Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
The morning’s gospel text, which comes from the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, takes up the question of how Christians should live.
Jesus expects us to produce fruit for the kingdom – good trees bear good fruit – and he makes fruitfulness possible for us. Somebody once told me that an experienced person can tell by looking at a sapling whether or not it will produce good fruit later on. Jesus knows us and trusts that we will produce good fruit because of the faith in him that we receive as a gift from the Holy Spirit. He prunes us, of course, for he doesn’t want us to rest on our laurels. He makes sure that our lives are filled with fellowship, purpose, worthwhile activities, and faith. We’re well familiar with the fruits of the Spirit that Jesus mentioned at the start of the Sermon on the Mount: meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace. He plants a desire for good Christian fruits in our hearts and he builds them up in us. “Receive good lives,” he says to us. “I’ll see to it that you have the best there is.” He commands us to disregard false prophets who tempt us and bring his promises into our hearts and live by them.
Our spiritual foundation – what we believe is true – has a lot to do with the kind of life we lead, so Jesus says that his teaching is the foundation for wise, fruitful Christian living. We know how important a good foundation is to a building. A bungalow that someone puts up on a sandy beach might collapse in a big storm, while a house built on a rock will stand up to any blast. An old hymn is based on this passage: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Christ is our rock. If we don’t want to be blow about in the storms of life, we’ll listen to his teachings and abide by them.
A man who did some writing about 150 years ago described three ways of living, based on three different foundations. Only one of them has to do with Christ. The first is to consider life as something we observe and study but never get directly involved in. An extreme case might be someone who bases his life on playing video games or watching sports on TV. He doesn’t play sports; he’s not on any team. He just watches. The Stanley Cup and the Memorial Cup and the Grey Cup are like Christmas and Ester to him. Folks who adopt an observing approach to life like to collect experiences. They want life to be attractive and base their choices on what is beautiful or pleasing. They stand on the sidelines; they don’t commit themselves to much. The prodigal son who squandered the money his father gave him on what he thought was a good time is another extreme case. Folks who decide that riches or knowledge or pleasure or pleasure or style are worthwhile ends in themselves belong in this category. I’m sure there’s nobody like this at Our Saviour. I bet you don’t base your foundations on the shifting sands of external objects that can be observed or counted. Christ the rock is your base.
Another way to live is to build one’s foundations on ethical principles, the difference between earthly right and earthly wrong. Another of Jesus’ parable provides an example – the Pharisee who went to the temple and praised God for making him a wonderful person. You remember what he said to the Lord: “I thank you that I am not like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers. I fast twice in the week and I give generously from all I possess.” Lots of people, I suspect, who have a bit of worldly good fortune and don’t think about God or come near his church think along such lines. I once met a highly educated man with a very good job who told me that although he didn’t believe in God, he thought that if God exists, he ought to let him into heaven because of the outstanding life he led, full of hard work and good deeds and the respect of everyone who knew him.
People like that can have many advantages: they understand that we need to live within limits and that decisions have consequences. They are often willing to take on responsibility and make sacrifices for the good of others. They set high standards. What happens, though, when a crisis comes along and they realize they haven’t lived up to their ethical principles? What happens when they understand that like everyone else they’ve fallen short and missed the mark and that they have lived in rebellion against God? And how do they answer questions about death and eternity?
So we come to a third way of living – the spiritual or religious – when a person takes to heart the Bible’s message that God, who created the universe, rules and governs everything and declares that we are sinners who need his guidance, his strengthening, and his pardon. A person for whom life with God is in first place surrenders to the Lord, willingly lives under him in ways that please him, in repentance for sin, and in joy that Jesus has accepted him or her. Whatevcr the rest of the world may be doing, there are always plenty of people who stick with the Lord, and we praise God for that.
But we are not perfect. As life moves along from day to day and we see how other folks are doing, we may be tempted to say, “Why shouldn’t I live as an observer, looking out for what pleases me? After all, most of the time, if you make a commitment to something, you will take on problems.” Or: “If I base my life on sound ethical principles and don’t look for anything else, people will approve of me and I will move ahead. The good works I do will bring me a host of rewards.”
This way of thinking has its appeal and is tempting for some folks. “I go to church on Sunday. I do good every day. I’m okay. I don’t have anything to worry about:”
But not so. Complacency of spirit is a trap? “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name?” How easy it is to be satisfied with oneself! “Did we not perform many miracles?” But what did Jesus say? “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers.” The point is that God’s grace saves us, not our own works. It’s faith in him that makes us righteous before God, and faith is his gift to us, for the sake of Jesus, who died on our behalf. We should never think so well of ourselves that we hold up our good deeds and put them in the place of what God has done for us.
We keep a rein on our egos; we subdue our pride. We humble ourselves before the Lord who is our foundation and who promises to protect us from the storm he referred to. When we build our lives on him with his guidance, we will never be caught on sinking sand.
There are many kinds of storms, of course, and we need to know what tempests Jesus had in mind. Some troubles we hear about aren’t storms in the strict sense of the word, but they have the same effect as storms –epidemics, failures of technology, plane crashes wars, and so on. Also daily troubles like illness or relationship tangles. Jesus gives us and all his people the wisdom to cope with stresses, the strength to endure, and the hope to keep on going. But the storm that Jesus spoke about in this morning’s gospel was something else. He promises to protect us from the stormy consequences of being human – the sinfulness that leads to death – the outcome of our mortality, which no one can avoid.
Great achievements in medicine add years to our lives and science has brought us wonders. We’re grateful for these advances, not least because they extend our ability to give testimony to our faith. But they are very little compared with what Jesus offers – everlasting happiness with him in the kingdom of heaven, without pain or misery, sickness or death—eternal blessedness in his presence when he returns.
As we said, our neighbors find various patterns of belief to build their lives on. Christ calls everyone to receive him as his or her foundation. Those who answer his call are blessed. We appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and take advantage of it, but we don’t stop there. The difference between right and wrong is important to us and we cheerfully follow the commandments that God has set down. But we don’t claim that ethical principles or efforts to behave well make us right before God, for we can never measure up to his standards. Only Jesus can do that. We ask for his pardon and receive it. He takes away our burdens. He puts joy in our hearts and makes us so strong of faith that no storm – not even the winds of death – can tear us away from our foundations in him. We cling to him day after day in the assurance that he is our rock. In his name we give thanks. AMEN.