“Look Out!” Dr. Peter H. Hobbie


February 25, 2018:  Dr. Peter H. Hobbie, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Presbyterian College

Festival of Faith Sunday Service

My brother,
who was a Presbyterian minister
in Concord, North Carolina,
would trade pulpits
once a year
with a near by African-American Methodist Episcopal minister.
My brother always looked forward
to these occasions.
He enjoyed for a single week
evey year
hearing a congregation
that vocally responded to his sermon.
One year the response
from the congregation
began a little earlier than he expected.
He announced
that the scripture lesson came
from the Gospel of Matthew,
and before he could say another word,
a voice from the congregation responded: “Look out!”

Certainly we need to look out
when we consider the passage
from Matthew this morning.
So many of us come to church
looking for consolation and comfort.
“Had a tough week,
we’re open on Sundays!”
says a popular Presbyterian bumper sticker.
But Jesus speaks in this passage
not words of comfort
but words of warning.
And Jesus does not cushion the blow.
He could have ended this brief parable
on an upbeat note
by stressing the house
safely built on a rock;
instead he ends with
destruction of the house
built upon the sand:
and it fell and great was its fall!
Perhaps Jesus is telling us
that not all sermons can end
with consolation and comfort.

This passage is tough,
so it is important
that we be clear about what it means.
We need to be clear first
about the builders
of the two houses.
We are mistaken
if we conclude
that Christians believers
live in the house built on a rock
and that non believers
constructed and live in the house
built upon the sand.
Both houses are Christian dwellings.
The difference lies
in the distinction
between merely hearing the word of God
and hearing and doing what God commands.
Jesus tells his followers in this same chapter of Matthew:
“Not everyone who says to me,
‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,
but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

As for the houses themselves,
they are identical when we view them.
Jesus does not paint a picture
of the houses of the three little pigs,
two constructed with straw and sticks
and one made of solid brick.
We could well imagine
a beautiful mountain home
built into a hill side on solid rock
and a fabulous beach home,
perhaps nearby,
facing the ocean,
built only on surrounding sand.
There is nothing supernatural
about the solid mountain house;
it does not glow in the dark
with divine power;
it does not magically multiply
its bedrooms and bathrooms.
It cannot ward away the coming storm.
Both houses face danger of destruction.
The house built on a mountain
must face down the cruel winter storms
blasting against it,
heavy rains that could flood
the house from a nearby creek,
the danger of mudslides
if there had been an earlier forest fire nearby.
The house in the sand faces
the summer and fall attack
by a hurricane’s wind and coastal surge.
For both houses, one day, sooner or later,
“a hard rain’s gonna fall.”
The only difference
between the houses is
which will survive
the terrible storm
that will come to both.
You know the answer to that;
perhaps from your own experience
of living near houses built on sand.

If the distinction between the two
is the difference
between merely hearing
and both hearing and doing “these words,”
we may well ask
what are “these words”
that Christ talks about.
“These words” are clearly
the Sermon on the Mount,
for this parable is the conclusion
of that sermon in this gospel.
What do you remember
from the Sermon on the Mount?
I remember the Beatitudes
because I had to memorize them.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
blessed are the pure in heart….
Perhaps what we need do
won’t be all that difficult.
Blessings are nice!
But the whole Sermon is
three chapters long,
so perhaps we need to look closer
at what Jesus said
in addition to the nine verses
of one chapter
where we find the Blessings.
Let me give you seven excerpts
from those three chapters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;”
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
These words we must do
if we wish to survive destruction of the house built on sand,
and great was its fall!

Look out,
because when we hear these words
we are not listening
to some new great human philosophy
of how to live.
These words are God’s words
coming to us through his Son,
crucified, dead, and buried and raised from the dead.
And God is not demanding us
to do anything that God hasn’t done.
God always connected speaking and doing.
God spoke and action occurred,
from creation to Christ;
from Exodus to Exile.
God spoke and action occurred:
Let there be light to This is my Beloved Son;
from I will lead you out of Egypt
to the warnings God gave
Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel
and the final destruction of ancient Israel.

Of course we could interpret
the words of warning,
as many Christians have,
to lessen their sting.
We could say, perhaps these words are meant
to teach us
what life in Heaven will be like.
Therefore, the words of Christ
are only an ideal of our lives on earth.
It is in the midst of explanations
of what Jesus really meant,
that we remember the words
of the twentieth century German martyr
Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
“We could understand
and interpret the Sermon on the Mount
in a thousand different ways.
Jesus knows only one possibility:
simple surrender and obedience,
not interpreting it,
but doing and obeying it.
There is only one other possibility,
that of failing to do it.
It is impossible to want to do it
and yet not do it.
If we start asking questions,
posing problems,
and offering interpretations,
we are not doing his word.
However vehemently we assert our faith,
and our fundamental recognition of his word,
Jesus still calls it not doing.
I had a student
who upon hearing these words
” Easy for Bonhoeffer to say,
he was in a Nazi concentration camp.”
No he wrote these words
before he was arrested;
such words are the reason that he was imprisoned.
Just do it! Says Jesus.
We cannot be with Jesus
merely to learn and accept this or that
and leave on one side
what we find inconvenient, impractical, or too idealistic.

What are we to do?
We might want to obey
but we often lack the courage
that such obedience requires.
Matthew’s solution is simple,
so simple that in fact it is a single word,
“Emanuel.” God is with us.
At the end of the gospel of Matthew
Jesus gives his disciples
his commission , new work for them to do,
but he ends with the words
“and remember, I am with you,
even to the end of the age.”
Perhaps that should help,
but in our crowded busy lives in a complex society,
we too often feel that God is absent from our lives,
even though we know God is present.
But perhaps with the aid of the Holy Spirit,
there is something else that we might do.
We might practice our faith.
To have faith in God means to have trust in God.
Our commitment to Christ is based
on trust, not objective proof.

I have enjoyed my lectures on science and religion
and how we might relate the two.
And yet the two are different.
Science depends on observable and objective facts.
Faith is based on trust of truths that cannot be proved.
Even if science could prove,
which it cannot,
that God exists out there in limitless space.
What good is that to us?
What really matters most to us is
that the God that does exist
knows something of the dust of the earth,
something of the bloodstained face
human existence wears, and can feel it.
Our faith is based in trust of that God.

But how can we feel that trust?
The first time I went to the deep end
of the swimming pool,
I gained courage
because an adult
was there to jump in
and pull me out
if I got in trouble.
I expect you have had a similar experience.
Your courage grew because you trusted.
We affirm our trust, our faith, in God
by taking risks;
jumping when we are not entirely sure
where we might land.
I know that
when I fall short in being courageous
about what Christ would have me do,
I know that my deeper problem is a lack of trust.
We should know
that God and my community of faith are there
to support us
when we take a risk
to be a better follower of Christ.
Just do it, becomes a real possibility.

By doing, as Christ demands,
the Holy Spirit opens the door
for our living the Kingdom of Heaven,
right now in this life,
by giving us a deeper sense of
the true meaning of life.
Doing these words
make our lives on earth
more like the heaven we all anticipate.
The promises that Christ offers
in the Sermon on the Mount become real now:
Do not worry, saying,
‘What will we eat?’
or ‘What will we drink?’
or ‘What will we wear?’
For indeed your heavenly Father knows
that you need all these things.
But strive first for the kingdom of Heaven
and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
Obey Christ’s words by trusting and risking.
The risks can be baby steps,
which were a risk when you were a baby.
Finally, a word of comfort: The warning is real
but the outcome does not have to be bleak.
Please remember that the house fell;
but Christ says nothing about the inhabitants.
So perhaps the fallen house taught its inhabitants
a hard lesson about the essential need to
trust, to risk and to do Christ’s words.

I pray that you and I will discover in this season of Lent
at least that much trust , risk, and courage in your lives as disciples of Christ.


Ezekiel 33:30-33

As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and ask the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, ‘Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’  They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they will not obey them.  For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain.  To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it.  When this comes–and come it will!–then they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

Matthew 7:24-27

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wiseman  who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!”

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

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