Light It Up

Every morning I try to read the news. I say I try because sometimes it simply becomes too much to bear. Often, the stories that pop up are just a display case for all the dark things happening – here and there and everywhere. At times, I can’t get past the first paragraph – especially when the dark news involves something happening to a child. That sort of darkness is just heavy.

I can only take so much of that sort of news – it is dark – and the darkness has a way of moving into our hearts. I’ve found that if I stare at the darkness too long – it begins to impact how I see the world. I can get a little cynical (or more than I already am), a little jaded to the world and others. I can get to empathy overload quick – because the darkness is just overwhelming – it is too much – too big – and yet…

Into the very heart of darkness, God speaks and He speaks to us.

In the opening chapters of Genesis – God spoke into the literal darkness, the void, the chaos – and the first thing he brought into the darkness was light -which in some ways is a metaphor for the rest of human history. In Genesis 1:1–3 it says, [1] In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. [2] The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. [3] And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (ESV).

God’s first action – God’s first words to the universe – was “Let there be light” – light to push back the literal darkness and chaos.

From Genesis on – all the way through the entirety of the Bible  – God breaks into the other kind of darkness – the sort of darkness that weighs heavy on the heart and soul – the sort of darkness that holds humanity in bondage – the sort of darkness that breeds fear and pain and misery and mayhem, etc.

And, when God breaks into the heart of darkness, just like in Genesis, he breaks in with light. This light is the more than just the hope of salvation – the hope of rescue – the hope of renewal and redemption. The light that God brings is a light that darkness can’t overwhelm – no matter how pervasive the darkness – it can’t overtake the light. The Bible declares again and again that darkness will not prevail; it will never overcome the light. And all throughout the Bible – God shows up with the light – and shows that the light is coming – and shows that the light has come – and the very heart of hell can do nothing about it but fall on its knees.

In the Bible, God shows up with the light all over the place – like in the Book of Isaiah.

People in Isaiah’s day knew darkness. They knew what it was like to feel the disorienting, shocking, horrifying feeling that comes when everything around them is wrong and awful, and godless, when fear rules, when the threats to life and freedom and peace are knocking at the door. Their government was corrupt and those in charge were fearful and messing up. People turned their backs on God and feared rather than trusted. Their religious exercises were just that; it did not affect the way they lived – or impact how they treated one another. They had ceased to be the witness for God they were supposed to be – and there was a threat of war that would soon come to reality. It was a dark time. It was one of the most turbulent periods in Judah’s history and Isaiah was God’s prophet.

Isaiah understood darkness – but Isaiah also knew that God speaks into the very heart of darkness and God spoke light into the darkness through Isaiah – just like He speaks through His people today.

God spoke to Isaiah – his prophet of light – and through him –God spoke light – as He spoke of the person that we are to speak of today – the very light of the world. God told Isaiah in Isaiah 9:1–2, “[1] But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. [2] The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. (ESV)

And in Isaiah 42:5-7 it says, “5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

The very same word that Isaiah spoke in the 700s BCE – Jesus himself spoke – and knew that the light that Isaiah spoke of was in fact – him. The light that was to come – the light that was to push out the darkness – the light that was to dawn on the people who dwelt in darkness – is Jesus.

In Matthew 4 – we read, “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:” The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” Jesus was the light that dawned.

It must have been a powerful moment because John, another one of Jesus’ disciples, filled his gospel with light. Over and over John tells his readers that Jesus is the light that overcomes all the darkness in the world. In John 1:4 & 5 he wrote, “4 In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

• And in John 8:12 Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
• And in John 9:5, Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
• And again in John 12:46 Jesus said, “46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”

God speaks into the darkness – into the very heart of darkness – and He brings light – light that the darkness can’t overwhelm. He speaks light into the world through His prophets – and through His only begotten Son.

God is a God of light. Jesus is the light of the world. The darkness – no matter how pervasive – has no power over the Light. Darkness may creep and crawl and try to worm its way into our souls – it may worm its way into our lives – and try to weigh us down – but take heart – if your trust is in Jesus – you belong to the light – and the darkness has no power over you – none.

Jesus is the light that breaks into the darkness, which makes what He says about His disciples all the more compelling – doesn’t it?

Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world. Just as Jesus is the light of the world – so too are His people.

In Matthew 5:14 we hear the Lord Jesus say, “You are the light of the world.”

Have you ever really considered what that means and the responsibilities that being the light of the world brings to God’s people? Jesus isn’t simply paying us a compliment. This is a call to action.

Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:15-16. He said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

We should imagine that it is God who built the city on the hill. It is God who lit the lamp. He has no intention of putting you under a basket. God lit the light in your heart and He wants the light to be displayed and he wants that light to push back the darkness of the world.

Just as God spoke light into a dark world – just as Jesus brought the light to bear on the darkness – just as God used Isaiah to speak the light into the darkness of his day – God’s people today are to bring God’s light to a dark world. That means we can’t shrink from it. We can’t fear it. We can’t avoid it. We are to shine bright so that people are drawn out of the darkness into the light.

At least that seems to be the way that Paul understood it. In Acts 13:47 Paul says, “47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” And later on – Paul again in 2 Corinthians 4:6 writes, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, Paul understood that we – as people who serve Jesus were to bring the light of the gospel to bear on the darkness.

The Lord Jesus intends for His people to be a community of Light – and the light shines all the brighter when the days are darkest. Think of a cave – when the lights are turned out – think of how bright one candle is in that dark place – think of how people are drawn to that light – that lone candle in a dark place.

As God’s people – as the church – we are made to be that light – one that shines brightest during the darkest days.

It is not a difficult thing for us to realize that the world is a dark place. The news around us – all the time – isn’t good. It is into that, God’s people are to shine the light of the gospel. When the darkness begins to creep in – we are to speak of Jesus – who is the light of the world. Just as Isaiah spoke of God’s light to people in his dark days – we are to speak of God’s light in Jesus in our own dark days.

We must remember -though – that the darkness hates the light and tries to put it out. But – as John reminded us – the darkness can’t overcome the light of Christ – not in our hearts and not in the world. The darkness may rage. The darkness may seem enormous – but take heart – Christ – the light of the world – has overcome the darkness.

We are to bring the light of Christ into the dark places of our own hearts and in the heart of our community. We aren’t to wait on someone else to bring hope and life – we aren’t to wait on someone else to bring the light to expose the darkness. That is the call of the Christian. And we can expect the darkness to push back – but – the darkness can’t overcome the light.

When darkness begins to creep into your life a bit – proclaim the light of Christ to yourself. When darkness creeps into your community – proclaim the light of Christ.

We have an active role in what God would have us to do. Let the light of Christ shine in you and in what you do – so that others – those who dwell in darkness may see the light of Jesus and find rescue in Christ.

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Can You Take a Punch for Christ’s Sake?

A few years ago, I was asked to sit in on a meeting with a church consultant. The church I worked for was looking to hire a consultant to help them with some fund-raising efforts – and a few other things. At one point in the meeting, he began to talk to us about marketing – about branding – and the message our website and even our church sign – sent to the broader community and the world. Now – some people are ready to write those sorts of things off, being content to depend on word-of-mouth and relationships reach a community to a local church – but if you think about it – that’s part of marketing and branding, too. It is just that today, we’ve added a digital component.

Most everyone that I know will visit a website before going just about anywhere. Before we go to a restaurant – before we rent a place for vacation – etc – we check out the website and what others have said about it in the reviews. We do that because we want to know what to expect – what we are getting into. We are influenced by marketing and branding in nearly every part of our lives and that includes the church.

Before folks visit a church – they check out the website for the same reason they check out a restaurant or product; they want to know what to expect – to find out what they will be getting into by showing up for church.

Most church websites that I’ve visited – most church Facebook pages – have videos of sermons and pictures. They have sections on their webpage that say, “who we are” and “what to expect.” On those pages, they talk about their doctrine, their theology, their tradition, their worship service, their commitment to mission, and Jesus, and how much they love one another. They talk about their upcoming classes – and now they talk about how to worship via Zoom or Livestream. They talk about their history, their staff, their leaders – just to give folks as much of an idea of who they are what to expect.

But I’ve yet to see a church website put it the way Jesus did in Matthew 5:10-12. Jesus told his disciples what to expect. He said, [10] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [11] “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [12] Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Maybe there is a church website out there that tells people to expect persecution if they show up for church and if they start to really follow Jesus – but if there is, I haven’t seen it.

This message that Jesus gives his disciples isn’t one that we expect. In Matthew 4 – Jesus was healing people and that drew crowds. Some were drawn to what Jesus could do for them physically – but others were there because of what he did for them spiritually, emotionally, relationally, etc. He brought healing to people – and not just to their bodies. Jesus was a world healer.

And – when he called His disciples – he called them to do the same sort of work. To train them to do what He did, Jesus went up on a mountainside, sat down, and began to teach them. He started with the beatitudes and each one builds on the next and they are intended to be essential Christian qualities.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Those all sound great – don’t they. That is a pretty good marketing tool. We can use that. It sounds like we are headed for a text that says – and when you have this you will have inner peace and live happily ever after. We’d like that because we like a Disney end to things. We want the happily ever after.

But that’s not what we get.

Instead, we get words like persecuted, reviled, lies, maligned. Those aren’t words that are normally used to market or brand a church – let alone Christianity. Truth be told, the idea is a little surprising. In fact, Frederick Dale Bruner put it best when he wrote, “It surprises us that the goodness described thus far in the Beatitudes will be rewarded with persecution, for, on the whole, human experience would suggest that the better one is the less trouble one has. And yet the next two Beatitudes teach that people should expect persecution if they seek justice and that Christians in particular should expect bitter unpopularity if they are really Christians” (Bruner 180).

Bruner isn’t the only one who knows that. Truth is, the Apostle Paul knew that well. In fact, he told Timothy, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). There it is in print – and yet – there is little wonder that you don’t find that on a church website. Telling people that they can expect to be persecuted for Christ’s sake – well – it isn’t a way to pack the pews.

But there it is.

Persecuted – reviled – people speaking evil about you – lying about you…

Does that sound like something that you want to endure? Wanna take a punch for Christ’s sake? Because if you truly follow Jesus, chances are good it is going to happen – and can be simply because you want to follow Jesus – simply because you are associated with Jesus. At least that is what it seems like Jesus is saying.

When Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake and when he says blessed are you when “others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” He’s saying the same thing. John Piper helps to make that connection.

John Piper said, “So what we learn from this is that true righteousness — the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) — always involves a relationship with Jesus. True righteousness is not done for its own sake. It is done for Jesus’s sake. The mercy and the purity and the peacemaking of a disciple of Jesus comes from Jesus (“Without me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5]) and is done for the honor of Jesus. It’s this attachment to Jesus that gives our righteousness its distinct character.”

So – then – the reason we can expect to be treated poorly is that we are associated with Jesus – and we are doing stuff for Jesus – like helping to restore shalom, working for justice, bringing light to dark places, letting the light of Christ shine before the world so that they will see our good works and glorify God – or take a swing at us simply because we aren’t like them.

Not long ago, I met with a retired pastor. He is someone I admire and respect. He is one of the kindest – most gentle pastors I’ve ever been around. He is a genuine follower of Jesus and I wish I was more like him. But – because of his kindness, his gentleness, his love for Jesus, a staff member of his church said all sorts of things horrible things about him. They accused him of being verbally abusive and even suggested that he struck them. It nearly cost him his job.

As it turns out, however, he had never spoken a harsh word to the staff person. What he had done was preach a sermon on a text that spoke directly to something the person was doing – which was out of accord with someone who is pursuing Christ. My pastor friend didn’t have a clue that was going on in that staff member’s life. But the staff member hated him and said all manner of evil against him because he was preaching and teaching and walking with Jesus. It was that simple and sometimes that is all it takes.

Jesus was quite clear. If we are doing the work that God has called us to do, if we are restoring shalom, if we are bringing the light to the dark, we ought to expect persecution and malice of all kinds and we ought to consider ourselves blessed. Often it is in the push back – it is when the punches are being thrown that we know that we are engaged in the work God’s called us to. We know it because the prophets of all endured it – and – so did the Lord Jesus.

Are you willing and able to take a punch for Christ’s sake?

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Gotta Be A Shalom-Maker

Here’s a question for you. Has the world ever been at peace?

Some would say yes, and they would point to a startling statistic that has everything to do with war. According to a NY Times article by Chris Hedges in 2003, out of the past 3,400 (+/-) years of recorded human history, humans have been amassed a collected whopping 268 years without war. In 3400 years – only 268 years of “peace.” That’s 8% of world history involves a collected span of peace.

Of course, in that context, peace simply means an absence of war. But we know that peace means more than the absence of war. For there to be actual peace, we’d have to have a time without conflict, too. But there hasn’t been a time – perhaps at any point in human history – devoid of conflict.

There are all sorts of conflicts: family conflicts, church conflicts, conflicts between neighbors, conflicts with institutions, spouses, children, etc., etc. Conflict disturbs disrupts peace outwardly and inwardly.

Take the protests over the last few months; outwardly, a lot of the folks protesting want a peaceful protest. I understand what they mean – but – I believe that the notion of a peaceful protest is an oxymoron. I’m not sure how you can be peaceful and still protest. If folks were at peace – they wouldn’t be protesting. They are protesting because they aren’t at peace with what’s going on – and they have the right to do so. I know what they mean. They mean a nonviolent protest – but you know – even that may be stretching it a bit – because at most protests chant or yell and sometimes things get heated because, and not to be too reductionistic – they aren’t at peace. There is something stirring them up – something has unsettled their hearts, their lives, their peace. Usually, the whole reason for a protest can be linked back to an absence of peace – there is some conflict – some issue that is raging inside of folks.

Instinctively we all know that peace means much more than the absence of war. We know it has to do with conflicts, too. And we know that conflicts – things we have issues with – can impact the peace of our cities and our own inner peace. Despite the 268 years without war, the world has never been at peace – at least not since the day that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. And, for lots of people, personal peace is pretty allusive as well.

I think it is safe to say that peace is in short supply, which makes what Jesus says in Matthew 5:9 all the more compelling. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is all about what it means to be Christian. In fact, in that message, Jesus is laying out the essential qualities for being like Him and for being engaged in God’s mission in the world. Just prior to gathering his disciples on the mount, Jesus had been healing folks and His message to his disciples is all about how they, too, can participate in bringing healing to the world.

And then we come to this whole notion of being peacemakers in a world short on peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they shall be called the children of God.”

I think this admonition to be a peacemaker is a heavy order but it is exactly what Jesus was all about. If Jesus was about being a peacemaker then it is safe to say that Christians shalom y'allshould be, too. So, how does one go about being a peacemaker when peace is so allusive? Well – understanding the word’s relationship to shalom might help.

Shalom is a fantastic word – unfortunately – we have a tough time conveying the full depth of its meaning in English. But we might think of shalom in relationship to a circle. The idea of a circle conveys the sense of being unbroken (like the old song – “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”). It is continuous, perfect, and complete. And, every point along the circumference of the circle is in the right relationship to the center.

Now imagine yourself in the center of the circle and all of your relationships are in the proper order around the circumference of the circle. Imagine what that would mean in regards to your relationships with your friends, family, neighbors, other people; imagine what it would mean to be in a right and proper relationship with God, with yourself, with all of creation! Nick Wolterstorff points out, “To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself.”[1] In essence shalom means “communal well-being in every direction and in every relation. The person in the center of the circle is related justly to every point on the circumference of the circle (Bruner).”

But – we know the reality of things. We know that the circle of shalom is broken. It has been that way for a very long time. Nevertheless, Jesus is telling His people that they are to be shalom-makers. We have to understand, then, that peacemaking has to do with bringing broken things back into order, reconciling, mending broken relationships between people and God, and with one another, and institutions and systems. Shalom-makers are reconcilers. They step into the broken places of the world with the intention of closing the gap.

The first order of shalom-making is understanding that it is, as John Stott said, divine work and it is the work of those who profess faith in Jesus. Stott wrote, “Now peacemaking is divine work. For peace means reconciliation, and God is the author of peace and of reconciliation…It is the devil who is a troublemaker; it is God who loves reconciliation and who now through his children, as formerly through his only begotten Son, is bent on making peace.”

If Jesus did not intend for His disciples to be about the work of shalom-making then why would the admonition be part of His Sermon on the Mount? No, the only conclusion we can rightly draw is that God’s people are to do all that they can to live in shalom and to be about the work of restoring or making shalom.

And there is yet another thing. Jesus said, “Blessed are the shalom-makers for they will be called the children of God.”

The word that Jesus used here for son/descendant is a word that is not trying to convey a father-child relationship. Instead, it is a phrase that reflects traits – like a son or daughter who looks and acts like their parents. What Jesus is saying here is that a shalom-maker is like God – like Jesus – in character and action; the trait is reflected in what they do. In essence, Jesus is calling His people into the family business.

Nick Wolterstorff wrote, “Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives now also has a dimension of divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for. We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The missio Dei is our mission.”

All of humanity was made to live in shalom – with God. But – we don’t experience the world that way – which is why God’s people are given a herculean task. We are called to be about the work of bringing healing of Jesus to a world – a world that was created to be in shalom. We can’t do this work perfectly but that doesn’t excuse us. We are to be about God’s mission – the mission of shalom-making.

Give that notion some thought. Give the idea of spending your days trying to figure out how to bring shalom wherever you go. Yes, it is overwhelming but it is also humbling that God has given you – His children – a mission for the world. You don’t need to travel all over the world to bring shalom. You can do that in every relationship – or at least attempt it. It is also the sort of mission that keeps you dependent on the One who is restoring you to shalom every day. We have been given a great task but we’ve been given the Help of the Prince of Shalom to see it through.

The Shalom of the Lord be with you –

 

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace: The Kuyper Lectures for 1981 Delivered at the Free University of Amsterdam (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1983, 69-70).

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Hearing It Isn’t Enough

Pre-COVID, you know last March, I attended a meeting with a great group of folks that are concerned about people within our community. The meeting was attended by folks from all walks of life, people who have lived in this area all their lives and people brought here by work and choice. During the meeting, one man – who moved here a few years ago – kept referring to a beloved park as Steele Creek Park. Honestly, I felt bad for him because he didn’t say it just once; he must have said it half a dozen times. Honestly, I thought to myself, “well bless his heart – he doesn’t know it is Steele’s Creek Park.”

As I left the meeting, I providentially passed a street sign that I have driven past hundreds of times. There on a green field in white letters were the words Steele Creek Park. I nearly wrecked.

Bless my heart. I was totally wrong. The only excuse that I have – and it is a flimsy one – is that I have heard it pronounced Steele’s Creek my entire life. Even though there are signs all over town, and even though the entrance to the park says it clearly, and even though I have passed by those signs hundreds of times, I just went by what I had heard without really giving it much thought.

Okay, I know the proper pronunciation of a park in Bristol really isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of a COVID impacted world, but it did make me think about how much we are influenced by what we hear – rather than perhaps what we have read for ourselves. While it isn’t such a big deal with adding a possessive s to a park – it can be a big deal when it comes to matters of faith. In fact, simply going on what we’ve heard without digging into the text ourselves can keep us from getting the fuller picture of what God intends. I think that’s at least one point that Jesus was making in his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

People in Jesus’ day heard all sorts of things that could be directly linked to some part of what we call the Old Testament. In their defense, they didn’t have access to printed material like we do. They were – by necessity – auditory learners. But – that didn’t mean that they couldn’t dig into what was being said and what they heard. And so, in Matthew 5:21-43, Jesus says something to the effect of “you have heard it said…but I say to you” at least six times (5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44).

Each time that Jesus says “you have heard it said…but I say to you,” he zeroes in on something his disciples (and the crowd) would have heard before – and it can be linked to what we call Old Testament. And each of those “you have heard” focused on things that we deal with, too: anger, sex, marriage, lies, vengeance, and getting along with the people around us who don’t like us, and we don’t particularly care for either. And, like us, Jesus’ original audience had been influenced by what they had heard more than by actually digging into what the text meant.

For example, in Matthew 5:21 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” Now that seems cut and dry – doesn’t it? I too have heard, don’t commit murder. We may be tempted to dust off our hands and think to ourselves – well – I haven’t murdered anyone so I’m good. But doing so would be to miss the deeper, more substantial picture of what God intends. Rather than simply hearing it – we need to read it for ourselves and give it some deeper thought because “do not murder” isn’t the fullest picture.

Jesus doesn’t leave it at “don’t murder” because He knows what people are like. He also knows that we can murder someone without actually killing them. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. [23] So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, [24] leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift…” Good gravy that’s a bit more than simply saying “don’t murder.”

Just hearing “don’t murder” didn’t give the people of Jesus day the full meaning of what God intended for His people. The same is true today. Just hearing something a) doesn’t make it gospel (like adding a possessive s to a park) and b) it doesn’t give us the fullest possible understanding of what God intends. In fact, everything that the Bible has to say about what it means to be human and what God requires of us requires more than simply hearing it. It requires reading the text for ourselves and spending time studying it and giving it some thought.

Today I’d like to encourage you to think about the things you’ve heard over your life as it relates to matters of faith. I’d like to encourage you to take the time to open up the Bible and track those things down to see if a) you heard it correctly and b) that you have the fuller picture of what God intended. If you do, you’ll have a deeper and better appreciation for what God is calling you to do.

 

Nothing Mixed In

Years ago, Sherry’s mom and step-dad came to visit for a few days. Bill, Sherry’s step-dad, noticed that I was a bit preoccupied on Saturday. The truth was, I was struggling – wrestling with the sermon I was scheduled to preach the next morning. I think he was a bit frustrated with me because I would drift off into thought when he was talking to me. I was there – but I wasn’t there – if you know what I mean.

At one point Bill said, “Aw Mark step worrying so much about what you are going to say. It’s not just the words that matter. The heart behind the words is what matters most. Just go up in that pulpit tomorrow and speak to people from your heart. That’s what people need anyway. They need to see and hear your heart when you preach.”

I must be honest – that didn’t help – but I knew what he meant. And he was right. The heart reveals a great deal about who we really are.

Of course, as you well know, by heart Bill didn’t mean the one that pumps blood but rather that place that sits at the center of who we are.

The notion of the heart – as Jesus uses it in Matthew 5:8 – is an idea that posits the heart as the “home of personal feelings, willing, and thinking” (Bruner 175). It is the “center of each person’s thoughts (mind) and will…it is the inner person, the center of life, the center of our being…the seat and ‘master control center’ of human life. It is the center of our personality, the ‘real you’ who makes the decisions of life” (Austin).

But the human heart – the way Jesus means it in Matthew 5:8 – and even the way that Bill meant it – well – the human heart is a fickle thing – isn’t it?

One minute the heart is developing great ways to express our love toward our family, friends, God, and neighbor. The next minute the heart is pounding on the horn at someone who cut us off in traffic and it is contemplating the use of a single digit to express our truest feelings.

The Apostle Paul understood. In Romans 7:15 he wrote, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

The human heart is a fickle thing – and therein lies the problem because, as Billy Graham put it, “our heart – our inner being – is the root of all our actions…From our hearts come our motives, our desires, our goals, our emotions. If our hearts aren’t right, our actions won’t be either.”

And yet, here it is in Matthew 5:8. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” The trouble of course is the fact that we know our hearts very well. And we know that all sorts of things lurk within the recesses of our hearts.

But then again, the truth is, we know how to conceal those things.
We know how to behave when we are with other people.
We know what to say and what not to say in polite company.
We know how to behave.
We know how to navigate things so that others may or may not really be able to tell what we are really thinking or feeling.
We know how to follow the rules – even when we don’t like the rules and seethe on the inside – we can pass things off as if we are okay with everything going on – and yet – on the inside – we are rolling with anger or contempt.
We know how to use our actions to cover up what is going on in our heart of hearts.

Unfortunately – when Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God,” he’s pretty much blowing the lid off our ability to conceal what’s going on in our heart of hearts because the truth of the matter is that God doesn’t look on the surface of a person.

Where does God look? He looks at the heart.

Over in the Old Testament, a prophet named Samuel learned that quickly when “the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7[7] ESV).

In fact, in a few verses, Jesus will tell his disciples, [27] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ [28] But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28 ESV).

Jesus isn’t interested in simply what’s on the surface. We are pretty good at concealing from one another what’s really going on in our hearts from one another. But – God doesn’t look on the surface. He looks at the heart.

And so, here in Matthew 5:8 – Jesus is once again telling us an essential quality of a Christian. And this one – this beatitude – like the one just before it – is incredibly important because – while it may seem like it is an internal, personal, thing – it is actually a quality that spills out into the broader world. Because – like it or not – while we may be pretty good at concealing what’s in our hearts – we aren’t perfect at it – and sooner or later the thing that is in our hearts – the things that control our decisions and our actions will spill out into public view.

And so – Jesus – in our text- is talking about being a real “what you see is what you get” sort of person because, as one theologian put it, “Purity of heart must never be confused with outward conformity to rules” (Carson 26).

The admonition to be “pure of heart” is one of being authentic – before God and before the world. Pure of heart has to do with motive, desire, and will – and less to do with a person’s ability to conform to a standard or a set of rules.

To get Jesus’ point we may need to think of purity the way that He meant it – otherwise, we might confuse it with perfection or with COVID running amok – we may be tempted to think of purity as clean – and that will not help us.

We should think of purity in terms of mixture or blends. The word that Jesus uses here can be thought of as something that is unmixed – unblended. For instance, remember Jesus is talking to people who lived in an agrarian society to some extent. In those days, folks took grain to the threshing floor where they would toss the grain up so that the chaff could be separated from the grain. They would do that until all they had left was pure grain – no chaff.

We can think of it in terms of metal. We know that metal that has an alloy in it – that’s not pure metal. When we want to refine metal – we want to get all the impurities out. We only want metal. We don’t want the impurities; we don’t want anything else mixed in.

It’s like the difference between whole milk and skim milk. Theoretically – there is nothing added to whole milk – it’s just milk. It is pure milk – nothing else. It is one thing and one thing only – but if you add water to whole milk – well – its milk but it isn’t whole or pure milk.

Pure, here, means nothing else is mixed in. It is only one thing. A single, solitary thing.

When Jesus is talking about people being pure in heart, he isn’t talking about perfection or being clean – he’s talking about being totally devoted to one thing. He’s talking about a heart that is about one thing – a singular thing without anything else mixed in – no impurities. Given that Jesus is referring to the heart as the center of the self – the center of desire – the place where all our decisions are being made – Jesus is talking about the heart as being about one thing – purely devoted to God without anything else mixed in.

An essential quality of the Christian man or woman is that in their heart of hearts – they are purely devoted to loving God, purely devoted to walking with Jesus with every aspect of their heart, mind, soul, and strength. The pure in heart let nothing else mix into their desire to walk with God.

And – just like that – Jesus once again says something that interrogates us – without even asking a question. It is impossible to read “blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” without immediately examining our hearts to see if we are indeed pure of heart. And even before we start we know the truth. We know we’ve got some things mixed in. We know we’ve got some chaff, some impurities in our hearts. There is no use denying it. So, what do we do with it? What do we do with the impurities?

First, let me encourage you. If, as you begin to examine your heart for impurities, you can recognize a desire – even a small desire – to want to be pure of heart – to be pure in your devotion to God – then be encouraged. If you truly desire – more than anything else – to be of purely devoted in your heart to God, then you should know that God’s Spirit is already at work within you. You see, the desire to be purely devoted to God – purely devoted in your walk with Jesus – that desire doesn’t originate from within us – it comes from God himself. And he who has begun this work within you will not stop until it is complete in Jesus. If that desire to be purely devoted to God is within you, God is at work getting rid of the chaff – getting rid of anything that tries to mix in to keep you from walking purely with Him.

Martin Luther may help us a bit here. He said, “Jesus’ promise that the pure in heart will ‘see God’ means…that the pure in heart will see God’s fatherly, friendly heart toward them through faith; for whoever believes in Christ and yet regards God as angry is not seeing God correctly. ‘In scriptural language ‘to see His face’ means to recognize Him correctly as a gracious and faithful Father, on whom you can depend for every good thing” (Bruner 176). And part of that every good thing is that when we confess who we are, God is faithful and just to forgive us.

And so, secondly, we come to those impurities – we come to the chaff of our hearts – those things we know are keeping us from being purely devoted to God and we can’t simply ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist or deny it. What do we do with it?

I think the Psalmists help us understand what to do with the chaff within our hearts. David provides the most help – at least he helps me. We know a lot about David. He was a mess of a human being, but the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart. After reading his story in 1 & 2 Samuel and throughout the Psalms, it seems clear that David – impure of heart as he was – had a desire to know God and a desire to love him purely. Granted, other things mixed in but even in the middle of his worst days, he seems to have desired to purely devoted to God.

When David – a man after God’s own heart – was made to recognize the impurity of his heart – he owned the chaff, owned the impurity, confessed it, and prayed “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a resolute spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). We might think of David’s prayer in this way: create in me a heart that is totally, purely devoted to you, oh Lord, with nothing else mixed in – and then Lord – make me resolute in that devotion to you. Perhaps that ought to be the constant prayer of everyone who longs to be pure of heart in their devotion to God.

I think there will always be a little chaff floating around our fickle hearts, which is why preaching from the heart can be tricky. Yet, we can be encouraged that since the desire to be purely devoted to God is within us we know that God is at work and we will see God at work within the threshing floor of our hearts. But we need to let this beatitude interrogate us. It asks us to examine our hearts – to see if we are indeed pure of heart or to see if the desire to be pure of heart – to be purely devoted to God is present.

And so, once again, I leave you with a question. Do you desire above all things to be purely devoted to God -without anything else mixed in?

Two Halves of Mercy

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7

How would you define mercy?

Often, when people think of mercy, they think – as one theologian put it as “compassion for people in need” (Stott 47). And – very often – we think of mercy as acts of mercy – in relation to helping those less fortunate or people who have been impacted by natural disasters.

The Catholic Church often speaks of the Corporal Works of Mercy, which they rightly – I think – state as part of how Jesus expects Christians to treat others. According to the Catholic Church – there are seven Corporal Works of Mercy. They are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to house the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoner, bury the dead, and give to the poor.

Most Christians aren’t strangers to the compassionate side of mercy. The church usually is a place known for mercy. Through the ages, churches – Christian folks – have built schools and hospitals and shelters and food pantries. They’ve sheltered refugees and the homeless. They’ve helped to rebuild cities after disasters – like Hurricane Katrina.

And all of that is good work – right? Stepping into the physical needs of others is powerful and it somehow connects the church – the Christian – to Jesus.

I recall something that Malcolm Muggeridge wrote years ago as he reflected on his time with Mother Teresa. Muggeridge, as you may know, was a well-known social and political critic and satirist in the 20th century. He has sharp wit and was a keen critic of pretty much everything – including religion – which makes his observation of his time with Mother Teresa all the more compelling. Muggeridge wrote,
Accompanying Mother Teresa, as we did, to these different activities for the purpose of filming them – to the Home for the Dying, to the lepers and unwanted children, I found I went through three phases. The first was horror mixed with pity, the second compassion pure and simple, and the third, reaching far beyond compassion, something I had never experienced before – an awareness that these dying and derelict men and women, these lepers with stumps instead of hands, these unwanted children, were not pitiable, repulsive or forlorn, but rather dear and delightful; as it might be, friends of long standing, brothers and sisters. How is it to be explained – the very heart and mystery of the Christian faith? To soothe those battered old heads, to grasp those poor stumps, to take in one’s arms those children consigned to dustbins, because it is His head, as they are His stumps and His children, of whom he said that whosever received one such child in His name received Him.

Compassion for those in need – like the poor, the hungry, the sick – is a side of mercy that most Christians understand and easily identify with, but what if there were another side of mercy – a more difficult side of mercy – a side that goes beyond the physical needs and the works or acts of mercy?

What if there is a definition of mercy that takes in more ground than simple compassion?

What if Jesus meant more than helping those in physical and material need when he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy”?

Well, I guess you can tell that I think Jesus meant more than the physical and material needs when he talks about mercy. What’s more, the other half of mercy is a tough ask but it is an essential quality of every Christian.

I believe that when Jesus said “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” he wasn’t just talking about helping the poor. I think he was talking about being merciful toward everyone – indeed with every person regardless of race or creed or religion – or whether they are poor and need help or are quite well off.

I believe that because Matthew 5:7 is the only one of the beatitudes that connect to its own promise. Notice, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

If Jesus simply meant us to be compassionate toward the poor when he says blessed are the merciful and I’m the one being compassionate to someone in need, why would I need mercy? Why would I need compassion if I’m the one who is doling out compassion on those in need?

Clearly, Jesus has something more in mind. Jesus is painting a bigger picture of mercy – one that shouldn’t be reduced to compassion or even just acts of mercy. The text speaks to something larger.

But, again, all we have is this beatitude – a statement that is intended to tell us the essential quality of a Christian. So in order to get at what Jesus is telling us in Matthew 5:7, we’ve got to do a bit of Bible work – a bit of research in order to get a better appreciation. We need to go beyond this text and look to another part of the Bible to see how Jesus uses the term mercy.

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a king who “wished to settle accounts with his servants.” One of those servants owed him ten thousand talents. By the way, in our terms, ten thousand talents would be akin to millions of dollars. In other words, it is an impossible amount of money to pay back. It is a debt the servant can’t pay. But the servant falls before the king and asks for mercy. The king has mercy on him, and he forgave him the entire debt. Get that – the king forgave an impossible debt.

So far so good – right? Well – that very servant goes out and finds a man who owes him 100 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage. In those days, that was a large debt, but it wasn’t insurmountable. The man pleads to the king’s servant for mercy, but the king’s servant refuses to have mercy on someone just like him – a debtor. Even though the servant had received mercy, he offered none to another person in need of the same sort of mercy he had been in need of. In fact, the king’s servant has the man thrown into prison. He casts him off.

When the king heard what his servant had done, he was outraged. And the king said to his servant, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. [33] And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

Shouldn’t you have had mercy as I had mercy on you?

Wow-what a question. This idea of mercy doesn’t really focus on the compassion for the poor sort of thing we often think of with mercy. It reveals that Jesus has something more in mind when he talks about mercy.

We should broaden the lense of the parable and see that it is telling us – just as Isaiah 53:6 did – that “all we like sheep have gone astray – each to our own way – but the Lord has laid all the iniquity on Him.” And Paul did in Romans 5 – “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In other words, we are all debtors in need of mercy. All of us.

Remember, each beatitude builds on the previous beatitudes. The first three beatitudes have to do with our relationship with God. They are intended for us to be spiritually self-aware. It starts with the fact that all of us are spiritually bankrupt – all of us have gone astray. We owe a debt we can’t pay. That fact should grieve us – we should mourn and grieve over our sin and the way sin impacts the world. We humbly approach God – in meekness and trust in His strength – and as we do we begin to hunger and thirst to do right and good in the world – which brings us to mercy.

Mercy is really the first beatitude that has other people in mind. To some extent, the first four have to do with personal piety – with a person’s relationship with God. But mercy is something that engages others and, according to the parable, engages them beyond their physical needs. In other words, mercy isn’t limited to people who are poor, sick, dying. Mercy recognizes that every person we encounter is in need of God’s mercy. John Stott wrote, “For to be meek is to acknowledge to others that we are sinners; to be merciful is to have compassion on others, for they are sinners, too” (Stott 48).

D.A. Carson helps to clarify this further. He wrote, “the person whose experience reflects these beatitudes is conscious of his spiritual bankruptcy, grieves over it, and hungers for righteousness. He is merciful toward the wretched because he recognizes himself to be wretched; in being merciful he is also shown mercy” (Carson 25). But you see, the wretched and sinful isn’t limited to simply the poor person or the person in jail. As Jesus’ parable shows, mercy is something that has been given to those who have placed their faith in Jesus and mercy is something that they are to give to everyone they encounter.

Therein lies the challenge, though. Often, when I think about mercy, I get focused on a person in need – or the person who is clearly in need of mercy/compassion. But the reality is – mercy – as a quality of a Christian – is not a narrow focus but a broad one as it encompasses everyone around me. Every person is in need of God’s mercy – just as I am. Each week, I along with lots of other Christians, confess my sin and say, “Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” I also pray that the Lord would forgive me debt as I forgive my debtor. Far be it from me then, to be like that servant in Jesus’ parable that I – someone who has received God’s mercy would then withhold it from others.

I don’t know about you, but I find that challenging – which is what I think Jesus intended. It is often easier to show mercy toward those who obviously need compassion. It is much more difficult to be merciful in my attitude toward folks who don’t believe as I do or act as I think they should. But then, I don’t always believe nor act as I should in the eyes of God – but God in his mercy – has redeemed me in Jesus. I need God’s mercy all the time – and does everyone else.

Today, I want to leave you with a question. I’d like for you to take some time today and just think about the ways that God has shown mercy to you. And then, ask yourself how often you’ve shown mercy to others? Or, God forbid, when you’ve withheld mercy from others?

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Good Old Rainy Days

I think rain gets a bad rap. There are all sorts of sayings that put rain in a less than positive light. For instance, there’s that old song/prayer, “Rain, Rain, go away / Come again another day / All the family wants to play/ Rain, rain, go away.” Even Longfellow added to rain’s troubles in “The Rainy Day poem.” Longfellow is the one who said, “Into each life some rain must fall, / Some days must be dark and dreary.” Granted, he’s using metaphor but I’ve heard folks say that while they appreciate the rain, they wished it only rained at night so they didn’t have to go through rainy days.

But I love rainy days. I love them because they remind me of times I got to spend with my dad when I was a kid. My dad was a contractor and his work slowed a bit on cold, dreary, rainy days. On days like that, I got to ride around with him – just the two of us. Most of what I remember and learned from my dad, I learned tooling around in his truck. In fact, on one particularly rainy day, I learned a lesson about holding on too tightly to past offenses and troubles.

My dad took me to visit an elderly gentleman, a prominent, successful man. The two of them had known each other for decades and had often worked on projects together. The man had some papers for my dad, so we stopped by his office. The man was in a wheelchair and he was extremely grumpy. From the moment we entered his office he began to grouse about everything, including the rain. At one point he brought something up that had happened to him long ago. Even as a kid I could tell that for him the incident was still very fresh.

After a bit, my dad and I were able to leave, and I remember asking my dad why the elderly gentleman was in a wheelchair. My dad said he was in that chair because he carried the weight of the words and deeds that people had said and done to him in his heart and mind and it had made him sick, bitter, and difficult to be around for very long.

There is a lot of truth to what my dad said about carrying the weight of past offenses around. If a person isn’t careful, the past can creep into the present and the future and spoil them both, making a person physically and emotionally ill. I’m sure you know folks who are tough to be around because they cling to past offenses the way an Olympian wears a gold medal. But, to be fair, moving on from an offense is sometimes easier said than done – I can say that because – well – I can get wrapped around the axle as much as the next person and I’m just as prone to remember it years later.

I can get just as weighed down by past offenses as the next person. In fact, recently, on a literal rainy day, I was rehashing and internally grousing about something that someone said and did to me years ago. As it happens, as I was grousing, I picked up an old devotional book that I like to read from time to time. Providentially, I came across a profound insight from Simon Tugwell’s Prayer, which, by the way, I had underscored that last time I read it.

Tugwell wrote, “St. Ambrose gave his congregation some very good advice. Using the old Christian symbol, he compared them in this stormy world to fish swimming in the sea. And to them too he said: ‘Be a fish.’ We must learn how not to be swamped by the situations that we find ourselves in. We must learn how to get through them with a minimum of damage, and a maximum of profit…We must learn to pass through situations like a fish, rather than carrying them all with us like a snail. We should certainly emerge with a little bit more experience of life, but there is no need to carry more with us than we have to – each situation carries quite enough trouble with it by itself!”

Ambrose and Tugwell are right, you know. Everyone, but most certainly those who profess faith in Jesus, “must learn to pass through situations like a fish, rather than carrying them all with us like a snail.” And those situations include past offenses – or even current ones. If we don’t learn to pass through those situations we can expect to be weighed down by them for a very long time – and that’s just no way to live. So, where do we start?

Well, as it is I came across another bit of literature that I think is helpful. Lamentations 3:19-24 may provide some helpful guidance. If you don’t know much about the book of Lamentations let me say that things weren’t going so well for anyone in Jerusalem. We don’t know who the author was but it sure seems like they were an eyewitness to Jerusalem’s destruction from the hands of the Babylonians around 586 B.C. Talk about an offense. The Babylonians laid waste to Jerusalem. They said an did all sorts of terrible things to them.

At any rate, in Lamentations 3:19-20 the author writes, “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.” I think that text captures what happens when a person holds onto an offense. It is like wormwood and gall – two extremely bitter things. It weighs down the soul to the point that it is bowed. Now, I understand that author of Lamentations situations is quite different than our own. I’m not trying to take this text out of context; I’m merely trying to show how going through difficult times with difficult people can bring harm long after the thing is over and done. The author of Lamentations is going through an incredibly difficult situation but he seems to have stumbled across a key to becoming – as Ambrose suggests – a fish.

In verse 21 the author of Lamentations says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24). Ah, now that’s a thought – isn’t it?

Calling to mind the reality that God’s steadfast love and mercy are never-ending is a step in getting beyond those pesky past offenses so that we don’t get weighed down. Reflecting on God’s steadfast love and never-ending mercy can move a person forward into a hopeful direction. And it is a useful tool in learning to be a fish – as Ambrose suggested – because it is something we can do anytime we need to – especially when those old offenses start to resurface and we begin to taste gall and feel our soul beginning to bow under its weight.

And, by the way, there is no better place to start reflecting on the steadfast love and neve-ending mercy of God than by looking at Jesus. In Jesus, we have the greatest expression of God’s love and mercy – and no past offense is able to overshadow Jesus – unless we let it. And there may not be a better day to reflect on the steadfast love and never-ending mercy of God than on a rainy day.

An Insatiable Hunger and Thirst

Sherry and I once attended church with a man named Jack – who also taught a Sunday School class for elementary-aged children. He took his responsibilities as their Sunday School teacher seriously. He prayed for those kids – long after they left his class. And – every week he tried his best to figure out ways to teach them about Jesus.

But one day he discovered a cultural gap as he had tried to help the kids understand something in the Bible by using a phrase that to him – and to people in his generation – and mine – made sense. The phrase was lost on the kids though. As he tried to help his students understand something he said, “it’s like when you put the needle on the record.”

Not one kid in that room had a clue what he was talking about. He tried to clarify even more – and he said – you know – when you play a record. Crickets. Those kids didn’t know what a record was let alone that you had to put a needle on it.

Sometimes a teacher – or a speaker – or a writer – will use a metaphor, or an illustration, or an allusion, and its use is lost on their audience because there is a cultural gap that has been created by time and experience. Jack’s students didn’t really get Jack’s point because time and experience had nearly erased what it meant to put a needle on the record. Oh, eventually they’d get it if someone showed them a video on YouTube – but they would never fully appreciate its meaning because they’d never really experienced what it is like to put a needle into a vinyl groove.

Time and experience can create a cultural gap that can keep us from fully appreciating a metaphor – even one that is given to give shape to our very existence. Look at Matthew 5:6. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Sure, we know what it is like to be hungry and thirsty but not in the way Jesus’ first audience knew hunger and thirst. I mean, I know what it is to be a bit hungry or parched but I’ve never really been hungry or thirsty for very long. I kind of get what Jesus is saying – but not the way a person in the 1st Century would have or even people who live in abject poverty – like people who don’t have consistent food or access to clean water.

Like someone raised on records would have understood put the needle on the record, people in Jesus’ day would have understood the intensity conveyed by hunger and thirst in a way that I can’t fully appreciate. They would have understood that Jesus was talking about a craving, a desire, a need so powerful – so important – that their very lives depended on it.

I think it is critical for us to understand Jesus’ metaphor about being hungry and thirsty because Jesus is telling us the essential qualities of a Christian. In our day, food and water are too readily accessible for us to appreciate just how intense a longing and or a desire the pursuit of righteousness is to be for a Christian. So maybe we need to think of hunger and thirst as an insatiable desire.

We do understand desire. We understand how something drives a person to the point that it consumes them. We understand an insatiable desire to win, to achieve, to experience, to own something. We understand the idea of longing and the way longing for something can occupy every facet of our lives, every waking moment.

We’ve all watched videos of athletes dedicating themselves to their sport. They spend hours and hours working out. They dedicate their lives to the pursuit of becoming the best. We’ve all been blessed by the talents of musicians who’ve spent years mastering an instrument – they are consumed by the desire to play at a certain level. We’ve understood how someone would work and work on their craft until they master it. We get the idea of longing – a desire – to see something through until we’ve accomplished our goal.

But Jesus isn’t talking about longing or desire to lose weight, or run a marathon, or own something, or make the grade, or win the game. He’s talking about an insatiable desire for righteousness – and he’s telling us that an insatiable desire for righteousness is an essential quality of the Christian.

This is one of those texts that – if we let it – will get into our head and start to crack open our lives. Because this text makes us realize, as John Piper put it that unless we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, we are very prone to “drink at broken cisterns. And we eat bread that does not satisfy” (Piper). This is one of those texts that – when we get the concept of hunger and thirst right – we tend to have to deal with ourselves and ask ourselves hard questions especially since there is a lot wrapped up in that word – righteousness.

The meaning or righteous can get a little lost. In fact, at some point, back in the 80’s probably, righteous became slang. In fact, if you are a fan of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off you may recall that Ferris’ classmates thought of him as a “righteous dude.” Back then it described someone or something as cool as awesome.

But that’s not what Jesus meant – even though what Jesus meant is very cool and awesome. But I digress…

Wrapped up in righteousness is – yes – our right – ness with God – but it doesn’t end there. I say that because –righteousness – the way it is used here – and indeed throughout the whole of the Sermon on the Mount –Jesus isn’t simply talking to us about being hungry and thirsty for God and making sure that we are right with God. It is about being hungry and thirsty to see God’s righteousness in the world.

One of my favorite pastors/teachers/preachers is Chuck Swindoll. I like to listen to him and you may as well.

At any rate, Swindoll said, “But there is a practical side of this fourth beatitude as well. It includes not just looking upward, pursuing a vertical holiness, but also looking around and being grieved over the corruption, the inequities, the gross lack of integrity, the moral compromises that abound. The servant ‘hungers and thirsts’ for right on earth. Unwilling simply to sigh and shrug off the lack of justice and purity as inevitable, servants press on for righteousness” (Chuck Swindoll).

In other words, this insatiable desire – this hunger and thirst – is about more than me and God. It is that. Being hungry and thirsty for righteousness does include my insatiable desire to be right with God through Jesus – but it also has to do with the rightness of God in the world as well. It is about the world around me as well. An essential Christian quality is to hunger and thirst to see things right not just in my own life but in the world around me.

John Stott wrote “For biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair…social righteousness…is concerned with seeking man’s liberation from oppression, together with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings, and honor in home and family affairs. Thus, Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God” (Stott 45).

Jesus is telling us that an essential quality of a Christian is to be someone that can’t “live until they find or see righteousness. They long for what is right, they crave justice, they cannot live without God’s victory prevailing; for them, right relations in the world are not just a luxury or a mere hope but an absolute necessity if they are to live at all” (Bruner 169).

These days are intense, indeed. People all over the place are longing for righteousness – for things to be right – but right based on their idea of what’s right. That, I believe, is part of the reason there are protests and counter-protests. Human beings want things to be right – but Jesus is quite clear. We are to “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness” not ours. That’s the litmus test. Christians are to be folks who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness in their lives and in the world around them.

God’s righteousness is characterized by justice, mercy, and peace. That is the sort of thing that people of need. John Piper said, “When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we don’t look to the broken cisterns of our own resources. We look to God. So it is not either-or: we hunger for righteousness in God” (Piper). That’s what our world needs to see.

You know, I think one of the reasons that the church struggles to be relevant in society is that we don’t know what it means to be hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Perhaps the cultural gap is too great for us to really understand what Jesus is calling us to be. But, I think it is important because I believe God has called his people to bring healing to the world. Part of what it takes to heal society is to work for justice, peace, mercy, compassion – for righteousness.

I’ll end this a bit differently than normal. I want to end with a question that has plagued me all week. Let me ask you, if you are a Christian, do you consider yourself hungry and thirsty for righteousness – for justice, for mercy, for peace? If you aren’t a Christian, do you consider Christians as people who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Just asking.

 

No Sunday School Answers Allowed

Today is my birthday and as a gift to myself, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. No – not on purpose. I’ve just arrived at the age where sleep alludes me often – and so – like pretty much any other day – I was awake at 4 and it happens to be my birthday. But waking up that early affords me an opportunity to do more of what I love to do – read – and – without trying to sound overly pious – I usually read about King David when I’m up that early.

I cannot give you a deep theological reason for reading about King David. I simply love the stories of his life and I love the fact that he was a mess of a person and yet the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart. That gives me hope because anyone who knows me – knows I am a mess and yet I have placed my trust and hope in Jesus – in much the same was as David trusted in God the Father.

So, this morning was no exception; I found myself reading about King David in 1 Chronicles 13-16. That’s the part of David’s life where he is on an upward trajectory. In fact, things are going so well that he decides – along with other leaders – to call everyone together and to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.

After a costly mistake with the Ark of the Covenant, a mistake that stemmed from people – including David – not paying attention to God’s commands – David and the whole assembly arrived in Jerusalem. It was there that David and the people began to worship and celebrate. As part of that celebration and time of worship, David appointed that “thanksgiving be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brothers” (1 Chron 16:7). And the song that they sang, which is also linked to Psalm 105, caught my attention because it raises an important issue – which I think speaks to our generation loudly.

David appointed a song to be sung that says, “Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! [9] Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works…Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered…” (1 Chronicles 16:8–13 ESV).

Now let me ask you a question. If today – somehow – it would become necessary – if a mandate was issued to you and anyone else who professes faith in Jesus – who professes to be a follower of Christ to “make known his deeds among the peoples – to tell of all his wondrous works” what would you say? And – what if Sunday School answers weren’t allowed?

You know what I mean by Sunday School answers? They are the sort of answers that throw a broad, large net over things rather than specifics. For instance, someone might be tempted to simply say “one of his wonderous works was that He died for me to save me from my sin.” And, while that may be true and truly wonderous, that’s still a Sunday School answer. No, I’m asking to go deeper, personal because I think that’s something that’s missing from the Christian community and it has in impact on the world.

If you’ve ever read the Psalms you have no doubt come across texts that talk directly of how God has done wonderous things and the Psalmists got specific. David often wrote about times when God delivered him from his enemies. There are times in the Psalms when they recounted how God provided food and water. There are times when the Psalms speak to how God raised up their hearts and souls from despair. And it is all there for us to see. And it was all there for the world to see as well. In other words, they didn’t hide the wonderous deeds of God; they made them known and they were known for their faith in God – because they made it known.

But today, I fear that God’s people aren’t as specific about the wondrous deeds of God because, well, maybe we are too much a product of the enlightenment – too rational – too dependent on technology – too concerned with being sophisticated. However, there is something to what David is saying to the people about giving God thanks and making known his wondrous works. It bears testimony to a world that needs to know that the miraculous is possible because God is at work in the world in and through His people. I think one of the reasons why the church may be struggling to be relevant, is that we are trying too hard to fit in rather than trying to promote all that God has done and promises to do. We are known for alot of other things rather than known because we promote the wondrous things that God has done.

We promote our social services, our views, our programs more often than we promote all that God had done.

But the world really needs us to tell of God’s wonderous works – and not just those broad truths – those Sunday School answers. We need to tell of God’s wondrous works in our lives – those deep, personal stories of what my friend calls God sightings. We need to tell the stories of how God met us personally. We need to tell the stories of how Jesus impacts our lives.

And so, this day, I leave you with a question. If you were asked to tell of God’s wonderous works in your life and in the life of your family – in your church – what would you say? And again, no Sunday School answers.

Avoid Missing the Point

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:5 – Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

As soon as I read the text you know what the trouble is –don’t you?

It is the word meek.

What do a lot of people think of when they hear the word meek?

They hear the word weak – and when they do – they totally miss the point. They think, gentle Jesus – weak, meek, and mild; it seems to suggest that a Christian is to be a passive, weak, doormat to the world- one who stands is a pushover.

But that can’t be right – can it?  Well no actually – and when we think that – we’ve missed the point of what Jesus is saying entirely.

Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ training guide to his disciples. If you flip back to Matthew 5:1&2 – you’ll note that He’s gathered his disciples on a mountainside; they are away from the crowds and he’s teaching them how to be a follower of Christ. And he starts with the beatitudes – the essential qualities, characteristics of being Christian. And Jesus uses the word “blessed,” which we know means more than happy. Blessed – here – means approved – approved by God.

So in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus is telling his disciples the attributes – the essential qualities of a Christian – and after having already been told that an attribute of a Christian is that they are poor in spirit – meaning that we affirm our spiritual bankruptcy – and that we are people who mourn – meaning we grieve over sin and the sin of the world – Jesus says, “approved by God or blessed are the meek.”

It is also important to remember that the beatitudes are not singular qualities. They build on one another. In other words, we don’t get to simply select which ones we like and cast the others aside. All of them are essential qualities of a Christian. Since that’s the case – we may want to find out what it means to be meek – right?

Unfortunately, Matthew 5 offers little in the way of understanding what Jesus means. He simply says, “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” We don’t have a lot to go on from that text – so – in order to understand it we need to do a bit of Bible study work. One way to explore the meaning of a text is to look for other texts in the Bible that speak to the same thing. That’s where a cross reference comes in real handy.

In fact, if you open a Bible to Matthew 5 – and if that Bible that you open has cross-IMG_0575references in the margin or at the bottom of the page – and if you locate Matthew 5:5 in that cross-reference – you will find Psalm 37:11. The reason for that is – it seems pretty clear – at least to a lot of folks – that Jesus is referring to Psalm 37 when he tells His disciples that a Christian is meek.

So – Psalm 37 – according to John Piper and others – is a key to understanding what Jesus means about being meek.

Psalm 37 is a Psalm of David. We don’t know the context of Psalm 37 – but we do know the message. David – like us – lived in a world that was prone to violence. There were ambitious people – warring factions – there were wicked and evil folks who tried to deceive in order to get ahead. They took advantage of the weak and powerless – the poor. David’s world – like ours – was turbulent, anxiety-causing.

But David had also seen God’s hand at work in his life – so much so that he reminds us to “[1] Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! [2] For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. [3] Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. [4] Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. [5] Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. [6] He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. [7] Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! [8] Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. [9] For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. [10] In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. [11] But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. (ESV)

Doesn’t that last bit sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like, “blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth?” Earth and land – by the way – are more or less interchangeable here.

Jesus’ world – the world of the disciples – our world – is no less volatile than David’s world. In fact, Jesus told his disciples that in this world you will have trouble. Some of that trouble is going to be caused by evil – by wicked people and some of that trouble is going to come from the dark places of our hearts. How is a person of faith going to live? Well – they are going to be meek and the qualities of meekness are right here in Psalm 37.

If you look over Psalm 37, you’ll notice that it applies to the way a person looks out at the world and all that’s happening in the world. But it can also apply as a warning about our hearts as well.

From what this text brings out – the meek are people who don’t “fret over evildoers – or envy those who do wrong – or prosper from doing evil. Instead, the meek are those who trust the Lord – and they do good. They delight themselves in the Lord and in the ways of the Lord. The meek commit their way to the Lord and trust him. They are still before the Lord. They wait patiently for the Lord to act on their behalf. They don’t fret. They refrain from anger and forsake wrath – because they know that “evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.” They know that one day soon and for all eternity, “the wicked will be no more.” But the meek people – well “the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.”
From Psalm 37 – we know that meekness has to do with trusting that God will take care of His people – so it begins with trust. John Piper notes, “Meekness begins when we put our trust in God. Then, because we trust him, we commit our way to him. We roll onto him our anxieties, our frustrations, our plans, our relationships, our jobs, our health. And then we wait patiently for the Lord. We trust his timing and his power and his grace to work things out in the best way for his glory and for our good.”

Far from weak, meek starts with trusting in God in the face of evil. Meekness requires an inner resolve that no matter what evil or wicked thing comes my way, I will trust in God.

Meekness – then – isn’t focused on what others think of us at all. Our meekness is God-focused, which, frankly, is humbling. To think that God – the creator of the ends of the universe – is watching out for me – is humbling. The wicked – the evildoer – can do all they want to do – but eventually – they will cease to exist – they will be wiped up – and all their efforts to dominate and take over the earth – will be for nothing – they will be gone.

But the meek will inherit the earth because their trust is not in themselves but in God.

You see when we think of meekness as weakness, we miss the point. The point of meekness isn’t about our strength it is about God’s strength. That’s what David is pointing out. The meek person is the person who doesn’t rely on their strength to make it through but on God’s strength.

Meekness means to walk humbly with God – trusting in His strength – we have nothing to fear – we do not need to fear the evil or the wicked things in the world because our trust is in God.

So – Blessed or approved by God are the meek – or basically, those who put their trust in God…and this essential quality goes hand in hand with the first two beatitudes – right? Remember, these things build on one another.

Jesus said, Blessed are the poor in spirit – which means that we recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt – by nature, we are sinners – prone to be a bit wicked ourselves. We have no merit on our own.

Jesus said, blessed are those who mourn – which means we are people who mourn/grieve – who are brokenhearted over our sin and sin in the world. We are brokenhearted how our lack of conformity to God’s plans and purposes have caused havoc in our lives and in the lives of others.

Then Jesus said, blessed are the meek – which means blessed are the people who humbly put their trust in God – because he overcomes and vanquishes evil in the world and in us.

Sometimes the darkness of our hearts can be discouraging – especially when we really want to have a better walk with Jesus – when we want to be better people for the cause of Christ. But meekness reminds us to put our trust in God’s ability to vanquish evil and darkness – even in our hearts. Meekness isn’t about looking at others; it is about focusing our attention on God and His strength to overcome wicked in the world – and the darkness of our own hearts.

Yes – Christians are to be meek which means we humbly put our trust in God. Jesus is inviting his followers to trust in God to overcome the mess of the world and the mess of their own lives. Far from being weak – the meek are revolved to trust in God no matter what is going on around them.

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The Heart of the Problem

Years ago, I was at a church function – a picnic of sorts. I, along with another pastor, stood with an elder in our church – just chatting as we tossed a football with some church members who were twenty or more yards away. Out of nowhere, the elder made an inappropriate comment to my pastoral colleague and me about one of the young women who stood among the group at the opposite end of the field. My colleague and I were both taken aback by what the elder said and we quickly responded with “Dude, that’s inappropriate.” We expected him to immediately own his verbal fumble, but he just walked away – quickly.

My pastoral colleague and I are no strangers to verbal fumbles but we also both knew this elder and knew this wasn’t the first time he’d said something a bit over the line. In fact, he had been called on the carpet more than a few times professionally. Knowing that we talked about what we should do, and, since he – as an elder – had taken similar vows to our pastoral vows – we decided to meet with him and talk about it. A few days later, over coffee, we shared our concerns with him, hoping that there would be a good end to things. There wasn’t.

Granted, my pastoral colleague and I didn’t handle the whole thing as well as we could have but at one point the elder said, that he held all women in high regard and that we needed to know that he loved Jesus and we should simply know and trust his heart in order to understand what he meant. The thing is, I did understand his heart because I have one just like it – and so does everyone else, and therein lies the heart of the problem.

I think the elder had forgotten what the Bible has to say about the human heart. Concept of possessiveJeremiah 17:9 puts things rather bluntly. “The heart,” Jeremiah says, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (wicked); who can understand it?” What’s more, Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 ESV).

In other words, often, what a person says or does (or leaves unsaid or undone) reveals what’s in their heart; actions and words tell everyone what they really think and believe. Sometimes that is a good thing – like when we tell people just how much we love them and why we love them. But sometimes the words we say or the things we do reveal the dark parks in our hearts. Truth be told, that’s probably more of a good thing because it can actually lead us to the throne of grace – if we handle it correctly – if we own it and deal with it. Or – if we don’t own it – it can condemn us and keep us from really coming to Jesus.

There isn’t a person alive who at one time or another hasn’t said or done something in the heat of the moment or without properly thinking it through. I’ve said and done things that the moment it was done, I regretted it. Do you know what that shows? It shows that a person is human, and it shows that there are places in that person’s heart that need to be dealt with. It shows exactly what Jeremiah and Jesus are trying to communicate. We’ve got heart issues – all of us – and that becomes evident in those moments when we say or do something that isn’t in accordance with God’s plans and purposes. But those are the moments that remind us how much we need the grace of God. And – if in those moments, we own what we’ve said or done, acknowledge it for what it is, we are on the right track to living as a follower of Jesus.

If, however, in those moments we try to deny or defend what we’ve said or done, or if we try to put the blame on someone else, or if we try to suggest we are simply misunderstood, we are far off the mark of what it means to be Christian. The first step in walking with Jesus is being able to own the fact that we have a heart problem and we are prone to blow it and we need the grace of God every moment of every day.

If that elder had simply said, man, I blew it. I shouldn’t have said that about her. It was wrong. How can I make it right? He would have been on the right track. Truth be told, both my pastoral colleague and I are human and we’ve said and done things that we shouldn’t have said or done. We know we have a heart problem. In fact, each week in our worship service we have a time of confession. And, in our daily prayers, there is a time of confession – because we know the heart is wicked and it reminds us of all that Jesus has done to set us free.

But some folks, like that elder, haven’t learned to own what’s really in their hearts and thus they are missing out on what it really means to walk with Jesus and enjoy the grace of God. That really doesn’t make a lot of sense in the end because, while a person may be able to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes – it is God who searches the heart. There isn’t anything we can hide from him. He’s well aware of how wicked or sick the heart of humanity is. In fact, Jeremiah reminds the reader that, the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…the LORD search(es) the heart and test(s) the mind, to give every person according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). That text is both an encouragement and a warning.

The simple fact is, God knows we are a mess and somehow He loves us anyway. But we can’t really experience the love of God until we are willing to admit that we have a heart problem. It is those moments when we say something or do something that isn’t right, that if we own it – we are on the right track to experiencing the grace of God through Jesus. But we’ve to own our heart problem. Trying to hide that from him and from others is simply foolish. When a person who professes to have faith in Jesus says or does something that they get called on – or they simply know in their heart that it isn’t right – they know to own it, confess it, repent of it, accept the consequences, accept what it is telling them about their hearts, and seek the grace of God through Jesus. To deny it, is to deny the need for God’s grace and what a horrible thing that would be.

A Dose Of Godly Grief

I was sitting with a friend one day and he said something that has stayed with me. My friend isn’t a Christian – although he is a deeply spiritual person. He appreciates my faith – respects it – and is curious about what we believe – to the point that he has spent time reading the Bible – a lot of time, actually.

My friend told me he really appreciates the narratives of the Old Testament. He loves the story of David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah. He also appreciates the beauty and the rawness of the Psalms. And he loved reading the Gospels. Jesus fascinates him and he admires Jesus and understands why people are drawn to him.

But, my friend also told me that there are some things that Jesus said that confused him and a few things he found strange. At first, he thought I was offended but I quickly put him at ease when I said – even people in Jesus’ day found some of the things he said confusing and strange. It is little wonder that would carry over to today. I really enjoyed talking with my friend about my faith and I appreciated the fact that he was interested.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until this week as I re-read Matthew 5:4. Matthew 5:4 says, [4] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

I don’t usually think that there is anything blessed about mourning, do you? The notion of being comforted – well now that’s good but – blessed? I immediately thought of my friend – pondering over that text and I wondered if Jesus’ disciples thought that was strange.

You see, in those days, the first century, they had a high infant mortality rate. Chances are good that every one of Jesus’ disciples – like so many of us – had buried someone they loved even someone under the age of 5. They probably weren’t strangers to mourning or grief – any more than you or I.

No one has to define mourning to us. Many of us know the feeling all too well. But I dare say, I’ve ever associated blessing with mourning.

So, I can see why my friend would think that text sounds a bit strange – or confusing. What does Jesus mean when he says that folks who mourn are blessed for they will be comforted?

Well – you know Matthew 5:4 is part of Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. It was called that because – well – Matthew 5:1-2 tells us that “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. [2] And Jesus opened his mouth and taught them…”

So the first thing to make note of is that Jesus is teaching his disciples; he’s training them. That’s the target audience of his sermon. While there may have been a crowd of others listening in – Jesus’ sermon was focused on his disciples. He wanted them to hear, understand, and embody what he was telling them.

Matthew tells us – in Matthew 4 – that Jesus began his ministry by calling his disciples and healing people mentally, physically, and spiritually. As you can imagine, that drew a large crowd. And when Jesus saw the crowd – he walked away from them – went up on a mountainside and began to teach his disciples.

Why would he do that? Why would Jesus pull away from the crowd? And what was he teaching them?

Well as one theologian put it, “Jesus wants to incorporate his followers into his healing ministry and ethic. Jesus apparently believes that when disciples believe, obey, and teach his sermon, they become a sick world’s major antibodies and antidotes” (Bruner 153).

In other words, Jesus pulls away from the crowds – he pulls away from doing the ministry of bringing healing to the world – in order to teach his disciples how to do the same sorts of things that He is doing. He’s training them to be Christians – how to go about being a Christian and doing the sort of things that Christians are supposed to do. And he starts by talking about the essential qualities of a Christian – and he gives them 8 of them – what we call beatitudes.

That word beatitude is where we get the word blessing – and when we think of blessing – we think happy. That’s why in some Bibles the beatitudes start with Happy are those – rather than blessed are those. But the word blessed – at least here – has more to do with approval than happiness. In this context, it means to be approved by God – which should make us happy; it is a blessing to be approved by God.

Which brings us back to Matthew 5:4. The second quality of a Christian that Jesus mentions is they are “that those who mourn.” Again, in some Bibles, that verse is translated as “happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We could even say, approved of God are those who mourn.

But isn’t that confusing? Isn’t that strange? It sounds awfully strange to me. Happy/blessed/approved are those who mourn?

As I said earlier, we don’t need a definition of mourning. Many of us still feel the pangs over having lost people we love. We normally associate the word mourn with grieving the loss of someone we love. There are tears and sorrow. We feel it deep within our heart of hearts – and we will always carry a bit of that sorrow with us. We learn to live with it over time – but there is always a part of us that will mourn that loss. A bit of our heart will always be broken. We understand mourning but we may not fully appreciate how Jesus uses it here.

For just a second I’d like to ask you to draw on your experience with mourning. As much as you are able – just hold it in your imagination. As you do consider this. Jesus isn’t talking so much about mourning over the loss of a loved one but he is talking about being brokenhearted – or mourning – over sin – our sin and the sin of the world and the way that sin has wreaked havoc in our lives and in the lives of others. In fact, this sort of mourning that Jesus is referring to is something that the Apostle Paul calls Godly grief.

If you’ve ever had the chance to read any of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth you’ll know what a mess they were. I’m not going to go into details – but – sin ran amok among them. Paul wrote them a number of letters and addressed head-on some of the things that were going on. He spoke directly to the issues. Which brings me to 2 Corinthians 7:9–13 Paul wrote, “[9] As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. [10] For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. [11] For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. [12] So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. [13] Therefore we are comforted” (ESV).

When Jesus tells his disciples that an essential quality of being a Christian is to mourn, it is akin to Paul’s urging the church of Corinth into Godly grief over their sin and the way sin impacted those around them.

Let me take a quick rabbit trail – because I’ve used the S word. We don’t like the S word too much in our society. We don’t like to talk about sin or sinners – but – if we want to be faithful to the Bible – if we want to understand what Jesus is talking in Matthew 5:4 – we need to bring that word up and talk about sin.

I love the way that the Westminster Confession of Faith’s Shorter Catechism defines sin. According to the confession, sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” That’s a fancy way of saying, sin is anything in our lives that doesn’t perfectly conform to God’s plans and purposes.

We could just take the 10 Commandments and see the ways we don’t conform perfectly to God’s plans and purposes – right? Especially if you take into account the things that Jesus had to say about the 10 Commandments. Even if we have broken those things in our hearts – then we are out of conformity with God’s plans and purposes. I’m confident that God’s plans and purposes don’t include lying, or murder, or cheating, or gossip…and the list goes on.

Jesus says that part of what it means to be a Christian – and to bring healing to the world is to be brokenhearted by our inability to live in perfect conformity to God’s plans and purposes. And – it doesn’t hurt to be brokenhearted about the way sin wrecks havoc on all aspects of our world.

That’s the thing – isn’t it? We know that one person’s greed, or dishonesty, or temper, or addiction, or urges, or appetites can impact a lot of people. I hate to say it but my sin – your sin – sin in the world impacts everything. And, according to Jesus, we’ve got to own it. We need to mourn – to grieve – to be brokenhearted over sin. We need a good dose of Godly grief – because that leads to repentance – and in that, we will find the comfort that comes through the person, word, and work of Jesus.

Jesus promises here – those who mourn – those who are broken-hearted over their sin – will be comforted – comforted by what?

John Stott wrote, “Such mourners, who bewail their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the free forgiveness of God” (Stott 42).

That is good news – that Jesus says that those who mourn will be comforted. That is news worth sharing – especially at a time when our communities and our world are in such a mess. Jesus came into the world to save sinners – He came to save those who can’t perfectly conform to God’s plans and purposes – which is everyone.

A chief quality of a Christian – is that they mourn the fact that they can’t
perfectly conform to God’s plans and purposes and they are brokenhearted over the way that sin, in general, and specifically, has impacted our families, our friends, our communities.

We need a healthy dose of Godly grief. The world needs the church – God’s people – to have a healthy dose of Godly grief. It is an essential quality of a Christian. And – that’s where healing begins. We can’t even begin to be comforted by all that Jesus has done for us until we’ve truly mourned our sinfulness – our inability to perfectly live in conformity to God’s plans and purposes. And like all other mourning – it doesn’t really end. We are comforted – yes – but we still carry a bit of it with us all the time.

Yes, as strange as it may sound, as confusing as it may be – folks who truly mourn over their sin are blessed and they will be comforted because of Jesus they are approved of God – grief and all.

 

At A Loss For Words: A Poet To The Rescue

Of late, I’ve been trying to make sense of the world – my world – our world – but putting things into words. I am struggling to do so and as a logophile – someone who loves words – I find that troubling. It isn’t the first time I’ve been at a loss for words but it is the most recent – and – with all that’s happening in my world and our world – well – it couldn’t come at a worse time. What is there to do at a time like this?

Over the years I’ve learned when I don’t have the words it is best to go and find the words that someone else has found – to find inspiration – so to speak. Most of the time, I find that poets have more to say and are better at saying it (whatever it is) than I am. So – I find some trusty poets – like Wendell Berry or the Psalmists – and just ponder over their words – their reflections on the world.

But of late, I’ve been lost to find the right words amid all the discussions about race, prejudice, and politics. So, I returned to poetry – and to one poet in particular: Natasha Trethewey. natasha-tretheway_custom-0eac917f8d50d735639138400cf23d9f360d1bde-s800-c85

You may not have heard of Trethewey – which is unfortunate – really. She is a former US poet laureate and, among her list of accolades, she was awarded a Pulitzer and a Guggenheim fellowship. She’s served as a visiting professor at Duke, UNC, Yale, Harvard, and now at Northwestern. So far, she has five collections of poetry – one of which Native Guard, native guardcaptivated me because Trethewey has an uncanny way of tying together the politics of race in the US (and the south) with her own experience of being the daughter of a mixed-race marriage.

Take for example her poem “South” (You can find the entire poem here). The poem is written as if the poet is traveling down a road in the south – looking out of a window – observing. Like any traveler, the poet first encounters the natural beauty of the south. She sees stands of pines, magnolias in blossom, mangroves, and palmettos. Then she sees the open fields of cotton. If you’ve never witnessed cotton in bloom – you are missing an incredible sight. There is something beautiful in it – but also something haunting.

The field of blooming cotton for the poet holds a memory of her own lineage because generations of men and women and children – some of which she was no doubt related to – slaved away their lives there. And, no matter what side of history a person wants to take, there were those who fought and died to preserve a particular way of life that would have kept – and in many ways did keep – people chained to a lesser life.

Trethewey’s poem reminds the reader that even beyond the Civil War and far beyond reconstruction “roads, buildings, and monuments / are named to honor the Confederacy, where that old flag still hangs.”And – worse – the politics of race and prejudice extended into law – so much so that the poet is able to write herself into the poem and the landscape. As her trip into the south continues she arrives in “Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.”  It is difficult for me to imagine – but there was a time when it was against the law for people of different races to marry – and that law was often extended to the point that even the accusation of looking or speaking to a white woman could get a black man killed – just look at Emmet Till. So Trethewey was in her own being – simply by being born of mixed race – an outlaw.

At this point, you may be wondering what I’m going on about – and why I am bringing this up. I suppose it is a fair question. But like I said, I’ve been at a loss of words lately – largely because I only have my own perspective about race and prejudice. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people who pretty much have the same, singular perspective that I have are weighing in – going – to my way of thinking – where angels fear to tread without considering things from a broader perspective.

Everywhere I’ve ever lived – indeed everywhere I’ve ever been (and everywhere you’ve ever been or lived dear reader) – prejudice and racism have existed – and continue to exist. But I, like most folks who share my pigmentation, have never experienced it and so there really isn’t any way at all that I can weigh in on what it must be like to experience being treated poorly because of my race.

The closest I’ve ever come is the experience of someone I love deeply and dearly. It isn’t my story to tell in its entirety because I was on the outside of their experience; I was in the aftermath, holding them as they tearfully questioned why a total stranger hated them. The worst part is that I know the man who stupidly hurled the word bombs and I’ve wondered how the same man who stands to sing the doxology can also stoop to speak words of hatred to a child he doesn’t even know. I wondered if it has ever occurred to him that there are no white people in the Bible. Actually, (and I’ll confess this later) I’m quite sure that he’s never considered very much at all – nor is he aware of how singularly narrow or un-Christian his worldview is.

To be the sort of person that I want to be – indeed to be the sort of person that I think Jesus needs me to be as a Christian and as a pastor – it is important that my view of the world is broader than simply my own experience – especially before I weigh in on a topic or try to speak into it. Except for a short exile in St. Louis, I’ve lived most of my life in the south but I only know it from one side. I will never experience the sort of racial prejudice that so many others have and so, I can’t fully appreciate how horrible it is. I need the words, the perspectives of those who have lived it to help me understand our world a bit more fully. Even though she isn’t writing from a Christian perspective (not that it matters one way or another), Trethewey’s poem(s) have given me the words and perspectives that I need in order to have a framework beyond my singular experience. Poets are helpful like that.

 

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The World Needs Bankrupt Healers

These last few months have been strange – haven’t they? Even as churches, shops, sports, and restaurants reopen, we have to admit things have changed.

We’d like for things to resume where we left off a few months ago; we know we can’t do that; we know we can’t just pick up and start where we stopped. Maybe one day – we tell ourselves hopefully – but – we must admit – too much has happened for us to just pick up where we left off. We have entered a new age – like it or not. Things have happened over the last few weeks that have shown the weak-spots of our community – our country.

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Many in our community, our country, our world are literally ill. As much as we are opening and as much as we want to open, the virus is still making its presence known. More and more people are venturing out – to restaurants and shops – to church and vacations. And yet – even as we go – we are aware that there is a risk of a virus, tensions over wearing masks, and anxiety over the economic impact.

Our country and our community are clearly ill in other ways as well. George Floyd’s death struck an already exposed and reverberating nerve. His violent and tragic death, coupled with weeks of isolation, confusion, and anxieties over the virus simply pushed things over the edge. Presumably, the events of the last few weeks will make it impossible to ignore what’s been running under the surface of our country for a long, long time.

Don’t worry. This isn’t about politics and I’m not here to get political. I’m here to get spiritual.

Like a lot of folks – I’ve been paying attention to all that’s happening in our community and in our country – and I’ve been wondering what’s the Christian response? It probably should be more than simply returning to our buildings.

In fact, if we have learned anything about ourselves as the church, we’ve learned that we do just fine even when we can’t meet in our buildings. While we love getting to be with one another – face-to-face – we’ve learned that the church really doesn’t need a building in order to gather for worship. We did pretty well over the last few weeks meeting via Zoom. And – we also know the purpose of the church extends beyond gathering for worship.

Because of the state of things – I don’t think we can simply go back to the way things were because, as I said, the last few weeks have shown just how ill our society is and we can’t simply ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t impact us. I believe that the church – that God’s people – have an important role to play and we shouldn’t side-step it.

Our community and our country need God’s people – the church – to function the way we were intended to function; we have been put here by the Lord for such a time as this – to bring healing. But – to be blunt – we aren’t always good at stepping into the mix of things. We may need a refresher in order to understand what to do – I know I do.

Which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew 5 and goes through 7. Some have said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to the New Testament what the Ten Commandments are to the Old Testament. As one theologian put it, “To read the Sermon on the Mount is to discover what it means to be Jesus’ disciples; to read it with faith is to receive power to be Jesus’ disciples” (Bruner 151).

In other words, the Sermon on the Mount helps us get a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.

How so?

Well – the text begins with a notice – “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. [2] And he opened his mouth and taught them…”

Now, I’d like for us to stop right there for a second and recognize what went on prior to Matthew 5:1&2. If you flip back through Matthew 4 – you’ll discover that Jesus had just begun his ministry and he does two major things. He essentially healed a lot of people and ministered to crowds of people – and he called his disciples.

Jesus was having what we might call success. People were flocking to him. In our day – when someone is able to gather large groups of folks – they usually end up with book deals, marketing plans, and become a sort of Christian celebrity.

But not Jesus.

There are crowds of people flocking to Jesus. He has a successful healing ministry going on – and then Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd – he went up on a mountain – with his disciples to teach them. He walked away from a crowd of folks – walked away from this successful healing ministry to sit down on a mountain and talk with his disciples.

That is significant.

Why would Jesus do that? Why would Jesus walk away from this successful – crowd gathering – ministry in order to go and teach his disciples – and what does it have to do with us?

I believe Jesus stepped away from what he had been doing because he wanted to bring his disciples into what He was doing in the world. Jesus wanted to teach his disciples to do the sort of things he was doing because that was to be the function of His disciples forever. One theologian said, “Jesus wants to incorporate his followers into his healing ministry and ethic. Jesus apparently believes that when disciples believe, obey, and teach his sermon, they become a sick world’s major antibodies and antidotes” (Bruner 153).

Have you ever thought of yourself in that way?
Have you ever thought of yourself as a healer in a sick world?

Well – it seems like Jesus sees His people in that way and it is rooted in our understanding of who He is and who we are.

Perhaps that is the first lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus pulled away from the crowd from everything else in order to pour into his disciples. I think our first lesson is – we need to pull away from everything else to spend time with Jesus in order to know Him and from that we will get a deeper understanding of who He is and who we are and what we are supposed to do.

But there is a second thing lesson – and let me pass it on to you quickly.

If you look at Matthew 5:3-12 you’ll see that Jesus begins His sermon with a list of “blessings” that really have a profound depth to them – and they are not singular blessings – they belong to one another. In them, Jesus tells his disciples specific things about who they are – who they should be – attitudes and characteristics. So, connected to his efforts to give them an understanding of who He is and invite them into his work of healing the world – Jesus tells them who they are and he ties it together with a list of blessings.

Jesus said, [3] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus starts with a bunch of “blessed are…” Of course, we know these as the beatitudes. They are called that because of the word blessing or blessed – which comes from the Latin word beatitudo. Often – when we think of blessed – we think of happiness – but there is a deeper meaning behind that word – especially when it is used here. The reason I am happy when I am blessed is that blessed here means “to be approved, to find approval” and in this context, it means to be approved or to find approval from God (Carson 16).

One theologian pointed out, “Since this is God’s universe there can be no higher ‘blessing’ than to be approved by God. We must ask ourselves whose blessing we diligently seek. If God’s blessing means more to us than the approval of loved ones…or of colleagues…then the beatitudes will speak to us very personally and deeply” (Carson 17).

So right out of the gate – Jesus is telling his disciples that they are blessed or approved by God. So our text could read – “Blessed / approved by God are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Allow me to ask you – do you ever feel the least bit inadequate? Ever feel like you just don’t measure up when it comes to getting things right with God? Have you ever felt overwhelmed – that you just aren’t good enough – that you just can’t get things right enough when it comes to God? Have you ever taken a good hard look at your own actions or attitudes or thoughts and said – good grief – I’m a mess?

Good because that is exactly how we ought to feel because that’s where things must start in terms of our relationship with God, which is why – I believe – that Jesus starts his sermon with poor in spirit.

In the OT the poor initially were those who were in “literal, material need;” the poor were those who were unable to help themselves – they could not save themselves – they had to look to God for salvation (Stott 38). Eventually, however, the word “poor” began to take on a larger meaning – as it pointed to people who are, as DA Carson says, “spiritually bankrupt.” They have nothing to offer God on their own. John Stott wrote, “Indeed, the very first beatitude proclaims salvation by grace not works, for it pledges the kingdom of God to the ‘poor in spirit,’ that is, to people who are so spiritually poverty-stricken that they have nothing in the way of merit to offer” (Stott 36).

Jesus starts this Sermon off by telling us that the first characteristic of a Christian is that we readily admit that we are spiritually bankrupt and dependent upon the grace of God. We are the first to admit that we are spiritually bankrupt – that we don’t have it all together. It is humbling indeed to admit that we can’t fix ourselves that we a savior – we need God to help us – to save us – because we have nothing on our own to offer the Lord.

That is where spiritual healing begins. It begins by admitting that we are bankrupt – and – frankly – our community, our country, our world needs bankrupt healers.

You see, Jesus pulls away from the crowds in order to give his disciples a deeper understanding of who He is but also teaches them what it is they are supposed to do in order to participate in God’s work in the world. Jesus starts that conversation by telling them that on their own they can’t fix a thing. They must first come to terms with the fact that they are approved by God – blessed by God – because they are poor in spirit – not because they’ve got it all figured out or because they have anything to offer God on their own. No. Bankrupt healers are those who know their own faults and issues and go to God for help. One theologian said, “Simply put, the Gospel poor in spirit are ‘people who recognize that they are helpless without God’s help” (Bruner 161).

This is where we must start. As God’s people, we must take a deep look within our hearts and honestly recognize that we can’t help ourselves. Only then can we begin to offer any sort of healing to the world. Even if we have been a Christian for decades – this is where we must begin. You see, there is never a time in a Christian’s life when he/she doesn’t need Jesus. We will never outgrow our need for the Lord Jesus. In fact, it is the opposite. The longer we walk with Jesus the more aware we become of our own depravity – where it hides and lurks in our own hearts – and that leads us into a deeper appreciation and a deeper dependence on Jesus.

So we begin with our acknowledgment that we are poor in spirit – but we take heart – because we are approved by God – we are blessed – and the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to us. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of the grace of God through the person of Jesus.

That’s where the healing begins in us – and that is where the healing begins for our community and our country. We must start by acknowledging that not one of us is without sin. No one is righteous before God on their own merit.

Friends, we are on the cusp of a new age – an age that we are still trying to figure out what is the new normal – an age that is angry, confused, and longing for healing even as it looks for someone to blame for its pain. It is into that God’s people are called to go and bring healing. But it begins with us first – getting a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and looking into our own hearts and acknowledging our own spiritual bankruptcy. It is out of our own understanding of our spiritual bankruptcy that we can bring healing to others.

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Confidence In Chaos

Last Saturday, Sherry and I drove downtown to grab carryout for dinner. We noticed – right away – that there were more people milling around than in previous weeks. But then we notice something else – something unusual: a mass of law enforcement.

There were officers from the local police as well as agents from a variety of state and federal agencies. The officers – usually in pairs – either stood on street corners, walked the sidewalks, or rode in patrol cars. It was impossible not to notice – given the number. We didn’t have to wonder why they were there.

A person would have to be a hermit – cut off from society – to be unaware of all that’s been happening. To the weirdness of a pandemic – to the mishmash of information – we’ve added protests and riots surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd. We’ve added boarded-up store windows and strong law enforcement presence to communities already stressed about economic downturns and virus spread.

To borrow from John Lennon, these are strange days indeed and not in far off places but right here in our own community. And that’s the thing – isn’t it? It is one thing to watch the world news and see the rest of the world being impacted by something. It is entirely another thing to see how those things in the wider world hit home.

All of us have been impacted by the pandemic and all of us have been impacted by the protests and riots. The reason the police were out in such force here was because of unfounded rumor associated with a threat on social media from Antifa. There was nothing to those rumors but – wisely – events were postponed and law enforcement made their presence known. No – world events aren’t simply out in the world any longer – they are right here in our neighborhood. We are experiencing what so many others are experiencing – even if it is on a smaller scale.

Our world and our community are going through upheaval – a change. One theme that has consistently emerged from this time is a loss of confidence – a loss of trust – in the systems, institutions, and leaders. Losing confidence is disconcerting. For some who have put so much trust in systems, institutions, and people – this loss of confidence can be devastating and lead to all sorts of problems. But you know it isn’t the first time that people have experienced this sort of loss of confidence.

In Psalm 3 – David’s world was in chaos and the people had lost confidence and trust in him. It had to be devastating because David had been such a successful leader. But in the words of Psalm 3, we find the right place to put all of the confidence. It is not in confidence in ourselves – not in our government – not in systems or institutions. Psalm 3 teaches us to see the Lord as our confidence – especially during a time of uncertainty and a time of chaos.

Psalm 3 is one of only a handful of psalms that have a clear historical context. What I mean is that we can place it with a specific event and with a specific author. Right at the very beginning of Psalm 3, it states that it is a Psalm of David When He Fled From Absalom His Son.

Psalm 3
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

[1] O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
[2] many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
[3] But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
[4] I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
[5] I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
[6] I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
[7] Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
[8] Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah (ESV)

Did you get that?

Talk about chaos. This psalm is from a time when David had to flee from Jerusalem – from his own city and his own son.

Imagine the fear that swept through that community when its king left Jerusalem – the City of David!

It is important to bear in mind just who David was. He was the sort of leader that people could get behind – and did. He trusted in God – so much so that when David was a young man, he went to battle with a giant named Goliath with only a slingshot, 5 smooth stones, and, with God’s help, won.

When David became king, he did something that no one -not even Saul – had been able to do. It was under his leadership that all twelve tribes of Israel were united.

David was not just a great leader and warrior, he was also a deeply spiritual man – who authored most of the psalms. It is clear from the Psalms that David loved God. His songs and prayers are some of the most beautiful texts in the Bible. He was a man said to be after God’s own heart. He was a man who knew how to pray, how to worship, and how to lead others to do the same.

Imagine that sort of leader. Imagine a leader who was not only able to lead people into battle successfully, a man who was able to lead you in worship, and a man who was also able to get 12 contentious factions to come together as one.

Now imagine losing confidence in that leader.

In Psalm 3, David clearly felt the panic of his community – felt the tremors that came from troubles – troubles that – well – he had a hand in making for himself and for the people.

Look, as great a leader and king as David was – he was no saint. He was just like us. He got some things right – clearly – look at the Psalms. But – David was also a man whose heart – and eyes – were prone to wander – as the hymn writer put it.

You see – that little bit before the Psalm starts – that little explanation behind the Psalm – “A Psalm of David, When He Fled from Absalom his son” tells a much larger tale.

Beneath the surface of Psalm 3 there is an awful thing. In 2 Samuel 11 – 19 we get the story of what happened. I’ve got to tell you it isn’t pretty. But the Bible does not try to cover up the reality that the world and the people in it are a mess.

In 2 Samuel 9 – 19 we read of a chain of events in the life of David which impacted the nation of Israel – things that would keep the tabloids in our own time hopping.

David, who has received a great promise from God that his throne will be established forever (2 Sam. 7), has decided to stay home rather than go to war with the army. That wasn’t a normal sort of thing for a king to do. We do not know what led David to that decision, but we do know what David did with his time: he caught sight of Bathsheba and they spent some time together – which they shouldn’t have done – and she became pregnant – and then David schemed to get Uriah (her husband) home so he might spend time with his wife – and then think the baby is his – and it didn’t work – and then David had Uriah killed in battle to cover it up. And then David married Bathsheba.

Okay – all of that is terrible – but it got worse. Nathan, God’s prophet, confronts David about what he did. To his credit, David confesses his sin – see what I mean about David getting things wrong and getting some things right – sounds like a human being to me. David confessed and God forgave him.

However, and here is what most folks forget – forgiveness doesn’t mean that the consequences are cleared. Confession doesn’t reverse the course of things we’ve set in motion – like a stone thrown into the water – the ripples will roll out.

While God loves David – just as He does all of us – there remain consequences to David’s act – and it all spills over into his family life. While David may have been a great leader and writer – etc. – he wasn’t so great at the family thing.

Bathsheba wasn’t David’s first or only wife. He had kids by those wives and they didn’t always do right by one another. In fact, Amnon attacks his half-sister – Tamar. Absalom – who is Tamar’s older brother – hears of it and is enraged. He swears revenge. David tries to intervene but two years later, Absalom murders his half-brother Amnon for assaulting his sister – Tamar.

Absalom flees from David. He hides out in a sanctuary city for a while – but David is finally about to bring him home. But as soon as he does, Absalom puts his plan into motion to overthrow his father so that he can become king. And that’s where Psalm 3 begins.

I bring this up because the people of that time experienced chaos outside of their own making. They didn’t do what David did – but they felt the consequences of his actions. And – it wasn’t just David that had to flee. Lots of people did.

And there were lots of people who stayed back in Jerusalem as Absalom made his way into the city.

Which means that business was stopped. Restaurants and markets closed. Some people had to leave everything behind and make a run for it. Others swept into the city streets. People’s lives changed – quickly – and they lost confidence in the systems and institutions and leaders they once trusted.

Sound familiar?

Well – now we come to the text of Psalm 3 – we’ve got the story behind the text. Now we know why David is anxious – because – it is clear that he knows that people have lost confidence in him – and – maybe he’s lost confidence in himself – but there is something powerful in this text because it places confidence where it should have been all along.

This Psalm teaches us that we can have confidence in God in an upside-down world – even if its upside down because of us or because of things beyond our control.

Psalm 3 opens like a curtain on a great play with David, in the wilderness, praying. He is no longer in the palace – in the City of David. He’s on the run. Surrounded by enemies – some of which are his own children.

Amid all that – David cries out to God – with his fears and anxieties and concerns – because he knows that God will hear his cries: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; 2 many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.”

Again – why wouldn’t they be saying that – they are on the run or their city is in turmoil because of David. But – David knows differently than that. Though the entire world falls into a pit – David knows that his only salvation is in God. David didn’t hide his sin from the Lord. He confessed it.

Just like you and me – remember the words of Jesus – I will never leave you nor forsake you – you will have troubles – Jesus said – but our confidence is in him because he overcame the world. Jesus didn’t say, I’ll only be with you if you get yourself cleaned up and right – then and only then will I be with you. Jesus promised to be with us – even though he knows that sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong.

David got it right sometimes. David got it wrong – very wrong – sometimes. But here – we see – that he knew that God wouldn’t desert him. Even if everyone else did, he knew that God wouldn’t.

Now look at David’s prayer here – there were thousands who were out beyond the horizon of his camp wanting his blood. David’s world is in chaos. Amid that chaos – David begins to pray with honesty, confidence, and hope.

And so he prays – as we should – and this is our confidence. David prays:

1) For You – God are a shield about me

A shield was a military tool – it was a light shield, easily held up to deflect arrows and other things used. David is saying God is his protector from both the literal and figurative arrows being sent his way.

2) You are my glory

This is a king speaking. But all the trappings of being a king are gone. His palace is in enemy hands. He doesn’t have servants running at his beck and call. He is in the wilderness. Running. But his glory – his significance is from God.

3) You are the lifter of my head

This is a figure of speech that has to do with setting one into the place of honor and dignity. David is saying that it is God who does this – not anyone else. God will do this.

David is down and out. But he says that God himself will lift his head. God will lift him up. He doesn’t hope in anything else. The things he’s done or left undone will not hold him down – God will be the lifter of his head.

4) You heard me when I cried out loud -You answered me from Your holy hill –

How does David know this – because he has seen God do it.
Here is where our faith kicks in – but it isn’t faith-based on nothing. It is faith-based on experience. God has answered David before. And his answering wasn’t dependent upon David. We can trust that God will hear us when we cry out to him because that is God’s character.

5) You sustained me when I went to sleep – You protected me through the night when my enemy was all around – thousands have set themselves against me.

We know that when this whole mess began when Absalom began his move – David began to pray. We have a record of short prayers in 2 Samuel where David asked God to muddle the advice of Absalom’s counselors. It isn’t too much of a stretch for us to think of David praying at night – for God to give him rest – for God to protect him and his household from the enemy that was just over the horizon – thousands who had gathered all around.

And he went to sleep and rested and the Lord gave him a new day. He did not need to fear. His confidence was in the Lord. He didn’t need to be afraid of thousands. He had confidence in the Lord.

This week has been crazy. People were concerned that Antifa was going to come to town and wreak havoc during the night – but we need not fear– our confidence is in the Lord.

We have nothing to fear from the world around us. We have nothing to fear of the enemy of our souls. There is nothing, as Paul tells us in Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

Romans 8:38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the sort of confidence that David had, but we have even greater confidence – because we have been given access to the very throne of grace through the person – word and work of Jesus.

We can pray with confidence and with hope – in an upside-down world – just as David did – because our confidence is not in ourselves but in Christ – who took on evil and won.

We can pray – as David did – “7 Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. 8 Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people!”

This sort of language often strikes us as difficult. As Christians, we have a hard time, occasionally, with the language of the Psalms. But David and the other writers understand what we need to understand. It is something that Walter Brueggemann points out.

“Nothing is out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus, these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

What is it that David is asking of God?

By asking God to arise – he is asking God to “demonstrate his power and his glory in answering the prayer.” David is asking God to restore him. He is placing all his confidence in God to do this. Then he is asking
• For God to strike a blow to his enemies using David and those with him to do so. We know from 2 Samuel that David was going about actively working to set his organize the few troops that remained with him. So he is asking God to work through them.
• David ends this pray with praise – short as it is. It is as if his heart is now moved from lament – which is how it opened – to praise. His confidence is in God’s deliverance. He knows where his confidence lays – it lays in God himself.

Let me draw things up here –

One of the most significant things about the psalms is that they teach us how to pray. Sometimes a psalm will teach us how to lament, or praise, or ask God for something. But Psalm 3 teaches us how to remain confident in God – even as the world around us falls apart. That’s important for us to hold onto now when there is so much going on in our community and in our world. Lots and lots of people are losing confidence in the systems, institutions, and leaders. But God’s people have always been about placing their confidence in God – above everything and everyone else.

This psalm also teaches us that we can have confidence in God – even when the chaos is something we’ve contributed to. David blew it – big time. But he confessed that and turned to God with confidence. Yes, the consequences were in motion – but God hadn’t tossed him to the curb. No, God was with him. The rest of the story with Absalom is tragic. There was a chance that it would end well – but – Absalom had to deal with the consequences of his own action. But God delivered David.

These days are confusing and chaotic and folks are losing confidence. But God’s people can continue to be confident in God during the chaos of a crisis – even if it is something of our own making. We can have confidence that God will act because He promised he would. We know that is the case – when we look to Jesus we can see that God really does act in a chaotic world. Look to Psalm 3  – and be confident that God will be with us and keep us and sustain us – even in the midst of chaos.

The Way Things Are

Since the death of George Floyd, people in our communities and our country – and even other parts of the world – have protested, rioted, and posted. University presidents and coaches, pastors and priests, politicians and pundits, teachers and homemakers and stay-at-home dads and all sorts of other folks have sent out statements – trying to urge those given to violence to refrain from it and at the same time acknowledging the tragic and horrid nature surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death. Adding to their collective feelings of the tragic, however, is the absence of surprise.

Perhaps it is out there, but I have yet to hear anyone express any degree of surprise by the way Mr. Floyd’s life was taken, nor have I heard anyone express shock that there have been riots that have ravaged communities across the US. It is unfortunate that people generally aren’t surprised but it is just the way things are and they have been this way for a while. We have a complex problem in this country, and it is taking a toll on us.

Complex problems take time, thought, persistence, and patience to solve. They also require courage and a willingness to act – especially if the solution is challenging and requires something of us. It also requires a willingness to toss out overly simplistic, reductionist solutions. However, humanity, broadly speaking, isn’t all that good at any of those things, which helps to explain – at least partly – why we are where we are.

As a pastor, I am tempted to say, Jesus is the answer. Honestly, I want it to be that simple and I do believe that my faith and that of those who share my faith in Jesus have a role to play – but just saying Jesus is the solution – just tossing that into the mix of things – comes across as one of those simplistic, reductionistic solutions that need tossing out. That may sound counterintuitive, but, sometimes people add their baggage to Jesus or they don’t fully appreciate what it means to look to Christ to bring hope and healing to a complex problem – like what we are experiencing in the US right now. And yet I believe that being a Christian means stepping into the mix of things and there are those who not only understand the complex problem of race and violence and murder – they also know how Jesus speaks into those things and what is needed from His people. One of those people is John Perkins.

I first met John Perkins in Charlottesville, VA – through a book that he wrote jointly with Charles Marsh. It is called Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (I’ve mentioned it before). Perkins and his wife Vera have worked to teach welcoming justiceand promote the principles of Christian Community development and racial reconciliation for over 56 years. And while Perkins is no stranger to the pulpit or to the demands of ministry, he is also no stranger to the violence of racism, nor to the brutality of some within law enforcement.

In 1947, Perkins’ older brother Clyde, a man who had fought in World War II and earned a Purple Heart, was shot and killed by a police officer in New Hebron, MS after Clyde responded to a derogatory command from the officer. Perkins – at the urging of his family that feared for his life – fled to California and vowed never to return to Mississippi. However, in 1960 – after coming to faith in Christ and being discipled for three years – Perkins, his wife Vera, and their family returned to Mendenhall, MS where they started a church, a day-center, youth programs,
a cooperative farm, thrift store, housing repair ministry, a health center, and an adult education program.

At the same time, Perkins provided leadership and support for civil rights, and voter registration, which lead to harassment, an arrest, and a subsequent brutal beating by law enforcement. The beating was so bad that Perkins nearly died and spent significant time john perkins 2in the hospital recovering. As he lay recovering, Perkins realized that he had a choice. He could either hate or he could live out of the Gospel.

Frankly, I would find it difficult not to hate the men – the people – who did the things to me that they did to Perkins. I think, if we are being honest, most of us would. In fact, someone I love deeply experienced prejudice and racism and I know hurt that caused him. Even as I write this I am having a tough time because I know the folks and I see them from time to time. And so, I can’t imagine how Perkins must have felt or how his family felt at the loss of his brother and after he was beaten and left to die.

And so, I pay close attention to a man who – after experiencing all of that – recognized that racism and bigotry of any sort cut across the intent of the Gospel. In fact, it was out of that understanding that Perkins began to promote the notion that racial reconciliation, as well as the development and re-development of poor communities, is a necessary part of the church’s mission and of discipleship.

Perkins wrote, “But in these latter days of my ministry, God is calling me to help churches see and incorporate reconciliation as an essential part of discipleship. The captivity of the church to our culture has left us so divided. And we think division is natural. We think the traditions we’ve inherited from our forebears are the way things have to be. But Jesus came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen. ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,’ Jesus said; ‘anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37-38). The call to reconciliation is a call to commitment—to take up the cross and give ourselves to this community in this place. The world needs a church that does something to interrupt business as usual where we are.”

These are the words of a man who experienced the murder of his brother from law enforcement. These are the words of a man who experienced the blows and beat down on his own body from law enforcement. And this man’s words to the church is that Jesus’ people are the solution to a complex problem. But the solution will require something of us all in order to overcome the way things are.

At A Time Like This We Need Salt

Have you ever said that someone is a salt of the earth sort of person?

It really isn’t a phrase we hear that often anymore – but it has always been a top-tier compliment. For ages, it was used to describe someone as a real-stand up sort of person. The sort of person that could be counted on to do the right thing in a difficult situation;  they didn’t quit or whine; they were reliable, moral, and of strong character. They were people who did what needed to be done and their word was their bond. Salt of the earth sort of folks were solid, stand-up, dependable.

When it was a bit more common in our vernacular, people used salt of the earth to 0_OZpJNGmNWhr2uR1Gdescribe people from all walks of life and all sorts of religious and non-religious backgrounds – but – interestingly enough – salt of the earth was a phrase Jesus used it to describe His people. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

I’ve always wondered just how many Christian folks have ever thought of themselves as the salt of the earth. Not many, I imagine – and that’s unfortuante because – given the state of things right now – salt of the earth sort of folks is exactly what is needed.

Think about salt for a moment. Today it is everywhere and so we may not fully appreciate what it meant for Jesus to call his people salt of the earth in the first century. In antiquity, salt was highly valued because of its multiple uses. It was an incredibly important commodity – and it often meant life or death.

First of all, salt was a food preservative. Think about how much we rely on refrigeration. Think about how much we rely on being able to put food in sealed containers. When the whole pandemic started, lots of us rushed to the store – and bought food that we could store so that – just in case – we’d have enough to eat.

We depend on refrigeration and being able to seal our food off from rot and decay. In antiquity, salt was needed to help preserve food from rot and decay. Without salt, people would have had a difficult time preserving food. But salt – in those days – was literally a life saver.

You are the salt of the earth – Jesus said.

Given that we know Jesus is using a metaphor – given that he’s not talking about literal salt – given that part of salt’s function was to protect against rot and decay – what do you think Jesus meant when he said you (as his people) are salt of the earth?

In antiquity, like today, salt was used as an antiseptic as well as a preservative. Even then, people knew that salt has healing qualities and the body needs a certain degree of salt in the right balance. Today hospitals use saline to reduce some types of bacteria, to clean wounds, and to clean out IV catheters. In antiquity, salt was used to treat wounds, stomach issues, skin issues, and a variety of other ills. In fact, in 2 Kings 2:20, Elisha takes some salt and throws it into a polluted spring, and “heals” it – purifies it. We use salt in a similar way with water purification.

In antiquity – in the first century – folks knew that salt was a life saving preservative that fought off rot and decay and they knew that salt had healing qualities.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

In antiquity, salt was highly valuable. In some cultures, it could be used as a form of currency – to some extent. People were sometimes paid in salt. In those days – soldiers and workers were given a salt allowance – which is where some believe we got the saying “that person is worth their salt.”

Salt was highly valued because it was highly useful. It kept away rot and decay. It brought healing. It restored people to health. It was necessary for life. It was valued like gold.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt was – and still is – valuable – and important because of all that it does for humanity. Its value is felt in every part of society. Life probably can’t be sustained without some measure of salt. It is important for perserving and protecting from rot and decay. It is important and valuable because it brings healing. It is valued and important because it does so much for humanity.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Again, I wonder how many Christian folks think of themselves as salt of the earth – especially in times like these – when cities are bracing and recovering from protests and riots related to the tragic death of George Floyd – when racial injustices continue to ravage the lives of people – when communities are divided by rhetoric, prejuidice, biogtry, ignorance – I wonder how many Christian folks think of themselves as salt of the earth?

But Jesus said that his people – the church – are the salt of the earth – which means that God’s people are to be about the work of preserving against rot and decay and we are people that bring healing. In fact, our value as God’s people in the world is bound up in our function as salt – at least that’s what Jesus seems to be saying when he compares his people to salt.

What use is salt if it isn’t used? Salt, like coffee, is made to be poured – to be used. It doesn’t do anyone any good to simply be stored away. It is made to function. Its value comes from its proper use. Jesus even gave a warning about salt that isn’t used is really not worth anything at all. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

Salt is valuable because of how it is intended to be used in the world. It has a role to play – a job to do – and if it isn’t used for the job it was created for – it is obsolete, insignifanct – and people treat it with contempt or see it as utterly useless. One theologian noted, “Blessing is given to believers so that they will be blessings – to the world; salt is made salt in order to be salty in food. We are put on notice that while it is from nothing (gratis) that we have been made salt, it is not for nothing (frusta). We are to live for other people. Christians, we learn here for the first time explicitly, are in danger if they do not live as Christians. This is what is meant by the warning’s sad conclusion, ‘salt is absolutely useless except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.’ Here is deserved persecution. In the world, this ‘persecution’ often takes the form of simple contempt or of complete disinterest” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary).

Jesus said to his people – then and now – “You are the salt of the earth.” Jesus’ people are valuable to the world because we are to preserve the world from rot and decay and we are to bring healing to the wounded and weary. And that is exactly what our community needs now. It needs the church to be salt of the earth – to protect our communities from the rot and decay of injustice and racism and wickedness and to bring healing.

May all those who profess the name of Jesus be the Salt that the world needs.

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Keep It Simple

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Like thousands of folks, I have found myself sitting in front of my computer – my eyes bouncing between the faces on the screen and the little green camera light – for zoom-how-use-online-classesZoom meetings more times than I can count. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful. Without that technology, we wouldn’t have been able to connect as often as we have with family, friends, church, work, and whatever else. Of course, I’m ready to get back to the “new normal,” whatever that’s going to look like. In fact, the other evening I was part of a Zoom meeting where we discussed just that – the “new normal” for our in-person worship service (it’ll be June 14 by the way!).

As we talked through the important details for how our time of worship will change, my friend, Gary, reminded us of the acronym KISS. I’m sure you’ve heard of the KISS principle. It stands for Keep It Simple (some might add Stupid but Mom said no name-calling). I’ve read that the phrase was coined by someone in the US Navy responsible for designing equipment that would be operated during combat by someone with only basic training and a few tools. When all hell is breaking loose, when the bombs are falling and bullets zipping past, the last thing that person needs is for the equipment or the system to be overly complex; it could cost lives.

And so, the KISS principle was born; keep it simple – simple enough to operate during the most chaotic times. Avoid overly complicating things. Just keep it simple.

Let me get something out of the way; pastor-types (especially Presbyterian ones like me) can overly complicate things. I suppose that’s true for all sorts of folks – but – I know it is true for folks like me.

Years ago, I was asked to interview two well-known pastors. Both men served large, Presbyterian congregations but in different denominations. They are both good men and I’m not trying to disparage either one. I asked both pastors the same set of questions that had to do with helping people grow spiritually and leading their congregations through change, etc. While I expected different answers, I didn’t expect such a stark difference.

One pastor answered every question with “now Mark it comes down to these three things,” and “if a person follows these five principles, they will be successful.” I greedily wrote down what he said because it sounded good.

Like a lot of people, I like it when someone else just lays out the step-by-step action plan. You know the type of plans I mean? If you will simply do all the steps in A you will most certainly get B (with B being the result you want). In fact, that pastor seemed to be offering a blueprint – a map – for success (which as it turns out that was exactly what he thought he had – and you too can find those principles in his book). I left his office with a lot of notes, a signed copy of his book, and the notion that I had a real jump on things – that was until I met with the second pastor a few days later.

I sat down with the second pastor expecting the same sort of answers that the first pastor had given me. But right from the beginning, the second pastor made something very clear. He had one fundamental principle that stood as the foundation for everything he did as a pastor – indeed as a Christian.

He said, the whole of the Christian life comes down to staying anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person (including himself) into a deeper hqdefaultunderstanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs them (or him) to be – then it isn’t worth doing. With that in mind, he said, the job of the pastor is always to point himself and other people to Jesus – always.

That is the KISS principle -applied to the Christian faith – if I’ve ever seen it. The whole of the Christian life should be anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs us to be then it isn’t worth doing. And, given the sort of chaotic days we are all living, perhaps now is a very good time to put that principle into effect. And, rather than just leave it at that, at the risk of overly complicating things, I think an idea from the 14-15th century may help us to follow the KISS principle.

In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis wrote, “Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.” In order to stay anchored to the center – in order to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what sort of person he wants us to be, we probably ought to spend a lot of time meditating on his life. By meditate, I think Kempis meant that we ought to spend a lot of time mulling it over, contemplating it, reflecting on it, talking about the life of Jesus.

thomasakempis
Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.”

Of course, meditating on the life of Jesus isn’t going to give us a step-by-step action plan for everything we encounter. What it will do is anchor our lives to His life so that we don’t feel disjointed by when life gets complicated or confusing or when sorrows like sea billows roll. To meditate on the life of Christ a person has only to sit and read through the Gospels – and not all at once – just a section a day – a section that returns to the forefront of our imagination at various times throughout the day.

I’m not trying to reduce the Christian life down to the inane or trite. I do believe that we sometimes overly comlicate our faith. I think Kempis and the pastor I interviewed years ago can help us to keep it simple so that in confusing times, times of trouble, or even in the mundane, we can find ourselves gaining a deeper understanding of who Jesus is rather than flaying about looking for step-by-step instructions.

Meditating on the life of Jesus is, well, a simple act of devotion and I think it can tie a person’s heart and soul and mind to the center and thus help them to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who He wants us to be. Let’s just keep it simple – meditate on the life of Jesus.

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The God Who Shakes Things Up

 For a long time, I thought of the Pharisees and scribes as the villains of the Bible. If you’ve ever spent much time reading the New Testament, you know why. They are always opposing Jesus. They conspire with other folks to have Jesus arrested – beaten – killed. But some years ago, while reading a book by Jerram Barrs (Learning Evangelism learning evangelismfrom Jesus), I was challenged to re-think them – to stop dehumanizing them – to recognize them as human beings rather than some nefarious creatures. That exercise has since changed my perspective and opened up a lot of life lessons.

For instance, in Luke 15, Jesus tells 3 parables. Those parables are told to an interesting audience made up of what seems like two or three groups of folks. They aren’t mentioned – but I’m sure that the disciples are nearby. But then there is a second group – tax collectors and sinners. They are the folks on the fringes of religious society. We might think of those folks as lost – right? I mean – that’s what religious folks usually think of when they think of folks on the fringe of their religious community. In essence, they aren’t what we might consider as church-going folk.

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But there is a third group of folks in the audience – Pharisees and scribes – and I’d like to focus on them for a while because I’ve learned a lot by seeing them as humans and not villains. They are certainly not what we might think of as lost. They are very much part of the religious society. But, as I think of them as human beings – as people who have a strong moral core – I wonder what made them respond to Jesus the way they did. While I don’t have it all worked out, I think it is safe to say that some of the folks reacted to Jesus the same way folks react to change and loss and dealing with the reality of who they are.

Let me see if I can unpack what I mean.

Luke tells us that a crowd gathered around Jesus made up of our aforementioned groups: disciples, tax collectors, sinner, Pharisees, and scribes. The Pharisees and the scribes saw the sort of people that Jesus ate with and they grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

As I’ve said before, I love words and one of my favorite words is the root word for the word grumble. In the Bible, the word for grumble comes from the word γογγύζω (gong-good’-zo). If you say it correctly, it sounds like it means. It means to murmur – to grumble – to complain. The word conveys the low noise that a crowd of folks makes when they are unhappy. Think about a court scene in a movie when the people are displeased with something someone says. That’s the sound of the word – and that’s the noise the Pharisees and Scribes are making when Jesus meets with tax-collectors and sinners. They murmur and grumble and complain.

Now we can quickly run past this and chalk it up to Pharisees and Scribes just being villains or we can stop for a second and ask ourselves why? Why were they grumbling?

Well, part of it has to do with the fact that Pharisees and Scribes kept a safe distance from those they considered “sinners.” It wasn’t like they didn’t understand that they themselves were sinners and in need of God’s grace and mercy. They knew that and acknowledged it and did what they thought was necessary to pursue right living before God. They wanted to make sure that they were as orthodox as possible and they wanted the rest of their society to do that same. So, they got a bit sidewise with people that were on the fringe of their religious community but were still associated with them by race and nationality.

So, it makes sense on one level that they would grumble about Jesus and the folks he’s spending time with. But, I think these Pharisees and Scribes are dealing with something else as well. I think they are dealing with change and loss and coming to terms with a the reality of who Jesus was saying they were – and when people deal with loss and change and coming to terms with themselves – they often grumble (γογγύζω).

I’ve heard people say it a thousand times, “I don’t mind change.” But – as soon as change starts to happen – suddenly they mind it – and very often – they γογγύζω. Why is that? Why is it that folks really don’t like change?

Well, if a few guys out of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School for Government know anything (and I think they do) it has to do with loss. People don’t fear change per se – they fear and hate and loathe the pain from the loss that invariably comes with change.

Think about that for a moment – think about the murmurs and grumblings that have accompanied this pandemic. I’ve grumbled myself. I really wanted to see Thatcher run track this year. I really wanted to have a huge party to celebrate Sherry’s birthday this year. I didn’t want to see my family and friends lose their jobs. I’d rather worship alongside folks on Sunday morning rather than ZOOM; I don’t like this change – but it isn’t the change per se – it’s the loss.

I think that these Pharisees and Scribes didn’t like what was going on with Jesus because all of a sudden – things were changing and they – like you and me – didn’t like it because they were dealing with loss. So they murmured and complained – they grumbled because they didn’t like what was happening and it was showing them and others who they really were.

In every instance with Jesus, the Pharisees and Scribes kept losing power. They were losing position. Their way of thinking was being challenged. Their way of doing things and their way of seeing the world and the people in it were being challenged and they kept coming up short – and they knew it and so did others and they didn’t like it. So they grumbled.

And those guys were very human in how they reacted. I mean – look at who they are reacting to. Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were all flocking to see and hear Jesus. And what is Jesus talking about?

He’s talking about God. Jesus is telling tax collectors and sinners about God –people who are by all indicators – lost from a religious perspective. He’s even telling Pharisees and Scribes about God.

But that is what a Pharisee and a Scribe was supposed to do. They were the experts about God. They were the people that folks went to before. They were the ones that kept everyone straight about doctrine and practice and what was the right way to do this or that. But suddenly all of that is changing and they are feeling the loss that comes with change – and so they grumbled.

Their way of doing things – their way of looking at the world and the people in was being challenged – but challenged by whom?

Well – God. Actually, God in the flesh – God in the person of Jesus – the very Son of God.

That is what Christians profess, anyway. We believe that Jesus is the very Son of God – the logos who became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. And so, Jesus – the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of God – is standing in a crowd of people – and in that crowd are tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and Scribes – and the Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling and murmuring because the tax collectors and sinners are there and Jesus – the Christ the Son of God is eating with them and treating them like people and telling them about how to know God. And in reality, he’s telling the Pharisees and Scribes, too.

In all of that, we have to know that it is God that’s shaking things up for the Pharisees and Scribes. It wasn’t some sort of conspiracy by the tax collectors and sinners. It is God that’s doing this thing and I think that these Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling because they are dealing with loss and change and they are being forced to come to terms with a new reality about themselves and the person responsible for all of that is God in the flesh.

You know what? The idea that God is sovereign and rules over all things and all that comes into our lives isn’t something that was dreamed up by the Reformers in the 16th century. The idea of God’s sovereignty over all things is right there in the Old Testament – it runs from cover to cover in the Bible. The Pharisees and Scribes would have known that – just as much as we know that God is sovereign over all things – and yet they are as human as we are and when they are faced with change and loss and this new reality about themselves – they murmur and grumble – and eventually conspire to work against God himself.

But – if they had been paying attention to the parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15 – they may have truly been able to deal with change and loss and this new reality.

But to be fair, it isn’t just Pharisees that SCribes that are being subjected to the notion of change and loss and the reality of who they are. To be quite honest, the tax collectors and sinners are going to have to deal with the same thing. You see when Jesus enters a person’s life He doesn’t leave them as they were. He changes everything about them. When the Gospel hits its target, tax collectors – like Zacchaeus – are not able to defraud anyone any longer – at least not without being sorely convicted internally. In other words, people that meet Jesus – well – they can’t simply go back to the way things once were. And that can be a real loss – worth it – but a loss nevertheless.

I came to faith in Christ when I was a student at Carson-Newman. Coming to Jesus changed everything for me. Before that, let’s just say I was a bit adventuresome (as my wife says). But after coming to faith in Jesus I no longer did those things – which means I didn’t really hang out with the same crowd any longer. It isn’t that I didn’t like them or want to stay friends – it was just better for me not to be in the environment any longer. See what I mean about change and loss and dealing with this new reality of who I am?

That’s the power of the Gospel – that’s what Jesus does – Jesus brings change and loss and a new reality about who we are as human beings. The Gospel doesn’t leave a person unchanged.

That’s what God does in the lives of His people; He changes them and we all know that change can feel like loss. It can be painful. When God enters a person’s life, He changes the way a person thinks, and lives, and treats others, and thinks of themselves. But sometimes, in order for that change to happen – God has to shake things up.

So, in Luke 15, God is shaking up the world of the Pharisee and the Scribe and they are grumbling because of it. If you’ve ever read this text, have you ever thought about the intended audience of these parables? Granted, everyone heard, but the target audience was the Pharisee and the Scribe – the grumblers – the folks who were really being challenged by God to accept change and loss and the reality of who they were.

Look the Pharisees and Scribes were content in the way they saw the world and the people in it and their place in that world. But God intervened and shook things up and made them come to terms with the fact that God is a God who searches out those who are lost – and there wasn’t a person in that crowd that wasn’t lost – not even the Pharisee and Scribe. But they had to come to terms with the fact that they were lost – because they really didn’t know it.

At the core of these parables in Luke 15, Jesus is telling them about the very character of God – God is a God who searches for the very people that the Pharisee and Scribe had written off. God searches and restores tax collectors and sinners – but he also restores and Pharisees and Scribes, too. God is a God who shakes people up as He seeks and restores that which is lost to Him.

He leaves the 99 to go get the one. He turns the house upside down, to restore the one to Himself. That’s what God does – even today – but to do so – sometimes God shakes things up so that people go through change – even loss – in order to really see themselves the way they need to in order to see God for who He really is. God is the God who seeks and restores lost people – and there isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t need to be found by God.

God is the God who changes things up and in the process He searches and restores people to himself. He does it all the time. He’s doing that at this very moment. And sometimes – very often – God challenges our perspectives in order to change our lives; he allows us to endure the loss that comes with change so that we can deal with the reality of who we are – and we are people who need Jesus.

Oh, a person might grumble and murmur – but God pushes through that nonsense.

The bottom line is, we are living at a time of change and loss and new perspectives. We are going to experience the loss that comes with this change. We already have to some extent. We really don’t know the full extent of the loss we will experience. But we can rest assured that God is sovereign and He is about changing us through the loss and I believe with all my heart that God is going to lead us through this change; He will be with us as we deal with the loss that comes with the change, and he will restore us more and more as we deal with the new reality of who we are and what we will become.

 

Luke 15:1–10 [1] Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. [2] And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” [3] So he told them this parable: [4] “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? [5] And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. [6] And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ [7] Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. [8] “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? [9] And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ [10] Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (ESV)

 

To Suffer and Persevere

It’s funny, the things I remember from my childhood. By things I mean literally things – objects – the stuff that was part of the warp and woof of our home. For instance, I can remember a vase that stood on a stand next to our front door. I probably remember it well because my brother – Dennis – and I were passing a football back and forth as we went out the door. If memory serves me right, I did not make the catch at the clutch moment – which ended the vase’s career.

But I also remember books. My parents – thankfully – had books everywhere. I suppose that is where I became a bibliophile. It is also where I learned to write notes in the margin of my books. I remember picking up books around our home and finding the notes that my mom had written – or sections that she had underlined. After she passed away, I was fortunate enough to get a few of her books – especially a few that held a place in my memory.

So, this morning – as is my custom – I walked into my study with a cup of coffee and was about to settle into my normal routine when a little yellow book on the lowest shelf of my bookcase caught my eye. I recognized it at once because it took a prominent place among my mother’s books – in fact I often saw it beside her Bible. I decided to throw my routine to the wind (which – if I’m being honest happens more often than not). I plucked the book from the shelf and started to flip through the pages of my mother’s copy of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.

thomasakempisToday most folks don’t really know much about Kempis – and I will not go into much detail – but he was a remarkable thinker. Suffice it to say that he was a priest and theologian – of sorts – who lived and worked and prayed and studied in the 14th / 15th century (1379-1471). He wrote four books, which are all compiled into one – under the title, The Imitation of Christ.

Perhaps the most important contribution from Kempis is that he focused on spiritual maturity and depth. His insights into what it means to take care of the soul, what it means to walk deeply with Jesus have given shape to a lot of the world’s most well known Christians. In fact, The Imitation of Christ for ages was said to be a must-read for every person who professed faith in Christ and – if you have ever read it you know why it is so revered. Kempis doesn’t gloss over the human condition nor does he pull back on what is required of those who truly want to walk with Jesus. He provides insights into the soul and develves deeply into spiritual formation as only someone in the 14th and 15th centuries could.

IMG_0358The book was so important and so highly valued that for a very long time it was often given as a gift. In fact, my mother was given her copy by our pastor and friend, Rev. John Thrasher, in March of 1982. And sometimes a gift given once is a gift that extends IMG_0359beyond a singular recipient – and that is certainly the case with my mother’s copy of The Imitation of Christ.

This morning, as I thumbed through Kempis’ book, I came across a section that had been starred and underlined. I think that was my mom’s way of saying, “Look here! Read this!” I’m glad I obeyed because Kempis puts forth an amazing prayer that speaks to me about something I tend to avoid.

Kempis wrote, “Ah, Lord God, holy Lover of my soul, when you arrive into my soul, all that is within me shall rejoice. You are my Glory and the exultation of my heart; you are my Hope and Refuge in the day of my trouble…Set me free from all evil passions, and heal my heart of all inordinate affections; that, being inwardly cured and thoroughly cleansed, I may be made fit to love, courageous to suffer, steady to persevere…Let me love you more than myself…”

I can’t recall the last time I saw suffering and persevering in any sort of discussion related to Christian maturity. Most of the time I – like many others – tend to avoid talking about suffering and persevering  – especially the way Kempis does. I think a lot of those deathblack-death-opener.adapt.1900.1who went before us – those who lived in centuries that dealt with plagues and political turmoil and economic disequilibrium and food shortages and those who were willing to say no to themselves – no to certain attitudes and behaviors that run counter to biblical principles – have something to say to us in the 21st century.

From what I take from Kempis, part of what it means to grow in Christian maturity is owning up to the fact that our desires are not always on track with what it means to be Christian – and thus he prays that God would free him from that and help him to suffer through saying no to himself, no to desires that aren’t in accord with the Bible – and continuing to say no when that thing resurfaces. That’s the internal struggle and often that struggle is like suffering and just like physical suffering, it can be a tough row to hoe. We’d much rather indulge and confess and try to repent than suffer through self-denial. At least, that’s true of me. But Kempis makes it clear that we really can’t expect to go very deep in our walk with Jesus if we are unwilling to suffer and persevere.

I don’t like it but, in my heart of hearts, I know Kempis is right. I know it is best to pray as he prayed – and pray so that I will love God more than I love myself, which means being willing to place God’s best for me above my own desires. Saying yes to God often means saying no to myself. And therein lies the rub – doesn’t it? To love God more than myself should mean that I’m willing to say no to myself and willing to suffer and persevere when necessary.

At any rate, I’m grateful that my mom had this book around. I’m grateful that it was one of the things that fill my childhood memories. And, I’m grateful to know that a prayer my mom read – a prayer that somehow spoke to her – is speaking to me today.

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A Small Word With A Huge Meaning

word nerdI am an unashamed word nerd. In fact, I probably spend way too much time thinking about words and how best to string them together to convey meaning. It is one of the reasons why I read – it is to see how others create images and understandings with words. I love words.

In fact, I love words so much that I have favorites. I will not bore you with my top ten or top one hundred favorite words but I will share with you one very small word that has a huge meaning and one that just might change your life. It is the Hebrew word hesed.

If you’ve read any part of the Bible – especially the Psalms – you’ve come across the word hesed somewhere around 250 times. The thing about hesed is that it presents a challenge to translate because we don’t have a one-to-one word exchange for hesed in English. So, translators have done their best to try and capture what hesed means in order to convey the full weight of that small word. For instance, if have you read Psalm 136 you’ve read hesed like this – [1] Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. [2] Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. [3] Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever.”

But what on earth does steadfast love mean exactly? In church circles, we’ve heard that phrase associated with God a lot – but have you ever really given it much thought? You see the challenge with the word hesed is that in Hebrew the word conveys to very powerful ideas: love and loyalty/devotion. We just don’t have a word in English that conveys the depth and connection between those two words and so translators have stuck with steadfast love or loyal love to convey the meaning of hesed.

But hesed, for such a small word, has a huge meaning. The psalmist of Psalm 136 must have thought so because he repeated it throughout the entire Psalm. I’ve only put the first three verses here but there are 26 in all. We find steadfast love/loyal love (hesed) as part of a refrain in Psalm 136 – which tells us that it was probably a Psalm that had sort of a response element to it. What I mean is that the worship leader would say something and then the people would respond “for his steadfast love/loyal love (hesed) endures forever.” It is that phrase that runs the entire gamut – the entire 26 verses of Psalm 136 – and it is a word that again was used over 250 times in the Old Testament. If I know anything about the way words work in the Bible, I know if it is used a lot it is an important word that usually has a huge meaning and here the psalmist is saying something about God’s steadfast or loyal love. Let me see if I can unpack it a little bit.

Today is Mother’s Day – and so it is appropriate that we talked about hesed – because when we think about our mom – or at least the idea of mom – at some point we land on the idea of love and loyalty. I’ll bet right now there is some mother opening a card that says something to the effect of “thank you for standing by me no matter what – I love you Mom!” As imperfect as a mother may have been – all of us understand the idea of how steadfast or loyal a mother’s love is – or should be – for her children – no matter what they do – right? In the good times and the not so good times, mom is there – right?

Love and loyalty are mingled together in the Hebrew word hesed and that idea is sprinkled throughout the OT and in Psalm 136 in particular. In fact, in Psalm 136, as one theologian pointed out, we get a very broad picture of God’s hesed for his people. The psalmist calls on people to give God thanks because out of His hesed (love and loyalty) he created all things. He calls on people to give God thanks because out of His hesed, He redeemed them, rescued them, protected them, stood by them in the lowest times – even bad times of their own making – God’s hesed endures forever. And forever – like the late great Prince once said – forever is a mighty long time.

Before I go much further, I want to tell you about one other place in the OT that the word hesed is used. In Exodus 34, Moses, we are told, encounters God. In their exchange, God tells Moses somethings about himself and God used the word hesed to describe himself – and he wanted that passed along so that everyone would know. God’s love for humanity is a hesed sort of love. In Exodus 34:6–8 it says, “The LORD passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed – loyal love) and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love (hesed – loyal love) for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

All of this means, of course, that God’s love for you and for me is a hesed sort of love; it is a love of devotion and loyalty. It isn’t fickle. It doesn’t wane. Of course, the greatest way humanity has ever witnessed the hesed of God is through the cross – through Jesus. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that at any point in time since the Garden of Eden has humanity ever been good enough to merit God’s love. And yet, as Paul wrote in Romans, God demonstrated his love (hesed perhaps?) for us in that while we were still sinners (read enemies of God), Christ died for us.”

Let that sink in for a moment – and add this to it. You are the object of God’s hesed. You are the object of God’s love and loyalty. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you can give God thanks that His hesed for you endures forever. I’d like to encourage you to take some time – this Mother’s Day – and every day – to be reminded that you are the object of God’s love and loyalty – God’s love and devotion – and that love and devotion doesn’t wane for you – even when you blow it. I’d like to encourage you to start each day and end each day speaking the refrain of Psalm 136 to yourself – and claiming for your family, friends, and yourself – that God’s steadfast love for you and your children – and all those who have put their trust int he Lord – endures forever. 

Hesed is a small word that has a huge meaning that may just change your life.

Hesed