Happy New Year! As we begin this new year, let’s take a few minutes to take stock of our lives and the job we’re doing at building them. Are we building on the kind of foundation that will last and carry us into the future, or are we building on something that’s going to give us trouble down the road? In this message we glean some of the wisdom of Jesus and His brother, James, to give us some guidance on getting this right.
Building on the Right Foundation
When Noah was a baby, he liked to shove balls around the house like any little boy does. Well, the house we happened to be living in at the time was actually really good for this. If you went to the little hallway right in the middle of the house and rolled a ball toward the bathroom door, just as it got to the door it would slow down…and start rolling back toward you. The house came equipped with its own automatic ball return. It was like living in a bowling alley! We just had to set him in the floor there with a ball and he could entertain himself. It was great! Well…sort of.
You see, what had happened is that some years ago there was a leak in the downstairs bathroom. It leaked all the way through the floor and down onto the joist underneath the house. Eventually the joist rotted and had to be repaired. They fixed the floor in the bathroom, but when it came to the joist, rather than just fixing it, they simply cut it out. That meant that right in the middle of the house, rather than there being a joist that ran all the way from the front of the house to the back, the joist there only ran to about the middle of the house where it was capped off.
Now, in a day when people didn’t have very much stuff and there were small families living in the house it didn’t make a whole lot of difference. Fast forward a few years to when a family of two had grown to a family of five with all the attendant stuff a family of five has and the weight and stress on the frame and foundation had begun to show by way of the funhouse floors. There were certain spots in the house where you could actually feel yourself walking downhill. Now, the foundation itself wasn’t in any danger of falling in, but the stress was showing in a growing number of ways (including multiplying cracks in the plaster), and the problem was only going to continue getting worse. We had to have guys come in and put several new footings under the house to get things straightened out. I still remember standing there in the house as they were jacking one set of footings. The foreman and I were listening and watching when all of a sudden the whole house gave a giant crack and all the little cracks we had fairly recently had patched and painted reappeared at the same time. It was awesome…
Perhaps some of you have experienced something like this with your own houses. It makes for an adventure, doesn’t it? Something like that. Even if you haven’t had this particular pleasure, most of you understand pretty well the importance of a good, sturdy foundation when it comes to building a house. If something’s not right with the foundation, it’s going to cause problems to everything else in the house. The thing is, though, some of those problems may not manifest for quite a while. Having a strong foundation matters both now and later. That goes for both a building and also our lives.
Well, this morning, as we stand on the cusp of a new year, I thought we would take a few minutes and talk about the kind of foundation we need in order to build the best lives we possibly can as we go forward together into the future. We’re going to do this by looking at a couple of different places in the New Testament that together paint a picture of what this foundation needs to be. This morning I want to explore these with you and then we’re going to get really practical in terms of how we can make sure we are building well.
The first passage comes from what we often call the book of James. The book of James is not actually a book at all. It’s an ancient letter written by…believe it or not…a guy named James. It is found near the back of the collection of ancient documents and letters that we collectively call the New Testament. This one in particular is worth taking the time to read in its entirety. There are two really good reasons for this. Number one, it’s really practical. James is filled with instructions you can actually put to use in your life. For instance, at the end of the first chapter he tells us that true religion is taking care of orphans and widows and to not let the dirt of the world mess up the picture of our lives. We can do something with that. Practical stuff, and there’s quite a bit more where that came from. Let me tell you: Anything that’s still this relevant after 2,000 years of history is worth taking the 15 minutes or so it will take to read it.
Number two, the James who wrote the letter is more completely known as James the Just, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and brother of Jesus. Give the prominence of the church in Jerusalem, this meant that in his day, James was one of the most prominent leaders in the church in the whole world. His whole life was committed to convincing people that Jesus is Lord, a commitment for which he ultimately paid with his life. Here’s why that matters so much: What would your brother have to do in order to convince you that he is the Messiah? I mean…short predicting and then pulling off his own death and resurrection, I’m not sure what it would be. James thought Jesus was crazy as a loon during His ministry. He once tried to kidnap Jesus in order to take Him home and lock Him up so He couldn’t keep embarrassing the family with all His crazy talk. And then he met his resurrected brother and became the leader of the most important church in the world. If there’s stronger evidence in favor of the resurrection, I’m not sure what it would be.
In any event, if all of that is true about James—and it is—then we should probably pay pretty close attention to what he had to say. There are actually several important themes in his letter, but one stands out as worth our time this morning: Claiming faith without doing something about it is a meaningless waste of breath. He addresses this issue in several places, but there’s one in particular where he’s pretty direct about this. Take a look at this with me in James 2:14 and following.
“What good is it, my brothers [and sisters], if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” That’s kind of right in your face, isn’t it? James isn’t much of one to pull punches. He goes on to be more specific about what he means: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” That makes sense, right? To simply wish someone well without doing anything to make that more than an empty gesture may be good manners, but it doesn’t accomplish very much. Now, James isn’t saying we need to give money to every person we see begging on the side of the road. If the Spirit moves in your heart, listen to Him, but there are many cases in which that may be less helpful than doing nothing. Better is to partner with groups like West Stanly Christian Ministries who are already out doing good work in applying what James is saying here; who have the infrastructure, know-how, and resources to bring not just temporary, but lasting relief to folks who are hurting. James’ bigger point, though, he lands on in the next verse: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Next, he has this debate with an imaginary critic who tries to separate out faith and works as if they were two different things. James responds by essentially saying they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. If we are going to claim some kind of a relationship with Christ as a foundation point in our lives, we’d better have the stuff to show for it otherwise there’s no reason to buy our claim. Again: Claiming faith without showing faith is meaningless. James ultimately lands back again on this idea that faith apart from works is dead.
Now, that idea itself has had something of a lively past in church history. Some, like Martin Luther, with his almost radical dedication to the Reformation cry that salvation comes by faith alone, wanted to remove the whole letter from the New Testament because of the possibility of construing it in such a way as to support some kind of a works-based salvation which was taught by the Catholic Church at the time and helped lead to his forming a breakaway group. And, while he was mistaken in this desire, he was right to warn of the danger: Some folks have used James’ words here to justify a faith that is driven more by social justice action than theological fidelity to any kind of an historical, orthodox, confession of doctrinal truth. It’s not hard to take what James says here and set it against what Paul says in Romans 3 and Ephesians 2. But, the solution to all of this is much simpler than folks want to make it. Salvation is absolutely by faith alone. That’s a foundational principle of the Christian faith and we cannot waver from it even a little bit. But, to claim we have faith and then not do anything about it is to suggest by our actions that we don’t really have the faith we claim. It would be like building a beautiful house and boasting of your strong foundation…without having actually built that foundation. Thus, faith without works is indeed lifeless. And works do indeed justify us in the sense that they are the proof in the pudding of the justification we already have because of our faith. Simple, right?
Perhaps, but this just leads us around to a pretty important follow up question: What can we do to put ourselves in a place to show, not just claim, our faith? How can we make sure we have the kind of foundation we need for the life we long to have? To answer this question, we need to check out another ancient document called Matthew…because it was written by Matthew. Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples. Being a tax collector by trade he was probably one of the more educated guys in the group. As a result, he took some really good notes when Jesus was teaching. On one particular occasion he took a whole bunch of notes while Jesus was teaching a big crowd of people up on this hill near the Lake of Galilee. Jesus was offering some teaching that He had presented before and would present again, often in bits and pieces, but on this occasion offered it all in one big chunk. Because of the location, we now know this as the Sermon on the Mount.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets out the basic ethical and moral framework of the kingdom of God. Much of it set what was thought to be right and true by most folks in His day on its head. He took the standards of righteousness and purity of the Pharisees, which most folks figured was more than enough to get on God’s good side, and turned them up to eleven. Most of it comes in the context of this: God said this, you thought God meant that, but He really did mean this. Now, Jesus’ touches on a whole variety of subjects dealing both with our relationship with God and also our relationship with other people (because, like James pointed out, the two are opposite sides of the same coin—one can’t be right if the other isn’t), but right at the end of the sermon He gets really practical with the people. Perhaps He understood that some of them were asking the applicational question: What on earth am I supposed to do with all of this?
So, Jesus told them. Look at this with me from Matthew 7:24-27: “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.”
Now, if everything else Jesus had said this particular afternoon was shocking to the people and left them wondering just who this rabbi thought he was—and in the very next verse Matthew tells us that when Jesus finished the crowds were “astonished at his teaching”—this blew the tops off their heads. Other rabbis and teachers of the Law had told similar parables over the years, but for them the foundation point was consistently the Law of Moses, God’s Law. Jesus substituted His teachings for the Law. This would have been like me preaching a lengthy revival service and at the end of the message announcing, “You have heard that you’re supposed to build your life on the Bible, but I’m telling you to build your lives on my words; on the things I’ve been saying to you.” I think perhaps that the deacons might call a quick emergency meeting after that particular service to talk about how much longer I would be remaining an employee of the church. And the talk would be focused on how many hours, not days.
But Jesus was different. He was different because He predicted and pulled of His own death and resurrection. When somebody does that, you just take everything they say at face value. In this case, if we want to have the kind of life that is built on a foundation that will enable our claims of faith to carry more weight than the words themselves do, what Jesus says here is our ticket to success. We’ve got to build our lives on His words. The strongest foundation is Jesus.
That all sounds great, but if the strongest foundation for building our lives is Jesus, what does that actually look like? Let’s talk about that. I want to give you some really practical things you can do to make sure you are building on the foundation of Jesus so that your life in this new year can be the strongest it has ever been. Are you ready for these?
The first way to be sure we are building our lives on the foundation of Jesus’ life and words is to actually know what those words are. Do you know how we’re going to know what those words are? Of course you do. We read them. Often. In fact, we read them every single day. Given just how available the words of Jesus are for us today there is absolutely no valid excuse for a professed follower of Jesus to not be engaging with them on a consistent, daily basis. Now, that may not feel very good to hear, but it’s true all the same. If you’re not in a regular routine of reading the Scriptures, especially the words of Jesus, the only reason is that you don’t want to do that as much as you want to do the other things you are doing instead.
And just so I don’t leave you any wiggle room, allow me to eliminate some excuses. Let’s say you’re in a place of life where you have kids you’re trying to get up and dressed and fed and out the door for school on a consistent basis. I’m right there with you. You have two options: Get up before they do (which is a challenge in our house, let me tell you) and spend a few minutes engaging with the Scriptures; or wait until after they’re out the door and do it then. But, you may have to get yourself to work as soon as you get them out the door. I’ll be you have at least a short commute. That’s okay. Listen to the Scriptures. For some of you, that’s just as good as, if not better than, reading them. You can read them in a traditional analog format (that is, in an actual Bible), or you can read them with the help of a Bible app of some kind on the smart phone that most of you have. There are several good apps out there for that, but the YouVersion Bible App is by far the best. It’s the one I use and have been using for a few years. You can set a reminder alarm to read at a certain time each day. If you download and use this app you can even read along with me and we can share thoughts back and forth as we go. The strongest foundation is Jesus. Unless you know what He said, though, you won’t be building on it.
A second way to be sure we are building our lives on the foundation of Jesus’ life and words is to go beyond simply reading His words to engaging with Him through them. As you spend time reading the writings of guys like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each day (along with the rest of them), take what you are reading and turn it into prayer. Pray through the lens of the text. For example, when you read this text from Matthew, you could pray something like this: “Jesus, your words really are the right foundation for my life. Thank you for leaving such a clear record for us to follow when it comes to living the life that is truly life. Your words are wonderful and I give you praise for them. I want to make sure my life is built on them and not anything else. Help me recognize the places where I am building on a weak foundation, forgive me for doing that, and give me the courage to build on the strongest foundation of all: You.” This will do a couple of important things for you. It will bring some perhaps needed variety and vitality to your prayer life, especially if you’ve gotten stuck in a prayer rut. And, it will keep you from letting your times of prayer become little more than laundry lists of sick people. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to pray for sick people, but think about it like this: If all your friend did every time you were around was tell you about all the sick people in her life you’d probably get a little sick of it. God’s patience is bigger than yours, but He wants your heart, not just to hear about who’s sick in your life. The strongest foundation is Jesus. He’s the foundation for building your whole life on, not just a bunch of auxiliary structures while you keep the main house somewhere else.
A third way to be sure we are building our lives on the foundation of Jesus’ life and words is to remember that prayer is supposed to be a conversation. It’s a conversation between us and God. That means we talk and God listens; but it also means that God talks and we listen. We’re really good at that first part. We may not be so good at that second part. Part of the reason for this struggle is that we are so easily distracted by life. We live in a distraction-rich culture and we are far from immune to its effects. Learning to shut out the world in order to hear the voice of God isn’t easy. It takes practice and discipline.
Imagine you were on a crew building a house, but the foreman in charge of the plans spoke really quietly most of the time. Would you simply talk at him and then charge forward on your own? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d stop everything you were doing and get in close to hear what the next step was so you didn’t build something that was weak and worthless. The same thing goes here. The strongest foundation is Jesus, but He tends to speak softly so we’ll have to lean in and listen. There’s a reason we have a time in most of our services during which I call us all to simply be still and silent before the Lord. That’s a discipline I want to help us all learn together. But, Sunday mornings can’t be the only time you practice it. And listen: The time you spend doing that, even if only for a few moments in a day, will make the rest of the work you put off to do it more productive and focused than it would be without it.
Let’s do one more. We’ve engaged with what Jesus said. We’ve prayed through what Jesus said. We’ve stopped to listen to what Jesus has to say. What’s left? We have to actually do what Jesus said. That’s really the heart of what He says here at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, right? The strongest foundation is Jesus, but in order to build on that foundation…we have to actually build on that foundation. And the way we build on the foundation is to do what He said. Okay…what did Jesus say?
He said to love the least of these. He said that whatever do for the least of these we do for Him. What have you done for the least of these lately? Giving here is important, but that’s not enough by itself. What have you actually actively done for someone who would qualify as a “least of these”? Who even are the “least of these” in our culture? How about the immigrants? The poor? The refugees? The addicts? The collateral victims of all of those folks?
How about your enemies? Jesus said we should love them too. And hearing that word in church may prompt a little holy moment during which you protest, “But I don’t have any enemies. I like everybody.” But, come on now. If we’re going to be honest, we’ve all got someone in our lives who drives us crazy; someone who, given our preference, we’d just as soon not be around if possible. We all have that person who manages to get under our skin every time we’re around them. What are some ways you can be intentional about seeing that person move in the direction of Jesus (which is the substance of loving them)? You can pray for them—and should be. But, what else could you do? Could you serve them in some simple, practical way? How about find something good in their life and celebrate it with them? The strongest foundation is Jesus, and this is the kind of work that roots our lives deeply in His.
What else is there? Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about the importance of reconciling relationships that are broken. Listen: If you’ve got a relationship that is broken in your life, it’s time to see that repaired. If the breech is the result of something you did, own up to it and apologize for it. If the breech is the result of something someone else did, forgive them for it. This doesn’t mean whatever happened was okay, it doesn’t even necessarily mean the relationship will be reconciled, it means you’re not going to sit in the place of God over them any longer. Even if they don’t receive your forgiveness, granting it in your heart is cleansing for your soul. Better even than this, put into place the kinds of habits and patterns that will prevent relationship breaks in the first place. Let’s commit to practicing radical faithfulness in our relationships. What would it look like to stop doing anything that might jeopardize the relational connections we have with the people around us? Whatever that takes, isn’t it worth doing? And the more important the relationships, the more important it is for us to protect them. All of this kind of stuff and more is a putting into practice what Jesus said. It’s building on a strong foundation that will weather the storms of life. It will allow for foundation cracks in our hearts to be repaired. When we get it right, it will prevent them from happening in the first place. This is what it looks like to build on a strong foundation. The strongest foundation is Jesus.
If you’re going to have the kind of new year that I know you want to have, this is the way to do it. You’ve got to build on the right foundation. There are lots of foundations available for you to build on. You can build on the foundation of your life, somebody else’s life, a particular idea, a habit, a fad, and the list goes on. But the strongest foundation is Jesus. He is the rock that will never crumble or even move. The strongest foundation is Jesus. Build your life on Him.