Our series on the Sermon on the Mount ends today with a warning in parable form:
“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them,
I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock.
The rain came down, the floods came,
and the winds blew, and beat on that house;
and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock.
Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them
will be like a foolish man, who built his house on the sand.
The rain came down, the floods came,
and the winds blew, and beat on that house;
and it fell—and great was its fall.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
The lesson is clear: If you expect to weather the storms of life and still remain standing, you’ll take Jesus’ teachings to heart and put them into practice. Jesus Christ is the only sure foundation upon which we may hope to stand. He is the basis for who we are and all that we hope to be. He is the rock upon which our faith is built.
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Living in Hope, where the soil is so unstable, we all know the importance of building on a firm foundation. So do the folks in Bryan, Texas. When I moved to Bryan I bought the house of one of my older members, who was moving to a retirement community in Dallas. She was of the old school – she’d designed it herself and overseen every aspect of the construction.
The problem was that it was located on a sloping corner. Her builder had advised her to pick another lot, but she liked the location and was not to be deterred. So she brought in an engineer, and he drilled some pilot holes until he hit solid bedrock twelve feet below. With that, she had him start by pouring twelve, twelve-foot bell-bottom piers, upon which the foundation would sit. Twenty years later, I couldn’t find even one small stress crack in the brick or the sheet rock.
One of my church members taught structural engineering at Texas A&M University, and I asked his opinion of the foundation and he said, “If it’s sitting on twelve, twelve-foot bell-bottom piers, it’s as substantial as any building on the A&M campus.”
We all agree, when it comes to building a house, an office building or a church, the place to start is with a firm foundation; and when it comes to building your personal life and deciding on the core principles and values and faith on which to stand, the only sure foundation is Jesus Christ.
That sounds easy enough. The problem is we live in a world of competing voices, and those voices influence how we think and act, so that when it comes down to what we really believe, it’s easy to lose focus.
For example, many believe that the only sure foundation for a successful life is financial security – that, as long as you’re struggling to make ends meet, you’ll always be preoccupied with the things of this world – a better job, a nicer home, enough money to get your kids through college and sufficient savings for retirement. They say it’s a matter of higher needs – you’ll never be able to devote yourself to the kingdom of God and his righteousness until you’ve got money in the bank.
Well, there’s certainly something to be said about financial security, especially if you’re hungry – worse still, if your kids are hungry – or if you’re drowning in a sea of debt. How can you sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” with creditors knocking at your door?
Financial security is an important building block in a life of faith; it’s just, when it becomes the basis of your life, it turns into shifting sand.
I can’t tell you how many young people over the years have told me that, once they got on their feet and established in their profession or vocation or line of work, they’d give to the church and support its mission efforts – they might even go on a mission trip. Their justification was simple: The more they had, the more they’d have to give.
It never quite works out this way, does it? For one thing, you never seem to have enough. More importantly, once you make financial security your goal, it becomes your god: You may have the means to support worthy causes, but the first and most important consideration is to hold on to what you have … and add to it, if possible.
Financial security is a poor foundation for a life of faith. So is prominence, which is what many folks base their lives on.
And let’s be honest – at some level, we’re all guilty of buying into the notion that the most important goal of life is to make a name for yourself; that the more prominent you are, the longer you’ll remain standing as others fall by the wayside, and the more likely you’ll be remembered when others are long-forgotten.
Again, there’s something to be said about the important of prominence. The Bible itself tells us,
“A good name is more desirable than great riches,
and loving favor is better than silver and gold.” (Proverbs 22:1)
It’s only natural to want others to know your name and to think well of you. It’s just that when that’s your goal, you can never quite get enough of it. It becomes an ego trip where the focus is on you, rather than the Spirit of God within you; and, like the house built on sand, when you stand on prominence, sooner or later, you’re likely to fall.
The other night, Kathy and I watched an interesting program on TV linking various forms of criminal behavior with an abnormality in the frontal lobe of the brain. A case in point was Chris Benoit, the professional wrestler who, in 2007, murdered his wife and son, then hanged himself.
At the time of his death, Chris Benoit had won thirty-two championships, two world championships and was on his way to winning a third. I’m not a fan of professional wrestling, but to give him credit—the fans loved him. He was one of the most popular and sought-after wrestlers of all times; then, all of a sudden, it came to an end.
Prominence is like that – a flash in the pan.
You’ve probably seen the email that circulated a few years ago that asked a series of questions like, “Who was the most valuable player of Superbowl XXVI?” “Who won the Academy Awards last year for best actor and best actress?” “Who won the most gold medals in the 2010 Summer Olympics?” Then it asked, “Who was your favorite teacher?”
You get the point: Those people who mean the most to us are not the most prominent, but the most giving, the most caring, the most loving; so that, when it comes to a strong foundation on which to build your life, prominence is a slippery slope.
Let me mention one more example before we move on, and that’s education. For many, the proper foundation for a good life is a good education. I certainly agree that education is important. It’s just that education alone is not enough. Like financial security and a good name, education is an important building block, but it ought not to be the foundation of your life.
My congregation in Bryan had a lot of well-educated people, especially in the fields of agriculture and engineering. We had as many PhDs per square foot as any church in the country. We had professors who not only taught classes and seminars on campus, but traveled around the globe to consult with companies and countries to help them develop and grow. One elder, in particular, taught Petroleum Engineering. He had on-going projects in South America, Africa and the Middle East. He was constantly on the go; yet, somehow, he managed to be in church almost every Sunday. As often as not, he taught an adult Bible class.
He’d be among the first to tell you how important it is for you to get a good education—that you ought to get as much as you can and continue learning as long as you live. But he’d also tell you that the basis of his life, not withstanding his vast education and experience, was his relationship to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a word, that’s what the little parable in the gospel for today is trying to tell us: The wise man or woman is the one who builds his house on a firm foundation; and, as scripture makes perfectly clear, that firm foundation is nothing less than Jesus Christ. To base your life on anything other than Jesus is a disaster waiting to happen.
So, what does it mean to build your life on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ? How do you go about it? Where do you start? Scripture says,
“…if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
As good Presbyterians, we take this verse to heart, but we go one step farther. We believe confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is something you ought not to do just once, but over and over as long as you live. Salvation is a lifelong process, not a one-time thing.
But it has to start somewhere. So, we confess our faith, then we reaffirm it, one way or another, each day. One of the simplest ways I know to do this is to sing this little song when you first get up in the morning:
“Into my heart, into my heart,
come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay;
come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”
Can you think of a better way to start each day? Another way to confess faith in Jesus Christ is to offer the Jesus Prayer – a simple, short prayer used by Christians as far back as the 5th Century. It goes like this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Say this, over and over, until it becomes a living mantra of your relationship to Jesus Christ. As I said, confessing faith in Jesus Christ with your lips isn’t something you’re to do once in a lifetime, but every day, as you grow in his likeness.
But don’t stop there. Once you confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, consider the effect of his death and resurrection on your life. The truth is Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins in order that you might have the promise of life, abundant and eternal. Nowhere is this stated more clearly than John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.”
Most of your already know it by memory. Say it often, only do this: Substitute your name for “the world.” In other words, let the verse read, “For God so loved … Phil … John Ed … Betty Jo … Mike … Cliff … Lisa … that he gave his only begotten son ….” Yes, Jesus died for the sins of the whole world; but, as importantly, he died for your sins, and for mine.
It took John Wesley half a lifetime to realize this. He studied at Oxford and served for years as an Anglican priest in the Church of England. He was scholarly, pious and well-respected. So, you’d think he would be pleased with his success, but, no – he was miserable. He lacked a sense of joy and peace about his life, his work and his faith.
Wesley searched high and low, particularly among the Moravians, who seemed to have that extra something he was looking for. Then one evening he went to a prayer meeting at a house on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone stood and began reading Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans. In that moment, his life changed forever. He went home and wrote in his journal,
“I felt my heart strangely warmed.
I felt I did trust in Christ,
Christ alone for salvation;
and an assurance was given me
that he had taken away my sins, even mine,
and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Before that night on Aldersgate Street, Wesley’s faith was theoretical and cognitive, a matter of the head. From that time on, it was practical and personal, a matter of the heart, as he came to realize that Christ had died for the forgiveness of his sins and set him free for a life of service to others.
And so, as we come to the end of this series on the Sermon on the Mount, I’d like to invite you to go back to square one and ask: What is the foundation of your life?
If it’s anything other than faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re standing on shaky ground. Christ, and Christ alone, is the solid rock on which to build a life of faith. No one knew this better than Edward Mote, who wrote the words to our opening hymn. If you will, let’s sing them together once more:
“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.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.