7th December 2002
Over the last five weeks, we've seen how alien the Sermon on the Mount is. Jesus's largest and clearest body of teaching is utterly at odds to the way the world around us thinks. At every turn, it is packed with instructions that we're tempted to write off as hopelessly naive and unrealistic:
If we're tempted to think like along those lines, then the final words of the Sermon on the Mount should cure us:
Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.- Matthew 7:24-27
This is another of those passages whose impact is so blunted by overfamiliarity that we need to consciously step back to recognise what's being said. This is not a story for kids (although I'll admit that The Three Little Pigs bears more than a passing resemblance to it), but a stern warning.
The important point with this parable is that when Jesus describes the builders as ``wise'' and ``foolish'', he doesn't mean ``high-IQ'' and ``low-IQ''; the words carry moral connotations as well as intellectual. This parable is to do with wisdom, not intelligence.
What's the difference? Well, when I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, you had to generate both Intelligence and Wisdom statistics for the character you play, along with Strength, Dexterity, etc. The Dungeon Master's Guide used to explain the difference by saying that an intelligent person might be someone who understands medical reports showing that smoking is bad for your health; but a wise person is one who actually stops smoking.
So in this case, Dungeons and Dragons is in agreement with Jesus! Wisdom is not to do with what you think, or what you believe; it's about what you do.
How can we do all this difficult stuff? How can we love our enemies when our natural reaction is to hate them? How can we store up treasures in heaven when our instinct is to gather treasure on earth? And how can we ever be perfect as our father is perfect?
The key is that what we do flows from who we are. When God wants to change our behaviour, he first transforms our identity. This is right at the crux of what being a Christian is. You can't get there by changing your behaviour, because the changes to Jesus demands are simply contrary to the human nature; but God gives us a new nature!
The New Testament writers use very vivid imagery in talking about this:
We tend not to make much of the phrase ``born again'', because it's been rather commandeered by certain right-wing American movements. But, as with many parts of the Sermon on the Mount, if we can leave behind our preconceptions on the idea, and see it with fresh eyes, it's truly startling: as clear a picture as you could wish for of a completely fresh start. No wonder Nicodemus was so shocked by the idea that he replied, ``How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!''
It shouldn't surprise us that the metaphors in these bible passages are mixed: the writers and speakers, including Jesus, are trying to describe something that's completely outside of normal human experience, a transformation that starts at the roots and works its way up; or, if you prefer, that starts at the core and works its way outwards.
When God gets hold of us and changes us, we are different from how we were before. Something concrete and specific has happened, which is why Paul writes that ``Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified [past tense] the sinful nature with its passions and desires.'' - Galatians 5:24.
It may not always be immediately apparent to others, because the change that God works in us starts in the centre and percolates outwards; but it's real and fundamental from the start. And it affects how we live in lots of ways.
When I started to write this sermon, it had the title Living to a Different Standard. I changed it to Living with a Different Spirit which seemed to capture the idea better; but I could equally have used any of these titles:
But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.- Numbers 14:24
There's something very resonant about that phrase ``a different spirit'' (which is why it made it into the title of this week's sermon). I like the idea of Caleb (and his buddy Joshua) living in the midst of his worldly companions, but actually being a fundamentally different kind of person - one full of power from God himself.
If we want to be like the wise bulkder who build his house on the sand - if we want to take seriously Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, and to live by them - then we need that ``different spirit''.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/different.html.