On Splinters, Logs, Rocks, and Being Firmly Set

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
February 26, 2017

Matthew 7: 1-5, 21-29 (CEB)
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. 2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. 3Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? 5You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

21“Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. 22On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ 23Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong.’

24“Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. 26But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. 27The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”

28When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching 29because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.

We have spent the last several weeks listening to Jesus’ words as he preaches the Sermon on the Mount. This morning, we come to the final portion of his great sermon. So as we hear these closing remarks from Jesus today, our task is to figure out how this all fits together; how Jesus’ preaching on the mountainside relates to the kingdom God is establishing and the lives we live today. Then ultimately, where we stand in the midst of this great kingdom which Jesus began through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

As we have studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over the past several weeks, we’ve heard Jesus advising us on the ways of the kingdom. We’ve talked about what it truly means to be blessed and to share that blessedness as we live as salt and light in the world. We’ve considered the call to perfection and the radical love that requires, and the humble practices that keep us focused on the Lord of our lives. Then, last week, we spent some time considering the importance of prayer as we looked at the great model Jesus has given us, the Lord’s Prayer. Now, there’s a lot going on here at the end of the Sermon; warnings against judging others, more instruction on how we should pray and seek God in our lives, and a challenge about the true nature of faith, which extends beyond just empty words calling upon the Lord.

And yet, here in the ending of his great sermon, Jesus could not be clearer, “Do not judge.” he says. “Don’t worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye until you have taken care of the plank in your own eye.” As he moves toward the end of his sermon, Jesus addresses one of the greatest threats to relationship that humans face; our tendency to build ourselves up by putting others down. More than almost anything else, judgment breaks our relationships with one another. Yet, this temptation to judge one another is immense, and the simple, but sad truth is that most of the time, we give in to this temptation.

I think Jesus understood that humans would judge one another. He saw how we set ourselves up as moral guardians and critics of one another. Yet, Jesus doesn’t tell us specific ways that we are to refrain from judging one another. He simply says, “Do not judge.” I don’t know that he could be any clearer. When Jesus tells us not to judge, I don’t think he means that we shouldn’t have high standards of behavior for ourselves and our world, but that the temptation to look down on others for their moral failings is itself a temptation to play god, and thus to lose touch with the true Lord of our lives. When we judge others, we not only harm our relationship with those people, but also with God. God in Christ Jesus is infinitely gracious and merciful with us, and yet when we judge one another, we do not extend that same grace to our neighbors.

And yet, how different would our lives be if we lived without rendering judgment on others and instead made our sole focus striving for Christ-likeness and bearing witness to God’s mercy? Ultimately, that’s what this whole sermon has been about; the transformation that occurs in our lives because we follow Jesus, because we imitate his love and his mercy, because we bear witness to all that he is and does. Being a disciple, being a Christian, means far more than simply affirming that Jesus is a great prophet or teacher. Being a believer means that we do more than just call Jesus “Lord.” Being a Christian means that Jesus really is the Lord of our lives and we live like it!

About 10 years ago, a book was published entitled UnChristian. This was a ground-breaking book that synthesized research from the Barna group to look at the decline of Christianity in the West, and in particular in the United States. The book opened with young Americans’ perception of Christians and the church. One of the most prominent impressions that young Americans had of Christians ten years ago was that we are “judgmental.” The very next impression, which grows out of the first, is that we are hypocritical. Now, by the continuing decline of the church in America, I can only assume that perception remains. In fact, just this week, Pope Francis of the Catholic Church opined that it is better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic. We could easily extend that to all Christians; to be judgmental hypocritical is to tarnish the name of Christ, and we just might be better to be atheists who don’t even name Christ than to represent Christ poorly in the world.

And here’s what we need to realize—the number one thing that makes us hypocritical is judging others according to standards that we ourselves do not live by. Here in his sermon, Jesus has told us exactly how we are to live, and now he finishes with this humorous story about logs in our eyes. Our job is not to hold others to the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount; our only task is to live to those standards ourselves.

For us, this is the difference between setting our foundation on sand or setting it on rock. “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” It’s so easy for us to dismiss the gravity of Jesus’ teaching—to misunderstand the sacrifice and total life change required of us to truly live as Christ’s disciples. As a group, we Christians set a few relatively low standards for ourselves, like going to worship when it’s convenient, and saying a prayer every now and then. Then, with our low standards well-established, we get caught up in measuring ourselves against one another rather than really tackling the hard work of discipleship.

Following Jesus on the way to the kingdom requires much more than just saying his name, more than just calling ourselves Christians and showing up to church every once in a while (or at least on Christmas and Easter). Being a disciple of Christ requires us to stay focused and always strive for Christ-likeness. It is so easy to fall into this temptation to call Jesus “Lord” without actually obeying him; to hear his words without actually acting on them. Do you see that? This is the point that Jesus is driving home as he draws his sermon to a close. Being a part of God’s kingdom is a whole way of life. It is not just another thing to do, one check on a long list; it is a response to God who shows us how to live through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is affirmation in Christ our Lord, but it is also faith; it is following all of Jesus’ instructions from the Sermon on the Mount, and as Jesus tells us so plainly, it is doing the will of the Father. And here’s the thing, if we are really focused on that, we don’t have time to get caught up in judging everyone else and otherwise being hypocritical Christians.

You know, I’ve felt really disheartened in recent years. I don’t know if I can pinpoint a beginning, it’s just sort of been this evolution of disappointment. It peaked a few weeks ago as I listened to a news story and found myself weeping—ashamed at the work of those of us who call ourselves Christians, and feeling like we Christian pastors, myself included, have failed at our vocation (our calling) because our ways are so far from God’s ways. We are like the foolish builder with a house built on sand. And what we’re seeing over and over again is that our “houses” are crumbling beneath us. But it doesn’t have to be that way—Christ has given us all we need. Christ has made the way clear for us. Christ has told us all that we need to know, even right here in these few chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. But we have to follow what Christ says. We have to take his teachings seriously, and then we have to do what he says—we have to follow God’s will.

So what is the will of the Father, what is the ultimate way to the kingdom? It’s what we’ve been talking about for the past few weeks, all these things that we have learned from Jesus as we have listened to him preach the Sermon on the Mount. It is the way of faithful endurance that follows Jesus in every step, even when it involves suffering. And in case we have forgotten, he reminds us one more time right here at the end of the sermon. Jesus’ teachings, demanding though they are, offer the only path to true life. So what is required? Be salt and light. Have faith in God to provide for what you need, seek him above all else in prayer, do not worry about the troubles of this world, but know that God will take care of you. Yet even more than that, treat others just the way you want to be treated.

We serve others because we are grateful to God who loves us. And in that love, we are reminded that this life is not all about us. It is about what God is up to in this world, building his kingdom, and calling each of us to be a part of that as we share his love with others. “On this hang all the law and the prophets.”

“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.”

Love your neighbors, but love your enemies, too.

That is the way of the kingdom: Not empty prayers and praises, not selfish seeking, just pure love lived out in our lives every single day.

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