Lent Series on Christian Disciplines #3: Action
Three weeks ago in my sermon for the Sunday before Lent, I suggested that this season of Lent can be for us a significant moment, a moment that makes a difference for the future course of our lives. It can be a time for us to learn some new habits and take on some godly disciplines that will help to shape us as Christian disciples long past the end of Lent. I suggested six areas of our lives that we need to think about: prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve talked about prayer and study, and this week I want to continue by thinking about the Christian discipline of action.
We all know that two of the key elements in a healthy lifestyle are proper nutrition and plenty of exercise. Both of them are important, and unless we have a proper balance of both, we won’t achieve a healthy life. Nutrition is to do with input – giving our bodies the proper fuel they need so that they can do the things we ask of them. This is vital, but it needs to be combined with output - a wise exercise plan that includes both periods of strenuous activity and times of rest when the body can rebuild damaged tissues.
In the Christian life, too, we need a good balance of nutrition and exercise. Nutrition comes to us as we feed ourselves on the Word of God, as we spend time in prayer, and as we worship God together and celebrate the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. Exercise comes when we take the teaching and example of Jesus and put them into practice in our lives. We need a proper balance of nutrition and exercise in order to be healthy Christians.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after he had come back from the desert where he’d been tempted by the Devil, he came into Galilee telling people that the Kingdom of heaven was close. He chose disciples to follow him and learn the new way of life of the kingdom of heaven, and he told them that he would teach them to fish for people. Then he went with them on a mission trip around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the good news of the coming of the kingdom, as well as healing every kind of sickness.
Huge crowds came to him from all over the country, and when he saw the crowds he went up a mountain, just like Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law of God. The disciples and the crowds came to him on the mountain, and he sat down and began to teach them about this new life of the kingdom of God.
He began by looking around at the crowd and seeing the wide variety of people there. There were those who knew that they were spiritual failures, those who were mourning for one reason or another, those who were humble, as well as those whose meat and drink was to see God’s justice come on earth. There were those who were merciful, those who worked hard to keep their hearts pure, those who were known as peacemakers, and those who were persecuted because they tried to do what was right. Some of these people thought they were doing okay spiritually, while others knew they were failing badly; some were having a pretty happy life and others were not doing so well. But Jesus assured them that they were all welcome in the kingdom of heaven and that God’s blessing would come into their lives because of the kingdom.
This was important, because he was about to announce the curriculum for his school of the kingdom, and it was a very demanding curriculum! But first, he wanted people to know that there was no entrance exam they had to pass to get into the school. Anyone was welcome to come in and begin the transformation process, no matter where they were starting from. Holy or unholy, happy or sad, all would experience blessing because of the Kingdom.
Jesus went on to set out the purpose of his school of the kingdom: to change the world. His followers were going to be like salt that kept the world from going bad and added flavour to it; they were going to be like a bright city on a hill, shining their light in the darkness all around them. Salt and light are only useful because they’re different. Salt has to be different from meat in order to preserve it. When you’re in the dark and you want to see, it’s no good spreading more darkness around. You need light, and light has to be different from darkness in order to be of any use. So we followers of Jesus will do absolutely no good in the world if we are just the same as the people around us. We have to be different, and visibly different, if we are going to do any good.
How are we going to be different? Jesus tells us something that sounds very demanding; he takes the most outstanding examples of holy living in his day, the Pharisees, and says that his followers have to be better than them. We can imagine the shock in the crowd; how was it possible for them to be more righteous than the most upstanding citizens of their day? But Jesus went on to explain that the holiness of the scribes and Pharisees was only skin deep – it only had to do with outward actions, while what he was interested in was inner transformation as well. And he went on to give some examples of what he was talking about.
He said, ‘you know that in ancient times they were told not to murder, but I tell you, that’s not enough. Murder is caused by anger and verbal abuse, so I want you to turn away from those things as well. If you’ve got a disagreement with a brother or sister, it’s not enough that you heroically decide not to murder them! Work for reconciliation with them instead.
‘And you know how they were told not to commit adultery? Well, that’s all very well, but adultery comes from lust. So watch your eyes, and watch your heart, and do whatever it takes to root lust out of your life. And by the way, don’t congratulate yourself that when you divorced your wife it was all done amicably and above board and according to the law. Unless there’s been marital unfaithfulness, you ought not to be divorcing each other at all!
‘It’s not enough to keep your word when you swear an oath in court. In fact, it shouldn’t be necessary for you to swear an oath at all. You should be truthful all the time, and people should know that about you, so that they wouldn’t even think of asking you to swear an oath, because they know you never lie.
‘And you know those Old Testament laws that say if someone knocks out your tooth, all you can take in return is their tooth? Forget about that! If someone hits you on the cheek, turn the other one to them, and if someone sues you for your coat, give them your sweater as well. Give to everyone who begs from you and don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You know that in the old days people used to say “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”, but I’m telling you that God’s not like that – he loves his enemies and sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike. I want you to be like him, loving not just your friends but your enemies too’.
So in all these ways Jesus explains to us that he doesn’t just want us to be good on the outside, in a grudging sort of way; he’s looking for internal change as well. And we’re not to do this just to rack up brownie points with people for being so ‘spiritual’. In the time of Jesus, there were three spiritual practices that every godly Jew knew were vital to the holy life: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Jesus did not challenge this view: he expected his followers to do these things too. But he emphasised that we should do them for the right reasons. Some people are living their life to impress other people, so when they give to the poor they announce the fact with a press conference, and when they fast they make sure everyone can hear the rumblings of their stomachs! Jesus tells us not to do that! Those folks have already received all the reward they’re going to get! You should only be concerned with pleasing your Father in heaven.
And by the way, he said, don’t think you have to pray great long prayers to get your Father’s attention. Simple ones will do – short, sincere, and specific is good. You want an example? Here it is: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one’. Jesus underlined that forgiveness clause: if you want God to forgive you, you’d better make sure that you forgive others as well.
He told us to keep our lives free from the love of money and possessions. Don’t accumulate treasure on earth, because that’s not a smart investment; it’s not going to last. Better to accumulate treasure in heaven. You can’t serve God and wealth, so you’d better decide which one you’re going to serve. So don’t allow your life to be dominated by worrying about food and drink and clothing; if God looks after the animals and the flowers of the field, don’t you think he can look after you? Don’t you think he knows what you need? So make his kingdom the number one priority in your life, and trust him to provide what you need.
Jesus went on to warn us against using these words of his as a weapon to beat up other people. This is not about other people’s obedience; it’s about my obedience! It’s not up to me to point out the speck of dust in my brother’s eye, while all the time I don’t see the two-by-four in my own eye! So don’t waste time forcing your pearls of wisdom on an unwilling audience; they probably won’t respond very well! Better to work on getting your own life in shape, so that you’ll have some credibility. And you’re not alone in this: your Father in heaven is quite willing to give you the help you need in obeying this teaching. Ask, and you will receive, seek, and you will find, knock, and the door will be opened! After all, none of us are perfect parents, but we know how to give our kids good things; how much more will our heavenly Father give good things to those who ask?
Jesus closed his sermon with a rule of thumb: treat others the way you’d like them to treat you, and you’ll find you’ve fulfilled the entire law of God.
Except, that wasn’t quite the end of his sermon; he added some hard-hitting words about the importance of actually putting this stuff into practice, not just listening to it. Don’t be put off by the difficulty of this road, he said: the road to destruction is easy, but the road to life is hard. Don’t listen to people whose lives don’t agree with their words; look at the fruit they’re bearing in their own lives, because that’s how you’ll know them. And don’t think that it’s enough just to use the right words. Some people call me ‘Lord’, and they do all sorts of impressive things in my name, but they forget about the most important thing of all: actually doing the will of God. They aren’t even going to get to first base in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus ended with a parable. He said, if you hear these words of mine and put them into practice, you’re like a wise man who built his house on a firm foundation. The rains storm down and the floods rise up, but that house is safe, because it’s built on the rock. But if you hear these words of mine and don’t actually put them into practice, you’re like a foolish man who tried to cut costs by building his house on a poor foundation. When the rains storm down and the floods rise up, that house is going to come down, because it was built on the sand.
And that’s really what the message is all about this week. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus has told us the things he wants us to work on in our lives: holiness, reconciliation, honesty, sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage, loving your enemies, sincerity, pleasing God rather than pleasing people, serving God rather than trying to get rich, and making God’s kingdom our priority. Jesus is pretty plain about what he wants from us.
So as we think about the discipline of action, it would be good for us to sit down and read the Sermon on the Mount, which I’ve been summarizing for you this morning; you can find it in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven. As we read, we should ask ourselves, ‘Where does my life fall short of the things that Jesus says in this sermon? What are the most important issues for me to work on? Can I pick two or three and really be intentional about changing my behaviour and my attitude in these areas? And don’t forget that we’re not alone in this; we’re told to ask, seek, and knock, expecting that the Father in heaven will give us the help of the Holy Spirit as we try to change.
So – let’s not be like the foolish builder who took the cheap and easy way and then had to deal with a disaster when his house fell down. I don’t want my life to be like that! I want my life to be built on a strong foundation so that when the storms come, I can stand firm. And Jesus has told me how that can happen: it’s all about hearing these words of his, and then putting them into practice in my life. May God give us the will and the strength to do this.