This past week three churches combined efforts to promote and participate in Vacation Bible School. It was a high energy week in which we had about 20 kids attending. The theme of the week was that God can do all things and that with Jesus all things are possible. Each day, the theme was reinforced through Bible stories, songs, experiments, crafts, snacks, storytelling, and games. The children who attended came from the three churches (Latham, Saratoga, and the Ghana church) as well as other churches in Latham and at least a couple of kids who had no church affiliation at all.
The central theme of the week was “Jesus Does the Impossible.” We explored the theme through five scenes in of the New Testament. The first scene was from the Gospel of John that recounted Jesus’ first miracle when Jesus turned water into wine. The second scene was from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus walked on water. The third of the five scenes came from the Gospel of Mark when Jesus healed a woman who had a bleeding issue and Jesus raised a young girl from the dead. Our fourth scene came from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus himself was raised from the dead and appeared to his followers. And our final day came from the Book of Acts in which Jesus stopped in his tracks a persecutor of Christians, a man named Saul, and changed Saul into the Apostle Paul and sent Paul to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
The ideas behind using these five scenes were to see Jesus is God and cares about us, to know that Jesus is with us all the time, to experience the healing presence of Jesus, to realize that Jesus saves us and gives us life, and finally, that Jesus calls us to tell others about Him. It was a good, productive and at times, an exhausting week. But in the end, I think we helped the children understand that Jesus does the impossible.
The keys to each of these accounts is to see that Jesus is God and that faith in Jesus changes us. As we consider those same two points, how might we see faith in Jesus changing us as adults? How does this faith play itself out in our everyday living? I would like to explore the answers to those questions through a sermon that Jesus gave and is found in the Gospel of Matthew. We call it the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus gave this sermon to his immediate disciples while upon the hillside or mount. The sermon goes for nearly three chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. If we were to distill the sermon to a single word, we could say the sermon is about “righteousness.”
Righteousness is the quality of being morally upright or justifiable. Righteousness is a personal ethical conduct in which the person seeks to live evermore properly to God’s standards. Righteousness should not be confused with self-righteousness in which the person seeks to have other people live evermore properly to that person’s standard all they while claiming they themselves were living to God’s standards. A person acting in a self-righteousness manner has an air of moral superiority in their attitude toward others.
Near the beginning for the sermon on righteousness, Jesus told his disciples, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus was not telling his disciples to be better at being a Pharisee than the Pharisee. Jesus was telling his disciples, “I know you respect the perceived righteousness of the Pharisees, but much more than what the Pharisees will be required of you to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus would explain that righteousness is living a life in which even the toeholds of sin are kept out of one’s life. The hallmark of a righteous life then would be seeking the kingdom of God first and foremost and acquiring the righteousness of God himself. Seeking first the righteousness of God makes all other things possible.
In the pursuit of righteousness, Jesus said some very specific changes would be evident in disciples’ lives. Seeking the righteousness of God would make the disciples different from the rest of the world. Jesus’ words mean we too must necessarily be different from the rest of the world.
Let’s look at just a couple of those changes. Verses 1 and 2 of Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus’ words that say, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1). These words of Jesus are known by Christians and non-Christians. Christians know them because they are often the subject of sermons. Non-Christians know these words because non-Christians use these words as a jab at Christians with such taunts as, “You call yourself a Christian, but you are so judgmental of others.”
There are a couple of things we need to consider here. Jesus was not saying, “Do not judge anything!” Quite the contrary. All throughout the sermon, Jesus was giving his disciple example after example of how the disciples were to judge their own behavior against the standards of God’s righteousness. Jesus said, “Don’t babble when praying” (Matthew 6:7). Jesus said, “When you fast don’t disfigure your face like some do in order to be noticed. Instead, be presentable. When fasting put oil n you head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:16-17). Jesus did not prohibit his disciples from judging whether involving themselves in an event was proper or not. Jesus disciples were expected to judge whether something was wholesome or savagery. What Jesus said was that his disciples were not engage in judgments for and about others in the judgement of righteousness. Jesus was saying that it was not the disciples’ role to set the standards for the righteousness of others but to seek God’s righteousness for themselves. First seeking God’s righteousness makes possible judgements we must make to know what is good and pleasing to God.
I recently saw an interview by a British commentator, Piers Morgan, of Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. Morgan continually accused Graham of judging the righteousness of certain groups of people. Each time, Graham responded politely that he judged no one and spoke against no one. Graham said he only pointed out for himself and for other Christians to behaviors that Jesus set for his followers. Graham was steadfast that he would never judge others by setting a standard for righteousness but would always encourage people to see what God said was the standard of righteousness provided by God.
Jesus then used some humor with his disciples to get his point across. Jesus said, “3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
Jesus used some great humor here to make the point about judgements about the righteousness. Jesus asked his disciples to envision having a plank of wood sticking out of their eye and then being so presumptuous that they could not only see a bit of sawdust in the eye of another person but also believe they could take action to remove the sawdust all the while impeded by the plank in their own eye. Jesus displayed a great sense of humor through this illustration. Jesus made clear that self-righteous behavior makes someone not only look ridiculous but makes the task of fixing someone else impossible.
Instead, Jesus said fix what is wrong with yourself, remove the plank from your own eye no matter how small we might imagine them to be. Jesus’ point was that his disciples must first seek the righteousness of God by knowing what it means to be in a right relationship with God. The disciples must get rid of what obscures their view of God, namely sin. Once the disciples’ relationship with God is made right, then it will be possible for them to manage our relationships with others and, perhaps, even off help to others.
But, Jesus said, even in the pursuit of God’s treasured righteousness, they must exercise great in sharing that treasure. In furtherance of this point, Jesus presented to his disciples this proverbial command, “6 Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). There are a couple of ways to view Jesus’ words. First, could be that we should not share the wisdom of God’s kingdom with those who have no interest in God’s kingdom for that would be a waste. It would be like giving something sacred to a dog or putting pearls on a pig. They recipient will not respect the sacred or the treasure. This would be a perfectly good reading of Jesus words except that most people who are not interested in God’s righteousness tend to walk away and not turn on you to tear you apart.
As such, we must consider a possible second way of reading Jesus’ words. Perhaps, Jesus was still commanding his disciples to avoid being self-righteous. Jesus had told his disciples to not judge the righteousness of others or deal with people with a plank in their own eye. Perhaps then Jesus meant this proverb to mean, “If you have acquired God’s wisdom and a measure of His righteousness, genuinely sacred and treasured things, do not share what you know with other as though they were mere dogs or swine. Strip away your sense of superiority before you share, otherwise those to whom you speak will trample your words and then turn on you for treating them with contempt.”
Think about our experiences in life. Have you ever had someone approach you in a smug and superior manner? I know I have. Their presence is like sandpaper being rubbed on your body. It is irritating and unpleasant to be in their presence. Their words are hard to receive even when they might be right. Often the thought we have is, “Get off your high horse and stop acting holier than thou!”
I think the second interpretation fits better Jesus’ proverbial teaching. Acting with superior attitudes towards others impedes the work of the kingdom and prevents the righteousness of God from being received by others.
Having given his disciples three admonishments about self-righteousness, Jesus said this, “7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Jesus here appears to be encouraging his disciples to pursue and petition God by asking, seeking, and knocking on His door to receive, find, and have opened to them. What is it that Jesus means here?
Some people have a view that Jesus was making a open invitation to ask God for anything and it would be granted. If that were so, then there are a lot of disappointed Christians in the pews today because they prayed that God might bless them to win the $1.3 Billion Mega Millions jackpot Friday night and their prayers went unanswered. I have heard many pastors preach that not all prayers are answered because the request is not within the will of God. God will only answer what is within his will.
Accepting that understanding then, I do not believe Jesus was talking to his disciples about open ended petitions to God. I do not believe Jesus had left the topic of righteousness. I think we might get a better understand of Jesus’ words this way, “Ask and God’s righteousness [it] will be given to you; seek [God’s righteousness] and you will find [it]; knock and the door [to God’s righteousness and kingdom] will be opened to you. For everyone [no one is excluded] who asks for [God’s righteousness] receives; the one who seeks [God’s righteousness] finds [it]; and to the one who knocks, the door [to God’s righteousness and kingdom] will be opened.”
Jesus wanted his disciples and us to know that entry into the kingdom of God and access to the righteousness of God was available to us if we would just ask, seek, and knock on the door. Jesus also wanted his disciples, including you and me, to know that to pray for a right relationship with God as suggested in verses 7 and 8, was a prayer God would absolutely answer. To pray for righteousness, is within the will of God because Jesus said so. Praying for a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ means what had been impossible, abundant life in the present and eternal life with God, was now not only possible but assured.
Our kids had a high energy week of coming to know that Jesus accomplished for us what was not possible for us to do. Jesus that we could be free from sin and could enter a daily and unending life with God. We should then pay heed to Jesus’ words about how to live worth of the gift we have received. We should not treat that sacred gift and treasure by trampling it. We should seek wisdom and understanding of the gift God has given, honor it, and lift it up to others without elevating ourselves in the process. If we do so, then all things become possible through Jesus. Amen and Amen.