A talk on Matthew 7: 21-27 Sunday 2 December 2012, 4.30pm
If you get the train from here to London, then right by London Bridge station you see the tallest building in the European Union – the new Shard Tower. It is immensely, ridiculously tall. Love it or hate it, you certainly can’t miss it. When the viewing platform opens in February (£24.95 a time) it will offer spectacular views across London as far as the South Downs (weather permitting!). Which set me thinking: how does a building like that stay up? A big part of the answer, of course, is in what you can’t see: the foundations. They apparently go down to a depth of 164 feet, and are filled with 700 truckloads of concrete.
There must have been days when they felt they were pouring concrete into a black hole; but when I’ve saved up my £24.95 and go up to that viewing platform, I’ll want to know that the foundations are there.
And in our second bible reading today, from Matthew 7, Jesus asks us a similar question about our foundations – not the foundations of a building, but the foundations of our lives. It’s on page 7, towards the back of the green bibles.
Let’s have a look at v24: ‘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. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’
You can imagine those two guys building their houses. I’m sure I know which one would have finished first! His house probably looked just great from the ground upwards. No-one would have necessarily thought there was a problem…until the storm came, and all the impressive stuff above the ground fell down with an enormous crash – worthless.
I bet the builders of the Shard could have saved a good few million by cutting a few corners on the foundations. And you can bet that on an average day like today, a shallower foundation would be fine to keep that tower up. But the architects and builders will have planned a building able to survive the biggest storm imaginable and still remain standing. They have dug down to solid rock.
Likewise, it won’t necessarily be cheap or easy to get the foundations of our lives in shape. And for the average day, it might seem that average foundations will be fine. But the storm is coming.
You might feel that you’re facing particular storms in life at the moment. You might feel your faith, your priorities and your values, even your strength, being tested. Life in this fallen world does bring its storms. But there is one particular storm that Jesus warns of here. Let’s look back to v21: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On 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?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
What is the storm that he’s talking about? Well, in v22 Jesus says “on that day…”, and in v23 we see that it’s the day when some people will hear him say “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers!”. Yes, Jesus is talking about one terrible storm in particular, and it’s the storm of his future return as King and Judge – as we particularly remember on this Advent Sunday. It is that day above all which will test the quality of the foundations of our lives.
It’s possible to seem absolutely fine ‘above ground’, but still to get a huge shock when ‘that day’ comes, with its big storm that simply washes away our inadequate foundations. The strident atheists like Richard Dawkins will get a shock. But do you know that some of the religious people will as well? Did you see in v22 that there will be people who’ve worked and spoken on behalf of Jesus, even who’ve apparently worked miracles in his name…and on that day Jesus will turn to them and say “No, I don’t think we’ve ever met…Away from me!”
How can this be? Well, what does Jesus say is the difference between the wise man who builds his house on the rock and the foolish man who builds his house on the sand? Many people think the difference is that the wise man hears what Jesus says. But no! If we read verse 24 carefully we see that both men hear the things that Jesus says. The difference is that the wise man acts on them. He does something about what he hears – he puts the words of Jesus into practice. It’s not just paying lip service: saying to Jesus “Lord, Lord…”, but action: as Jesus says in v21, doing the will of his Father in heaven.
You may be conscious today of a particular thing that you know God is saying to you, but which you haven’t yet done. Sometimes I know I have gone round in circles trying to make a particular sin go away, knowing that God’s word tells me to do the difficult thing and confess it to the people I need to. It’s always best to put God’s word into practice, and to do it straight away. But does Jesus also have a particular message for us here when we consider this parable in its context?
This parable comes at the end of a famous section of Jesus’ teaching called the Sermon on the Mount. It gives a radical reappraisal of the Jews’ Old Testament textbook – the Law of Moses. Jesus goes up a mountain, just as Moses did when he received that Old Testament Law from God. And through all the detail Jesus makes two big points. Firstly he says: do you realise that today God has not changed his standards? The only acceptable standard to a perfect God is perfection. Not your view of perfect
ion, but his. How do you think you’re doing? And the second thing he says is: do you realise how easily we become religious hypocrites: different on the surface from what we are deep down? Your life may look fine, says Jesus – you may be outwardly respectable, you may be religious, you may be hardworking, you may be a bishop, you may even be in the choir! – but when I return there is going to be a storm which will test the quality of what’s underneath.
I’m not looking for people who’ll give me a polite hearing, says Jesus; I’m not looking for people who’ll put me into a box and make a religion that they can control. I’m looking for fruit: changed lives that will point back to me. That’s not at all saying we should try to heap up a load of good works to earn our way to God. After all, if only godly perfection will get you to God, then none of us has a hope! But it’s very interesting that the very next thing that happens, at the start of Matthew 8, is that Jesus comes down from the mountain and meets a leper. An outcast of society, with an incurable disease. The leper kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” And it’s no coincidence how these stories are arranged. I think we’re supposed to see ourselves in that leper and realise that our only hope is if Jesus makes us clean.
And that, most fundamentally, is what it means to have foundations on the rock – to put these words of Jesus into practice. Not living the life of a hypocrite, acting a religious play. But coming to Jesus as that leper did. Because he is the rock that never fails.
When Jesus comes back, there will be people – religious people; people who think they’ve done a lot for him – who will hear him say, “I never knew you”. And whether we know him – not what we’ve tried to do for him, or how religious we’ve been – is what will count. Be assured that he loves you; not because of what you’ve done for him, but despite all that you haven’t done for him! He wants to know you; and that relationship begins by surrendering to him.
So how are your foundations? Think back to the Shard. You may or may not seem spiritually tall and impressive to others. You may or may not think you’re spiritually tall and impressive yourself. The point is that the storm of Jesus’ return will test the quality of your foundations: whether you’ve really built on him, by putting his words into practice because you trust him.