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Matthew 7_21-29

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TITLE:  To Build a Strong Life          SCRIPTURE:    Matthew 7:21-29


EXEGESIS:

VERSES 13-27:  WIDE GATES AND FALSE PROPHETS

Our Gospel lesson is part of a larger unit (vv. 13-27) in which:

-- Jesus warns against wide gates and broad roads that lead to destruction.  He calls us to small gates and narrow roads that lead to life (vv. 13-14).  We are tempted, not only by obvious sins (misuse of sex, money, and power), but are also tempted to take shortcuts in building the kingdom.  I recall a large church sign announcing, "Less talk, more rock."  We had been looking for a place to worship, but after spotting the sign, turned around, got back in the car, and found another church.  The church that cares about filling pews instead of developing disciples will probably do neither.

-- Jesus warns against false prophets, ferocious wolves dressed in sheep's clothing -- to be known by their fruits (vv. 15-18).  By Matthew's time, the church was struggling not only against persecution from the outside, but also against false leaders on the inside.

-- Jesus warns that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 19). 

-- Jesus warns that only those who do the will of the Father in heaven can expect to enter the kingdom of heaven (vv. 21-23).

-- Jesus warns that those who fail to act on Jesus' words are like a house built on sand -- headed for a great collapse (vv. 24-27).

Each of these warnings contrasts two kinds of people -- those who choose the right or wrong road -- those who bear good fruit or bad -- those who do or fail to do the Father's will -- and those who build on rock or sand.  "The concept of two ways is reflected in a wide spectrum of Jewish texts (cf. Deuteronomy 11:26; 30:15-20; Psalm 1:6; Jeremiah 21:8; ... and the entire book of Proverbs)....  The epilogue of Jesus' Sermon bears the imprint of this tradition.  For Matthew, there are two different roads to travel, two different ways to build, here and now.  And they will lead in the end to contrasting outcomes (cf. the parables of the end in chap. 25).  Choosing the right way is thus a matter of greatest importance" (Gardner).  Throughout life, we make choices that lead to life or death -- salvation or condemnation.


VERSES 21-23:  NOT EVERYONE WHO SAYS TO ME, "LORD, LORD"

21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?'  23Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.' "  (Greek: anomian -- lawless)

Jesus describes people who appear to have great ministries.  They not only call Jesus Lord, but also achieve spectacular things in Jesus' name.  They prophesy, cast out demons, and accomplish deeds of power in the cause of Christ.  "We are reminded that signs and wonders can come from sources other than God, including both the demonic world and human manufacture" (Blomberg, 131).  Televangelists come to mind -- showmen who tell the lame to throw away their crutches for the benefit of the cameras-- who sell prayer handkerchiefs for profit -- whose television time is dedicated more to raising funds than to ministry -- who exploit the vulnerable for personal profit. 

But we should not assume that Jesus means these words only for others.  Who is to say that people with modest ministries are exempt?  Is it possible that Jesus might reject a person who spends a lifetime in ministry?  Is it possible that Jesus might reject a long-time pastor, elder, deacon, choir member, Sunday-school teacher, or board chairperson?  If so, why?  By what criteria will we be judged?  How will Jesus decide whether to accept or reject us? 

The dividing line is whether or not we have done the Father's will (v. 21).  "The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be admired but to be obeyed" (R.T. France, quoted in Blomberg, 133).  Neither theological degrees nor tenure in church offices will save us.  A resume that might wow a pastoral search committee will not influence a Lord with x-ray vision -- capable of seeing into the innermost recesses of our spiritual hearts. 

It is all too easy to busy ourselves about the work of the church without stopping to reflect on whether we are obeying Jesus -- to busy ourselves with programs while neglecting people -- to prepare sermons while neglecting prayer -- to do great things in Jesus' name while neglecting Jesus -- to assume that full pews validate our ministry when, in fact, we have lost touch with the Lord.

"Thus it is not sufficient for the Christian community to ask 'are they Christ-centered?' .Nor is it enough. to ask 'do they win others to Christ?'  They must also ask, 'Do they themselves seek to do and to move others to do the will of the Father as this will is taught us in Jesus' teachings?' " (Bruner, 286).

If doing the Father's will is crucial, what is the Father's will?  For Matthew, it is keeping the Torah as interpreted by Jesus.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that obedience requires poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking (5:2-11).  It requires us:

       -- To let our light shine (5:16);
       -- To keep the commandments (5:17-20);
       -- To deal with anger and to resolve conflict (5:21-26);
       -- To maintain proper marital relationships (5:27-32);
       -- To speak honestly without fanfare or oaths (5:34-37);
       -- To act in generous and loving ways -- even toward our enemies (5:38-48);
       -- To give alms and to pray in secret (6:1-6);
       -- To forgive (6:14-15);
       -- To seek first the kingdom of God (6:24-34);
       -- To refrain from judgment (7:1-5).

As this Gospel continues, Jesus will give additional insights into God's will.  We are to show mercy (9:13); to speak the word that God gives us even in adverse circumstances (10: 19-20); to care for little ones and to seek and save the lost (18:10-14); to resolve conflict (18:15-17); to observe justice, mercy, and faith (23:23); to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to visit the prisoner (25:31-46); and to make disciples of all nations (28:16-20).

This raises the issue of salvation by works.  Are we saved by what Jesus has done or by what we do?  It would be easy to misinterpret Jesus' requirement to do the will of God.  Jesus is not advocating salvation by works but authentic faith that produces good fruit -- that impels us to act in accord with God's will -- that leads to faithful action.

"On that day" (v. 22) refers to Judgment Day. "Prophecy" is "not simply or even primarily predicting the future, although that can be included (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11), but also proclamation of truth in the broadest sense and even the possession of power" (Hagner).

In v. 23, Jesus warns that he will disavow any relationship with the anomian, which the NRSV translates "evildoers."  Anomian comes from the Greek word for law (nomos).  The "a" at the beginning reverses the meaning, so anomian means "lawless" -- rejection of the Torah as interpreted by Jesus. 

"Judgment and grace are not separated in Matthew's narrative, as if one comes from an angry God and the other from a loving Jesus.  Rather, judgment and grace are both dimensions of God's movement toward the world" (Brueggemann, 353).


VERSES 24-25:  LIKE A WISE MAN WHO BUILT HIS HOUSE ON ROCK

24"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock."

Jesus can speak with authority about building houses.  As a carpenter (Mark 6:3), Jesus understands home construction.  Here he speaks as an architect, advising us on the first principle of construction -- to establish a solid foundation.  No plan can be finalized until we have a site, and nothing is more important than secure footing on that site.  A strong foundation makes it possible for the house to survive terrible storms.

When we describe a house, we are likely to talk about the color of the paint, the number of bedrooms, or the layout of the kitchen.  Jesus speaks of nothing but the foundation.  The thing that distinguishes this house from other houses is that, being built on a strong foundation, it can survive the worst imaginable weather.  Its strength was established at the beginning -- with the laying of the foundation.

Note that the house is not spared storms.  Its survival does not depend on being sheltered.  This suggests that God does not shelter Christians from life's storms (illness, accidents, death, job loss, etc.).  While faith can reduce our stress-level and prayer can, in some circumstances, lead to miraculous cures, Christians must be prepared to live through the storms and tragedies that are common to humankind. 

The ultimate test, of course, is "the final test, the day of judgment" (Keener, 167).  On that day, God will blow away every pretense.  Those who have only the appearance of faith will be as utterly undone as a flimsy house in a great hurricane.

What gives us a strong foundation?  It is hearing and doing the words of Jesus (v. 24).  "The standard of orthodoxy, of righteousness, is the words of Jesus, not those of the Torah" (Hagner).

Before we can do Jesus' words, we must hear them.  The most reliable sources of Jesus' words are the scriptures, the preaching and teaching of the church, and the mystery of the sacraments.  We can also hear Jesus' words through Christian books, music, and media, as well as the counsel of Christian friends.  It is even possible for Christ to speak to us through less traditional means -- secular books, plays, movies, music, or personal experiences.  However, we need to recognize that the less traditional the means, the less reliable the message.  We must test every insight by laying it alongside scripture to test its validity.


VERSES 26-27:  LIKE A FOOLISH MAN WHO BUILT HIS HOUSE ON SAND

26  "And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man (Greek: moro -- from moros) who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!"


Jesus told us about the wise man.  Now he tells us about the foolish man.  The Greek word is moros -- from which we get the English word moron.

The wise man and the foolish man face identical circumstances -- devastating rain, floods, and wind.  The difference is not in the circumstances but in the house (which is a metaphor for the man himself).  The wise man's house survives because he built it on solid rock (Jesus' words).  The foolish man's house falls because he built his house on sand.  The difference is whether or not they have done what Jesus taught.

Our secular culture tells us that it is not so simple.  It insists that true wisdom requires a good education -- a diversified investment portfolio -- insurance against catastrophe -- safe sex -- exercise -- a nutritious diet -- an annual checkup.  Ironically, people who dismiss religious fervor as fanaticism are often fervent about these things.  In many cases, money and health have become their God.

Earlier in this sermon (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus addressed this materialistic focus, saying:  "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (6:31-33).

The people whom Jesus describes as wise or foolish are religious people.  They have tried to obey Jesus' words.  "The house that crashes is the house of Christians who find Jesus' words important enough to hear but not realistic enough to live" (Bruner, 290).


VERSES 28-29:  HE TAUGHT THEM AS ONE HAVING AUTHORITY
28 "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes."


"When Jesus had finished saying these things" is Matthew's signal of the conclusion of an important section of instruction (see 13:53; 19:1; 26:1 -- also 11:1).

Jesus "taught them as one having authority."  His words have authority, not only to instruct but also to heal.  In this Gospel, he will tell a leper, "Be made clean," and the leper will be immediately cleansed (8:3-4).  He will tell a centurion, "Go, let it be done for you according to your faith," and the centurion's servant will be healed in that hour (8:13).  He will tell a paralytic, "Stand up, take up your bed and go to your home" and the man will do exactly that (9:6-7).  Jesus' words have compelling authority.

Jesus' authority contrasts dramatically with the scribal practice of deferring to authority.  "The scribes quoted authorities; (Jesus) spoke with authority" (Buttrick, 335).  Scribes, the recognized authorities in the field of scriptural interpretation, quoted famous rabbis to buttress their arguments.  Jesus, however "teaches without footnotes; he teaches on the basis of his own authority" (Long, 85).  In this sermon (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus says again and again, "You have heard that it was said, .but I say to you" (Matt. 5).  The "scribes drew stale water from closed cisterns.  But the words of Jesus were like a spring; clear, fresh, with power to slake the soul's thirst" (Buttrick, 335).


CHILDREN'S SERMON:  A Firm Foundation
by Lois Parker Edstrom

Object suggested:  A flag in a flag stand, if one is available in your church.


At schools and government buildings we often see a tall flagpole with a flag attached.  It is a beautiful sight to see a flag rippling proudly in the breeze. Have you ever thought about what keeps that flagpole upright?  If workers just dig a hole in the ground and put the flagpole in the hole, there could be problems.  A heavy wind might knock the flag pole over, or at least cause it to tilt.  Another problem might be that moisture in the ground would cause a wooden flagpole to rot and break off. That is why flagpoles are set in a concrete base. 

Let's look at the flags in our sanctuary. What causes the pole to remain upright?  Yes, there is a heavy base that keeps the flagpole from tipping over.  Could it stand on its own?  No, it needs a good foundation.

In the Bible we find that Jesus talks about foundations.  He says "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock."  The house had a strong foundation.

The words of Jesus help us understand that we can build a good foundation for our own lives. When we study the Bible and try to live by those principles, we are building a sturdy foundation that will keep us strong when difficult things occur.


SERMON:    

How do you build a house strong enough to survive a bad storm?  I learned a great deal when we remodeled our house.  In the living room there is a cathedral ceiling where we had to remove the ceiling board to install new wiring and lighting.  The carpenters took one look at the two-by-eights holding up the roof and said, "Dick, those two-by-eights are over-spanned.  They shouldn't span more than twelve feet (I think that is what they said), but they span nearly seventeen feet.  If you don't do something to strengthen them, you should keep your family out of the living room when it snows, because a heavy snow-load could collapse the roof."

I didn't have to think about that very long.  I wanted a strong house -- a safe house.  I certainly didn't want a weak roof that might collapse in a snowstorm.  We were planning to re-shingle the roof anyway, so this was the time to strengthen it.  An architect confirmed the carpenters' advice and proposed a remedy.  It cost money that we had not planned to spend, but we now have a strong roof.  I am glad that we made the repairs. 

And I learned more about roofs.  I learned that it is important to leave an air space above the insulation -- and to have vents in the soffits at the bottom of the roof and a vent along the ridgeline at the top of the roof.  The idea is to keep the roof cool on hot summer days and to give moisture an escape. 

I mentioned that to another workman, and he replied, "Oh, that's right.  We have learned so much about roof-systems in the past twenty years."

"Roof-systems!"  I had never heard of a "roof-system."  I had always thought of a roof as the shingles on top of the house, but I had to re-orient my thinking.  A roof has many components -- rafters -- insulation -- plywood sheeting -- shingles -- vents -- and, of course, the nails that hold it all together.  Each one is important.

And, if you really think about it, the roof-system extends to the walls that hold it up -- and to the foundation that holds up the walls.  If the foundation crumbles, the roof falls.  If the walls tear away from the foundation, the roof falls.  The house must be well built from the foundation up if the roof is to survive.

Builders follow building codes when building a house.  The codes specify in great detail how a house is to be constructed.  Their purpose is to insure that houses are well built -- safe.  When we buy a house, we trust that the people who wrote the codes knew what they were doing.  We trust that the workers who built the house followed the codes.  We trust that the inspectors who checked the work were knowledgeable and honest -- because it doesn't matter how good the rules are if nobody follows them.

Jesus was a carpenter -- did you know that?  We know that Jesus' father, Joseph, was a carpenter -- but Jesus was a carpenter too.  In that society, fathers taught their sons to follow in their footsteps, and Joseph surely did that for Jesus.  Later, when Jesus spoke in his hometown synagogue, people responded, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mark 6:3).  In other words, "Who is this guy who is trying to tell us about God?  Isn't he just the kid from down the block -- just a carpenter?"

Jesus was a carpenter, and he knew how to build strong houses.  He knew how to build strong lives, too.  He said:

       "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them
       will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
       The rain fell, the floods came,
       and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall
       because it had been founded on rock."

Jesus contrasted that wise man with a foolish man who failed to do what Jesus taught.  That foolish man was like a man who built his house on sand.  Jesus said:

       "The rain fell, and the floods came,
       and the winds blew and beat against that house,
       and it fell -- and great was its fall."

But Jesus wasn't trying to help us to build strong houses.  He was trying to help us to build strong lives.  After all, it doesn't matter how strong our house is if our lives are coming apart at the seams. 

Jesus made the point that, to build strong lives, we need to do what he taught.  Jesus knew our needs, because he was present at the creation (see John 1:1-3).  He helped design us.  He knows how we are put together.  And so, he taught us what to do to become strong.  He taught us:

        -- To keep the commandments (5:17-20);
       -- To deal with anger and to resolve conflict (5:21-26);
       -- To maintain a good marriage (5:27-32);
       -- To speak honestly (5:34-37);
       -- To act in generous and loving ways -- even toward our enemies (5:38-48);
       -- To give alms and to pray in secret (6:1-6);
       -- To forgive (6:14-15);
       -- To seek first the kingdom of God (6:24-34);
       -- To refrain from judgment (7:1-5).

Jesus taught many other things as well, but those give you an idea.  He said that, if we will do those things, we will be like a wise man who built his house on rock -- a man whose house survived the storm.  But if we don't do those things, we will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  When the storms came, his house fell, "and great was its fall."

When the storms of life come -- and you can be certain that they will -- we will survive if we live by Jesus' teachings, but will perish if we don't.  That was Jesus' message.

That isn't a popular idea today.  We live in a time when people want to believe that one opinion is as good as another.  We live in a time when people look to rappers for wisdom -- or celebrities -- or big-promising politicians. 

But Jesus warns us to be careful.  He warns us to do what HE taught us so that we will avoid the pitfalls of life -- so that we won't get lost by taking the wrong path -- so that we don't break a leg by stepping in a pothole -- so that we don't ruin our lives.

Doing what Jesus tells us is like following the owner's manual for your car.  That manual tells you how often to change the oil.  It tells you how often to check the brakes.  It tells you how much air to put in the tires.  That manual was written by the people who designed the car, and has lots of wisdom in its pages. It will save you money if you follow it, but it won't do any good if you never take it out of the glove compartment -- if you don't do what it tells you to do.

Some years ago, I dealt with a young woman who had made a mess of her life.  Among other things, she had bought a new car -- more expensive than she could afford  -- but she never changed the oil.  After a year or two, the car quit running.  She had it towed to a repair shop, where she learned that it needed a new engine.  It was painful to hear her story, because I wanted her to do well -- to have a good life.  It was painful to watch her make one bad decision after another.

Jesus must feel that way sometimes.  He loves us.  He wants us to be happy.  He wants us to do well.  And he gives us a good deal of instruction concerning how to live.  He says that if we do what he tells us to do, we will be strong like a house built on rock. 

So what did Jesus teach us to do?  What must we do to become strong?  Earlier in this sermon, I gave you a list of things that Jesus taught, but let me keep it simple, because  Jesus kept it simple.  He summarized all of his teaching in two great commandments:

       -- The first commandment is to love God. 
       -- The second commandment is to love your neighbor.

If you love God, you will do the kinds of things that a lover does.  You will spend time in God's presence.  You will talk to God.  You will learn everything that you can about God.  You will try to please God.

And if you love your neighbor, you will treat your neighbor like you would want your neighbor to treat you.  Just imagine what a wonderful world this would be if everyone did that -- if we all followed the Golden Rule.  The world would be a very different place if we all followed Jesus' commandments to love God and to love our neighbor.

You might say, "Preacher, that would be wonderful, but it won't ever happen, so why talk about it.  Get real!"

Well, I suppose that is right.  I suppose that we will never in this lifetime see the day when everyone loves God and their neighbor.  This world will always be imperfect. 

But the fact that we can't do everything doesn't mean that we shouldn't do anything.  If each of us will do what Jesus taught -- if we will love God and neighbor -- we will make life better for our families -- and our neighborhoods -- and our communities -- and, ultimately, for our world.

Jesus said:

       "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them
       will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
       The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house,
       but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock."

If you want a better life -- a better family -- a better community -- a better world -- listen to Jesus and do what he says. 


TRUE STORY: 

When Queen Elizabeth was a young princess, she said, "I am a princess, so I can do anything I like."  Her grandfather, King George V, responded, "Oh no, my little lady.  It is exactly because you are a princess that you will never be able to do anything that you like."

The king surely overstated it, because a princess can do many things that she likes.  But every nation needs -- desperately needs -- leaders who will act in the public interest even when that is difficult.

And what Christ needs -- and the church needs -- are Christians who will follow Christ even when that is difficult.



 
My Hope is Built UMH #368

Rock of Ages  UMH #361

Standing on the Promises UMH #374

The Church's One Foundation  UMH #545

Trust and Obey UMH #467


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