This is the summary of a sermon that was originally preached on July 19, 1992 at First Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, Alabama. The original text has been substantially edited for clarity.
Proverbs 3:5-8 (Revised Standard Version)
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
8 It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.
Luke 6:46-49 (Revised Standard Version)
46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
In the last few years there have been news stories about some rather interesting events in Southern California. Some folks had bought expensive property high on a hill overlooking the beach and built their houses there. You probably saw the pictures in which the back side of the house was built resting on the hill, but the slope was so steep they had to use stilts to hold up the front part of the house. Then heavy rains came to that part of Southern California, causing mudslides. And guess what? Mud wasn’t the only thing that slid into the ocean. The houses did too.
These stories are an interesting modern-day parallel to the parable in today’s New Testament reading–actual true events not that different from what Jesus describes in his story. There really have been people who’ve built their houses rather precariously and have seen them collapse due to heavy rains.
This passage is part of a larger section of the book of Luke commonly called “the Sermon on the Plain.” It’s very similar to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. In today’s Scripture reading Jesus is addressing not only his twelve disciples, but a larger crowd as well. He asks the penetrating question, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do what I tell you?” It’s worth noting that this question and the parable that follows it actually come at the very end of the Sermon on the Plain. The sermon contains a lot of Jesus’ instructions, and then Jesus concludes it with this story about the importance of following through on his commands.
The question Jesus poses will probably have the most significance for us if we stop for a moment and think about what the word “Lord” means. It’s a word we use very commonly in the church but I’m not sure we always think much about what it actually means. Let me explain what I’m talking about.
There are two primary ways we use the word “Lord.” First, we use it as a name. It’s another name for God. We pretty much use the names “God” and “the Lord” interchangeably. Second, we use the word “Lord” as a title or description. We speak of Jesus Christ as our “Lord and Savior.” Now “Savior” doesn’t give us too much trouble. We know what that means. Obviously Jesus saves us from sin, though really there are a lot of other things He saves us from, too.
But what about “Lord”? What do we mean when we call Jesus Christ our Lord? That’s the crucial question in this passage.
The New Testament was written originally in Greek. The Greek word translated as the word “Lord” in our English Bibles is kurios. Kurios sounds like it ought to mean curious, but in fact it means “Lord” or “Master.”
Now the word “Master” is not too hard for us to comprehend. Yet “master” has some negative connotations, for we associate it most often with slavery. And we know slavery is an evil thing. No human being should be captive to another. And yet the New Testament writers often referred to themselves as “slaves” of Christ. So perhaps the word “master” does give us some idea about the nature of our relationship to Christ. In that light, of course, our hope is that Jesus is a more benevolent master than human masters have been to their slaves.
I think the word “Lord,” though, if we delve into its history in English, might be easier for us to grasp, and shed more light on what the nature of our relationship to Christ is supposed to be. The word “Lord” comes from its usage in the ancient feudal system of the Middle Ages, in which there were lords, and there were servants to the lords, often called vassals. The way the feudal system worked, as I’m sure most of you remember from your studies of high school or college history, was that a lord owned a very large tract of land, sometimes acres and sometimes many square miles. The lord would parcel out that land to various other people and allow them to live on it in exchange for their services.
One of the primary responsibilities of the vassals was to work the land and till it, and give a certain percentage (sometimes a very high percentage) of the produce to the lord and his estate. The vassals were also expected to fight for their lord in battle if the need ever arose. They were expected to protect the lord’s lands.
By the same token, the lord provided certain services to the vassals. For example, he allowed them to live on his land. He offered his armies to protect the vassals if they were ever attacked and were unable to defend themselves.
So there was a definite give and take. But the lord was the final authority in the situation, because he had the power and he was the owner of the land. Therefore, the lord expected and received complete loyalty from his vassals. Good vassals served their lord faithfully.
This ancient feudal understanding of lordship gives us a picture of what Christ desires from us in our relationship to him–to allow him to be our lord that we might be his vassals. For he is the maker and owner of our world–of our very lives in fact. He is the one who protects us, cares for us and watches over us. Therefore, he desires our loyalty and expects us to serve him.
Now all this talk about lordship and authority may make some uncomfortable because we’ve seen so many instances of authority being misused and abused. Some may distrust authority. However, we need to remember that the God of whom we’re speaking is a loving and a caring God. Not an angry or overbearing God. Not a frail or selfish human being, but a God who is sinless and holy and loving and who truly cares for our well-being and our best interests.
Still, we may be somewhat uncomfortable with any authority who says, “Do what I say simply because I said so.” Yet notice that in this passage Jesus is not saying, “Let me be your Lord because I said so.” Instead he’s saying, “Let me be your Lord because it’s the wisest thing to do.” It’s just plain smart.
Jesus is saying that following him and living by his teachings is like building a house on a strong foundation. Not to live by his teachings is like trying to build a house without a solid foundation. Do we really want to live our lives without a firm foundation? Jesus is saying that doing what he says is the smartest thing to do.
Yesterday I had the privilege of taking a group of twenty-one high school students and their adult leaders from all over the Presbytery on a rafting trip down the Ocoee River, which is about an hour northeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee. When we got up there the people who were escorting us down the river split us up into four different groups, with six passengers in each raft, plus a guide. The guide in my raft was a man named Dan.
In case you’ve never been down the Ocoee before, let me describe the experience just a bit. The section of the river we rafted down, I don’t know how far it is in terms of miles, but it takes about an hour and a half to raft from start to finish. That portion of the river includes just about every kind of terrain, if you can speak of water in that way, that you could imagine. There are calm places. There are very rough places. There are big falls and some that are fairly small. But there are lots of rapids. It’s not a calm river. But it is a lot of fun.
As I and the other five people in my raft and our guide, Dan, went down the river, I became very impressed with Dan’s knowledge and his ability to function as our guide. You see, Dan seemed to know the river like the back of his hand. He knew where all the rough spots were. He knew exactly what part of the river was best to traverse. He knew just how to respond to each new situation.
At one point I asked Dan how many times he had done this. He wasn’t able to come up with an exact figure, but we were able to talk about it in terms of days, months, and years. He said he takes people down the river three times a day and he does that about nine months of the year. That’s over 800 times a year. He said he’s been doing it for quite a number of years. So we’re probably talking about thousands of trips down the Ocoee.
After someone’s rafted down a river that many times, you can imagine what their knowledge of it would be like. Dan knew exactly when to tell us to paddle forward, when to tell us to paddle backwards. He knew just when we needed to spin the raft around in a certain way. He knew exactly where on the river our raft needed to go in order to be either in the safest place, or for us to get the maximum effect of the falls. Or in order for us to be in the right part of the current that would carry us on down the river where we needed to be.
Dan also knew just where the rough spots were. He knew all the rapids by name and would tell us the name of each one as we were approaching it. He was also able to predict exactly how an approaching rapid would affect our raft.
Likewise, Dan knew a lot about the safety measures necessary to insure a safe passage down the river. He knew what to do if someone fell out of the raft, which actually did happen with the group in our raft (fortunately I’m able to say it wasn’t me). Because of Dan’s expertise it was no problem getting the person back into the raft and continuing on our way.
As I was reflecting on the whole experience yesterday, it was obvious just how foolish we would’ve been to try going down the river without a guide. There were some pretty dangerous spots. If we hadn’t had Dan there we might’ve gotten into real trouble. We might have lost our way, and definitely wouldn’t have known the safest places to traverse. We might possibly have lost someone. It was truly fortunate we had a guide.
Consider how much life is like the Ocoee River. Just like the Ocoee, life has it smooth places, its pleasant areas, but it also has its bumpy spots, and its dangerous places. Just as it would’ve been foolish for us to try rafting down the Ocoee without a guide, it’s also foolish to try navigating through life without Christ.
The deceptive thing, though, is that it’s not always as obvious we need a guide in life as it was for us yesterday on the Ocoee. When you approach something like river rafting the average person is smart enough to know they don’t know anything about it. In life it’s not always so obvious, though. When we’ve lived long enough we begin to think, “I can handle this. I know what I’m doing.” So we strike out on our own.
But then the rapids come up later. That’s when we realize maybe we need some guidance.
What about you? What about me? Where are we in our lives right now? Are we trying to navigate the river of life all by ourselves, without a guide? If so, the passage of scripture we’ve considered today has some advice for us. We need a guide through life’s rapids. We need a foundation in life’s storms. Christ wants to be those things for us. Allowing him to be our guide and our foundation means allowing him to be the Lord of our lives. It means doing what he tells us to do, because it’s the smartest way to go. This only makes sense because Christ created us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
Not only that, but Christ loves us, cares for us, and knows what lies ahead. If Christ wants what is best for us, can we not trust him, then, to lead us in the way we ought to go?
Our Old Testament passage this morning gives a description of what that relationship with Christ can be like. Proverbs 3: 5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”
This relationship we’re talking about with our Lord, our Guide through life, has to be characterized by trust. For in order for Christ to truly be our Lord we have to trust, first of all, that our guide really does know the river. That he really does know what he’s doing. We also have to trust that he has our best interests in mind. That he really does care.
Allowing Christ to be our Lord also requires what the second line of verse 5 from Proverbs 3 says: “Do not rely on your own insight.” Yesterday as we were going down the river we knew we couldn’t rely on our own insight about the river because we would’ve been going in all sorts of different directions. If each person in the raft had been simply going by their own sense of how things ought to be then we wouldn’t have been able to paddle together. We probably would have just spun around, making our passage down the river extremely unsafe. We might have tipped over, and who knows what else would have happened. Each of us had to put aside our own guesses about how things should go and listen to Dan, who knew best how things ought to be.
In our lives we have to do the same thing. We have to set aside our own insights and our own best guesses as to what we ought to do and instead seek our Lord, asking him to “direct our paths.”
This morning as I close I’d like to extend an invitation to each person here to consider the question Jesus asked the crowd in the Sermon on the Plain: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and yet not do what I tell you to do?” If Jesus were here in this sanctuary today would he say the same words? We refer to Jesus as “Lord” all the time, but he makes it clear our words are meaningless unless we do what he says. And yet he requires this of us not arbitrarily, but because he knows it’s the best thing for us.
But also consider: Jesus created us. He saved us and brought us to life when we were dead in our trespasses and sins (see Ephesians 2:1-10). He has filled us with His Spirit. Don’t we owe him everything anyway, including our obedience?
I ask you this morning to consider whether or not Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life, and if you realize you haven’t allowed him to be your Lord, then it’s not too late. Ask him to come into your heart and be your guide, your Lord; to show you which way to go and help you do what he tells you. That’s a prayer I think he’ll be more than happy to answer!