When I first sat down and read this week’s lectionary readings, I felt I had a puzzle on my hands. What does God require of us?
Deuteronomy speaks of the importance of the commandments from the Lord God – bind them on your hands, wear them on your foreheads, write them on your doorposts. To choose to remember and keep these commandments is to choose blessing and life, whereas to ignore them is to choose to turn away and be cursed.
God’s requirements of his people are clear – follow God’s commandments and so walk in fellowship with God.
The letter to the Romans is a different kettle of fish. Paul lays down the gospel – it is all about faith, relying on God’s forgiving love and grace and not trying to earn acceptance through our own righteousness. But Paul is clear that what he says does not undermine the law but upholds it. Because Paul doesn’t use our faith in God’s grace as a license to flout the law, but as our reason for wanting to live by it.
These two - Deuteronomy and Romans – are not so much in opposition as it might first seem. Deuteronomy begins with a covenant, a relationship, offered to the people of God by God. God and God’s people are bound together in love – and the sign and reminder of this are the laws given to people by God for their guidance into a good life. To those who have forgotten the relationship and are clinging only to the laws, Paul offers the good news that God’s love has been revealed yet again in Jesus Christ, calling people to respond to God’s love with lives which reflect God’s rule, or what Jesus calls ‘God’s kingdom’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven’.
So the puzzle of any apparent conflict between Deuteronomy and Romans is resolved.
But then we hear the gospel reading.
The second half of what Jesus has to say offers us no problems. The story of the man building his house on rock: we need to listen to what Jesus says and act on it – so building our lives on firm foundations. Fair enough.
But listen to what Jesus has just said:
‘Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly father. .. many will say to me ‘did we not prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly ‘I never knew you, out of my sight, your deeds are evil’.
Jesus seems to be implying that healing, through miracles and through driving out demons, and speaking out in Jesus’ name is not the will of the Father. This can’t be right! Those were the things that Jesus did throughout his ministry and so speaking for God and serving others must be what is expected of us as we follow Jesus.
But Jesus is drawing attention to the motives of those who act in this way. They call out ‘Lord, Lord’ – they expect a place in the kingdom of God, they feel that these actions are proof of their discipleship and achievements which should bring them a reward.
But Jesus wants his followers to know that it is not what you do, but whom you serve which counts in God’s kingdom. It is not the house itself that matters, but the foundation on which it is built.
If we heal others, do we do it for their sake and as a sign of the kingdom or for our own glorification?
When we speak out for God, do we want others to marvel at our oratory, or do we want them to praise God for the truth of the gospel?
If we serve the needy, are we wanting to be thanked for it, or is it a true act of service on God’s name?
The first is like building on sand, it has no true value; the second is firm, like building on rock.
A friend of mine who is a minister of the United Reformed Church had a church member who was very proud of their ability to speak in tongues, and even went so far as to tell their minister that they were not a true follower of Jesus if she could not speak in tongues. Which is that an example of, building on rock or building on sand? In that case, the gift of tongues was being treated as an achievement, something to be proud of ‘Lord, Lord, I speak in tongues in your name’… it sounds like building on sand to me.
We started with the question – what does God require of us? If we listen to Jesus – we build on rock.
We begin with trust in the God who loves and cares for us, the God who is gracious enough to forgive us and make us new.
We seek to live in accordance with God’s laws, not to deserve God’s love, but in response to it.
And we receive gifts from God which enable us to serve others, not so we can puff ourselves up with pride.
So God sets before us bread and wine, symbols of :
the provision of all that we need, food for our pilgrimage as we go out to serve others, and a foretaste of the banquet prepared in the kingdom of God for all whom God loves.
Give thanks, remember and receive – this is what God requires. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen