Sometimes you run across an expression that captures what you are thinking or feeling in a much more clear and comprehensive way then you ever could. Have you ever read a paragraph that summed up your thoughts on an idea with perfection? Ever heard a stanza in a song or dialogue in a movie that described your exact emotions in that moment? Sure you have, we all have. Well, I ran into one of those expressions a week or so ago in preparation for today.
As you know, we have been walking ever so briskly through the Story of God. We just wrapped up the Jewish bible, what we Christians call the Old Testament. Within these pages we discovered a story of betrayal and grace, rebellion and rescue, faithlessness and faithfulness, devastation and hope. A story that concludes with anticipation but not fulfillment, leaving us with a cliff hanger: who is the Messiah? You know, the anointed one who will change this temporary experience of being overtaken by evil and oppressed by circumstances, the suffering servant, the stump of Jesse, the good shepherd, the forever king, and the great high priest?
For around 400 years this question drilled deep into the hearts of the Hebrew people, invigorated the minds of the people of God. The faithful and the acculturated alike kept an eye out for God’s salvation story to open to the next chapter. Here and their believing the page was turning or guilty of trying to pen the transition words themselves. And then, seemingly out of silence and certainly in a nowhere town and to a non-influential family, a baby boy breathes his first breaths and cries out because he knows no other way to express himself. At that obscure moment in a rather ordinary town among rather ordinary people, salvation history thought dormant was awakened like ‘the womb of the morning, the dew of their youth’ (Ps. 110:3) has returned. Yet, it would be thirty three years more before the significance of that magnificently inconspicuous miracle would be recognized as a global quake.
In-between those thirty plus years was the life of a boy becoming a man and that man living in complete and joyous response to the story of God written before him and unfolding through him. That same man dying an unjust and disheartening death only to awake from the grave-end of every human’s story as if to say that there was still more to come in this salvation narrative. It is at this point where what another pastor said is a much better expression of what happened next…
‘After Jesus was resurrected and spent time with [his disciples], his followers started reading their Bibles, their Hebrew Bibles, their Genesis-through-Malachi Bibles, with fresh eyes. They quite literally ransacked the Scriptures for hints and anticipations of the Messiah [who would rule with justice, the Messiah who would make men and women holy] that they now believed had lived among them in Jesus: his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
As these first Christians were avidly reading their Bibles, everywhere they looked they came across anticipations and hints of the Messiah just as Jesus had revealed him. They delighted in coming across foreshadowings of the Messiah, reading between the lines, putting two and two together, filling in the blanks, discovering the background of the person they knew as Jesus. [I imagine many of us have experienced the same thing over the last eight months!] They found a fullness they had not expected as they fashioned and developed a narrative sense of Jesus the Christ. They now realized the depth and immensity that had been implicit throughout their Bibles for such a long time. Later, as the Holy Spirit prompted four of them—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—to write the story for the next generation, these phrases and fragments of scriptural text were woven into what they were writing. And Paul, the earliest writer of what later became incorporated into the New Testament, could hardly write a paragraph that didn’t echo something from their Hebrew Bibles.
The story of Jesus didn’t begin with Jesus. Salvation, which is the main business of Jesus, is an old business. Jesus was the coming together of themes and energies and movements that had been set in motion before the foundation of the world. The story of Jesus was told in the context of the entire messianic tradition, what we refer to now as the Old Testament...
These early Christians were busily at work building a thoroughly biblical imagination that was all encompassing and that in their lifetime had come to fulfillment and focus in Jesus—Jesus the Messiah, the Christ.
And now as we read what Matthew and Mark, Luke and John, Paul and others wrote, we can appreciate and admire how skillfully they were in blending those centuries of anticipation into the narrative we ourselves are now…[What do you expect me to say? Reading? Discussing? Learning about? No! How about...] living.’
We are living in the continuing salvation story! This old business of Jesus becomes your business and mine. The story of salvation continuing in our lives today as we follow Jesus. And like our first brothers and sisters in Jesus after his resurrection, you and I need to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that encompasses all of life. The stories of Jesus and the stories Jesus tells are told and retold to us, by us, so that we might live in God’s Story unfolding still by Jesus in us, in Jesus through us, from and to Jesus all about us.
We do not read the crafted narratives of the life of Jesus and close the book on salvation history. As if we would say that we have the story, we have the good-news gospel of Jesus, ‘it is finished’ after all so now let’s get on with life. No! Jesus’ death and resurrection were certainly the climax to the plot of the world’s salvation but not the conclusion of the salvation story. We cannot move on from Jesus, but we can live in and like Jesus. Every day that we wake awaiting Jesus’ return is a day of salvation history being written with you and I included (see 2 Peter 3).
We are not simply biding time, slogging through in the boredom of good behavior, or childish entitlement to grace. No! We are God’s children, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation proclaiming the excellencies of the One who called us out darkness into marvelous light (1 Pet. 2)! Given a new life that is a full and abundant life (Jn. 10:10); much like Jesus, in ordinary garb.
How do we live faithfully and fruitfully in the salvation story of our lives? We take up residence in the stories of Jesus and the stories Jesus tells us.
In the four gospels, we are invited to let our entire world be shaped by the stories of the Messiah and the stories the Messiah tells. Never moving on from them but living in response to them. Like the first generation of Jesus followers we recognize that revelation begins and ends with Jesus! Such a life is what the writer of Hebrews tells us is maturity (5:11-6:2) and exhorts us to live in line with all who have come before us awaiting Jesus (12:1-2). This is what the apostle Paul does, as well as James, Peter, John, and Jude; the New Testament authors. They take these stories of Jesus, some of which we have now in writing, and let them form their imagination—connect the invisible and visible—and thus determine what they value, where they spend time, and how they live a faithful life today in salvation continuing in their homes, their work places, their neighborhoods, and among their faith community.
Therefore, over the next three months, rather than trying to frame the God Story we are reading by looking at the big picture, we will observe as person in the crowd one Jesus story each week. One story that either Jesus told or one story told of Jesus. Allowing ourselves to be immersed in the context of salvation history unfolding in first century Middle East and continuing to be written today in the twenty first century Dallas east.
Let’s not rush through these stories—some familiar, others less so. Rather, l encourage you as an individual and as Gospel Communities to take up residence in these stories. To let these stories be the windows by which you observe your life and the lives of others around you. The doors through which relationships, circumstances, and opportunities enter and exit.
To do so you will have to let the story read you as you read the story. Asking certainly what does this story reveal to us about Jesus and salvation history. And then: Where are you in the story? How is this story repeating itself in your life today? What about the story resembles the life of your co-worker, neighbor, faith family, or spouse? Where are you surprised? In what ways are you confronted by the story? Ruminating on the place of your current emotions, expectations and behaviors place within or in conflict with the story.
When we take up residence in these stories—stories that have their beginnings in the salvation narrative of the Old Testament now finding fulfillment, clarification, and new life in Jesus—letting our minds wonder around within them; by the good gift of the Spirit I believe you will be surprised at the practical implications in your life with God and others.
So, let’s start with a story! The story of two builders. Open your Bible to the gospel of Luke, chapter 6.
How many of us are familiar with the story of the two builders? What have we heard this story is all about? Jesus is our foundation and if we build on anything else then we will fall when life gets hard? True enough. But is there more than the children song of “The wise man built his house upon the rock, house upon the rock, house upon the rock. The wise man built his house upon the rock and the rains came tumbling down. The rains came down and flood came up. The rains came down and the flood came up. The rains came down and the flood came, but the house on the rock stood firm.”
After all, this parable concludes both of Jesus’ most prolific explanations of life in the kingdom of God. But why?
It might be helpful to set the context for the story. We are at the front of Jesus’ ministry. He has called the first twelve to follow him, has been traveling around proclaiming the kingdom of God’s presence and future through healing and teaching. The early drama of his entrance into the story has been profound, drawing multitudes of women and men to himself. Now, he sits (rabbi’s always sit when they are teaching) facing this multitude or ordinary and elite, moms and dads, children and grandparents, educated, impoverished, confident and desperate, scattered across an open field, and he preaches.
Jesus preaches a sermon to a crowd of people who wanted something from him, a crowd that recognized something in Jesus worth following—whether an act of power through healing or casting out demons or wisdom and an inside tract to life with God, a better life. This sermon is spoken to disciples, to men and women like you and me who had voluntarily entered into the presence and relationship with Jesus. He is speaking to followers and is revealing the way of God, a way of living with God as God’s people that confronts how many have understood and attempted to follow God. He is about to turn their idea of what God wants and what God does upside down. This is where we start, Jesus determining the way of life with God, of a good life. No one else, no other history, no ideas about him. His word, his actions, his way.
Not an entirely new way, nevertheless a very different way than the kings, priest, and saviors who have come before him. The sermon on the plain here in Luke, similar to the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s gospel story, compares and contrasts the way of God and other ways. Four bless-ed statements contrasted with four woe statements, heralded but often missed in their Hebrew bibles. Happy are the poor, the hungry, those in mourning and those rejected. Miserable are those that are rich, full, silly, and popular. Seems a bit of a reversal of how we would generally describe happy people and miserable people. Doesn’t a good life come from what you have—money, security, frivolous freedom, a good reputation? Is not that what God promised us, what our obedience and faith get us? Something does not sound. Happiness is wanting, dissatisfaction in desires fulfilled is not how God would work things out for his people; right?
Then on to loving enemies not seeking destruction but mercy. Actually, go beyond that, let yourself be taken advantage of in your compassion, especially by those who are ungrateful and evil. After all, that is how God is, merciful to sinners, and we are sinners after all. No, we are God’s people and his people are about justice. Where is there is room for vengeance and making things right? Isn’t God about destroying evil and those that are opposed to him? That’s how God treats those other sinners.
Then Jesus confronts the confrontation welling up within those listening. Judgement is our natural response to any way of living we are given to follow. Whether judging to condemn or judging as a standard to measure ourselves. Seems like most of what we know is the blind leading the blind, students wanting something different than their teacher. But Jesus says, that the only judge is the fruit of life of faithfully following his way. No two ways about it. Either the seeds you are planting in your following Jesus are the seeds of the kingdom sprouting into recognizable good fruit or you are sowing seeds of some other kind of vegetation, like a thistle or a weed. Either way, nothing edible or of substance will be born up from such seeds. Live like Jesus alone—no one else, no other standard—and you will reap the fruit of his way of life.
The perceived understanding of what God values, of what the life style and actions of God people would entail, and how God responds to sin challenged. The standard for faithfulness and goodness centered not in comparison but in companionship. And then, we have our story. Read with Luke 6:46-49.
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against the house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.
There are two things that the people who were listening to Jesus that mild spring afternoon would have picked up on in his concluding story. Already having their perception of God’s way of life confronted by the God-man’s description—perhaps a little confused, certainly intrigued—they would have been listening ever so carefully to this summation—this application—to his sermon. You know, the same way you hope I give you some sort of explanation, what now...please (!) some sort of practical to do!
First, and what we often miss, is that they would have recognized the story Jesus told. Again, these are men and women who grew up in a Jewish faith, who recognized some sort of ‘messiah’ or prophet quality in Jesus, saw him to be a religious authority. They were people who knew their Jewish bible. These where ‘God’s people’. As such, the educated and uneducated alike would have recognized the parable’s similarities to two of their own stories.
The first is found in Isaiah 28: 14-18. Read with me and I’ll point out the connections as we go…
Therefore HEAR the WORD of the LORD, you scoffers, WHO RULE THIS PEOPLE in Jerusalem! Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement, when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken SHELTER’; therefore thus says the LORD GOD, ‘Behold, I am the one who is Laying as a FOUNDATION in Zion, a STONE, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will NOT BE IN HASTE.’ And I will make JUSTICE the line, and RIGHTEOUSNESS the PLUMB LINE; and HAIL will SWEEP AWAY the refuge of lies, and WATERS will overwhelm the SHELTER.
Jesus is equating his words to the words of God in Isaiah, and saying that he is the foundation stone, the rock laid without haste on which justice and righteous find their sure footing. In Isaiah, Israel trusted in something other than God to keep them from the destruction of the Assyrians…namely Egypt. God’s response to their self-determined efforts was both a rebuke of their rejection of God, but also a promise to build up his people on something more just and righteous than power, wealth, and security, for all of which would be washed away by the storms and waters coming soon. What are those of us listening to Jesus trusting in to save us from the storms and waters of sin’s judgement? Jesus is giving them, you and me, a warning and a promise.
The second memory this story would have evoked was what happened as a result of the hail and waters coming upon Israel in Ezekiel 33:29-33. Again, read with me and I’ll point out the connections as we go…
Then they will know that I am the LORD when I have made the land a DESOLATION and a waste because of all their ABOMINATIONS which they have committed. ‘As for you, SON OF MAN, your people who walk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the HOUSES, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and HEAR what the WORD is that comes forth from the LORD’ And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words but they will not do them. For with their lips they show you much love, but their heart is set on THEIR GAIN. And, lo, you are to them like a love song sung by a beautiful voice with a well-played instrument. For they HEAR your words BUT THEY DO NOT DO them. When THIS comes—and it will! Then they will know that a prophet has been among them.
What Jesus is showing them in his life and ministry, what Jesus is saying to them in his description of the kingdom; these are not merely ‘feel good lyrics’ meant to arouse an emotional response, a mere recognition of something transcendent or splendid. Rather, his life and his words are an invitation and a warning. A gracious, sweet, beautiful invitation to life with God and warning that any other way of life is devastating.
Warning and promise. Invitation and warning. A wakeup call to consider your foundation, an invitation to build on something sure and unchanging, and a warning that to fail to hear and do would end in destruction by the storms and waters of sins judgment. God’s way is different than our way. God’s loving mercy is greater than our judgment. And so you better take God seriously.
Second, the people listening would have recognized that the wakeup call and invitation was not into some sort of effortless life or life of promised ease (peace and security), but was an exhortation to diligent, persevering work.
Most of us do not know the labor of building a home. Either we buy/rent homes already constructed or pay someone else to do the work for us. Deedra and I built a house in 2007. It was our first home as a family. It took just over seven months from the finalization of the plans to the day we received our keys. We drove out the home site from our apartment several times a week to monitor the progress, excited and nervous for such a tremendous undertaking. The first four months, over half the build-time, was spent on one thing: digging out and laying the foundation. You see, we were building on clay. Clay seems hard to the touch when it is dry. It is quite difficult to dig into, but pour some water on it, and you will quickly see how your shovel sinks deep a soft filament. Most of the area around Dallas County is clay, and most homes have foundation issues because of it. The same is true of land in Israel/Palestine. As one Middle Eastern commentator notes,
In Israel/Palestine villagers only build in the summer. The rains come in winter…No one wants to build a stone house in the winter. Summer provides dry, warm days suitable for building houses, but there is a down side. As mentioned in Leviticus, during the summer, the soil, with its high clay content, is ‘like bronze’ (Lev 26:19 NIV).
It is easy to imagine a builder in the summer, with little imagination or wisdom, thinking that he can build an adequate one-level house on hard clay. With his pick he tries digging and finds the ground is indeed ‘like bronze.’ The walls [of the house] will not be more than seven feet high. It is hot. The idea of long days of backbreaking work under a hot, cloudless sky does not appeal to him. He opts to build his simple one or two-room home on the hardened clay. The underlying rock is down there somewhere—it will all work out! He constructs a roof with a reasonable overhang and is pleased that he has managed to finish before the onset of the rains.
That winter, however, there is more rain than anyone can remember and the ground rapidly becomes soaked. A small runoff stream starts to flow down his street and the ground begins to turn into the consistency of chocolate pudding. The clay under the stone walls of his newly built house begins to settle and buckle as a result. The stones are uncut field stones. One stone after another pops out of the wall. A serious bulge develops in one wall. The bulge expands and finally gives way, bringing down the entire structure. First-century Middle Eastern villagers used mud for mortar. If the wall is not built on the underlying rock, it will last only as long as the ground remains dry and prevents settling…The prudent, hardworking builder knows better. In the Holy Land solid rock lies everywhere—just beneath the soil. If the builder plans a house in a valley, the earth and rubble may be ten or more feet deep. On the tops of the low hills the underlying rock is barely covered and often exposed. [When asking] builders about the depth they must excavate to construct a stone house [, the] answer is always the same. They will [say] they must dig ‘down to the rock.’ If that means one inch or ten feet, the principle remains the same. Building must be done on the rock.
Jesus’ invitation to follow him and promise of a good life with God is certainly beautiful, a love song that draws us in! Yet, it is no light thing to walk with Jesus in the ways of Jesus. As the apostle John tells his faith family years later,
Whoever says ‘I know [Jesus]’ but does not keep his commandments [to love God with all our being, to love one another and our neighbors as ourselves] is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which [Jesus] walked. (1 John 2:4-6)
Jesus tells a story in Luke 6 to let his disciples imagine themselves in the kingdom of God. To take what he had done and what he was teaching and let it transform them. A story that invited them to look at their lives and the lives of those around them and ask, are the sayings and life of Jesus simply a romantic ballad that stirs your affections but whose words do not change your actions? Is it enough to be moved by the love of Jesus but not changed by his way of life?
What does this story invite you to imagine? What do you expect life with God and his family to look like? What responsibility is yours in the kingdom? To build our foundation on Jesus. To hear what Jesus said and live how Jesus lived. To walk the same way in which Jesus walked. We are to be ones who keep digging, to keep listening and doing until we hit the rock. Until the circumstances of life do not sweep us off our feet. Whether in a valley or upon a hill top, we keep following Jesus in the way of Jesus—this is what a good life is. A life in which happiness if found not in what we have but in the labor of digging. A life in which we receive mercy and love as sinners and extend the same to others, in even ridiculous ways. A life in which what we sow is seeds of the Spirit. If we stop too early we can have a nice house but it will not weather the storms of life lived in a sinful world in rebellion to the good; and then we will be forced to rebuild. Are not most of us guilty of rebuilding over and over again?
So, let’s do the hard work of following Jesus in the ways of Jesus. Of finding the rock that is always there in the Holy Land if we are just diligent to keep digging. A fact we are reminded of every time we gather as we receive the good done for us in Jesus’ body broken and blood poured out on our behalf.