In 1174 the Italian architect Bonnano began work on what would become his most famous project: A bell tower for the local Cathedral. The tower was to be eight-stories and 185 feet high. There was just one “little” problem: builders quickly discovered that the soil was much softer than they had anticipated, and the foundation was too shallow to hold the structure. And sure enough, before long the bell tower began to tilt… and it continued to tilt… until finally the architect and the builders realized that nothing could be done to make what became known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa straight again.
It took 176 years to complete and many attempts were made to compensate for the “tilt.” The foundation was shored up; the upper levels were even built at an angle to try to make the top of the tower look straight. Nothing worked. The tower has stood for over 800 years, but leans about 17 feet away from where it should be and was closed in 1990 for fear that it would fall and cause loss of life and injury. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a vivid reminder that foundations may well be hidden but they are essential. As we come to the end of this series of studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings us to his application, our take away and he challenges us to check our foundations before it is too late.
“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. 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. 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. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:24-29)
The opening word ‘therefore’ draws the sermon to a close and links all that has gone before to this concluding illustration.
Notice what Jesus does not say… “everyone who hears these words of mine is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Hearing sermons is not enough. You may have been a member of Christ Church for one year or twenty years. If you have been a member as long as me – 12 years, and if you too have attended at least two services every Sunday, you will have heard more than 1200 sermons, allowing a few weeks a year for holidays. But if you have not put them into practice you are, says Jesus, you are “like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” Hearing sermons is not enough. But nor did Jesus say, “everyone who hears these words of mine and believes everything I say… is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Hearing is not enough. Believing is not enough either.
Jesus does not say “everyone who hears these words of mine and studies them carefully in a home group… is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Studying Jesus words is not enough. Jesus doesn’t even say, “everyone who hears these words of mine and teaches others to put them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” No. The people Jesus says are wise are those who “hear(s) these words of mine and puts them into practice.”
Listen to how John Stott summarises this passage,
“[Jesus]… illustrates the contrast between his obedient and disobedient hearers by his well-known parable of the two builders, the wise man who ‘dug deep’2 and constructed his house on rock, and the fool who could not be bothered with foundations and was content to build on sand. As both got on with their building, a casual observer would not have noticed any difference between them. For the difference was in the foundations, and foundations are not seen. Only when a storm broke, and battered both houses with great ferocity-‘rain on roof, river on foundation, wind on walls’1-was the fundamental and fatal difference revealed. For the house on the rock withstood the gale, while the house on the sand collapsed in irreparable ruin.
In the same way professing Christians (both the genuine and the spurious) often look alike. You cannot easily tell which is which. Both appear to be building Christian lives. For Jesus is not contrasting professing Christians with non-Christians who make no profession. On the contrary, what is common to both spiritual housebuilders is that they hear these words of mine. So both are members of the visible Christian community. Both read the Bible, go to church, listen to sermons and buy Christian literature. The reason you often cannot tell the difference between them is that the deep foundations of their lives are hidden from view. The real question is not whether they hear Christ’s teaching (nor even whether they respect or believe it), but whether they do what they hear. Only a storm will reveal the truth. Sometimes a storm of crisis or calamity betrays what manner of person we are, for ‘true piety is not fully distinguished from its counterfeit till it comes to the trial’.2 If not, the storm of the day of judgment will certainly do so.
The truth on which Jesus is insisting in these final two paragraphs of the Sermon is that neither an intellectual knowledge of him nor a verbal profession, though both are essential in themselves, can ever be a substitute for obedience. The question is not whether we say nice, polite, orthodox, enthusiastic things to or about Jesus; nor whether we hear his words, listening, studying, pondering and memorizing until our minds are stuffed with his teaching; but whether we do what we say and do what we know, in other words whether the lordship of Jesus which we profess is one of our life’s major realities.
In applying this teaching to ourselves, we need to consider that the Bible is a dangerous book to read, and that the church is a dangerous society to join. For in reading the Bible we hear the words of Christ, and in joining the church we say we believe in Christ. As a result, we belong to the company described by Jesus as both hearing his teaching and calling him Lord. Our membership therefore lays upon us the serious responsibility of ensuring that what we know and what we say is translated into what we do.
Thus the Sermon ends on the same note of radical choice of which we have been aware throughout. Jesus does not set before his followers a string of easy ethical rules, so much as a set of values and ideals which is entirely distinctive from the way of the world. He summons us to renounce the prevailing secular culture in favour of the Christian counter-culture.”
In the Letter to James, the Lord reinforces this truth even more bluntly:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? … As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14-24, 26)
Next week I will be having my Ministry Review with Bishop Christopher. It is a formal appraisal that takes place every two years. Before we meet he consults widely. The Church Wardens are asked to complete an appraisal on me. Another minister who knows me well is asked to do the same. A lay member of the church family and even someone in the local community is asked to complete an appraisal. Then I am asked to evaluate my personal life and ministry since my last appraisal. When we meet we will compare my self assessment with that of the others received. We will examine the personal and ministry goals we set two years ago, evaluate them and set new ones. The process is rigorous but it is intended to be constructive.
Each of our ministry team, Ro, Francis, Colin, Suzanne, Andy, Tim and Lesley also have appraisals. In their case, every six months, although only with their supervisor. The purpose is, however, the same. To assist us in our work by highlighting strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for development in order to assist personal, spiritual and ministry related development. You probably have something similar in your work place.
As we bring this series of studies in the Sermon on the Mount to a close, I don’t want this just to be one more sermon you hear. I want it to be different. I want to help you evaluate the foundation of your life. So let me ask you – do you consider yourself to be wise or foolish? If you were rating yourself based on say the last seven days decisions and actions, would you rate yourself: extremely wise, invariably wise, usually wise, occasionally wise, or occasionally foolish, usually foolish, invariably foolish, extremely foolish? If you have a pen or pencil mark a cross where you would place yourself on the spectrum.
extremely | invariably | usually | occasionally | | usually | invariably | extremely
And if others were evaluating your performance what would they say? If that was last week, what about this week? Do you want to be wise or foolish? We don’t have to wait till we encounter a severe storm before we discover what kind of foundation our life is built on. By then it may be too late.
Better to do some evaluation while the sun is shining, and to do so regularly.
“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.” (Matthew 7:24)
Here are some of the words of Jesus we have looked at in recent weeks he would have us put into practice if we want to be wise and secure in the storms of life. As I read through them reflect on whether you have been wise or foolish this week in regard to each command of Jesus.
Salt and Light
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Anger and Reconciliation
“if you … remember that your brother or sister has something against you… first go and be reconciled to that person.” (Matthew 5:24)
Honesty and Integrity
“do not swear an oath… All you need to say is simply ‘Yes,’ or ‘No;’ (Matthew 5:34, 37)
Generosity and Availability
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:42)
Love and Reconciliation
“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44)
Compassion and Secrecy
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Matthew 6:3-4)
Prayer and Secrecy
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” (Matthew 6:6)
Simplicity and Generosity
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6:19-20)
Trust and Dependency
“do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25)
Judging and Mercy
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged…So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:1, 12)
Rate yourself on each one of those ten injunctions from Jesus.
How did you do? How many ticks are on the ‘wise’ side of the page and how many are on the ‘foolish’ side?
John Stott says,
“It would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of the choice between them, since one way leads to life while the other ends in destruction, and one building is secure while the other is overwhelmed with disaster. Far more momentous than the choice even of a life-work or of a life-partner is the choice about life itself. Which road are we going to travel? On which foundation are we going to build.”
Which builder are you most like? What is your foundation?
Now you may feel a complete failure. Join the club.
You may feel that your life is built on sand and you may very well be right. You may even feel that you are about to fall and there is no hope. But that is not inevitable. It is not necessarily true. Remember the Leaning Tower of Pisa? In 1990 the Tower was closed because it was in real danger of toppling over. But an international team of architects and engineers got to work to solve the problem. They took 12 years and spent $25 million to reduce the tilt by 45 centimetres. It still leans today but not by as much as it used to. Opened again in 2001, you can climb the 284 steps to the top, admire a fine view over Pisa and the surrounding countryside. But now tourists are limited to groups of 30 people at a time and you have to book in advance. Engineers say it should now survive for another 200 years at least.
The foundation of the Tower of Pisa was repaired and there is more work that can be done. The same is true of you and me. It is not too late if we heed these words of Jesus.
Let me ask you some questions as we close. Allow the Holy Spirit to use them to help you evaluate the kind of foundation you have been laying and the kind of foundation you are going to lay this coming week.
Instead of feelings of hatred will I be forgiving?
Instead of revenge will I seek reconciliation?
Instead of being consumed by lust, will I act with integrity?
Instead of undermining my marriage will I be faithful?
Instead of using deception will I speak the truth?
Instead of resenting people who annoy me will I pray for them?
Instead of being materialistic, will I be generous?
Instead of worrying all the time, will I trust God for my needs?
Instead of judging people will I seek their best interests?
Rather than wait six months or two years for our next review, or a perfect storm, or worse, the day of judgment to test our foundations, lets commit to a daily assessment, alone with Jesus. Let us learn to review the day that has gone and evaluate the day ahead in prayer and ask for his help in laying a secure foundation. A foundation based not only on hearing his words but putting them into practice. Lets commit to becoming wiser tomorrow than we were today. Lets pray.