I literally can't even: redux
Oliver Wendell Holmes is supposed to have said, “Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.”
So I know that a lot of times, perhaps too many times, I begin sermons by telling cute stories about my son Patrick. And he gives me a lot of material. He’s a good, sweet boy who knows more words than he should and brings lots of smiles and laughs to our family. But I might unknowing be painting a false picture of life in my family. Because Patrick is three. And he is every bit three. Including the terrible part.
Recently my wife and I have entered into a new category of parenting when we have been struggling with a child who from time to time refuses to listen to us. Parents you know this phase well. And it is so frustrating trying to get through to a child who refuses to listen. Can I get an amen?! A few weeks ago my wife was trying to get Patrick to go upstairs to take a nap. And Patrick said no. And my wife tried a couple ways to get him to listen. Finally, Patrick shouted to Emily, “I AM NOT GOING TO LISTEN TO YOU MOMMY!”
Today’s Scripture lesson is all about obedience. Obedience comes from the Latin “ob” to and “audire” to listen. So being obedient literally means to listen to someone. And it’s a topic close to my heart because I spend much of my day pleading with a three year old to listen to me. And to be a good listener. Sometimes I’d settle for just looking at me when I’m speaking.
Today’s Scripture lesson closes the sermon on the mount and brings to a close our sermon series on the sermon on the mount. Jesus finishes his sermon by talking about being obedient. He finishes his sermon with a call to action. Because as we all know, and as I am so clearly finding out in my own life, there is a difference between hearing words and putting instructions into action.
There are a lot of people that love the gist of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, who love the spirit of it, but balk at actually following it in their day to day lives. We love the idea of blessed are the poor in spirit until we are called to actually bless the poor in a way that would change our lives. We love the idea of loving our enemies until its pointed out to us exactly who our enemy is. We love the idea turn the other cheek until someone actually hits us.
But being obedient means really listening to Jesus. It means putting into practice the words he says. It means seeing the Sermon on the Mount as a roadmap for how to live a righteous life. Which is a point Jesus makes very clear in his final words in the sermon.
Matthew 7:21-29 “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 who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Within this section, there are three major movements. (1) Jesus talks about those who cry Lord Lord but have no place in Jesus’ kingdom, (2) the parable of the two builders, and (3) the crowd’s response to the sermon.
The first movement of this text confronts me and stops me short. As someone who is a follower of Jesus, as someone who cries out to Jesus “Lord Lord” I read and hear these words with fear and trembling. Could Jesus say to me, “I never knew you”?! But this isn’t about a grand switcheroo. This isn’t meant to give us worry or doubt. It is meant to ensure we understand what it means to call out to Jesus “Lord Lord.”
One of the early Christian claims was that Jesus was Lord. This functioned in two ways. The early Christians said Jesus is Lord what they were saying was, in part, Jesus is God. Jesus is, in some mysterious way, a human being that is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The second way this functioned was in relation to the Roman Empire, the occupying force over the Mediterranean world. There was a familiar phrase that related to the emperor: Caesar is Lord. So when the early Christians said Jesus is Lord what they meant was Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. And If Jesus is Lord that means we have to follow his commands. We have to do what he tells us. We get this when it comes to a claim like Caesar is Lord. Somehow we don’t quite get it when it comes to Jesus.
If you’re a Roman citizen, its not enough to just say Caesar is Lord. It’s not enough to work and carry out duties in the name of Caesar. You have to follow the commands, the laws, the dictates of Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t, its not enough for us to say that. It’s not enough for us to passionately sing worship songs. It’s not enough for us to make utterances with our lips or even to do singular acts of service in Jesus’ name. If we aren’t following his teachings, if we aren’t doing the things he said to do, is Jesus really our Lord?
Which is how and why Jesus can pivot so quickly to talking about building a house. And fashioning a life on teachings. So Jesus says that we need to put his teachings into practice in order to build our lives on a foundation that will remain. If we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven we need to not only say that he is our Lord but we have to serve him as our Lord. Only then will we be able to withstand the storms and surges of life.
Now this can get a little tricky. It doesn’t mean that those who follow Jesus’ teachings will be free from suffering. In fact, like Jesus himself, we can probably be assured of suffering.
Jesus never says we should expect to face storms. Jesus says the rain came. Not if it comes. Not even when it comes. It just comes. Because that’s just what happens in the climate of this story and it’s just what happens in the context of our lives. The rain comes. The suffering comes. The tragedy comes.
So following Jesus’ teachings aren’t a way to get out of suffering, they aren’t a way to skate through life Scott free, they aren’t a get out of bad stuff free card. But following Jesus’ teachings give us something more, something deeper, something more important.
There are two types of achievements in life. There are CV achievements, resume achievements. They’re things you can stack up, things you can put into a list that if you get enough of them you’re declared successful. But then there are eulogy achievements. These aren't the things that make you materially successful, these aren’t things you’d put on a resume. Instead they’re the things people know you for, like really know you for, they’re the things people will talk about at your funeral. She was so loving, she was so gracious, she was so generous.
You can spend your life devoted to achieving CV accomplishments. You can spend a life getting promotions, honors, distinctions, degrees. You can accumulate things and wealth. You can invest. You can have all of these CV achievements and have people look at you as a success. But at some point rain is going to come. Whether that’s some sort of loss or whether its at the end as we are all going to die. And when that happens, you’ll find that the CV is a house build on sand. Because it all goes away. The wealth and the things can be passed onto your children, but what will be the lasting memory of you?
Following the teachings of Jesus help us get eulogy virtues. They help us get eulogy achievements. They help teach us to be generous, gracious, loving, charitable. They help us build our lives on things that will make a lasting impression. So that when we get to the end of our lives, when we get to our deathbeds, and even as we face storms before that, we will be proud that our lives are built on things that last. Things that are eternal. Things that continue to mean something even as our lives pass away.
And this is where Jesus ends his sermon. In calling us to build our lives on a foundation that will remain, even through all the storms of life. And the crowd was amazed at his teaching. Scripture tells us those who heard Jesus teach said he spoke with authority.
We have called this series on the Sermon on the Mount “I Literally Can’t Even” and that was cute and funny for a couple weeks. But it’s really ironic in a couple ways.
It’s first ironic because if Jesus speaks with authority and if Jesus really is our Lord, then if we respond by saying I literally can’t even we are exactly like the people Jesus mentions at the beginning of this section who have no part in the Kingdom. Jesus makes it possible for us to can even and if he is our Lord then we have to do our best to live out his commands.
The second irony is related to this teaching with authority. Jesus teaches with authority in that he provides good and true interpretations of Torah. Teaching with authority was a Rabbinic term that was a designation for Rabbis who gave the best interpretations of Torah. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think Jesus spoke with authority because he spoke with authenticity. Jesus was not teaching one thing and living another way. Jesus didn’t tell his followers to turn the other cheek and then go from there and get into a fight. Jesus said all this and then he lived it out. Jesus says the point of this sermon is to go and do these things Jesus says to do and then Jesus does go and do the things he said to do.
As we close this series, we are left with the ultimate challenge. We are left with the ultimate call. We are left with the ultimate question. Jesus tells us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The way we do that is by following Jesus with authenticity in a hurting world. Will you go forth and live according to the teachings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount? Will you go forth and authentically serve Jesus as your Lord? Will you go forth and build your life on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ?