Storms are inevitable in life. And what’s worse is that they are also unforeseeable. In literal storms, millions and millions of random occurrences come together to produce the winds and the waves; life’s storms are also the result of random interactions of complex systems. So, how do you prepare for something inevitable that’s also completely unpredictable and random?
In what follows, I want to talk about how we can become the kind of people who can weather life’s storms by walking us through the Sermon on the Mount. I personally have been doing a lot of reading and studying recently of this famous set of Jesus’ teachings (Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy has been a particularly helpful source of ideas), and I finally feel as if I understand what he was getting at, which is exciting, because this is AMAZING stuff! (This will be a much longer post than I’ve been writing recently in my weekday commentary on the Gospel reading, but I want to help you understand how in Matthew 5-7 Jesus is giving his followers practical advice they can actually use to become the kind of people who survive life’s storms.)
Amazed At What He Had To Say
There’s this really fascinating aside Matthew gives us after Jesus wraps up the Sermon on the Mount.
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 7:28-29
Having just heard Jesus give this famous set of teaching, his hearers are amazed. What Jesus has been saying was so insightful and unusual and so obviously cut to the heart of the matter of everyday life that it was nothing short of astounding. And you know what? Nothing has changed in 2,000 years–these words are still AMAZING.
The Two Kinds of People
Let’s begin at the end. Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount by saying that there are two options in life: the way that seems easy but actually ends in ruin, and the way that seems difficult and unpopular but actually results in blessing [Matthew 7:13-14]. He expands on this by talking about how it’s not what people say that matters, but what they actually do (and how to tell between the talked and the doers) [Matthew 7:15-23], and then he sums up the entire set of teachings with a little parable:
“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.”Matthew 7:24-27
In his conclusion, Jesus says that the difference between the people who are destroyed by life’s storms and those who survive them are that the survivors actually do what Jesus said to do. But how do we actually do that? That’s what he’s been telling us in the previous 3 chapters of his famous sermon. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is meant to be a How-To manual to becoming the kind of person who can weather any storm. And the first thing we have to understand is what Jesus meant when he talked about the “Kingdom”.
What the Kingdom Is
Here’s how Matthew sums up the central message of Jesus:
“Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”Matthew 4:17 NIV
Another way of translating this might be:
“HEY! Turn around and change your mind: living in the reality of God is now one of your options.”Matthew 4:17 AFV [Andrew Forrest Version, in the vein of Dallas Willard]
A kingdom is wherever a king’s will is done; beyond that frontier, it’s no longer that king’s kingdom. Queen Elizabeth reigns over the United Kingdom; she does not reign in France. Each of us has our own kingdom or queendom; where my will is done is my kingdom. So, my body is one part of my kingdom, for example: I command my finger to move, and it does; I command my mouth to speak, and it does. The kingdom of heaven is wherever God’s will is done. The only place in the Creation where God’s will is not done is here, where God has permitted for a while his human creatures to exercise their own reigns. This is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth [as it already is] in heaven.”
From the beginning, it was God’s plan that men and women would exercise their free will and rule in his name over the earth [see Genesis 1:26]; it remains God’s will that we would freely choose to align our kingdoms under his Kingdom.
So, the message of Jesus is that through him God’s Kingdom is now available to anyone, anywhere, RIGHT NOW if they are willing to do what he says. Apprenticeship or discipleship to Jesus is learning to live your life in the reality of the Kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount which follows, he provides some practical examples of what Kingdom life will look like.
The Introduction and Overview
Jesus begins the Sermon by telling people that there is no spiritual condition that precludes them from learning to live in the Kingdom now: not the spiritually poor, not the mourning, not the meek, etc. [We call this section “The Beatitudes”, Matthew 5:1-12.]
Then, Jesus tells his followers that living in the Kingdom will make them distinct from people around them: it will be as if they are salt–thereby bringing out the flavor in life–or light–thereby showing others how best to live. [Matthew 5:13-16.]
To be clear, Jesus wants his followers to understand that he’s not doing anything new, that this is ultimately what the Old Testament is all about, and that he’s not come to abolish “the law and the prophets”. [Matthew 5:17-20.]
With those remarks out of the way, Jesus explains what it looks like to put his words into practice and live in the Kingdom. What he is going to do is take familiar situations that arise and give an example of what Kingdom living would look like in each of those situations.
Here’s the point: it would seem at first that going along with the conventional wisdom in each of the examples that follow would be the best course of action; actually Jesus wants us to understand that if you just do what everyone else is doing—“the wide and easy path” he references in Matthew 7:13—it will be the equivalent of building a foundation on sand. Instead, if you do what he says to do, as counterintuitive as it might seem, you’ll be building your life on bedrock.
A Practical Plan for Becoming a Survivor
Jesus begins his advice by talking about anger. He tells his hearers that though it is obvious that murder will mess up your life, the anger and contempt that are behind and underneath murder are also spiritually dangerous. So, rather then indulging in anger, Jesus tells his followers that they should actually seek reconciliation with people with whom they have bad blood. Living in the Kingdom is trying as hard as humanly possible to be reconciled with others. [Matthew 5:21-26.]
Building on Sand: anger and contempt.
Building on Rock: seeking reconciliation.
Next, Jesus tells his followers that though it is obvious that adultery will mess up your life, what’s really important is to rid your thoughts of lust. Lust is using someone else’s image for your own gratification, which is evil because people were created in the image of God, and not for the purpose of pornography. Jesus says that Kingdom living, then, is about doing whatever it takes–he uses the hyperbolic image of cutting off your own hand!–to learn to see other people as God sees them, and not as objects of desire. [Matthew 5:27-30.]
Building on Sand: indulging your thought life.
Building on Rock: disciplining your thought life.
Marriage and Divorce
People have been having marital problems since the Garden of Eden, and they had marital problems in Jesus’ day, too. But Jesus tells his followers that marriage is not primarily a contract between two people for the purpose of meeting their emotional needs; rather it is a covenant before God. And so Kingdom living is about being reconciled with your spouse (remember reconciliation is an important Kingdom value) as far as is in your power. Now, if your spouse persists in adulterous behavior, reconciliation is clearly outside of your power, but Jesus tells his followers divorce is a last resort. [Matthew 5:31-32.]
Building on Sand: leaving a marriage when it doesn’t fulfill your emotional needs.
Building on Rock: working towards reconciliation as far as is humanly possible.
Then Jesus takes on a pervasive human behavior: that of trying to manipulate other people into doing what what we want them to do. In his day there had developed this convoluted practice of swearing on the Temple in Jerusalem to convince people you were sincere. (“I swear on the Temple I didn’t take your money!”) We don’t do that, but of course we try to use language (social media posts?) to get other people to do what we want them to do. In contrast, Jesus says that kingdom living is much simpler: just say what you mean, and leave it at that. [Matthew 5:33-37.]
Building on Sand: trying to manipulate others.
Building on Rock: saying what you mean, and leaving it at that.
You will have enemies; people will seek to do you harm. Though it seems natural to us to hit back and hate the people who hate us (the wide and easy path always seems “natural” to us at first), Kingdom living is about forgoing retaliation and instead seeking ways to bless the people who mistreat us, even to the extent of praying for God to bless them! Jesus makes the reason explicit: when you try to love the people who hate you, you are acting like God, who wants to bless all his children. So, Kingdom living is learning to act like God in the times of inevitable conflict we will encounter. [Matthew 5:38-48.]
Building on Sand: vengeance and retaliation.
Building on Rock: seeking to bless those that hate us.
Virtue-Signaling (e.g. Giving and Fasting)
Jesus tells his followers next that they should be careful of trying to impress other people with how they help the poor or do “spiritual” things like fasting. Instead, those should be personal practices and a way of life that’s more private than public. In other words, learning to live in the Kingdom is learning not to need to impress other people with how good you are. (Think of all the virtue-signaling on social media.) [Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18.]
Building on Sand: virtue-signaling to impress others with your goodness. Building on Rock: doing the right thing because it’s right, not because people will see you do it.
Jesus tells his followers how to pray. Learning to live in the kingdom is to make prayer a habitual action (“When you pray, go in your room and shut the door….”) and to use Jesus as a model for prayer. [Matthew 6:5-15.]
Building on Sand: praying haphazardly.
Building on Rock: having a plan for habitual prayer.
It seems that having more money will make you happier, but Jesus points out that which we all already know: more stuff won’t necessarily make you happier. (If that were the case, then the people in Beverly Hills would be the happiest people on earth, but we know that isn’t true.) Living in the Kingdom is learning to trust God more than our own stuff. [Matthew 6:19-24.]
Building on Sand: thinking more stuff will make you happier.
Building on Rock: learning that trusting God actually makes you happy.
If there were ever a topic for practical pastoral advice, it would be worry! Jesus tells his hearers that worry, which seems so natural (“the wide and easy path”) will actually be harmful. So, he tells his followers to focus only on the problems of that particular day (over which they actually have some measure of control), and leave the rest of God. [Matthew 6:25-34.]
Building on Sand: getting worked up and worried over things you can’t control.
Building on Rock: focusing on what you can control today, and working to trust God with everything else.
Other People’s Behavior and Hypocrisy
Jesus tells his followers that though discerning between good and bad, right and wrong has a place, focusing on other people’s behavior and ignoring our own is foolish. Rather, kingdom living is about turning most of your attention on your own shortcomings and working on those. [Matthew 7:1-6.]
Building on Sand: judging other people by their actions and yourself by your intentions; getting all worked up over other people’s hypocrisy.
Building on Rock: focusing on your own actions and shortcomings.
Asking God for Stuff
Which brings us to the final bit of practical advice in the sermon: definitely ask God for stuff you need! Lots of folks think “I don’t want to ask for the wrong thing; I’ll just pray a generic prayer for God’s will to be done.” Instead, Jesus tells his hearers to ask boldly. [Matthew 7:7-12.]
Building on Sand: refusing to ask and not persisting in prayer.
Building on Rock: asking and persisting in prayer.
Two Kinds Of People
All of the above is Jesus providing his hearers of examples of what Kingdom living looks like. Each topic he covers is a topic that each of us encounters all the time; doing what Jesus said is putting his principles into practice when you encounter anger, lust, worry, etc. Anyone can choose to participate, because Jesus came to bring the good news of the Kingdom to everyone. But, he concludes with telling his followers that hearing is not the point: actually practicing what he said is the point.
The people who actually do what he says will be the kind of people who, rather than going along with everyone else by taking “the wide and easy path” will be the kind of people who take the narrow, hard path that actually leads to life.
The people who do what he says will be able to survive any storm–even death!–because they are learning to live the eternal life of the Kingdom RIGHT NOW.
If you want to learn how to survive life’s storms, start doing what Jesus says. Go down the list, and begin to practice the kingdom response or mindset. It works.
The Sand Palace of Mexico Beach
In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael came ashore in the Florida Panhandle. It made landfall on the town of Mexico Beach. When the winds died down and the sun came out afterward, this is what remained:
This house, called “The Sand Palace”, was built by two men in 2017. They didn’t do whatever everybody else did, they built their house their own way, to withstand the storm of all storms. What they didn’t know was that that storm would arrive just a year later. When it left, all the houses around theirs were destroyed, whereas the only damage the main structure of their house retained was one cracked shower window.
Storms in life will inevitably come; no one is exempt. Jesus says the only way to prepare is to start learning to live in the Kingdom now, and the Sermon on the Mount offers advice how to do just that.
What are you waiting for?
And, In Case You Missed It
I preached a version of this message last night.
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