Category: Life

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.