Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sermon for Sept. 6, 2009

Surviving the Torrents of the Times

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law. Matthew 7:21-29

Throughout the day Jesus preached to the crowds and they listened to him with amazement. But listening is not enough. If his words are to have a genuine effect, the people must not only hear Christ’s words, but also act upon them. To drive the point home, Jesus tells the story of two builders – two houses. Standing inside these homes, going from room to room, there is little to no difference between. Imagine two identical homes. The same architect designed them. Each home is made of the same material. Each home has the same number of doors and windows. Looking at the homes, you might think that they are solid, well-built, and ready for anything. But one home will collapse and the other will stand. There is one major difference between the houses -- the foundations. One house was constructed upon rock and the other upon sand.

The crowds listening to Jesus’ teaching got it. Few people in ancient Palestine wanted to live in the rocks. It meant grading the side of a slope and hauling up building materials. Living in the hills made travel more difficult. Water had to be carried to the house and winter winds were colder. Most people built along the river beds. The scenery was more pleasant, the water was more convenient to tote, and the house was sheltered from the cold winds of winter. Although flooding was a danger, most of the year the streams trickled pleasantly down the hillsides into the nearby river. But on rare occasions, perhaps only once a generation, the 100-year flood would come. A combination of heavy snow, a quick spring thaw, and a torrential downpour would create a vicious flash flood that swept away everything in its path. House after house washed away. Jesus may be referring to this image in Matthew 7. The lesson? Never cheat on the foundation.

Jesus teaches about the absolute necessity of building our lives on the right kind of foundation. The foundation is what holds everything up. No matter what quality of materials you use for the house, no matter how carefully you join the frame together, no matter how skilled your contractor may be, if the foundation isn’t solid and stable, your life will lack integrity. Over time, cracks will develop in the walls you’ve carefully constructed. The windows will stick. The roof will leak. And sooner or later, the storms of life will bring it crashing down, and everything you’ve worked so hard to build will be lost.

In the 1990’s the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” was finally reopened to the public, after having been closed for almost a dozen years. During that time, engineers completed a 25 million dollar renovation project designed to stabilize the tower. They removed 110 tons of dirt, and reduced its famous lean by about sixteen inches. Apparently, the tower had been tilting further and further away from vertical for hundreds of years, to the point that the top of the 185-foot tower was seventeen feet further south than the bottom. Italian authorities were concerned that if nothing was done, it would soon collapse. What was the problem? Bad design? Poor workmanship? An inferior grade of marble? No. The problem was what was underneath. The sandy soil on which the city of Pisa was built was just not stable enough to support a monument of this size. The tower had no firm foundation.

Let’s get back to the two builders. I assume that the person who built the house on sand did a lot of things correctly. For instance, the builder was must have been a hard worker. It’s no easy thing to put up a house, especially not in those days, with no power tools or Home Depot. He had to carry stone, cut wood, and form bricks out of clay. It probably took him weeks and months of backbreaking labor. He didn’t quit. He persevered until the structure was complete. Yet in the end, all his hard work was for nothing. In the life of faith, the same thing can happen to us. We can confuse activity with godliness. We assume that if someone is hard-working and energetic, he or she must be a sincere Christian. We think, “That person must be close to God.” But what will happen if all that activity and service is built upon a foundation of sand. A person could be doing tons of great things for all the wrong reasons. It may not be obvious what those reasons are; just as it may not be obvious what kind of foundation is underneath a house. But in the end, the true motivation will become apparent. Even the most costly service and the most strenuous labors won’t save you, if the foundational motivation is something other than love.

I am not criticizing active service; far from it. In fact, we make service a requirement for church membership. I am suggesting that we examine our hearts. Ask yourself; what is my foundational motivation in doing this work? Is it sincere love for Christ and for his people? Or is it something else? Pride, or self-righteousness, or habit, or duty, or people-pleasing? If your answer is “something else,” then you may be in danger of a spiritual collapse. The point I’m making is not limited to church life. It applies to any kind of work and service – spouses serving one another, or parents serving their children. It applies to how we treat family members, or friends, or neighbors. In fact, it applies to everything we do, from the time we get up in the morning to the time we lay down at night. Are you working and serving out of love? Just being active and diligent and hard-working isn’t enough. If the foundation is not built on love for Christ and his people, you are setting yourself up for collapse. Never cheat on the foundation.

Now what about the wise builder? Did he work harder than the first builder? Did he use better materials? Not necessarily. The only difference was in the foundation. But that made all the difference in the world. Even the most terrible, frightful storm could not destroy that house.

And make no mistake. The storms will come. Jesus does not say that if you have your foundation on the rock you will never be hit by storms. He does not say that standing on the rock will shelter you from hard times, struggles and suffering. What does Jesus say? “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house.” We should not be surprised when rain, floods and winds fall in our lives. If bad stuff is happening to you it doesn’t mean you are not in God’s favor. It simply means that life happens. Stuff goes wrong. People get sick. Debt stacks up. Times get tough. That’s life. We should not come here and worship God and then be disappointed when life happens. Life will never be pain, sorrow, and struggle free. Rain will fall, streams will rise, and the wind will blow. I wonder how many people would come to church if we put that message on our sign. What if our church sign said: “Come and join us as we suffer and struggle.” How many people would come ready to serve the Lord? We like things easy and convenient -- maximum pleasure and minimum pain. But Jesus knows that life is full of suffering and struggling. He calls us to a life that hears the Word of God and then puts them into practice.

No matter what you are building in life, you don’t want to cheat on the foundation. If you must skimp on anything, be sparing with the trivial. Skimp on the non-essentials. Save on the windows, the wallpaper, or the paint if you have to save a few dollars; but don’t ever cheat on the foundation. Which builder are you, the wise or the foolish? Are you building your life on listening to Christ’s words and acting on Christ’s words? Or are you relying on something else, or someone else, to get you through the storms of life?

When our lives are built upon faith and obedience to Christ, nothing can separate us from God. God wants us to hear and do -- to listen and then act upon what we hear. This is our strong foundation. The storms of life may rage, we may become frightened, we may lose courage and come close to despair. But no matter what happens, our faith cannot be destroyed. Christ will not lose us. When the tempests of life threaten, when the sky grows black, and the wind starts to howl, and the rain pours down, the key thing to remember is we do not need to have the strength to hold on to the foundation. We survive the torrents of time because Christ holds on to us.

As we come to the Lord’s Table today, we remember that when life gets uncomfortable on the rock, AND IT WILL, we have a foundation that is unshakable. We can have the strength and courage to survive the torrents of time. We can stand here and sing “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

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