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The Upside-Down Kingdom

Built For Life

Rev. Philip Miller | August 7, 2022

Selected highlights from this sermon

We are all learning from someone how to “do” life. We will live our lives in one of three ways: by default (replicating familial patterns), by drift (doing what everyone else is doing), or by design (building your life with intention). In this message, Pastor Miller walks us through two ways of life—one religious and one secular—then he’ll compare these to a third way, the Way of Jesus.

On whom is your life built?

Life is learned. We’re born into this world tender and impressionable. And then from the very earliest interactions with our parents and siblings, our grandparents, friends, teachers, coaches, celebrities, artists, heroes, we learn how to live. We’re taught how to live. And even as adults, we’re still learning, aren’t we? And we read books and attend seminars and we have professional development and mentoring and therapy and life coaching and leaders and politicians and they’re guides that are teaching us how to live because life is learned and we’re all learning from someone how to do life.

And at the end of the day, we will live our lives in one of three ways: either by default or drift or design. By default, we will replicate our family patterns, just sort of do what we saw done and live the way our parents or whatever our role models—the way they lived. We just keep the cycle going for good or for ill. Or we live by drift, sort of caught up and drifting along in the cultural moment, never really bothering to examine our lives because we’re doing what everyone else is doing, and we have all the same blind spots. But a few people choose to live by design, to build a life based off of purpose and intention and careful choices. And it’s to this last group of people that Jesus makes His final appeal at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 7, verses 25 down to 27, this is Jesus’ final image that He leaves with His audience. This is page 812 in the pew Bible if you want to use that.

Matthew 7, verses 25 down to 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 rains fell, and the floods came, and… 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.”

Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word.

Now Jesus ends here and He says, “Listen, now you’ve heard My words. You’ve heard My teaching. You’ve heard My wisdom for living, and now the question is, what will you do? If you want a life that is solid and resilient and enduring, come follow Me. Apprentice your life to Me and I will teach you how to do life. And I will give you a life if you will obey Me that will be built on a rock where absolutely nothing can take you down. But if you ignore My words and then try to built your life on another way, any other foundation, like the religious moralism of the Pharisees, for example, you’ll discover in time that it is a life built on sand. It’s unstable. It’s vulnerable. It’s faltering.”

Jesus is telling us that His Word is the only firm foundation for life, that all other words give way in the end, that He’s the solid Rock, and everything else is sinking sand. And it was true in Jesus’ day, and it’s still true in ours.

In the first century, Jesus’ teaching was the solid rock that showed the Pharisee’s teaching to be sinking sand, the sinking sand that it really was. And here in the 21st century, what I want to show you today, is that Jesus’ teaching is still the solid rock against which every other life philosophy ultimately turns out to be sinking sand.

We’re going to look this morning at three life philosophies. We’re going to look at two life philosophies that are arguably the two central dominant life philosophies of our day. One is religious, one is secular, but both turn out to be sinking sand when compared with the solid rock of Jesus’ teaching. Okay? So we’re taking the Sermon on the Mount and we’re bringing it full contextual to our moment today. And the presentation that Jesus gives us is: Build your life on the rock of my teaching; everything else will give way. Okay? Everything else is sand.

So this morning we’re going to see three things. First, three life philosophies:

  • Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (chuckles) Are you awake here this morning?
  • Second, Expressive Individualism, and
  • Third, a Gospel-Centered Life in Jesus.

Okay? Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Expressive Individualism, and a Gospel-Centered Life in Jesus.

Don’t worry. We’re going to find all of these this morning, but before we do that, let’s pray together. Would you bow your heads? Let’s pray.

Father, we need to learn how to live today, and we look to Jesus. Teach us where to put the roots of our life, the foundation, the pylons of the structures of our life. Help us to embed them in the durable rock of the teaching of the Word of Jesus Christ, the immovable, enduring, lasting Rock. We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen.

So first of all: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It’s a term you hear every day. If was actually coined by a sociologist named Christian Smith with a co-author, Melinda Lundquist Denton. They did research (this is back in 2005,) a very groundbreaking bit of research, in a book called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. All of these teenagers are now adults, right? So this is millennials, late millennials, early Gen Z, (right?) and they were doing research on the actual personal beliefs of American teens, not what their churches taught them, but what they personally believed about God. What were their functional religious commitments? And in the research across states and denominations, they kept running into the same set of theological views, doctrinal views, but they didn’t wind up with traditional Christianity. And since they didn’t know what to do with it they eventually labeled it the creative title, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

This is what they write: “We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually [only] tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but is rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin...Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Now you have to break this down. Let’s look at each of those three words:

  1. Moralistic – So in this worldview, this philosophy of life, “moralistic,” I have to be a good person. Okay? Moralistic.
  2. Therapeutic – Because that’s the only way to have a whole and happy life. What I really want is to be whole and happy, and if I have to be good, I’ll do it, because apparently that’s what God requires.
  3. Deism – Because this is how God built the world to work, Deism is the view that God made the world and then kind of left it to run on its own. He’s not personally involved very much. So it’s like God wound up the clock of the universe. It runs by particular sets of rules that He determined, and it just ticks, ticks, ticks, ticks away. And if you can figure out the rules of the system you can figure out to live well in the system, but God’s basically at a distance. Okay? Does that make sense? Deism.

So you put it all together: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism says God set up the world (Deism) to reward good people (Moralism) with good lives (Therapeutic). So Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The researchers identified five core beliefs in this world view:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on Earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one’s self.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The researchers write: “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of... justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion (listen) the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.” That’s what moralistic therapeutic deism looks like.

We could summarize it this way. God set up the world to work best for those who live rightly; so if you want a whole and happy life now and heaven when you die, be good. Be good. Bottom line: be good. The researchers tell us that for a huge number of “Christians” in the U.S. this is actually their belief system, their actual lived belief system. This is “Christianity” at the popular level. And it’s deceptive, because it’s partially true, isn’t it?  It’s partially true. God did make the world to work best when we live His way. And we do find ourselves more whole and happy and joyous when we obey God. But it’s not the Gospel, is it? It’s not the Gospel!

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is sand. If you build your life on it, it is shifting, shaking, and sinking. Let me show you why. First of all, it gives you an identity that’s like a rollercoaster. Your identity is like a rollercoaster. If you’re trying to be good enough so that God will bless you with the good life that you want, your life is built on your own performance. And on your good days when you read your Bible, and you say your prayers, and you go to church, and you give a little money to the poor, when you start to feel good about yourself, and you get self-assured and you get entitled and you say, “See God? I did good today,” and you’re doing well and you sit a little higher. And then on your bad days, when that sin you’re fighting creeps up and it gets you again, when you sleep in and miss your Bible reading and you don’t say your prayers and you walk past the poor person, you’re full of self-reproach and misery because you failed. You say, “Don’t look at me, God, today. Look at me on my good days. Don’t look at me on my bad days.”

See, in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, you have really high highs and extremely miserable lows. You never really know where you stand with God. It gives you a heart that is dominated by pride and fear. When you’re doing well, you get a little self-righteous and you look down with condemnation on other people who can’t get their act together. When you do poorly, you are full of self-loathing and crippling fear, and you fear you’re going to get found out, and so you run and you hide, and it leads to a life that wears a mask. You end up wearing a mask. You’re a hypocrite, to use Jesus’ language. You wear the mask. You’re always posturing, projecting, portraying yourself the way you wish you were, but underneath you’re haunted by the sense that you’re a fraud, scared that the real you will be found out.

And then when hardship comes into your life, it creates a crisis because when the storms of life hit you, and they hit everybody, if you’ve been a relatively good person, like all your siblings broke your parents’ hearts, but you’ve been keeping your nose clean, and you think God is blessing your life because you’ve been good, the moment something hard hits your life, like you get sick or lose your job or go through a messy breakup, you have a crisis because either God’s not holding up his end of the deal, or you have somehow failed. But either way, you don’t know how to handle the suffering when it comes. And the foundation starts to chip away and erode. And in the end, friends, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is crushing. It is utterly crushing because you will never be good enough. It’s a never-ending treadmill to nowhere. It will not impress God in the end. You’re only setting yourself up to fail.

And I am amazed at how well the heart of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was captured by Elsa in the movie “Frozen.” Listen, I have young daughters, okay? But listen to this line:

“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see.
Be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don’t feel, put on a show.
Make one wrong move and everyone will know.”

Do you see it? That’s Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in a song. And if you try to build your life this way, it simply cannot support the weight of your own soul, of your own life. You will not be able to handle the pressures that come your way in life, and in the end it collapses. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is sinking sand, okay?

Number two. I told you we were going to look at two central life philosophies, one religious, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (We just did that), and now one secular, Expressive Individualism.

In his masterful book, “Habits of the Heart,” Robert Bellah traces the development of “Expressive Individualism” from its seed form in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his concept of the inner psychological autobiography and the poetry of Walt Whitman as it has advanced now to the kinds of slogans that just simply saturate our world, things like:

  • Be true to yourself
  • Find yourself
  • Follow your heart
  • Be yourself
  • (Or my favorite) You do you (laughs)

Yuval Levin says in “The Fractured Republic,” This term, Expressive Individualism, “suggests not only a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the

definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are. The capacity of individuals to define the terms of their own existence by defining their own personal identities is increasingly equated with liberty and with the meaning of some of our basic rights, and it is given pride of place in our self-understanding.”

Charles Taylor, in “A Secular Age” writes that “the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic Expressivism of the late eighteenth century, that each one of us has his [or] her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important of find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

As Mark Sayers puts it in Disappearing Church, “The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.”

In Expressive Individualism life is about finding our deepest, inner self and expressing it authentically in the face of all expectations; so if you want a whole and happy life, be yourself.

This is how it goes. Be yourself. Look inside yourself (where, I don’t know) but just look in and find the inner spark of who you are, and in the face of everyone’s expectations (family, societal, moral, religious – whatever) express that identity to the world, and say, “This is me!” And of course there’s two criteria embedded in here. Whatever identity you find has to be contrary to the expectations of the traditional authorities in your life, and it has to fit with the progressive culture of the moment. Because if you don’t do it quite right, you get cancelled, okay? So it’s got to be different from what your parents would want, or your religion would want, or traditional culture would want. It’s got to be different and it’s got to be in conformity with the societal expectations of the moment which are ever-changing. Right? But it has to conform, or you get cancelled.

So those are the two criteria. And again, Elsa (“Frozen”) depicts this so well in another song, “Let It Go.” Right? As she casts off (You guys think it’s hilarious that I even watch this movie, right?) (laughter), as she casts off the moral structures of her upbringing and lets it go, listen to these words:

“It’s time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I’m free!”

Do you see? That’s a religion there. That’s a whole life-philosophy. That’s our cultural moment. You’ll see it in marketing and advertising, in music and cinema. It’s inescapable, and it’s so deceptive because it’s partially true. It’s because God did make you with unique beauties that are personal to you that are meant to be shared with the world. It’s true that moralism engenders a kind of fear that makes people run and hide. And there is real freedom in coming out into the light and being known. And yet, this is not the Gospel. It’s not the Gospel. Expressive Individualism is sand. If you try to build your life on it, it’s shifting, and shaking, and sinking.

For example, it gives you an identity that is full of endless searching. It gives you an identity that is full of endless searching. Friends, if you look down inside yourself, what you will find is not a neatly ordered, unified self, like you could just go down there and go, “Ah, there I am. This is me!” No! It’s not that simple. What we find on the inside of ourselves is rather fragmented, robustly complex, and actually highly conflicted.

Deep down, for example, deep down I want to be free. I want to be utterly free and unencumbered. I don’t want anybody telling me what to do, and I also want to be loved and to love in return. And I can’t have both. If I’m in love, I have to surrender part of my freedom, because love requires sacrifice, doesn’t it? I have to give up freedom for love, so which one am I? Am I the guy who wants freedom or the guy that wants love?

Another example: Am I the guy who wants to be skinny, or am I the guy who likes deep dish pizza? (chuckles) Or am I the guy kicks himself after he eats deep dish pizza, or am I the guy who makes light of it by telling a little bit of a joke on Sunday morning? (laughter)

Am I who I am today? Or am I who I was ten years ago? Or am I who I will be in ten years?

How many of you look back on yourself ten years ago, and go “Oh man, I’m so glad I’m not that guy any more.” Well you know your ten-year old future self thinks that about you right now. (laughter) Right? So which one do you build your life on? Am I fixed and immovable inside, or am I malleable and growing? I mean, if we’re honest, we have good days, we have bad days. Sometimes I want to party, sometimes I want to be alone, sometimes I’m feeling super creative, sometimes I’m super highly logical. Much of the time I don’t even know which way is up. I’m super confused about whoever I am. I don’t know why I did what I did. I don’t know why I feel the way I feel. And I find myself thinking far too often, “I’m just not myself today.” But if you’re not yourself, who are you? (laughter)

Here’s the point. You will never get to the bottom of yourself. To know yourself is an endless search, and it’s pretty lousy to do it on your own. If you try to build your life on what’s on the inside of you, it’s sinking sand. It’s not a great place to build your life, and it leads to a heart that’s dominated by anxiousness. Your life is full of anxiousness.

Listen, if your task in life is to build your life on your own self, you’re always going to be wondering if you’re enough. Am I special enough? Am I real enough? Am I authentic enough? Am I unique enough?

And because we’re all filtering, you can’t be everything that’s inside of you because you’re mutually conflicted, contradictory. You’re always filtering, and then you wonder, “Did I let the right part of me out? Did I choose well?” And the culture is always changing, and who I was in one moment that was celebrated might be taboo next year, which leads to a life of loneliness.

It’s a life of loneliness because listen, if you reject outside acceptance by definition, and you are left with an expressive individualism, by definition, you’re by yourself. You’re alone.

It’s like Elsa tells Anna, “I’m alone, but I’m alone and free.” Right? You still can’t believe I’m doing this. But eventually the loneliness catches up to us and in the end, when hardship hits our lives, it triggers despair, because whatever inner spark you build your life on, friends, one day will get lost.

What do I mean? If you build your life on intellect or beauty or artistry or sexuality or athleticism or your wit or your creativity, eventually age and infirmity and mental decline will come and take it all. And that means the end is crushing because it’s an enormous weight to carry your own self-definition all the way through to the end of your life. It’s an enormously crushing weight to have to be yourself and to be successful, whatever that means. And we’re always haunted by the self we could be. We’re never enough.

If you try to build your life on yourself, it simply cannot support the weight of your own soul. It won’t be enough to handle the pressures in life that come your way, and in the end it collapses.

Expressive Individualism, friends, is sinking sand.

You say, “Well, that’s rather depressing so far. Can’t you give us some good news?”

I’m glad you asked.

The third point: the Gospel-Centered Life in Jesus, the Gospel-centered life in Jesus.

If Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about building my life on what I do, then it’s all on me and I have to do enough, right? And if Expressive Individualism is building my life on who I am, then it’s still all on me to be enough, right?

But a Gospel-centered life in Jesus, if I’m building my life there, I’m building my life on whose I am, whose I am, and it’s all about Jesus, it’s all on Jesus, and Jesus is always enough. Jesus is always enough! Friends, we were made for abundant life with God, a relationship we lost because of sin, but one that Jesus gave Himself to restore; so if you want a whole and happy life with God now and forever, believe in Jesus. This is the Gospel. Believe in Jesus.

The Bible tells us we were made for abundant life with God, that you were handcrafted in His image and likeness, fearfully and wonderfully made, to have a relationship with God. Each one of us is unique and special, a gift from God to be shared with the world and with Himself for eternity. But in our sin and selfishness we have invited decay and ruin into ourselves, into our lives, into our world, into all of our relationships, including our relationship with God. And the wages of our sin is death. But God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosoever would believe in Him may not perish but have everlasting life. Friends, Jesus came and lived a perfect life, loving God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loved His neighbor as Himself, and then He went to the cross to die in our place and for our sake to bear all of our sin and shame to exchanged His life for ours and rise again to give us His own perfect righteousness to make us sons and daughters of God now and forever, which means, friends, we have an identity that is inherently stable. It’s an identity that’s inherently stable.

Instead of an identity that oscillates based on my moral performance, that’s up one day and down the next, or an identity that’s built on the squishy, ill-defined inner life of myself, in Christ I have been given by grace an identity that is founded on the character of God in the finished work of Jesus Christ on my behalf.

Do you realize how’s as resilient as Jesus is, and that identity does not waver based off of what I do. On my good days, Jesus is enough. On my bad days, Jesus is enough. When I act like myself, Jesus is enough. When I’m not myself, Jesus is enough. Do you believe that? (applause)

It also gives us a heart that’s fully secure. It’s a fully secure heart. In Christ, friends, we have nothing to fear, nothing to hide, and nothing to prove. Our lives are hidden in Christ. We are called beloved and kept for Jesus Christ. And nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, which gives us a life that is both known and loved. We are known and loved.

Friends, do you realize that, in Jesus, you are fully known? You are known completely and you are loved utterly to the very bottom of who you are, and you are forgiven entirely for everything that’s gone wrong. And in the hardships that inevitably come your way, you have a God who will never leave you, who will never forsake you, who will work all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ, which is the life we were meant to have in the very beginning. It’s the person we were meant to be all along.

The hard things of life press us deeper into the arms of a God who will never let us go, which means, in the end, we have life. We have life, eternal, abundant, everlasting, overflowing, unending life! Beginning right now in Jesus’ sacrificial love, continuing daily as we walk by the Spirit and live by His power, and forever in glory with our Father fully one day. This is beautiful.

It’s interesting. I’ve got to go back to Elsa again, all right?

If you think about it, the story of Frozen is how Elsa moves from therapeutic, like a therapeutic moralism. Right? The deism, if you’re struggling with that. Think of her parents, her parents who loved her but are gone. It’s kind of like that’s God. That’s the picture of deism, okay. God’s there, but He’s gone.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Be the good girl you always have to be. She moves to what our culture believes is life: Expressive Individualism. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!” And that’s the song, if you think about it, that our culture grabbed ahold of and said, “This is the movie!” But if you look at the plotline of the story, it’s at the moment of tragedy because “love is an open door,” and Elsa slams the door in defiance. Right?  It’s the opposite of love, and the world is frozen over just like her heart.

How does everything get put to right in the story? Anna pursues her sister in relentless love, bearing the ice curse in her own flesh, throwing herself between Elsa and death, laying her life down in sacrificial love and rising to life because of the power of her act of true love.

And Elsa says, “You sacrificed yourself for me?” And Anna says, “I love you.” And then love becomes the ethic of Elsa’s life as she finally learns to use her power in loving service of other people around her.

Whose story is that? Whose story is that? And you say, “I can’t believe Disney made a movie like that.” Well, they didn’t really. They tried hard not to, but it’s based off of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” and he was a follower of Jesus, and he wrote a Gospel story, and you can’t resolve the plotline without this moment. And it’s pointing, don’t you see? It’s pointing to Jesus, who pursued us in relentless love, who bore our curse in His own flesh, and threw Himself between us and death, and laid down His life in loving sacrifice to rise again victorious over sin, death, and Satan forever so that we might learn to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us. (applause) This is a beautiful Gospel story.

So the question at the end of the day for all us, friends, is: “On whom is your life built?” If I am building my life on what I do, Moralistic Therapeutic Theism, then I’m building a life on who I am. Do you see that? On what I do. It’s on me. Or if I build my life on who I am through Expressive Individualism, I’m still building my life on myself. In both ways I’m building my life on myself, and I’ll never be enough. Either way, I’ll never be enough. It’s a life of sand.

But if I build my life on whose I am, on the life of Jesus, at the end of the day, my life is built on Jesus Christ, and He will always be enough, in this life and in eternity. It’s a life built on a 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.”

Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Stop your whole way of living and rearrange your life around this amazing offer to follow Jesus.

“You, come, follow Me.”

Let’s pray.

Father, teach us to live in this upside-kingdom where unrighteous people like us can be righteous in Christ, where lost selves find themselves forever in Christ, it’s a life lived by grace through faith in Christ alone. This is the upside-down kingdom of God in the right side up way of life. Help us we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.


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