Two Halves of Mercy

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

How would you define mercy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Old Rainy Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Insatiable Hunger and Thirst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Sunday School Answers Allowed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid Missing the Point

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

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

It is the word meek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Heart of the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dose Of Godly Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At A Loss For Words: A Poet To The Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The World Needs Bankrupt Healers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount.

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

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

How so?

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

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

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

But not Jesus.

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

That is significant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Confidence In Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you get that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now imagine losing confidence in that leader.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) For You – God are a shield about me

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

2) You are my glory

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

3) You are the lifter of my head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it that David is asking of God?

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

Let me draw things up here –

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

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

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