Real choices - Matthew 7:13-29

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 28th April 2002.

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"Many people will say, ‘I like the Sermon on the Mount.’ I don’t. I find it a terrifying document. It says things about love which my own experience cannot rise to at all in my own strength. I don’t like the Sermon on the Mount because all I can say at the end of it is, ‘God have mercy on me a sinner.’" Now that is written by someone who really does understand the Sermon on the Mount, a Professor of Theology no less, Dr. Charlie Moule of Cambridge. And of course he is absolutely right. When, as we are doing tonight, you come to the climax of this Sermon you realise that the ultimate issue it confronts us with is the authority and identity of the One who is preaching- Jesus of Nazareth. His person and his words divide humanity into two groups-those for him, those against him, those who act upon what he says and those who pay mere lip service.

Who is he? Well, he is the one who can confidently call God ‘my Father’- v 21 which no self respecting Jew would dare do. He is the one who happily accepts the title ‘Lord’ Yahweh, the sacred covenant name of God himself- v21. He is the one who can tell us what will stand on the day of Judgement- v22. He is the One who can declare the tree of an individual’s life good or bad. He is the One who takes to himself prerogatives which belong to God alone. So in v22 he talks about people ‘prophesying in my name’ when in the OT, prophets would only prophesy in God’s name. And what I find particularly fascinating is the way in which Jesus takes up the notion of God’s Wisdom as found in the first 8 chapters of Proverbs and applies them to himself- such that he is Wisdom personified and his words are put on a level with God’s words. So in Proverbs 1:25 we hear Wisdom saying this: ‘ Since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke I in turn will laugh at your disaster .I will mock when calamity overtakes you like a storm’. Which is the language of vv 24-27. As Wisdom in Proverbs calls out to men and women to believe and act upon her words, those who do are called wise ,and those who don’t are called ‘foolish’- now all of that is transferred to Jesus so that which category we fall into turns on how we respond to Jesus and his words. You see, these are not pious platitudes spoken by some wandering mystic which we can take or leave, these are life or death sayings uttered by God incarnate which we ignore at our peril. And unlike the religious supermarket idea with which we are only too familiar today where there is a whole host of different beliefs which we can pick and mix at will, God in Jesus presents us with only two choices and nothing in between. And in this final section he particularly has in mind those who would claim to be his followers- those who , as it says in v24 ‘Hears these words of mine’. So the challenge then is not so much for the uninformed unbeliever outside the church but for the professing believer inside the church. It is addressed to folk who would come to a place like this week after week, who would sign up for the student meetings, Mark 2, the TNT group or whatever. It speaks directly to those like myself who would climb into the pulpit and claim to be doing lots of things in Jesus’ name, but who nevertheless are faced with the question as to whether their profession is genuine or not. Are you a genuine Christian? And to help us answer that question honestly Jesus speaks about two routes, two fruits and two houses.

First of all, two routes v13- 14 (read). You know, some people give the impression that becoming a Christian is the easiest thing in the world. In fact some of the more popular evangelism programmes around today make it appear that you can keep pretty well everything you want in this life, and have Christ as the icing on what is already a delicious cake. ‘Do the course, have the experience’ and there you have it- Yuppiefied Christianity. These words of Jesus clearly challenge those of us who would be tempted to lower the entry requirements into his kingdom. Jesus speaks about the gate and road which leads to life as being narrow. The actual word he uses ‘stenos’ which at root which means ‘ to groan’as a result of a restriction-hence our word stenography, writing in a compressed form. The turnstile into this kingdom of life admits only one person at a time. That means you cannot sneak into this kingdom on the coattails of your parents or your spouse or your Christian friend. Having an association with the Christian crowd isn’t enough, you cant anonymously creep in that way either. You have to enter his kingdom one by one, personally and publicly. And because it is narrow there is no room for bringing your baggage along either- sin ,self and pride have to be left behind. The Bible’s word for it is ‘repentance.’ And once you are through the turnstile you are immediately on the road, and this too begins narrowly, leaving not much room to manoeuvre at all. So you can’t be sleeping or living with your girlfriend if you are a Christian, that has to be sorted out. You can’t be living and dying for that career or that relationship while Jesus and his kingdom is relegated to Sundays .The road is narrow. This is radical discipleship Jesus is talking about, he is not playing games. This is a life not a hobby.

You see, true Christianity is not a popular religion, though we are tempted to make it so, to show that it is cool to be a Christian. It never has been and it never will be. Did you notice what Jesus says in v 14? ‘ But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.’ The popular way, is, as Jesus says here, the broad way. And there are Christianised versions of the broad way, in which Christianity simply appeals to the ‘me’ culture. Where it appears comfortable, but never costly. Where it is all fun and self-indulgence, rather than faithfulness and self-sacrifice. So isn't it tragic, then, when people dismiss Christianity as being for wimps. I can assure you there is nothing remotely wimpish about being a Christian, its tough, or at least it should be. Any jellyfish can go along with the crowd, keep quiet at college or school when the CU meeting is on and hiding, joining in with the sniggers and the jokes. It takes guts to say, ‘I am going to this, I am a Christian. I am going to speak up for Christian values even if they are not PC’, because then you run the risk of being thought of as odd, of being uncool - and of course you are, as far as the world is concerned, but not as far as Jesus is concerned- you are being committed.

Now Jesus gives us no option here. He issues a command ‘Enter by the narrow gate’ The question is, Have you? Are you in the road? Because if not that means you are on the other road and eventually that road is going to contract into a dead halt and then destruction. Now those are Jesus’ words, not mine. They are pretty urgent aren’t they? You see, we can’t say to this preacher: ‘Nice sermon Vicar, very interesting’- we have to bow in his presence, we have to do what he says or we will be lost. That’s his message.

So how do you know whether you are dealing with a true disciple of the Kingdom or not? By comparing the two fruits- vv 15-23. (read 15- 20) You see, the question is not only, ‘Have you entered?’ but, ‘Is there real change?’ A profession of faith which makes no significant difference to the way we behave is barren and will save nobody-that is the point. There has to be fruit, consistent, attractive fruit on the tree of our lives. It is fruit which shows that the master gardener is at work, which will satisfy the hunger of the passer- by.

And being an impressive up front leader who exercises a prophet role within the church is no guarantee either that faith is genuine. The danger is that the earnest Christian who wants to be out and out for the Lord is taken in and led astray by such people. These leaders will say enough of the right things, use the correct jargon, bleat like sheep and look like sheep, but inside they are simply going to destroy like wolves. Like thorn bushes they are going to hurt you, although from a distance they may appear quiet attractive and very popular, like the road they are on. And neither is sincerity the issue- wolves are sincerely wolves, thorn bushes sincerely thorn bushes, they are true to their nature and really believe what they believe. So how are we to discern the true form the false? Jesus tells us: by their fruit.

One of the earliest pieces of Christian writings which dates back to the first century is the Didache. And this has a whole section devoted to false prophets who are described as ‘Christemporos’ meaning ‘Christ merchants’- that is they see the gospel as a means to serving their own ends. Here are just a few of the ways the early Christian leaders suggested to tell a false prophet from a true one and it might not be a bad idea if we adopt the same criteria today. First, a true prophet would not remain as a house guest for more than two days because he would need to be up and about his work. The false prophet, however, would stay on indefinitely, getting as much out of the stay as he could. The second test was a financial one- the true prophet would only ask for bread and water- i.e. only the bare necessities to keep him going. The false prophets would not be averse to asking, even demanding money. Third, was the question of lifestyle- the true prophet practised what he preached- holiness, kindness, generosity, living simply, not lavishly. But the false prophet was really no different from the materialistic pagan-he just prettied it up in Christian dress using Christian jargon. Fruits you see.

So why is it that millions will switch on the god channel, and flock to the meetings of a man like the faith healer Benny Hinn for example , who in the TV documentary a last year , says he needs his own private jet because his life would be too stressful otherwise? Who when confronted with a couple who had sold everything, massed up debts to get money to send to Hinn so that their little son was healed, and then who died, and still blamed themselves because they did not have enough faith, simply shrugged it off as being of no consequence, with not even a hint of compassion for these devastated people or an offer to give them their money back. What possible connection does such crass showmanship and money grabbing antics have with the carpenter from Nazareth? When Jesus says ‘beware of false prophets’ he was not being flippant, or academic, he knew they were coming, and we have them in abundance. But their end if clear- v19, they will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Again he is not speaking about those outside the church- JW’s, Moonies, he is talking about those who would claim to be in the fold and making a packet while they are at it.

But you say, who can argue with their results, what they do? When was the last time you performed a miracle Melvin? These guys are doing it every week in full view of thousands. They get converts in their hundreds, which is more than you do. Well, look at v 22 ‘Many (there are scores of them you see) will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord (professing Christians-they know the lingo) did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out many demons and perform many miracles?’ Jesus doesn’t say that they didn’t. He accepts that they did all of these things. But what does he call them? Oh they are doers all right - they are busy- but they are ‘evil doers’ -he never knew them. They didn’t know Jesus, but they used him and that is what is evil. Can you think of anything more disgusting than to take the precious name of the one who gave up everything, who made himself a nobody, left to die hanging on a gibbet for our redemption- and then to use it as a profitable means to line your own pocket, to falsely raise people’s expectations, using them, manipulating them-destroying them-all in the name of ‘Jesus’ ? But it can happen in other ways too. The Christian leader who denies basic Christian truths in order to build an academic reputation. The Christian minister who will introduce whatever is the latest fad to draw a congregation while starving them of the word of God. There isn’t one of us, myself included, who have not felt the pull in that direction at some time.

So who will enter his kingdom? v 21 ‘The one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ The issue of salvation turns on obedience to the Word of God-the Gospel. Is this what is taught, is this what we try to live our lives by? Because we can be quite sure that nothing else will cut much ice with God on judgement day.

But then we come to the climax of the sermon, Jesus has now got us on the ropes and he won’t let up until we surrender fully to him-the building of the two houses vv 24- 27.

This last image follows up the previous two. Not only is there the question: ‘Have you entered?’ and ‘Is there change?’, but also ‘How do you build?’ He is asking his congregation and us, whether or not they are building on the only foundation which will bear the weight.

Now this is a story that Christians like, because it reminds them of the chorus they perhaps used to sing as children-’ The Wise man built his house upon the rock’. And they like it because they tend to assume that they are the wise man. But it may have more impact if the story forces us to ask whether in fact we are the foolish man. Because the men in the story represents people who have actually listened to Jesus words. They have done Christianity Explained, a two ways to live programme. They have been coming along faithfully to Mark 2, Focus, St. Johns week after week. Their Christian pedigree is impeccable, they have been baptised, they have been confirmed, they have made a decision for Christ-they heard his words. But what are they actually building their lives on? Maybe the foundation is an unstable mixture of Christianity and something else- the popular views that are being effectively disseminated through the TV soaps or in the college seminar- you can be religious so long as you keep it private. Believe in Jesus as a good example, even as God, but whatever you do don’t turn into some fanatic- rather live and let live. So what that you dabble in that that pornography , drink like a fish at parties, cheat in exams, short change your employer at work. After all being a Christian is meant to be fun. But to compromise on Christianity is like a builder compromising on a foundation, eventually a price will have to be paid. The cracks might well begin to show up in this life, when the storms come our way-when we lose our job or fail that exam, or split in a relationship. How you respond to such trials will really show up just who you are trusting in and how much you have taken his teaching on board. If you react with incredulity and anger, ‘Well if this is how God treats me, I don’t want to know him, after all the evangelist told me, ‘Whatever I ask for in God’s name he will give it’ but he has let me down, who cares about Christianity.’ And so off you go onto the next thing.

Now when you think about it, what is building your house upon the sand but a failure to take in the other two things Jesus says about the two routes and the two fruits? The main reason for professing Christians giving up when times are hard is because they have never been properly converted. They have not gone through the narrow gate and set foot on the narrow road, they have kept on the broad road and simply Christianised their hedonistic lifestyle, having a form of religion but without the reality. In addition they may have been taken in by the false prophets who claim to be speaking in Jesus’ name, telling us that if we have this experience or follow this teaching we are going to be power filled Christians, successful Christians, but it is a million light years away from the teaching of Jesus who talks about taking up a cross and following him, who says, sell up and give to the poor. So it is inevitable that at some point it will be shown to be false and empty, a sham. And the time it will be exposed for all to see is on judgement day-that is when the whole house will collapse with a sickening thud- v27.

So what are we to do? How can we even begin to live out the Sermon on the Mount with its high demands? Well. by doing precisely what Jesus says, ‘Hearing and doing these words of mine.’ That is, we are to take on board the whole of Jesus teaching-teaching about himself -the fact that he is God incarnate upon whom are final destiny is rests. Taking to heart his promises ,that those who are poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of heaven-that is experience his saving rule. That he is the dispenser of the Holy Spirit who empowers us, however falteringly to walk this narrow path and show a love to each other that is not natural to us.

Now it may well be that as you have been listening you realise that for whatever your show of Christianity you have never experienced true Christianity. You have not entered by the narrow gate. You have simply refused to let go of things which you know deep down you know you have to sacrifice. It could be that you now realise that you have been taken in by some popular but wrong teaching and you want to get back to the simple ,yet powerful words of Jesus. It may be that we realise how much we have drifted from this full blooded Gospel which Jesus presents us with and now it is time to resolve to come back and recommit ourselves afresh. If so, then will you bow your heads in prayer as we pray together.

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