The house on the rock

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus is the rock. He is the only foundation on which a solid life can be built. Everything else is sand: our money and possessions, our good works and efforts to be good, our understanding and our feelings and even our faith. If we trust anything in ourselves to rescue us from sin and evil, then we will not be rescued. True faith is not a virtue in ourselves that we can trust; true faith means trusting Jesus, putting all our confidence in him and putting no confidence in ourselves.

Many people try to build their lives on God’s Law and on their obedience to that Law. Most religions encourage that kind of thinking. The religions of the world share a common moral code, the ethical principles that God has written in every human heart. This moral code, these ethical principles, tell us why we were made. They explain what God expects from us. Knowing the rules is not good enough. We must not only know them but do them. Doing them requires perfection. No short cuts are provided; nor can we find loopholes or second chances. Either we obey the Law in all its requirements, or we have broken the Law—no middle ground exists.

Jesus does not want us to build our lives on sand. He sets high standards and demands perfection from us so we see how badly we need to be rescued by his righteousness. His high standards are not the rock; his kingdom and his righteousness are the rock. Jesus himself is the rock. As we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, we discover his blessings—gifts given to us because God loves us, not because we deserve them. Nothing we do, not even the way we trust Jesus, earns us a place in his kingdom. We have a place in his kingdom because of what Jesus has done—because of his life and death and resurrection. We build our lives on this rock, because the rock of Christ’s righteousness is his gift to us. J.

The Golden Rule

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The Golden Rule is one of the basic principles of God’s Law—so basic, in fact, that it is found (in one form or another) in every religion on earth. Even most atheists and agnostics favor this rule (with a few exceptions such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand). Most people agree with Jesus that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. We love our neighbors when we care as much about them as we do about ourselves, when we are as concerned about their wants and needs as we are concerned about our own wants and needs.

Because this maxim is so basic, we sometimes treat it as a stand-alone saying. Bible verses always have a context; they draw meaning from the verses that precede them and the verses that follow them. But this saying appears to be misplaced. It stands between a promise of gifts from the Father and an admonition to choose the narrow gate. Did Jesus want to connect this verse to either of those teachings, did it slip into this place by accident, or did Matthew jumble the teachings of Jesus, throwing together a few pithy sayings near the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

The Bible is God’s Word. Nothing written in the Bible was placed there by accident. The organization of thoughts presented in the Bible matters to God, so it matters also to God’s people. Jesus was making an important point about the Law and the Prophets. He spoke the Golden Rule at just the right time in his sermon.

Jesus had shown the strict demands of God’s Law, the Law which tells us to be perfect. His promise that God answers prayers was spoken in a context of promised forgiveness and rescue, a promise tied to the blessings of the kingdom of God. Jesus now appears to be saying, “The Law is simple. Just treat other people the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.” The Golden Rule is not the narrow gate to heaven. The Golden Rule is the wide gate, known to everyone. Seen as the road to heaven, this commandment is on a path that is completely wrong. It summarizes the Law and the Prophets, because everything God expects us to do is included in this simple command. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; he came to fulfill them. He came to do for us those things he wants us to do. The sinless life of Jesus is God’s answer to our prayers as we ask God for his kingdom and his righteousness.

We cannot rescue ourselves by obeying God’s commands. Not one of us is perfect; only Jesus is perfect. Jesus credits us with his righteousness. He does everything that he wants us to do. In this way he answers our prayers. He forgives our sins. He adopts us into God’s family. He calls us “sons of God.” This blessing, this gift, is given to us, but not because we deserve it for our efforts to be like him. It is given because Jesus loves us and because he has paid to claim us for himself and his kingdom.

Now that we are rescued, Jesus still wants us to obey his commands. He wants us to love God and to love one another, because love is the nature of God. We were made to be loved and to love. Jesus still wants us to do for others what we would have them do for us. He expects this from us. Although this commandment is not the gate to God’s kingdom, we live according to the Golden Rule. Our proper treatment of our neighbors is a result of being forgiven, being adopted, and being called sons of God. J.

What to seek first

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

When Jesus promises “all these things,” he clearly is referring to food and drink and clothing, to all the things we need in this lifetime. We do not have to worry about them, because God provides us with what we need. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and we live our lives with confidence, knowing that what we need today God will give to us today, and whatever we need tomorrow God will give to us tomorrow as well.

However, many Christians misunderstand what Jesus means by referring to the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To seek these things, they assume, means to try to do what is right, to try to accomplish the things that please God. They take the radical demands of this sermon—do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not worry—and they treat these demands as the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. They try to rise to these high standards—which is good; Jesus wants us to live this way—but they call these efforts seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

The harder we try to live by the standards Jesus sets, the more we see our failure. We are not good like Jesus. We fall short of his ideals again and again. Jesus was not exaggerating when he spoke these ideals. He really wants to see us live as he lived. But studying these standards and trying our best to meet them cannot make us good enough for God. If we are not perfectly living in the way Jesus describes, we are not good enough for his kingdom.

Whenever Jesus mentions the kingdom, though, he describes it as a gift. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” All the blessings that Jesus described at the beginning of his sermon indicate that God has changed us. We no longer fail to be good enough for God. Jesus has made us good enough. He has taken away our sins, and he has given us credit for his perfect life—his righteousness. The righteousness of Jesus is far better than the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. They tried their best, but their best was not good enough for God. They were better than most people, but Jesus does not grade on a curve. He is perfect, as his Father is perfect. Now, through his gift—through his life and death and resurrection—we also receive credit for perfection. We receive the rewards Jesus earned.

How do we seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness? We seek them in Jesus and in all that Jesus has done for us. If we are distracted from his gifts by the things we need today, we are in trouble. We must focus on our relationship with Jesus, not on worldly matters. Therefore, Jesus promises to meet our needs today, as well as our eternal needs. If we are distracted from his gifts by the good deeds we do for God today, we are in trouble. We should try to be like Jesus, but Jesus himself affirms that for us to imitate him, our eyes must be set on his kingdom, on his gift of righteousness, and not on ourselves. J.

Practicing righteousness

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

To this point, Jesus has discussed prohibitions found in God’s Law: do not murder, or even surrender to anger; do not commit adultery, or even surrender to lust; do not resist an evil person. Even the positive commandment, love your enemies, is largely a prohibition against treating people in response to what they have done in the past or what they might do in the future. Each of these commandments relates to our neighbors, the people we encounter in this world.

Jesus now speaks of positive things and of things pertaining to our relationship with God. He describes three things God expects us to do: giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. Jesus does not question whether we will do these things—he firmly says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” These are positive actions, but Jesus adds one prohibition: we are not to do these things in a way that calls attention to ourselves from other people.

In this tightly-knit set of teachings, Jesus repeats a refrain. He says that what we do to impress people here on earth will be ignored by our Father in heaven. Only the things we do secretly, thinking about God and not about other people, are seen and rewarded by God. Our relationship with him is an inner relationship, a matter of the heart. When we start trying to impress people—when we want to be recognized on earth as holy, religious, spiritual, or good-hearted—we omit God from our spiritual life.

Other religions know this as well. What matters most in many religions is a relationship with the divine. Things done for attention here on earth are ignored in heaven. God is our first priority; everything else is forgotten as we draw near to God.

Many teachers would frown even at Jesus’ mention of a reward from our Father in heaven. If we do holy things to earn a reward, we are not really doing them for God. What sounds like a paradox is actually sensible: Whatever we do on earth to earn a reward earns no reward; whatever we do to serve God without seeking a reward will be rewarded.

Jesus plainly says that God rewards those who seek him. His reward is not measured in worldly ways—in money or influence or even good feelings. We are not invited to tell God what reward he should give us. God chooses the rewards he gives. He has already given us gifts and blessings, including the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in the new creation. We have the kingdom of heaven. We will be comforted. We will inherit the earth. We will be satisfied. We will be shown mercy. We will see God. We will be called sons of God. What reward do we need or want beyond these gifts? God chooses fitting rewards for those who seek him. He has selected rewards for all those who set aside the things of this world because their hearts already are in the kingdom of heaven. J.

The greater righteousness

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

The scribes and Pharisees were not wicked men, not even by any worldly standards. Because they opposed Jesus and because he called them hypocrites, we tend to think of scribes and Pharisees as bad people. The truth is that the scribes and Pharisees studied their Bibles, sought the commandments of God, and tried to obey every commandment they found. They were good husbands and fathers, good neighbors, good workers, and good citizens. Everyone in the Jewish world looked up to them and respected them. Some Jews disagreed with the Pharisees about interpreting the Bible, but no one said they were bad people.

No one said scribes and Pharisees were wicked, but Jesus said they were not good enough for God’s kingdom. They knew their Bibles well, and they were trying their best to be good people, but they still did not measure up to God’s standards. Sometimes people say of a virtuous person, “If she doesn’t deserve to go to heaven, nobody does.” This precisely matches what Jesus means; no one deserves to enter the kingdom of heaven. No one is good enough for God. No one meets God’s standards.

If the best is still not good enough for God, how do we become better? Certainly not by trying harder; that route already has failed. We become good enough for God when we acquire a righteousness that did not come from our lives. We measure up to God’s standards when a perfect life is substituted for our flawed lives.

In most cases, such an exchange would be considered cheating. Shouldn’t we get what we deserve? God loves us too much to give us what we deserve. Therefore, God blesses us, giving us what Jesus deserves. Jesus in turn goes willingly to the cross and accepts the punishment we deserve.

For more than thirty years, Jesus lived among us. He was one of us. During those years, he obeyed the rules we should be obeying. In the entire history of the world, his life is the only example of real righteousness. Only Jesus achieved pure moral perfection. His righteousness is credited to our accounts as Jesus takes the blame for our sins and pays our debt in full. We have a better righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees: we have the righteousness of Jesus, which is perfect and pure. When God looks at us, he sees the sinless life that Jesus lived. For that reason, God calls us his sons. For that reason, he gives us the rewards Jesus earned. For that reason, he invites us to enter the kingdom of heaven. J.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).

Clearly hunger and thirst are not blessings; the blessing is in the satisfaction, in being filled. Hunger and thirst are not virtues that earn food and drink. Food and drink are the gift, the blessing. Hunger and thirst are qualities found in those who receive the gift.

In the other blessings, the gift is described as the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, receiving mercy, seeing God, and being called sons of God. Taken together, all these blessings are fulfilled in the new creation Jesus will provide his people. We will inherit the earth upon the resurrection of the body and the start of life everlasting; we do not inherit it today. All these blessings come to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. His promise, though, contains more than “pie in the sky, by and by.” We are blessed today; the gift of what will be when Christ returns in glory will come to us in all its fullness on that Day, but bits and pieces of that glory sparkle in our lives today.

Smells flow from the kitchen, as it were, and sample tastes are allowed by the Master Chef. These bits of grace whet our appetites for the coming feast. The comfort and the mercy we receive now prepares us for the peace and joy of the coming kingdom, when we inherit the earth because we belong to Christ. We know that at that time perfect righteousness will guide all the people living on this world; therefore, we long to see righteousness at work in the world today.

The world contains people who do not know Christ yet still fight for certain things that are right and good. Our confidence in Christ does not allow us to sit back and avoid the fight for what is right. Being meek does not include accepting evil, abetting it by our silence. Instead, being people who know the difference between right and wrong—also being people who know that right will prevail in the end—we have an even greater desire to fight on behalf of what is right today.

We are meek. We do not fight for our rights; we fight for that which is truly right. We stand for Jesus and for his principles. We defend the truth, acting out of love. Sometimes the fight involves providing food for the hungry, clothing for the poor, and shelter for the homeless. Sometimes the fight involves striving against crime and violence and injustice. Sometimes we battle the lies of the devil and of the world. We use the resources we have (given to us by God) to make the world a better place. Different Christians respond to different needs. We do not always agree about what needs to be done first. We share faith in Jesus, we share love for Jesus, and therefore we share love for the people Jesus loves. We have a passionate appetite—a hunger and a thirst—for seeing the right things being done in the world today.

We cannot perfect the world. Our best efforts make the world only a little better. Having a hunger and thirst for righteousness means that we are willing to struggle and strive for that slight improvement. Meanwhile, we know that the full blessing is just around the corner. The world will be remade and perfected one Day, not by our efforts, but as a gift from God. Jesus already has done everything necessary to guarantee that perfect new world to us and to all who trust his promises. We will be satisfied. Therefore, we are hungry today. J.

Advent thoughts: December 23

“Behold, your King is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9—read Zechariah 9:9-12).

When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, he was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. Of course, God did not create a checklist through Moses and the prophets and then begin figuring out how to accomplish all that he had said. God created time. God exists outside of time. God experiences all times at a glance. When Moses and the prophets spoke the Word of the Lord, their messages were already accomplished in the sight of God. The Holy Spirit reported the plan of salvation to Moses and the prophets as if it had already been accomplished in time. Therefore, they wrote in the past and present tenses about events that were still centuries in the future.

The donkey is a humble creature, a beast of burden. Having a king ride a donkey in a parade is equivalent to seeing an important leader today riding a bicycle in a parade. The humility of Jesus is reflected in his choice of a donkey, yet Jesus also exercised the royal privilege of riding an animal that had never been ridden before.

The prophet calls the King righteous. Jesus is perfectly righteous. He lived a pure and sinless life, never once breaking any of God’s commands. He loved his Father fully and trusted his Father completely. He loved the people around him and helped them in their needs. Jesus never used his power as the Son of God for his own benefit. In righteousness, he used his divine power to help others: to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to calm storms, to cast out demons, and even to raise the dead. We view perfect love as we read about all the miracles Jesus worked to help others, and as we realize that he refused to use any of that power to help himself.

Jesus also has salvation. He rescues people in trouble. His healings and other miracles were part of his rescue mission, but they only paved the way for his greatest act of service. Jesus could fix anything that goes wrong with the body: eyes, ears, legs, and even minds. But his goal was to strike at the root of the problem—to overcome evil at his source. Therefore, Jesus took on the guilt for the sins of the world and carried them to the cross. He paid in full the penalty for all the sins of history. In the process, he defeated sin and evil, and in the end, he defeated death itself.

The full results of that victory will be experienced when Jesus is seen on the Day of the Lord. All the dead will be raised on that Day, and all will stand before his throne of Judgment. Every eye will see him, and every ear will hear his voice. No one will be blind or deaf. On that Day, the King will welcome into his kingdom all those who trust his promises. Those who looked elsewhere for salvation will be left standing in the darkness, outside the celebration of his kingdom.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” The price Jesus paid to redeem us is more than sufficient. We will not always be prisoners of sin and evil and death. Because of the price Jesus paid, we will celebrate his victory with him in his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 1

“I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring [Jesus]. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15—read Genesis 3:1-21).

On the same day of the first sin came the first preaching of the Gospel. God had created the world and all that exists. He had planted a garden, and in that garden he put the first man and the first woman. They were to care for the garden and all it contained, both plants and animals. They were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They were to rest every seventh day. Any of these commandments they could have broken for the first sin. Instead, they ate the fruit of a tree that had been forbidden to them. This act of rebellion against God’s clear commandment caused them to know what evil is. They feared God and tried to hide from him. They looked for someone else to blame for their sin. Being separated from God, they were spiritually dead, and eventually they would physically die.

Yet when God confronted them, they did confess their sin. Adam tried to blame Eve (and also, indirectly, God—“the woman You gave me”), and Eve tried to blame the serpent. They both pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, and the poor serpent had no finger to point. But they confessed: each of them admitted, “I ate.”

Satan had taken the form of a serpent to tempt Eve—and through her, Adam—to join him in his revolt against God. God let Satan know that the shape he had taken foretold his fate. He would crawl on the ground and eat dust—in other words, Satan was going to lose. On the other hand, God already had a plan to rescue and redeem Adam and Eve and their descendants. As Satan used a tree to defeat them, so God would use a tree to defeat Satan—the tree of the cross. Satan did not gain allies in his revolt: he gained enemies. He would cause harm to humanity, and even to God when God became human. God would suffer on the cross, but his suffering was small compared to Satan’s suffering. His suffering led to victory; Satan’s head was crushed in the victory Christ won on the cross.

Christians are called to bear fruit for the Lord. His commandments tell us why he made us. They tell us how to love and honor him, and they tell us how to love and serve one another. Without God’s redemption, though, no one can bear fruit pleasing to the Lord. We are like an orchard of bare, dead trees. We are fruitless. We are worth nothing except as fuel for the fireplace.

On one dead tree, Jesus changed all that. On the dead wood of the cross, Jesus gave life to his people. Now all those who trust in Jesus have their sins forgiven and removed. All those who trust in Jesus are clothed in his righteousness. All those who trust in Jesus bear fruit pleasing to God, and, as a result, we are certain of a place in his kingdom. We will live forever in his new creation.

Adam and Eve tried to clothe themselves with fig leaves because of their shame. God provided them instead with garments of animal skins. The death of those animals pictured the death of Jesus, because by his death and through Baptism he clothes us in his righteousness.

Adam and Eve heard the promise about Jesus, believed it, and were redeemed. We also hear this promise, believe it, and are redeemed. Nothing has changed since the beginning, expect for this: Jesus has come and has kept the promise. Thanks be to God! J.