Practicing Good Preaching
Listening is an important skill…that not many people have in great measure. This morning I want to do a bit of testing of your listening skills. First, say the word “spot” with me five times quickly. Spot. Spot. Spot. Spot. Spot. What do you do at a green light? Honesty time: How many of you said “stop”? Please make sure I am not at the intersection the next time you come to a traffic signal.
How about another chance? What does r-o-a-s-t spell? What does c-o-a-s-t spell? What do you put in a toaster? Honesty moment part two: Who said “toast”? Listen: Remind me not to let you make breakfast for me. I like my toast toasted just once, not twice. And reheated toast is just not something I’m interested in trying.
Okay, I’m going to give you one more chance to show off your listening skills, but for some of you I’m starting to get a little worried. (But don’t worry, I don’t tell your spouse how badly you’ve failed these listening tests…she probably already knew your listening ability before you came in this morning!) Are you ready? If you take two apples from three apples what do you have? You have two apples! This whole listening thing is really a struggle for some of you, isn’t it? (And by the way, if you were looking for manuscripts earlier, I have them up here with me and will put them in the back at the end of the service. I didn’t want to give anybody a head start on the test!)
Have you ever had the experience of having someone give you some instructions, hearing them well, but not really listening to them, and then finding out the hard way that you don’t know what you’re supposed to do? Graduates, you may have found yourself in this kind of a place on an assignment or maybe even a test. It’s a pretty frustrating place to be (although it’s a frustration we usually keep to ourselves for fear of the embarrassment of admitting our failure to listen). How about this: Have you ever given someone else instructions—and wives in the room, I mean this mostly rhetorically so try not to jump and down while pointing both fingers at your husbands—only later to discover that while he heard you, he wasn’t really listening to you? If it’s frustrating to be the one who didn’t listen, it is maddening if you’re the one who gave the instructions in the first place. Depending on the nature of the instructions, the results of this failure to listen run the gamut from irritating to life-threatening.
This morning finds us in the seventh and final part of our series, How to Do Life. If this is the first part you’ve caught, you’re coming in at the tail end of the movie. I’m going to make sure you’re not totally lost, but if you want the best picture of where we’ve been for the last month and a half I would invite you to go to the church’s website and catch what you’ve missed. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can even binge listen to them like you would a Netflix series. In any event, we have spent the past six weeks talking about the fact that if you are a follower of Jesus, you have been called to do life well; to live a life that is objectively better than the people around you who are not following Jesus. Now, as we said last week, this is not a point of arrogance and pride, but rather one of humility because this is not a life that any of us manage to live on our own. It is a lifestyle of humility, but also of invitation because, if done well, it should naturally lend itself to be an invitation for those around us who are not living it to consider making the necessary changes to do so.
Along the way we have talked specifically about how to do life well when it comes to our money, sex, family, prayer, confession, and last week we talked about our words. And again, for more specifics on all of those you can find the transcripts and the audio on the church’s website. In this final part of the series, though, and with graduate recognition Sunday firmly in mind, I want to drill down a bit on what has been the big idea for this whole series: Doing life well by following after the pattern of Christ. What does it take at the most fundamental level to do this? In order to answer this question, we are going to return to the Sermon on the Mount to see what Jesus Himself had to say on the matter.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the Sermon on the Mount near the beginning in the context of better understanding the practice of confession. This morning I want to take us to the very end of the Sermon. Right as Jesus was finishing up His message He offered His listeners a couple of warnings in light of everything He had said. The first has always struck me as perhaps the single most unsettling passage of Scripture in the whole Bible. But, it’s also really important because it addresses a trap into which any of us can fall when it comes to doing life well wherein we think we are on the right track, but we aren’t really.
Hang on tight and turn or thumb in your Bibles with me or look up on the screen at the text starting in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Now, as a follower of Jesus, if that doesn’t absolutely scare the shoes off of your feet, you aren’t paying close enough attention to what Jesus said. Look at this again: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, there are some folks—I’m not even going to take the pressure off of us by saying that they are “out there”—who, in spite of their claims to be Christians, will not be spending eternity in Heaven. Rather, they will spend eternity separated from God in Hell. And this in spite of a public resume of Christian faithfulness that’s pretty impressive by most accounts. After all, look again at their self-defense before Jesus: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” In other words, these are folks who are out there preaching the Gospel, helping to free people from the various manifestations of sin in the world, and doing other incredible things all in the name of Jesus. And His response to them? “I never knew you; depart from me.”
The Bible is a book full of tensions and paradoxes most of which aren’t resolved for us. Here is one that slaps us in the face. On the one hand, followers of Jesus are assured that no one can take them out of His hands once they have put themselves there. On the other hand, passages like this and others like it offer us the disturbing warning that we can convince ourselves we are there when really, we’re not.
Well, what on earth are we supposed to do with this? If it is as easy as this makes it seem to think we are doing life well when the truth is entirely the opposite, how can we make sure we are on track? Look again at what Jesus said here: “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” You see, it’s easy to do all that fancy Christian stuff and put on a grand show of righteousness without ever once stopping to consider what God’s will is in the matter. It’s easy to fall into practicing the Christian life in big, obvious ways without ever bothering to actually give your heart to Jesus.
Okay, but how do we know for sure that we’ve done that? Well, at the most basic level it looks like this: We do what He says. You see, these folks to whom Jesus gave such a hard time here did what Jesus did. It appears, though, that they didn’t do what Jesus said. That’s the difference between someone who has given intellectual consent to the Christian life, but not heart consent. It doesn’t take much intellectual consent or, frankly, even ability, to recognize that the life of Jesus and the things He did were incredible. You don’t have to believe a single word He spoke to recognize from the account of the Gospels that He was a master teacher. He knew just which buttons to push at which time to get exactly the response He desired out of whatever crowd He was facing. He combined unbelievably grand to the point of arrogance claims with a personal humility and winsomeness that inspired incredible loyalty from His followers. And the things that He did…if we could accomplish even a fraction of those we could be set for life. People can and do strive to do the things Jesus did all the time. But to actually give your heart to Him and make Him the Lord of your life? That’s a whole ‘nother deal. But it’s a deal that will lead to life if we will take it.
With this warning against blithely and falsely assuming we’re on the right track set firmly in place, Jesus shifts gear a bit and tells us how to make sure we are on the right one. In the process, He gives us the ultimate guide to doing life well as one of His followers. And again, this all boils down to something incredibly simply—if also incredibly difficult: We do what He says.
Check this out with me in v. 24 now: “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.”
Jesus’ brother James put this another way that’s a bit more direct than Jesus’ parable here in James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Do you see it? If you just hear what Jesus said but don’t listen, you can easily deceive yourself into thinking you’ve got it when the tough truth is that you’re not even close. To hear what Jesus said and not then do what Jesus said is to not actually hear what Jesus said at all.
Listen as James keeps going in v. 23: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently as his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
Have you ever looked in a mirror? From here it looks like most of you did this morning. Have you ever looked in the mirror and went, “Oh my!”? Now, you may have done that before, but it was probably because you didn’t like what you saw, not because you didn’t know who you saw. Well, what would we say about someone who looked in a mirror, got everything looking just how they wanted it, looked away, looked back a second time, and said, “Who’s that?!?”? We’d say there’s something wrong with their head. James simply makes Jesus’ point a bit more forcefully. If you have heard the things Jesus said, but haven’t done anything about them, there’s something wrong with your head. You’re not thinking clearly. You’re a fool. And that’s not from me; that’s from Jesus.
At the end of the day, if you want to do life well as a follower of Jesus—which is the only way to really do life well—you’ve got to do what He said. At any point in your life that you are not putting into practice what Jesus said, you are eventually going to run into trouble. To my high school grads and even my college grad: There are going to innumerable opportunities in the coming months for you to do something other than Jesus said to do. The amount of apparent freedom you will have will astound you. You will be sorely tempted to take and run with it in all kinds of different directions, many of them not obviously problematic. But know well that any path you take which leads you away from doing what Jesus said will eventually end in heartache and not only for you. It’ll lead to heartache for your parents, your grandparents, your friends, your church family, and anybody else you happen to take with you down that path. And I don’t say that to offer you a note of finger-wagging just before you hit the road, but merely to let you know how life works. If you want to do life well, practice what Jesus preaches.
Yeah, but how do we know when we’re doing that? I mean, vv. 21-23 are still pretty stinking scary. Jesus actually tells us in a couple of verses that come just before these warnings. Come back to the Sermon with me in Matthew 7:17: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
That’s how you know. The person who is putting into practice what Jesus preaches lives a life that gradually bears fruit that proves the pudding. What kind of fruit? Paul talked about several of them in his letter to the believers in the region of Galatia. He said that the fruit of the Spirit—that is, the fruit that comes from practicing what Jesus preaches—is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If you want to do life well, practice what Jesus preaches. And if you practice what Jesus preaches, you will grow to have more love in your life—you will be more intentionally dedicated to seeing the people around you become fully who God designed them to be. You will be more joyful—you will have a deeper contentedness in God that is unconnected to your present circumstances. You will experience more peace—the wholeness and completeness that comes from resting easily in the arms of a God who is sovereign over this world. You will exhibit greater kindness—you’ll more easily treat people with a generous consideration of their circumstances rather than merely how they have treated you. Your life will show forth more goodness—the character of God will be more evident in your pursuit of the best interest of those around you. You will be more faithful—you will be unwavering in your commitments and absolutely trustworthy in your affirmations. You will show more gentleness—you will consistently approach people in light of their strengths and weaknesses rather than merely your strengths. And you will exhibit more self-control in your life—you will readily practice saying no to yourself and your desires in favor of the plans and commands of God. Let that serve as a starting point for you. When you get those mastered by your consistent practice of what Jesus preaches, you come find me because I’d like to learn at your feet. If you want to do life well, practice what Jesus preaches.
There’s just one more thing and then we’ll be out of here. You can’t practice what Jesus preaches on your own. You can’t bear fruit on your own. You are not a root of any of those things we just talked about. They don’t come naturally from you. The things that come naturally from you and from me aren’t pretty. Instead, you and I are branches. No matter who we are or what our situation happens to be, we bear fruit consistent with the vine to which we are currently attached. Are you with me? If you want to bear fruit consistent with the life of Jesus, with a life done well, you’ve got to make sure you are attached to that vine.
In other words, you’ve got to stay connected with Jesus. In other words, there’s one more floor to descend in order to be on the ground here and it takes us back to where we started. If you want to do life well, you’ve got to be in a relationship with Jesus. Not just your mind, but your whole heart. Listen to how Jesus puts this in John 15:4: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you’re are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
If you want to do life well, practice what Jesus preaches. It’s that simple. It’s not easy. But anybody can do it. They can do it because practicing what Jesus preaches is the natural result of being in a relationship with Him. At the end of the day, then, there are two questions you’ve got to answer if you want to do life well. The first is this: Do I want to do life well? Now, that may sound silly, but some people don’t for one reason or another. So here it is again: Do you want to do life well? The second question is this: Am I in a relationship with Jesus? Indeed: If you’re not and you do, you won’t until you are. So if you want to do life well, get in a relationship with Jesus. You’ll know that you are because you are consistently practicing what Jesus preaches and your life is showing forth the fruit of such efforts. Next Sunday we’re going to celebrate baptism with nine people—that I know of right now!—who have put themselves in just such a relationship because they want to do life well. I’m going to have them come up here in just a minute. My question to you is: Do you want to join them? Because if you want to do life well, they are giving you the example to follow. If you want to do life well, practice what Jesus preaches. It won’t always be easy, but you’ll be glad you did.
Practicing Good Preaching