount – that is the cornerstone of what Jesus tells us to teach people.

We lead people to faith. We help them become new like little children. We welcome them into the Father's big family. And we show them how the family lives. Our customs, our family tradition, is the sermon's message. The Sermon on the Mount just is how God's family lives – how we live when we're behaving like his children. It's the lifestyle, not by which, but for which we're born again. This is what we're training all nations, all kinds of people, to do. At least, that's what our marching orders tell us.

It can be intimidating to live that way. I mean, Jesus modeled it for us, and he got whipped, beaten, spat on, and nailed to a cross. That fear, or plenty of other fears, or plenty of other desires, can lead us astray to alternative lifestyles – anything that doesn't match what the Sermon said. But Jesus doesn't want us to surrender to those fears or those desires. So he closes our marching orders with one last promise: “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).

What a promise! Jesus is always with us – he always has been, he always will be. As long as this age lasts, as long as we're in a world where the Sermon on the Mount isn't how everybody always acts, Jesus is with us. He is with us in times of war and in times of peace. He is with us in times of sickness and times of health. He is with us in times of sorrow and times of rejoicing. He's with us no matter where we go, whether he sends us somewhere safe and comfy or somewhere dangerous and harsh. He's with us no matter who sits on any court, no matter who lives in any palace, no matter who writes the laws. He's with us no matter what happens or what comes our way. Because he has commissioned us with our marching orders, and he's in it with us. Always and forever, he's with us – are we with him?

Throughout our history, the church has adopted so many pet projects. There are so many little commissions that we've given each other or given ourselves:
  • We've commissioned ourselves with church growth, just getting people in the door. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves with institutional maintenance and fiscal responsibilities. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to be traditional or contemporary, to sing hymns or have a rock band, to waft incense or fire up the fog machine. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to be seeker-sensitive or follow all the latest trends – or the oldest trends, just like granddad used to do it. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to be powerful and influential, to be a respected keystone of the community, to speak loud and proud. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to affirm and include indiscriminately or to reject and exclude zealously.
  • We've commissioned ourselves to have power and prestige. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to pursue personal happiness. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to quest after wealth, success, popularity, and security. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to climb the ladder. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to enjoy 'religion' as part of a balanced diet of life, or as a fine hobby for those who like that kind of thing. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to advance some political party's agenda, some social program, or some electoral candidate's defense.
And in all these little self-made commissions, we've run the risk of being sidetracked, becoming entangled with what Paul called “civilian affairs.” But that's not what soldiers do. Good soldiers aim to please the one who enlisted them (2 Timothy 2:4). They obey their CO. They follow their orders. They carry out their charge, their commission. And we are the commissioned officers of the Resurrection and the Life. 

So what he actually said, his last words on the mount – that's the commission that really matters. It's the one Jesus really gave us. It's our calling, the one that completes everything he said on the mount before. The church Jesus died and rose to make must live as a commissioned church. We carry the good news – the best news ever – and we need to share this road and the life it brings. So come on, church: let's make our commission great again, to the Father's glory. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Complete Church: Sermon on Matthew 7:24-29

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.