05/13/18 “Zion Rocks, Part 2”

Matthew 7:21-29

At one of our committee meetings recently, one of our members mentioned that because of some hearing loss, he often finds himself filling in words to make up for what he’s missed—with varying degrees of success.  He also reminded me that those of us who think we hear pretty well probably do that a fair amount of that ourselves.  I think he’s probably right.

I also think we do that with Scripture.  We don’t always hear—or pick up on—everything that’s being said, either because the language is confusing, or we’ve heard it so many times we stop paying attention, or we think we know what it says and don’t listen carefully anymore.  Certain words might be important to the meaning of the verse but don’t sound that important to us, so we ignore them.  We fill in the blanks with what we thought was said or what we think ought to have been said, correctly or incorrectly.  (Maybe that’s why Jesus so often cautioned, “Let anyone with ears, listen!”)

I realized I’ve been guilty of this when it comes to our passage for today.  I always hear the part about the wise person building on a rock pretty clearly.   But I haven’t heard the part that comes before that clearly enough—the part that says, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them.” I’ve focused on the end result—the house built on rock, but not on the characteristics of the person doing the building.  And that’s what this passage is really about.

This passage comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus had begun travelling throughout Galilee, healing and preaching. Large crowds had begun following him.  When he saw these crowds, he went up a mountain and gathered his disciples around him.  Around them was the crowd—those who had not yet become followers but were curious about this preacher and miracle worker.

He began to teach the disciples, with the crowd listening in, beginning with the beatitudes.  He talked about how he had come to fulfill the law, and then he proceeded to expand on it, getting to the heart of loving God and loving people.  He spoke of many everyday matters that people struggle with—anger and lust and worry, enemies and divorce.   He talked about money—saving it up and giving it away. He talked about the danger posed by those who would mislead with pretended piety and false promises.  Jesus taught what a life of authentic discipleship looks like.

That life is one of both hearing and acting on what Jesus says.  When Jesus speaks of hearing, he’s not just talking about sound waves successfully reaching the ear drum and triggering all the right signals so that we register the sound of his words.  He’s talking about giving careful attention to what he says.  He’s talking about understanding the message within the words—both the explicit and implicit meanings that can be found there.

The Sermon on the Mount contains much that is very explicit.  Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works.  Resolve your anger with others.  Shun whatever might cause you to harbor darkness in your soul. Let your word be good enough that taking an oath is unnecessary. Pray for your enemies, don’t retaliate, don’t judge, and treat others as you would want them to treat you.  Give quietly, pray persistently, honor what is holy, and strive first for the kingdom of God.  The sermon is primarily made up of these very explicit instructions on how to live a life modeled on and informed by the life of Jesus.

But there is an implicit message, too.  Jesus doesn’t come right out and say it, but those who are really hearing his words will get it. That message is about who Jesus is.  He is not just another teacher or miracle worker.  He is the fulfillment of the law and of God’s promises, spoken of by the prophets, but he also has the authority to expand on the law. The authority the people were used to was the authority that came from the scholars and books and tradition that their scribes relied on.  But, the authority Jesus holds is nothing less than the authority of God, Jesus’ own Father, and his words express God’s will.  He’s the one who will be present at judgment day, deciding who will be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. When we truly hear the words of Jesus, we embrace his identity, and we submit to his authority to tell us how to live as authentic disciples.  That’s the first requirement for being like the wise builder—hearing and understanding Jesus’ words.

But then there’s that second part:  acting on Jesus’ words.  While we believe and profess that our faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior is the only thing required to receive the gift of eternal life, Scripture also makes it clear that what we believe can’t be separated from how we live.  An authentic faith will bear fruit—good fruit.  It’s easy to talk the talk, even claiming that what we do is in Jesus’ name.  But if our lives don’t show evidence that we believe in Jesus’ authority over us, and that we are bound to living as he tells us to live, then all our words are empty talk.  James puts it most clearly: “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (CEB).  And Jesus says in our passage that he’s paying attention to how well what we say is matched by what we do.

I think Jesus knew that what he taught that day on the mountain was pretty daunting.  So, he gives us a helpful image to keep in mind as we strive to live as faithful disciples, both hearing and living out his word.  He tells us that those who hear his words and act on them are like the wise man who built his house on rock, so that when the storm came, the house remained standing.

So, how do we live like the wise builder who built an indestructible house on a foundation of rock?  First of all, we recognize that talking a good game proves nothing. It’s possible to talk like you have knowledge and expertise about something even when we don’t. Sometimes people ask me if Marc and I built our house, and I usually say, yes, we built it.  But, we didn’t actually draw up the plans and pound the nails and pour the concrete for our house, and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of where to even start. Just talking about building doesn’t make you a builder, any more than just talking about being a follower of Jesus makes you a disciple.

Wise builders act on what they know.  They don’t just sit around thinking about building; they build things!  This is true in lots of areas of life. If we truly believe that diet and exercise are important, we eat well and work out.  If we believe that children are important, we participate in activities that help them grow in mind, body, and spirit.  If we believe it’s important to combat poverty and bigotry, we work to eliminate them. People like the foolish builder talk about what they would do, or could do, or should do, but they don’t do. But, if we believe in who Jesus is and what he tells us to do, we won’t just sit around thinking about it; we’ll act on what we’ve heard.

Wise builders know that appearances can be deceiving. In Jesus’ example, there are no apparent differences between the houses of the wise and foolish builders.  As long as conditions are ideal, the houses appear to be identical.  The differences appear when the storm starts to rage.  Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with the torrential rains that can suddenly pour down on Palestine’s desert sands, turning every wadi and river bed into a raging flood.  They could have imagined the foolish builder’s foundation being washed away, and the house gradually disintegrating as the wind blew and the rain fell.  They knew that a pretty façade doesn’t a safe place to wait out the storm.

We often think of the storm in this passage as the storms of adversity and temptation we face in our daily lives.  We fill in the assurance that if we are faithful to Jesus, he will see through our difficult times and help us withstand the temptations of the world.  It is true that our faith is a source of strength, assuring us of God’s presence and love in difficult times.  But as true as that is, that is not Jesus’ focus here.  Here Jesus is talking about the final storm: the day of judgment, over which he alone will preside.   Mouthing the right “churchy” words won’t be enough when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. Those who have heard and acted on Jesus’ words are the ones who will be able to confidently stand before him without fear, just as the wise builder was confident his house wouldn’t fall to wind and flood.

Wise builders choose their materials carefully, because they build to last. Every day we are faced with a virtual Home Depot of materials to use in building our lives.  We are offered consumerism and nationalism and individualism, and we are also offered generosity and compassion and community.  We are offered cynical pessimism and we are offered hope-filled optimism.  We are offered choices that lead to death—death of the body, death of relationships, death of the spirit—and we are offered choices that lead to eternal life—lives of wholeness and peace and joy, now and forever.  We are offered the way of the those who merely mouth the words of faith, and we are offered the way of Jesus—truly hearing and embracing and acting on his words.  We choose the materials for the foundation on which we will build—whether on rock or on sand.

Wise builders know that good materials can be costly, but they are willing to pay the price for materials that will last.  Foolish builders may try to cut corners with what is convenient but unreliable, cheap but short-lived, attractive but flimsy.  Wise builders choose materials that may cost them something but can be relied on over the long haul.

Truly taking Jesus’ words to heart and acting on them is not cheap.  It costs us time and money.  It costs us in terms of how we might be perceived by others. It may cost us opportunities for advancement or pay or popularity when we choose to live as Jesus wants us to live rather than the way the world wants us to live. It may cost us in terms of discomfort when we interact with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places in unfamiliar ways.  But the grace that Jesus offers us wasn’t cheap, either.  It was paid for at a very high cost—the cost of Jesus’ own life.  Wise builders are willing to pay the price for materials they know will last.

Wise builders don’t build alone.  They work with others who have various skills and abilities.  Jesus gathered a group of disciples, who each brought something unique to the group, and he taught them all how to be faithful followers.  As wise builders we, too, work together with others.  We bring our unique gifts to what we’re building together, and we learn from and support each other in our own building projects, as we hear and act on Jesus’ words, as a community and as individuals.

Finally, wise builders know that others will see what and how they build.  And, they are happy to explain to others how and why they build.  The ways in which we act on Jesus’ words are seen by others.  As they see the houses we are building, they may come to want a house like ours.  They may want to know what goes into building such a house, what it costs, and why they should build one for themselves.  This is our opportunity to introduce them to the Master Builder so that they, too, can become wise builders with houses built on rock.

I learned as I took a run over in the Metropark that the quarries here were limestone quarries. Limestone is a very hard rock, good for buildings and roadbeds and the bed of railroads.  That limestone runs under this whole area, so Zion is literally built on rock.  But Jesus tells us that each of his followers must do some building of their own.  We are to build on a foundation even stronger than that limestone.  The rock on which we build is made up of two things—hearing Jesus’ words and acting on them.  When we do those two things, we are like the wise builder whose house is built on a foundation of rock, and our house will not fall when the storm comes.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young