24 “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. 25 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. 26 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. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:24-27 NIV
By far my most favorite passage of New Testament scripture is found between Matthew 5:1 and 7:27. This passage is referred to as Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 4, Christ accomplishes three foundational elements that set up his ministry. Firstly, he is tested successfully in the wilderness, by Satan. (An interesting side note is that he is tempted after his fasting period is completed around things that were natural and legitimate for him to desire). Secondly, he selects his disciples. Finally, he demonstrates the power of his ministry by going about his native Galilee “teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23).
In Chapter 5, when he ascends the hillside and begins his Sermon on the Mount, he is known by his audience. His teachings and exploits precede him, and his credibility is unquestioned. In what seems to be a significant contravention to conventional wisdom, he lays out the precepts of God’s kingdom. Admission to spiritual poverty rather than religious piety is a true mark of holiness (5:3). Loss and grief come and are to be embraced authentically and vulnerably (5:4). True humility seeks the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in all things (5:5). Growth comes only through an acknowledgement of the constant need for God (5:6). The presence of unforgiveness towards others is a spiritual blocker (5:7). Personal purity is possible and a pre-requisite for a close relationship with God (5:8). Authentic faith naturally results in a practical extension to the world through demonstrations of compassion and acceptance (5:9). Hardship is certain but a pathway to peace and maturity (emotional and spiritual) (5:10).
After laying down these concepts, Christ paints a more practical picture. He addresses the moral and legal issues of the day – murder, divorce, adultery, justice. He addresses behaviors that have established themselves as norms but that contravene the spirit of God’s Law (expressed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and declares that he does not desire to abolish the Law but to fulfill it - by demonstration and ultimately through his death/resurrection. He warns against various public displays of religiosity. Instead, he instructs on the value of closeted actions (prayer, giving) that are for an audience of one (God). At the end of Chapter 6, he speaks specifically about worry. He mentions its futility. He concludes by showing that only a focused and disciplined pursuit of God should be the believer’s priority. All needs are met through this assured channel of provision (6:33).
In Chapter 7, Christ concludes with some procedural instructions around how believers are to persist and be transparent in their quest for relationships with God and others. He prepares his followers for the rigor of the spiritual journey on which they embark (7:14) and demands vigilance in the way community is forged (7:19).
After he has said all this, he drops the wisdom of the quoted passage above. If stability of life is a desired personal outcome, it only comes through the intentional practice of hearing (studying, ingesting, and internalizing) Christ’s words and (consistent and disciplined) application, even when awkward or inconvenient. Church attendance and denominational affiliation are not enough. Bible study is not enough. Participation in a small group is not enough. Volunteerism is not enough. Outward demonstrations of religiosity are not enough. Ritualistic prayer recital is not enough. Giving to the church or to charity is not enough. Participation in various church activities or faith-based initiatives is not enough. Although these actions are notable, they do not result in the type of stability that is required to weather the inevitable misfortunes of life.
In next week’s devotional (part 2), we will describe the patterns that misfortunes follow and how various forces (including ourselves) collude to intensify the personal impact. We will also demonstrate that contrary to popular opinion and in some aspect of our lives, we are always navigating a “not the plan” plan – one which we or others did not choose for us.