Sayers, Hearers and Doers

Matthew 7:21-29

24 July 2011

St Mary's, White Waltham

Morning Prayer


Think for a moment: what is the most dangerous thing you have done, either deliberately or accidentally?

Reflecting on this myself, I have to admit that I'm not a thrill-seeker: I've never been skydiving or bungee-jumping, and frankly they don't really appeal. When I was sixteen I used to enjoy slip-streaming lorries at 60 miles per hour on my push bike, until the police pulled me over one day and gave me a good talking to. But that was a very long time ago.

But there are two things I do which it turns out are phenomenally dangerous: I claim to be a Christian, and I read the Bible.

Now, that probably sounds a bit lame, doesn't it? I mean, it doesn't really feel very dangerous, does it. Probably the biggest danger we feel we face this morning is getting a stiff neck after nodding off during the sermon. If we were in North Korea or Iran, it would clearly be different: we'd very likely be killed for what we're doing now.

But that's not the danger I'm talking about. I'm talking about the warnings that Jesus gives us at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. That's the reading we had from Matthew chapter 7, verse 21. It would be good if you could turn back to it now, page 972.

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with two stern warnings. First the danger of professing with our mouths to follow him, which we are doing this morning as we meet to sing hymns and say the creed. And, second the danger of hearing his word, which we have also done in the Bible readings.

So why are these things so dangerous?

Jesus condemns sayers who aren't also doers

In the first part of our passage, verses 21 to 23, Jesus condemns "sayers" who aren't also "doers".

Verse 21, Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.ref

There are people, Jesus says, who say they know him, who believe they know him, and have evidence of great works to back up their claim, but whom Jesus will reject.

These people are sincere. They are not heretics: they rightly call Jesus Lord. They are enthusiastic, "Lord, Lord" they say.

They are claiming to know Jesus, they are doing great deeds—prophesying and exorcising and working miracles—in his name. Verse 22, Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?"ref

But Jesus does not know them. Verse 23, Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"ref

These people, then, are like a kind of conman. In one scam, men appear at your door claiming to be from the Water Company needing access to your house to fix a leak. But if you actually checked their ID and called the water company, they would say, "no, we don't know who they are". But the people Jesus is talking about are unwitting conmen: they actually think they are acting in Jesus' name, but Jesus doesn't know them. And they don't really know him.

The problem is that, while they say Jesus is Lord, they do not do things that are consistent with him being Lord. They are sayers but not doers. They have an outward profession of Christianity, but there is no change in their hearts. Fundamentally their hearts are hard; they are still serving themselves rather than doing the will of the Father in Heaven.

The real tragedy is that they take themselves to be genuine believers. They fully expect to be admitted to heaven. But Jesus will say, Away from me, you evildoersref.

This is alarming stuff, isn't it? But it's just the same point that Jesus has been making for the last three chapters in the Sermon on the Mount. It's not our outward appearance that matters. It's not the claims we make and the appearance of religiosity: it's the state of our hearts. Is there a coherence between our outward and inner religious lives?

So, where do you and I stand? Are we doers of the Father's will, or are we sayers only?

We say that we are Christians, but is that matched by an inner reality of love for, and obedience to, Jesus? For if we know him, we will strive to obey him. Do we have a daily sorrow for sin, a willingness to repent, a deep gratitude for forgiveness, a desire to walk more closely in Jesus' footsteps, a joy in knowing him? Are these characteristic of our inner lives?

Perhaps a good test of whether we really know Jesus is to ask ourselves what we expect it to be like on the final day, when we face his judgement.

If, like the people Jesus describes here, you are expecting it to be something like a job interview, where you will have to produce evidence of all your great achievements—I gave so much to the church, I was always there, I led some terrific Bible studies, I preached some great sermons, I was always helping out, Lord—if you feel the need to compile a kind of spiritual CV to present to him on that day, then you are probably on the wrong track. None of that is going to impress him in the slightest bit. Do you actually know him?

But if your expectation is that you will come before him, and he will greet with words like, "Hello, old friend. It's so good to see you.", then you're probably on the right track.

Jesus condemns hearers who aren't also doers

If, in the first part of our passage, Jesus condemns sayers who aren't also doers, in the second part he condemns hearers who aren't also doers. Verse 26, Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice—does not do them—is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.ref

Of course we all know this story; it's a Sunday school favourite, and the story appears in all of my daughters' Bible Story books. But the way it's usually presented owes more the story of the Three Little Pigs than the picture Jesus describes. In the kiddies' version of this story the wise man always builds a beautiful, solid looking dwelling out of stone and cement, whereas the foolish man just whacks up a few planks of wood.

Needless to say, this misses Jesus' point completely. The point is not about the quality of the house, it's all about the quality of its foundations.

This is the difference that Jesus emphasises. When the wise man built his house he dug down deep until he found solid rock to build on. He put in good foundations and built his house on them. The foolish man didn't bother with all of that. He just put up his house on top of the sand, perhaps a dry river bed that will flood in winter. Outwardly the houses might have looked exactly the same: each finished with the same degree of care, each apparently solid and permanent. But, fundamentally, one is sound and one is not.

So, once again, Jesus is concerned not so much with the outward portion of our lives, but what is unseen: what lies beneath the surface; the state of our hearts and wills.

People who are hearers but not also doers are neglecting to build the foundation.

Much of what we do in response to the Bible's teaching is unseen, it is between oneself and God alone. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to keep it that way: when you pray, go into your room and close the door; when you give, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing; when you fast, do not make it obvious to others.

The problem is that precisely because much of our response to God's word is internal and unseen, it is easy to neglect. If you were to come to church drunk, it would be obvious to all, but nobody knows if you prayed this morning. If you were to punch somebody in the face, everybody would know about it, but nobody knows if you are secretly harbouring anger in your heart against someone else.

If you are a hearer who is also a doer, you listen as the Bible is read and preached; you may even seek to read the Bible for yourself. But you do more than that. You take what you hear, and ask "what do I need to do about it?" "What changes do I need to make in my life?" "What action do I need to take today?" Often, as the Bible is read, you will become aware of a sin, a failing, a shortcoming. You won't gloss over it; you won't overlook it. You will take it to the cross of Jesus and say to him, "Lord, I know my sin and I am sorry for it. Please help me to overcome it." You will do all this whether or not others know about it, because you care about your foundations.

If you are a hearer but not a doer, you will listen, and perhaps you'll say "that's quite interesting" . You may even know the Bible well and enjoy listening to sermons. But any passing impact it might have will wear off by lunchtime, and life will continue just as before. Outwardly, your life might look much like that of anyone else in church; but you have not invested in the foundations. And what costs us little is, ultimately, worth little.

One day, Jesus warns us, everything will be exposed. He speaks of a time when the rain will come, and the floods will rise and the wind will blow against the house which is our life. This might represent any number of crises in life, but ultimately it points forward to the final judgement.

If you saw any of the coverage of the immense earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March, you will have a mental picture which may be appropriate for this. Did you see the appalling scenes of whole towns—tens of thousands of houses—being washed away before an immense wave, just whirlpools of unrecognisable debris? Perhaps that is an appropriate image to attach to Jesus warning here.

So, at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leaves us with this question: Having heard all this, what are you going to do? Are you, with the Spirit's help, building a foundation that will survive the judgement? Will you be not only a hearer, but a doer as well?


So, do you see? We are doing something really, really dangerous this morning. Gathered here today we are "sayers"—we are professing to be people who follow Jesus. But unless this is matched in our lives by an inner obedience to God, we are simply showing that we don't really know him. It is dangerous to be a sayer and not a doer.

And we are also "hearers". You've heard the word read, you've heard the word expounded. Will you seek with all your heart to take Jesus' words and put them into practice? To build a solid foundation on them. It is dangerous to be a hearer and not a doer. It just shows that you don't really know him at all.