Well, I haven't as hoped made it to the 'impartation meeting' at Meadgate Church tonight. I had to finish Sunday's sermon this evening for family reasons, and didn't do so until a long time after the Meadgate meeting began.
Have you ever sneaked a look at the end of a book? A friend of mine once told
me he had a short cut to getting the best out of reading reviews: he read the
first paragraph and the last. Equally, sometimes I find myself reading an
article in a magazine, and I cover up the end of the piece, so that I don’t
suddenly see the punch line and thus lose the impact.
Today’s Lectionary Gospel reading gives us the punch line of
the Sermon on the Mount. If you wanted to know what it was all about and just
went to the end, you would read these verses. If you want to know why Matthew
put all these teachings of Jesus together into this block we call the Sermon on
the Mount, here is why.
And that punch line is about the importance of obedience. If
we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then obedience is central and critical. The
reading moves through three phases to get the point across.
1. Obedience Is Central
I don’t know about you, but for years I’ve struggled with the words of Jesus
that open this reading. How can Jesus tell people who call him ‘Lord, Lord’ to
depart from him, because he never knew them? Wasn’t confessing Jesus as Lord
the earliest Christian creed? Wasn’t that what marked out people as followers
of Jesus, in distinction to calling the Roman emperor ‘Lord’?
And what about the prophesying and casting out of demons?
Jesus expected his followers would do these things, and they are common
occurrences in the Acts of the Apostles. So how is it that people who are doing
the very thing Jesus expects of them are sent away from his presence at the
And if these people were prophesying and casting out demons
without being in a vital relationship with Jesus, does that make spiritual
power, the power of the Holy Spirit, even, just some kind of commodity?
I think it comes down to this. It’s possible to say ‘Lord,
Lord’ and for it just to be words. It’s easy enough to sing the words of our
hymns, but not mean them. Some of the staunchest defenders I’ve ever met of
Wesley’s hymns have been those with the least interest in believing what Wesley
believed, and in sharing the experience of God that he had. It’s possible to
say the creeds and the prayers without it ever translating into radical
obedience to the One whom we call ‘Lord’.
As to the prophesying and casting out of demons, maybe the
issue Jesus has here is something like this: are we committed just to random acts of
kindness, or to radical, day-by-day obedience to the teaching of Jesus? Because
if we are, what would it look like?
I’ve mentioned in the church newsletter
that there is something controversial and allegedly remarkable happening in the
town of Lakeland, Florida right now. A Canadian evangelist called Todd Bentley began conducting some meetings
on 2nd April. They have had to keep extending the meetings and
moving to larger premises. There are thousands of claims of remarkable
healings, even of people being raised from the dead. The last thing I want to
do is be cynical about this, and I dearly hope that the accounts are largely
true, but if this really is the ‘revival’ that many are claiming it is, I shall
expect to see more than healings and resurrections.
More than healings and resurrections? Yes. I shall expect to
see people pooling their possessions to help the poor. I shall expect to see people
feeding the hungry. I shall expect to see Christians being active peacemakers
in their societies, and forgiving their enemies. All this in addition to
healings and resurrections, because these too are signs of sold out obedience
to Jesus Christ.
What does that have to do with us? We’re not seeing amazing
miracles happen. Christianity is quite ordinary and down to earth for most of
us. Yet we face a similar danger. Is there something glamorous or exciting that
seeks to take our attention in place of the obedience we should be giving Jesus
Christ? What good or worthy thing gets in the way of our obedience?
It’s instructive to note that Jesus says, ‘I never knew you;
away from me, you evildoers’ (verse 23). Those of us who don’t practice
regular, daily, frequent obedience to Christ are people who don’t know him, and
whom he doesn’t know. To know Jesus is to obey him. If we know Jesus as Lord,
we shall do what he wants. Obedience is central to being a disciple of him.
2. Obedience Is
Having seen that obedience is central, even essential, to following Jesus, we
now hear that obedience is wisdom. In
the story of the two house builders, one builds on rock and the other on sand. The
one who builds on sand is foolish, but the one who builds on rock is wise. What
is the wisdom of this builder? Jesus tells us at the opening of the parable:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. (Verse 24)
Obedience to Jesus – hearing his words and acting on them –
is wisdom. You may think you’re not very clever, but that isn’t the same as
wisdom. Not everybody can be clever, but we can all be wise. Biblical wisdom is
obedience to Jesus. The simplest of folk can be wise. We just have to hear the words
of Jesus and do them. It doesn’t require
degrees, qualifications, or eloquence with words. It just needs a willingness
to listen to Jesus and transmit that to our hands and feet.
But to many, following the teaching of Jesus doesn’t seem
like wisdom at all. Why forgive or care for the weak when you can trample on
people all the way to your destiny at the top of the pile? Why give generously
when you can build up riches for yourself? Why make peace when violence will
secure what you want? This isn’t wisdom, is it? Surely, it’s an exercise in
foolishness. It’s shooting yourself in the foot.
Actually, no. To obey Jesus is to saw wood along the grain
of the universe. To obey Jesus is to navigate in the direction of eternity. And
because of that, when the storms of life hit (and Jesus doesn’t exempt us from them),
we’ll remain standing.
Several of you commented on last
week’s sermon about trusting and seeking God’s kingdom rather than worrying
about money. I talked about how tough things
had been for us financially, yet God had seen us through. This week, Scottish Power put up our monthly
direct debit for gas and electricity by around thirty pounds a month. It didn’t
do much for my stress levels! But it was a time to remember that going the way
of Jesus is the right thing to do, and that he will see us through this latest
storm, too. I’ve still started to do the sensible things like looking into
whether we should change energy supplier, and where we might be able to cut
back our energy consumption, but in the face of the storm we will stand,
provided we concentrate on hearing the words of Jesus and doing them.
So keep obeying Jesus. Whatever the storms bring and
whatever the world may say, you are going in the right direction. Obedience is
3. Obedience Is True
As the song asks, ‘What
is success?’ The church has been asking that question for a long time. In the
face of numerical decline, social apathy and hostility from leading atheists,
many churches would love a sniff of success. When a church has a success story,
the minister becomes in demand. Conferences book him or her as a speaker, she
or he writes a book, and people flock to the church to see what the fuss is all
about and whether they can translate any of the ideas into their situation.
Note, however, the sign of ‘success’ here in Jesus’ ministry:
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and
not as their scribes. (Verses 28-29)
When Jesus began the sermon, he was only addressing his
disciples, but now he has the crowds. And it’s the fact that he teaches ‘as one
having authority’. The authority of Jesus’ teaching draws the crowds. Of course,
at other times they will leave him, because that same authoritative teaching
will put them off. But Jesus will never compromise. His only desire is to
please his Father, and that means delivering his teaching in word and deed.
What’s the message for us here? Drop the gimmicks, and
concentrate on obeying Jesus. Don’t worry about the latest fads and fashions; focus
on hearing Jesus and doing what he says.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t modernise, I’m not saying we
should stay with our beloved traditions. I’m saying that substance has to take
precedence over style. The substance of Christian discipleship is obedience to
Jesus. We can decide to follow all sorts of paths in expressing our faith, but
unless we have the core issue resolved, namely that we shall follow Jesus, then
all the rest of it, ancient or modern, is on a par with the emperor’s new
Often in the face of church decline, people have responded
to new ways of doing church by saying, ‘We’re not called to be successful, but
we are called to be faithful.’ Well, that is true, but the problem comes in
defining what constitutes being faithful. We may hear it said that so-and-so is
faithful, but that may only mean that they are regular! Being faithful for the
Christian is about consistent obedience to Jesus Christ, and nothing less. It’s
also what God considers success.
So it’s incumbent upon preachers like me to share with you
what Jesus teaches, rather than spout forth personal opinions. If a preacher is
merely entertaining, do not entertain them. If a preacher makes the teaching of
Jesus come alive, listen intently and follow through with your actions
And it’s incumbent upon all of us to find ways of listening
to Jesus and responding to him. That’s why I favour the small group so much. John
Wesley put converts into small groups so that they could talk every week about
the joys and struggles of following Jesus, holding one another accountable. It’s
the place where we can thrash out together what a Bible passage means, and explore
how we might put it into practice. Because if we don’t do that, we’ll never ‘succeed’
in the eyes of God.
I began by talking about the punch line to the Sermon on the Mount. The problem
with talking like that is that it sounds like I’m talking about a joke, when
this is deeply serious.
No, obedience isn’t a joke. It can call on considerable
courage. But it is also a matter of joy. There is joy in obeying Christ. We
know that the demands seem tough, when set in opposition to our self-centred
tendencies. But when we allow Jesus to win in our lives, there is joy in the
satisfaction of having obeyed him. Not that we glorify ourselves, of course:
Jesus must receive all the praise.
So, let us be joyful in obedience. It is central to our
faith, it is true wisdom, and it is God’s plumb line of success.
And frequently on the blog in the last fortnight!