Join Central Presbyterian tomorrow night – via Zoom – for a Service of Loss and Hope led by my friend Pastor Andy Nagel. A lot of folks are going through tough times – and have gone through tough times. This service reminds us that we have hope in Jesus. He is with us even as we recognize our losses and remember those we’ve lost. Join us Monday, December 7th at 7:30 PM.
Check out this link for more information. I hope you’ll join us.
A little bit ago some folks from Central Presbyterian in Towson, MD sent me a link to a webinar. I wanted to pass it along to as many folks as I can – so – I’m uploading it here. This webinar came out yesterday and it is from the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I think you’ll be encouraged and blessed by listening to Dr. Collins. I came away encouraged and hopeful. I hope you do as well.
At Central Presbyterian, we are working our way through the life of Abraham – and learning a great deal along the way about what it means to walk with Jesus. In today’s sermon – covering Genesis 21 – we discover what unresolved conflicts and tensions can do in the life of a believer and God’s response in those moments. If you’ve got some time to worship today – join us at Central.
I went to a small university in Upper East Tennessee: Carson-Newman – which in my day was CN College but today it is CN University. CN – like this region is nestled into one of the most beautiful areas of the country. On one side – you have the Great Smokey Mountains. Every other side is bordered by farms.
Now, I went to CN to play football and wrestle – two things that I truly loved – but – as providence and a concussion or two would have it – neither of those things lasted very long. But – I wanted to stay at CN – but to do so, I had to find a job or two in order to have the money to go to school and to support myself.
I was fortunate – blessed – really – that among the jobs I held while a student was a stint as a farm hand. Yes – that’s right – I said farm hand. It was one of the best jobs I ever had – largely because of Mr. Gray – the 70 plus year old man who owned the farm – and had worked the land his entire life.
Mr. Gray taught me a great deal about work and life and Jesus. We worked very hard and our hard work was rewarded. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about my time working for Mr. Gray. Besides a massive garden, Mr. Gray raised beef cattle and corn and tobacco – lots and lots of tobacco. I don’t know how you feel about tobacco – but I can tell you this about tobacco plants – they are gross, and heavy, and sticky and they require a lot of attention and back in those days – they brought in a great deal of money that helped to keep the farm going.
Mr. Gray was in a bind. The tobacco crop was due to be harvested and he only had a short window in which to get it cut, staked, and in the barn to dry – before taking it to sale. Did I mention there was a lot of it? Mr. Gray explained to me that the folks he used to regularly help bring in the tobacco were not available, and he was short-handed, and he asked if I knew a few good, hard-working guys that could come help.
I spoke to a few my roommates. I told them it was really hard work – and not to bother if they didn’t really want to work – but I also told them Mr. Gray pays well and he feeds you. Only one of them was still willing to go to work with me.
The next day, one of the guys –- who lived in my house followed me out to the farm – that should have been my first clue. We will call him Al because that is his name. It is important to note that Al drove a vintage VW Bug – and if you’ve ever been around a vintage VW Bug – you’ll know that they have a very distinct sound – and that plays an important part in this story. I introduced Al to Mr. Gray – and I noticed that Mr. Gray looked at Al – then looked at me with a not so sure look – but – we needed more folks to help. And so – Mr. Gray pointed to our tools for the day – and Al, and I – along with several other farm-hands – headed for the tobacco field.
I don’t know if you’ve ever cut and staked tobacco before – but if you have – you’ll know – Lord have mercy. It was early in the morning – but already – hot and humid. When you cut tobacco you have to get right down to the stalk – lean way over – pull back some of the lower leaves – oh – and bugs like tobacco – anyway – and you grab hold of the stalk with one hand and you take a long blade, or manchette and you chop the plant down. Believe me – you don’t usually do it in one swipe. All of that sticky, oozy stuff runs all over your hand – soaks into the glove a bit – then you take the stalk of that plant and you have a sharpened stick, which you drive into the stalk. Once you have a few plants on a stick – you lean them on one another – because later you will load them on a tractor – take them into the barn – so they can start to dry and cure.
You get the picture. It isn’t easy. Did I mention – it’s hot and humid. Well – Al – and I start to work. He was on one row of tobacco and I was on another. We started along – and after a few minutes – I started to hear Al – whine a little bit. A little bit longer, and I realized he was struggling – quite a bit. At one point, he I heard him talking. At first, I thought he was talking to me. Then I realized he was not talking to me; he was talking to God.
I thought he was joking – but – he was not. I heard him pray, “Lord – if you’ll just get me out of this field, I promise I’ll be better man. I’ll go to church. I’ll even read the Bible. I’ll do anything.” To be honest, I felt a little bit bad for him – but I do have to say – that I warned him – it wasn’t going to be easy.
That went on of a while and Al worked slower and slower. Finally, it lunch time – and Mr. Gray called us all to wash up and head into the house for lunch. We sat down around the table and just as we were about to eat – Al said – he had to grab something from his car. As we started to pass the bowls and plates of food around the table – we heard the distinct sound of a vintage VW Bugg as Al fired up the car. Friends, he took off outta that farm faster than anything I’d ever seen. Dust billowed up out of that driveway as he tore off down the road.
No one said a word. Mr. Gray slowly turned his attention to me. He wasn’t angry at Al but he was very disappointed in me. He said, Mark – you need to be more careful about the sort of person that you associate with. You brought that young man to our farm and vouched for him. But – he lied to us and as result – he has thrown things into jeopardy. We were already behind and a man down – and now – he’s put you in a bind – not only because you’re going to have to make up for what he failed to do – but because I’m real disappointed that you’d associate with a guy like that.
All I could say was sorry. To this day, it still bugs me that I disappointed Mr. Gray – but that day – after the work was done – Mr. Gray and I had a longer talk.
He taught me something valuable.
He talked to me about the fact that it is when things get hard – when tough times show up announced – when we have to work through pain and hardship –
it is during those times that we find out what we are made of and what others are made of.
We find out how deep our faith and the faith of others really runs
and the sort of person we truly are or someone else is.
In tough and challenging times, well – that’s when our mettle is tested – often God uses those times to show us the gaps in our faith, in our lives, in order to draw us into a deeper walk with Him and really show us our need for Jesus.
I thought of that the other day when I read Genesis 12:10-20 & 13:1-4.
Last week we began a new series – looking into the lives of Abraham and Sarah – and their relationship with God amid transition. Remember, God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their family – their comfort zones. We have a lot to learn from Abraham and Sarah; indeed, they have a lot to teach us as we go through our own transitions – and learn – what it means to be people of faith during change and transition. But they also have a lot to teach us about what it means to walk with God to trust in Jesus when there are clear troubles and challenges in our lives.
When things got tough for Abraham and Sarah – well – he wasn’t much on faith and rather than trust that God would do something – even though God had just given them a whole pallet of promises – Abraham – out of fear, out of selfishness, out of self-preservation – took matters into his own hands, which revealed a lot about his mettle – and it also put everything – even the people he was supposed to protect – at risk. In fact, he put everything at risk.
But the truth is – this story really isn’t so much about Abraham; Abraham is actually a small player in this whole debacle because out of this text we learn something powerful about God and His commitment to His promises to bless the world through Abraham and Sarah – a promise that we are still being blessed by – even to this very moment – and we learn that no matter what – God is always faithful – especially when it comes to restoring people to Himself through His Son.
So –let’s turn to our text for a moment. “ Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”
Now let’s hold up in that verse for just a moment. Let’s take a step back in time and remember that right before the announcement of a famine – things had been looking up for Abram and Sarai. They are coming off this grand moment when everything is going so great for them. They’ve had this wonderful encounter with God. God had called he and Sarah out of Haran and made three promises to them. He promised to give them descendants. He promised to give them land – in fact – He took them on a tour. He promised to make them a blessing to the nations – to the world – and in the process he promised to bless those who blessed them – and so forth.
And then – trouble set in – a famine hits. And that’s a serious thing. We can’t discount that the threat – the problem is very real and grave. It is life or death. Truly – I imagine it was a time – as Thomas Paine said, “that try men’s souls,” a time of crisis that can cause people to shrink back from what they believed, or said, or hoped, or held their faith in. The famine is severe. It is a true and real crisis. It was a moment of decision – a moment when one’s trust in the Lord comes into play.
Abraham and Sarah went from this profound – glorious moment when they were meeting with God – hearing the promises – moving their lives around – to a time of severe famine – when lives were literally at stake. It is a serious time – and their faith in God – their faith in His promises are being tested – and it is right out of the gate.
You know that’s not uncommon in the Bible. There are instances throughout the Bible where after a person has put their faith in the Lord – it seems that they are “singled out for trouble” (Baldwin 37).
It happened in the life of Christ – at least to some extent. Right after His baptism – after this wonderful moment when the Dove of Heaven descends and the voice of God proclaims, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased,” Jesus goes out into the wilderness where he fasts and is tempted by Satan.
I imagine the disciples were on a pretty high note with Jesus after the triumphal entry. They probably basked in the shouts of the people, too. But a few days later they witness Jesus’ trial, his suffering, and his death and the reality of what it means to follow Jesus in a broken world crashes in.
The Psalms are filled to the brim with those instances where a person of faith – a person who has put their trust in the Lord – believed and trusted – and then wham – troubles and challenges and suffering sets in.
I don’t know why – but for some reason we (and I include myself here) are often caught off guard by the fact that those who trust in the Lord endure challenges and hardships and pains – especially when the Bible tells that story over and over again.
The thing is, putting our trust in the Lord does not provide immunity from troubles and challenges and problems – instead it gives us something solid to hold onto when troubles come. People who don’t put their trust in the Lord – don’t have that. They really don’t have anything solid to hold onto – but now people of faith – well that’s a different thing all together. When troubles and challenges come into our lives – well – then – we have the promises of God; when troubles come our way – it is more about our mettle being tested and it is in those moments that the gaps in our faith become most visible and all sorts of yuck comes out.
Unfortunately, sometimes the troubles are so big and the gaps that show up are so large – that we might waffle a bit. The gaps can obscure our trust and faith in the Lord.
That must have been what happened with Abraham and Sarah. I mean – God had given them three big promises. He even showed them the land they would receive. But right after they get the promises – right after putting their faith in God – and making an altar – and calling on the name of the Lord – a famine hits and guess what? The gaps in Abraham’s faith and trust in the Lord show up and he takes matters into his own hands – and in the process puts everyone at risk.
In vs 10 it says, “So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there.”
What’s interesting is what’s missing in this text. It doesn’t say that God told him to go down to Egypt. You know – back in Genesis 12:1, it was clear. God said, “Go.” But we have nothing that says that God said go here.
Later God told others to go down to Egypt – but – it isn’t mentioned here. I wonder if God wanted Abraham and Sarah to sit tight and wait on Him. It sure seems like God would have wanted to show Abraham how awesome He was – and how He was going to keep his promises. It is amazing what God can do through terrible moments.
You know what else?
This book – Genesis – was written – we believe – by Moses – and do you know who his first audience was?
It was people who had been enslaved in Egypt. Can you imagine how they must have reacted when they heard the Abraham’s great plan was to go to Egypt – it was probably like that moment in a horror movie when you know the monster is behind the door and one of the characters is about to enter the room and you want to yell – “No – don’t do it – don’t go to Egypt – especially if God’s not telling you to go. The grass may look greener there but it’s not!”
And I wonder when they heard this story – as maybe perhaps Moses read it over to them – I wonder if they were munching on some manna and drinking some water from a rock…because they were wondering around – being sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah – headed to the land that God had promised them – and – well – God was giving them the food and water that they needed to survive because they were in a wilderness – and yet they are hearing a story about Abraham and Sarah who ditched the promise land because of a famine. There is a lesson in that – I think.
Nevertheless – Abraham and Sarah – these two folks who had recently been given this new land from God – and these wonderful promises – must have taken it upon themselves to figure out their issue and so they take the first step in terribly wrong direction. They head to Egypt and away from the promises of God. And what happens?
Well – look at the next few verses –
In the beginning of their story – Abraham– steps out in faith. But – at the first sign of serious trouble the gaps of his faith show up and everything shifts to fear and deception and self-preservation – and a willingness to throw everyone else under the bus. Look at verse 11-13.
 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,  and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”
Abraham is fearful but not so much that Pharaoh will take his wife but more about himself – really. He doesn’t want Pharaoh to kill him. He thinks that Pharaoh is more powerful than God. He thinks the famine is more powerful than God. He thinks that the troubles he’s facing are more powerful than God – and those things will somehow supplant God’s plans and purposes for his life. God had just told him that he would bless him – and make him a great nation – and through him the world would be blessed. All of that would require Abraham – and Sarah – to be still among the living.
Isn’t it something that when Abraham takes his eyes off God that what comes out first is deception? Sure seems like that has its anchor in the earlier chapters of Genesis. As soon as Abraham made the move to leave the place where God had him – as soon as he took his eyes – his mind – off of what God would want for him – he turns to deception and a willingness to put Sarah in jeopardy.
Well – it isn’t really a lie. Sarai is Abram’s half-sister. They had the same father (Gen 20). I know – yuck – right? You don’t marry your half-sister but – back in those days – in Haran – they did. In fact, it was a big deal to marry your half-sister – but that’s not really the point. The point is that Abram’s great idea to handle the issue is to tell a half-truth in order to protect himself – and – maybe make a few bucks.
Granted, we do know that it was the law in Egypt that Pharaoh could take the wife – daughter – etc. – of any sojourner that entered Egypt and we also know that Pharaohs were interested in adding women from Syria to their harems. There is some legitimacy to Abraham’s fear – but – he wouldn’t have had that fear if he had trusted that God was going to keep His promises. So instead of sticking it out – from out of the gaps in Abraham’s faith – he turned to deception out of fear – for himself – which lead him to throw everything and everyone else under the bus.
It is despicable. Any chances for Abraham to be the husband of the year just went out the window – forever. This is sheer and complete cowardice of the worst sort. But – as things would have it – Abraham isn’t far off. As he predicted – because of Sarah’s beauty – Pharaoh is alerted to her presence – and she is taken into his harem – and Abraham is rewarded – at first it seems like things are going to be okay – or sort of.
But there is a larger problem.
Do you remember to whom the promises were made? It wasn’t just through Abraham – it was through Sarah as well. God’s plan and promise was to do something that only God can do – which is what we will see later in this story. Remember – Abraham and Sarah are up in years. Sarah is probably in her 60s and she is considered beautiful – and God has made a promise that includes her. The covenant promise – the descendants – the great nation that he speaks of – the blessing for the whole world – will come – not just through Abraham but through Sarah as well.
A huge gap in Abraham’s faith has now lead him to be willing to sacrifice Sarah – his spouse of all those years He put the covenant promise in jeopardy, because Sarah was every bit a part of that promise as Abraham was.
And that promise – wasn’t just for Abraham – nor was it just for his descendants. It was for the nations.
The nations – friends, that’s us. The blessing that God was talking about that would come through Abraham and Sarah – was none other than Jesus. The gap in Abraham’s faith – that showed up because of troubles put God’s plan for redemption into jeopardy.
Abraham – this great man of faith – is actually a fearful, cowardly man who is willing to “pimp out” his wife to protect and enrich himself – and in the process he puts the covenant promise in jeopardy.
Even though God had given Abraham these promises directly, when things got tough – the gaps in Abraham’s faith showed up and out of that came deception, fear and selfishness and it threw all of us under the bus.
Oh – it is easy to make Abraham out as the villain and the bad guy in this story – because he is. But – he is only human. And – truth be told – it is clear that he had some stuff in his life and in his heart that weren’t good. And when the heat got turned up – when tough things started to come his way – all that yuck came out of his heart and his life and his actions and his faith went out the door. The famine revealed deep gaps in Abraham’s faith – and those gaps threatened the work that God was going to do in and through this fallen, broken, man.
The reality is – as much as we don’t like to admit it – we are just as capable in doing the same thing as Abraham did.
Sometimes, when we find ourselves in tough situations or when we suffer a bit – or when we don’t know which way to go – or when change or transition comes our way – the gaps in our faith can show up, too. All sorts of things come pouring out of those gaps. In those moments our mettle is being tested and rather than trust God more deeply and lean on Jesus more heavily, we set off for Egypt. If we are honest with ourselves about ourselves, we know that to be true.
The troubles and tough times are meant to show us the gaps – not so we can fix them – but so we can grow deeper into our dependence on the Lord to help us. There will never be a time when we outgrow our need to rely and trust on the Lord – which, I believe is what happens in our text and it shows up at the beginning of Genesis 12:17.
I hope you can see it. I hope you can see this tremendous turning point in the story. It is in a simple phrase that holds the key to this entire account. It is the phrase But the Lord.
But the Lord – there may not be a better phrase in all the Bible.
I remember growing up and watching westerns. And just when the bad guys were about to win – you’d hear the bugle sound and you’d know help was on the way. That’s what I think of when I read – but the Lord – because that’s what happens here and that’s what can happen in all of our lives.
Look at verse 17-20: 17] But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.  So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.”  And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had. (ESV)
What we are to take from this moment – when we read – But the Lord – is the understanding that God intervened. He didn’t write Abraham off just because he lost his way. He didn’t cast him aside because he had gaps in his faith. Instead, God intervened. He didn’t leave him there – and instead drew him deeper into Himself.
Somehow – someway – Pharaoh surmised that the problems they were dealing with – the plagues – they were because of Abraham and Sarah – and he was correct.
God intervened – God stepped in. It was the Lord who protected Sarah – the mother of the covenant promise – because the father of the covenant promise had lost faith in the God of the covenant promises because there were big troubles big problems and the gaps in his faith showed up and clouded out what God was actually doing in the world and in his life.
It happens – but God intervenes and draws Abraham back from it – so that the gaps could be closed a bit. And – to help make that clear, take a look at who got to thump Abraham. It was Pharaoh.
Isn’t that something to take note of?
Once again – remember – Moses is the one who wrote the Pentateuch. He’s the one who is relying this story – and remember – his first audience – the first people to read this book are people who came out of Egypt. They knew first-hand what sort of person the Pharaoh was.
And yet – God used a pagan, to speak into the life of Abram and get his attention. God intervened in a way that no one would really expect, and I find great comfort in that. Because it tells me something about God’s ultimate commitment to His promises – not just to Abraham and Sarah – but to you and to me.
Nothing is going to keep God from doing the work in the life of his people – not even the gaps in our faith that show up at critical moments.
Remember that promise that God made to Abraham and Sarah wasn’t just about making their name great. It wasn’t just about land. It wasn’t just about kids. It was all part of God’s plan to redeem the world to Himself – and that includes all of those who have put their trust in Jesus.
I find comfort in this because I know who I am as a person. I know that I am prone to wonder – like the hymns says. I am prone to blow it because I am human. And – when things happen. When suffering enters my life – when change and challenge and transition come calling – I like Abraham can take my eyes off of what God is doing – and the gaps in my own faith show up and all sorts of things can come tumbling out – but God remains faithful to His promises and He intervenes – even if He has to use a pagan to get my attention. God remains faithful – even when I’ve got huge gaps in my own faith.
I think of something the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament. He wrote a letter to a young minister – Timothy – a man he had trained. And he told him about the fact that we can expect to suffer hardship as part of what it means to serve the Lord and to advance the cause of Christ. And then he said,  if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:8–13ESV).
And that’s the thing – isn’t it? That’s the story that runs through the Bible from start to finish. There are no heroes in the Bible. Certainly, Abraham is no hero. There are just people who come to faith – and trust in God – and on some days they get it right and other times they don’t – but God is faithful.
I think of Peter – a man thru whom the church was to be built – a man who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ and that he’d die before he denied Jesus – but when things got tough – when troubles showed up – the gaps of his own faith showed up as well – and – deception showed up with it. He lied and said he didn’t know Jesus. He denied knowing Jesus – but you know what happened
It was an instance of “but the Lord.” The Lord intervened in Peter’s life and he restored him because God is going to be faithful to his promises – even when the gaps show up and the gunk comes out of our hearts.
Jesus restored Peter.
And guess what – God restored Abraham as well. Look at Gen 13:1-4.
 So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.  Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.  And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai,  to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the LORD.
Abram returned to where he’d been. He returned restored to the Lord and His promises. He worshipped.
Look – Abraham’s story is far from over. He’ll blow it again later in the story. But the point here is to note that God intervened out of his faithfulness to His promises – that He was going to bless the world through Jesus. And God is committed to that promise – and even when the gaps show up in our lives – well – God is going to show up, too.
But sometimes we need ways to close the gaps – regain our focus. Today, I want to remind you of a few things. First, I want to re-invite you to join us in praying together three times a day: 8:30, 12, and 5. At 8:30 we pray for kids, teachers, parents, and schools at 8:30 each morning. The other times – pray for what’s on your heart. These are just moment prayers where we turn our attention to God – and redirect our focus. I think that will help close the gap that may show up in times of trouble or transition.
I also want to invite you to read the sermon text each week – prior to worship. I think it’ll be helpful to keep God’s word in front of us, which will remind us of God’s faithfulness.
It is also important that we turn our attention to knowing Jesus and making Him known. And one of the ways that I have found to be helpful to me is to reaffirm my faith – which is why the Apostles’ Creed is so important to me – and why – as a response to the sermon – I often incorporate it.
A few years ago, I had some health issues with my neck that required an MRI and some CAT scans. I found myself at the hospital and going through some tests. It wasn’t fun and at times – the gaps of my faith showed up. A friend encouraged me – not only to recite scripture and pray – but to reflect on what exactly it was that I believed. So, I found myself quietly reflection – not only the Psalms but on the Apostles’ Creed as well – and I watched as the gaps of my faith closed up a bit – and the yuck of my heart had a tougher time rolling out.
If you are unfamiliar with it – just listen to it and give some thought to it. Parents you may want to use the creed to talk with your children about what each part of this creed has to say. If you unfamiliar with Christianity – you may want to use this creed to learn a little bit about who we are and what we believe.
With that in mind – Christian – what is it that you believe?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Let me pray.
Benediction: Friends remember that God loves you. He’s made His love known to you through His Son, His Spirit, His word, and through His people. He sends us out into the world with this blessing:  The LORD bless you and keep you;  the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;  the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you shalom (Numbers 6:24–26 ESV). Go now in the shalom of Christ.
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,  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  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.  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, “ 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.  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.
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,  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  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?
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 should 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.” 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 –
 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).
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 sto 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.
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.
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 ESV).
In fact, in a few verses, Jesus will tell his disciples,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  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?
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.
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?