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11-20 - Our Journey

          This week, our nation will once again celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  We will do so through countless family gatherings in which turkey, stuffing, potatoes, squash, and pies will be consumed in great quantities.  When I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was one of four family meals in which grace was offered and wine was served, even to the kids.

          I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  So, it was easy to remember the origin of the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, as historians had attributed the day to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation.  We were taught in school that in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated with a huge feast their thankfulness to God for the provision of sufficient food.  There is some truth to tradition.  The Pilgrims did hold a large feast, lasting upwards of three days, in the fall of 1621 to celebrate the bounty of the harvest.  But the more traditional way the Pilgrims made their appeals to God known and celebrated God was through fasting not feasting.  I suspect a National Day of Fasting would not catch on very well in our country.  There was, as far as I could tell, only one such day.  That was on March 30, 1863, at the call of then President Abraham Lincoln. Since there is no money to be made in fasting, it is hard to get corporate sponsors.  And so, in some ways we have written an obituary for the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation to read simply as “Founders of the Thanksgiving Day Feast.” In some ways it would be like having my own obituary read, “He liked blueberry pie.”  I would hope there is more to the story than what we liked to eat.

          There was more to the Pilgrims than just a feast in 1621.  While we do not need to make heroes of the Pilgrims, we might see another dimension to these people that would be more profitable to us. There are two dimensions I would like us to explore today.  The first deals with the desire to know the Word of God.  And the second was to see themselves living out the Word of God.

          As to the first, coming to know the Word of God, we should understand the culture of the times for the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims lived in the late 1500’s where the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs did not exist.  The state, the king, set the religion for all the people.  That was your choice.  In England, where the Pilgrims largely came from the state religion changed at times between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal or Anglican Church.  The change occurred whenever the new king or queen so decided.  We might think of it this way.  After a presidential election in the United States, the one authorized religion of the country could change.  It might switch from Roman Catholic to Baptist to Presbyterian depending upon who was elected.

          This is the situation in which these would be Pilgrims grew up.  But in there growing up one thing distinguished this group of people.  They wanted to know God’s Word.  There was a deep desire to know what God said.  Bibles printed in English were hard to come by.  That seems strange to us because we can go online and read a couple dozen translations in English, for free.  The Pilgrims had to work hard, save money, and forgo necessities of life to buy an English language Bible.  This was the nature of these people.  They were hungry to know what God said.  They read the Bible daily.

          We, in our culture, read the Bible.  A recent survey showed that 50% of all Americans read the Bible on their own or outside of a worship service.  Yes, we are faithful in reading the Bible but there is a footnote to that 50% statistic.  Regular reading of the Bible was defined in this survey as three or four times in one year. Only about 10% of all Americans read the Bible on their own outside or outside the worship service on a daily or near daily basis.

          The truth is:

  • All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
  • Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
  • But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
  • For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The Bible, God’s instruction for our life, matters but if God’s Word remains unread, it will not impact our lives.  The Pilgrims were fond of reading the Bible and found relevance to themselves, particularly in the passages of New Testament book entitled, Hebrews.

That brings us to our second point of learning from the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims saw themselves as living out the Word of God.  Let’s look at the opening to Chapter 11 of Hebrews that had such meaning to the Pilgrims.

          Hebrews, Chapter 11, begins, “1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). Faith, to live a life in faith, is a life of confidence lived without seeing, without holding, without possessing the very thing we want the most but believing it will be ours some day. Living by faith reshapes our thinking and our expectations from having control over every element of our destiny in which we worry constantly about losing whatever we hold tightly. Instead, we depend upon promises of what has not yet been received in full.  The Apostle Paul wrote more about faith than any of the New Testament writers.  Paul offered words about faith in well over 100 different verses.  Faith, living out God’s Word, was fundamental to Paul’s existence.  Faith was an acknowledgment of what God had promised and accomplished, giving reason for confidence in the promises not yet fulfilled.

          The writer of Hebrews, many think it was Paul, continued, “3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).  “By faith,” means that while we were not witnesses to the creation of the universe nor can we prove the origin of the universe, by faith in God, we accept as truth that the world was formed at God’s command.  This simple statement means that God has always existed, God chose to create that which exists for His purposes, and God remains outside His creation.  The statement, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command,” is simple and yet foundational to our view of the world.

          We see that having that foundational level of faith is important as our journey in faith continued.  Hebrews continued, “4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he [Abel] was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his [Abel’s] offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” Hebrews 11:4).  By faith Abel brought God an offering and Abel’s offering was better than Cain’s offering.  By faith, with confidence in God’s presence and existence, Abel returned to God the best of his flock as an expression of gratitude to God.  Cain lacked faith and that lack of faith appeared as a meager offering, as though, Cain gave a “Just in case God does not exist I want to keep the best for myself, offering.”  Because of faith, Abel was judged by God as righteous because Abel was seeking God to be first in his life.  Abel lived out his life in faith that God created the universe, and that God was not just present in Abel’s life but that God was accessible to Abel.

That faith journey continued.  “5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he [Enoch] was taken, he [Enoch] was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:5-6).  Enoch had faith that living a righteous life would be rewarded by God, not in wealth and health but in continuous life with God even when life on earth was completed.  Enoch built upon the faith of Abel who believed God existed and that we could use our lives to bring honor to God for all time.

The writer of Hebrews continued with, “7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith” (Hebrews 11:7).  By faith, with confidence, Noah understood that God had limits to the sinfulness of humanity.  When that limit had been reached, Noah understood, had faith, that God would address unrepentant sin and save the righteous people.  Noah built upon the expressions of faith of Abel and Enoch acknowledging the existence of God, the accessibility of God in the present, the reward that would be given to the righteous, and the punishment of the unrighteous in their sins.

We are beginning to see that faith can be viewed as building upon the progressive relation of God.  We see next that, “8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he [Abraham] was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she [Sarah] considered him [God] faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Hebrews 11:8-12).  Abraham went where God asked him to go because Abraham had confidence that God existed, that God was trustworthy, that God was present, God was accessible, God could be pleased, God would fulfill his promises no matter how improbable they might seem, and God would lead those who are faithful into a life beyond what they could see.

The Pilgrims understood and accepted that faith came in layers and that we can be encouraged in our faith by the testimony of others.  The Pilgrims, in reading the Bible, wanted to live and experience God in the same manner as their predecessors.  The Pilgrims wanted to express their faith in the purity of the manner of the Bible and not through the commands of some churchman whether Catholic or Episcopal.  The Pilgrims saw that opportunity in America and so the Pilgrims chartered two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to carry them in faith across the ocean.  Twice the Speedwell almost sank and needed repairs.  The Pilgrims decided to take as many of their group on the Mayflower and travel alone.

The Pilgrims were acutely aware that the book of Hebrews that spoke of faith by Abel, Enoch, and Abraham also said, “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16). The Pilgrims saw that the heroes of faith never realized the ultimate satisfaction of the promised life in this lifetime.  That did not matter to the ancients of faith.  For them, to know the ultimate promise of God existed was sufficient for their faith. And so, the Pilgrims left their country of origin for a new land with its opportunity to know and live out God’s word.  The Pilgrims understood their city was not Plymouth or any other man-made system, it was ultimately to live righteously as strangers in this world and be united with God in that heavenly city.  This was the essence of knowing God’s word and living in accordance with it.  This is the legacy of the Pilgrims.

What is your legacy?  Will your legacy be like the one I joked about earlier, “He liked blueberry pie?” Or will your legacy be more like the real pilgrims?  Will our legacy, together be, that we walked in faith as strangers to the world because we sought to walk in the righteousness of God?  What will be the response to others as we gather on Thanksgiving Day? How will people respond to our presence? Will they see in us a love of God’s Word and a desire to live it out?  What is the legacy we are building on this journey?  I want to encourage all of us to examine ourselves and see where we stand on this faith journey.  We can then ask ourselves, “Am I a Pilgrim on a journey of faith?”  If not, it is not too late to jump aboard the ship and set sail anew.  Amen and Amen.

11-13 - Righteousness Completed

          We have come to our final message on this series as we have looked at Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5 through 7.  We have explored that the center of Jesus’ sermon, the central theme, was Jesus’ desire for each of his followers to understand the joy of God’s righteous and living a righteous life.  In being righteous, Jesus said we would be equipped and qualified to live at peace not just with those who love us but even with those who are adversarial towards us.  Jesus emphasized that to live rightly necessitates practicing our faith everyday through prayer, mediation on God’s word, study of God’s word, through service to others in the name of Christ.  Jesus taught us also of the need to ask, seek, and knock to acquire daily the righteousness of God so that we can then know how to treat others.

          In coming to the end of his sermon, Jesus had two final points for his disciples and us.  First, Jesus, the Messiah, said other people would come claiming to be him, the Messiah, but the false prophets would be offering a very different message.  Jesus said, “15 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-20).

          False prophets would follow Jesus.  What might be some of the traits of a false prophet? There are many traits but there are three that we should keep in mind.  First, false prophets preach that life is an easy for those who are faithful. False prophets deny that life is often hard, and they deny that the road the faithful travel is narrow.  Living the Christian life is one sense easier than other paths because we need to only listen and follow one voice, Jesus the Christ. But the Christian life can be hard because troubles in life do not disappear for the faithful.  We still experience pain, illness, and death. Being a Christian does not vaccinate us against such trouble.  The Christian life is hard too because the culture that surrounds the faithful follower of Christ is opposed to Christ.  The pressure to conform to the culture is enormous and unrelenting.  False prophets tell our children that God is a myth and that belief in God is for those who are emotionally weak or for the simpleminded.  False prophets try to undercut the need to discipleship in Christ.

Secondly, false prophets make all religions the same.  Namely, false prophets say that if there is a God, all religions lead to the same God.  This brand of false prophets claims that failing to accept the truth that all religions lead to God is the source of all wars and the loss of untold human life.  These prophets encourage believers in Jesus to adopt religious practices from other traditions to create your own truth and your own version of God.

A third hallmark of false prophets differs significantly from the first two distinctives. In the third hallmark, the false prophet claims that he or she has a unique personal relationship with God in which God has revealed secrets known only to them.  These prophets claim that through them and their continual relationship and communication with God, their followers could enjoy health and wealth now and grace for the afterlife.

          An American singer named Ray Stevens, penned a song about this type of false prophet.  He wrote and sang:

Woke up this mornin', turned on the t.v. set.
There in livin' color, was somethin' I can't forget.
This man was preachin' at me, yeah, layin' on the charm
Askin' me for twenty, with ten-thousand on his arm.
He wore designer clothes, and a big smile on his face
Sellin' me salvation while they sang Amazin' Grace.
Askin' me for money, when he had all the signs of wealth.
I almost wrote a check out, yeah, then I asked myself

 

Would He wear a pinky ring, would He drive a brand-new car?
Would His wife wear furs and diamonds, would His dressin' room have a star?
If He came back tomorrow, well there's somethin' I'd like to know
Could ya tell me, would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show.

 

Ray Steven’s song conveys the message through humor that false prophets seek to acquire from the faithful followers of Jesus respect, admiration, and mostly money.

The number of false prophets causing believers in Jesus Christ to doubt, causing others to believe that any belief system is from God, or who are able to preach and can clay on the charm seeking more and more money for themselves is frightening but their existence is not unexpected.  Jesus said most clearly, “15 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

          Ferocious wolves were something Jesus’ audience would have understood.  Raising sheep was a major industry of Jesus’ day.  For many of us, we do not understand what Jesus means when ferocious wolves attack.  We might think ferocious wolves would approach a flock and take from it a single sheep, the oldest or most feeble that could not escape the wolves.  But that is not what wolves do.  Wolves attack the whole flock all at once.  The wolves try to kill dozens of sheep in their attack either by biting and tearing at the flesh of the sheep or by causing the sheep to panic into a corner so tightly that the sheep suffocate.  News accounts abound in which just a couple of wolves killed well over 100 sheep in a single attack.

          The false prophets do the same thing to our fellow brothers and sisters.  They panic believers into running from the Lord.  They bite from our brothers and sisters’ finances until they are bled dry. We can know wolves are among us if we are walking in faith with Jesus and support one another with our collective knowledge of God’s Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We should challenge all teachings offered to the fellowship of believers to include the teachings from our pastors.  We must work together to protect each other from the false prophets that abound.

          Having concluded his teachings with the warning on false prophets, Jesus left his audience with a parable to help them understand the significance of his words of his sermon.  Jesus said, “24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27). 

          There are a couple of keys to this parable that bear our time and attention.  First, Jesus said, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine.”  We need to hear firsthand the words of Jesus Christ because Jesus is our Savior and Lord.  We need to hear Jesus’ words by reading what Jesus had said and meditating of what Jesus had to say.  Jesus’ words reflect his mind, his will, and his character.  And since Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, Jesus’ words reflect the mind, will, and character of God.  And so we must listen.

          Second, if we listen to what Jesus said then we should also do what he said.  What did Jesus say to do just in this Sermon on the Mount?  Jesus said:

  • Rejoice and be glad (5:12).
  • Let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (5:16).
  • Go and reconcile with your brother or sister (5:24).
  • Settle matters quickly with your adversary (5:25).
  • If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away (5:29).
  • Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no (5:33).
  • Do not resist the evil person but turn the other cheek (5:39).
  • Love your enemies and pray for them (5:44).
  • Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:47).
  • When you give to the needy, give in secret (6:3-4).
  • When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father (6:6).
  • Forgive your debtors (6:12).
  • Store up for yourself treasures in heaven (6:20).
  • Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink (6:25).
  • Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (6:33).
  • Do not judge (7:1).
  • Ask, seek, and knock (7:11).
  • Enter through the narrow gate (7:13).
  • Watch out for false prophets (7:15).
  • Hear my words and put them into practice (7:24).

There is more Jesus encouraged us to do but these were the expressions that were just sitting on the surface of the text.  The imperative from Jesus was “Listen quickly and act fast.”

          Why must we heed Jesus’ Words and to do so with a sense of urgency?  Jesus explained it this way.  Our life is a process of building.  As adults we begin building our lives with careers, homes, children, and grandchildren. We are all builders of one sort or another.  Knowing we are builders, Jesus said that there are two types of builders in the world. There is the wise builder and the foolish builder.  The character of the wise builder is one who follows Jesus and seeks the righteousness of God.  The wise builder incorporates and weaves God into every aspect of their life starting from the foundation, and they do not stop.

The other builder is the foolish builder.  The foolish builder is one who does not follow Jesus and is thus considered in the eyes of God to be unrighteous.  Righteousness is not a building material used in the construction of their house. 

Jesus said each builder can build a home, a life if you will.  In many ways, and on many days, the home, the life, of the wise and foolish builder even look very much alike.

          But as Jesus had said earlier in the sermon, God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.  The rain falls on the house of the wise builder and the foolish builder alike.  When the rains come, when the moments of troubles of life come to the righteous and the unrighteous, the difference between the wise and foolish builder will be apparent.  And when death comes to each builder, the differences become permanent.  For when trouble comes, when death comes to the wise builder, he or she shall be intact because the foundation of their life was in Christ.  In that moment of death, the wise builder’s life continues with God in heaven.  The fate of the other builder, the foolish builder, is far different.  This builder had no firm foundation under their life.  As a result, their home, their life, is swept away with a great crash. There is nothing to salvage.  All is lost.

          Jesus words are somber, more somber than what most pastors would use to conclude a sermon.  But Jesus was making a point that we do not want to miss.  It is not enough in life to study or know what Jesus said.  We must also do what Jesus said to do, and to do so not just because what Jesus said to do is good advice.  We do so because Jesus’ words are the life-giving words of God.

          There is much that Jesus said in his sermon on that gentle hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  The people who heard Jesus’ words were amazed and astounded by the authority with which Jesus spoke and the promises he had made.  For in Jesus’ words rests the framework for a joyful life even amid the storms that we know will pass through.  Jesus’ words equip us to live at peace with ourselves, our family, our neighbors, and even those people who struggle to live peaceful with us. Jesus’ words equip us to reconcile with others when we or they stumble. 

I am learning that knowing what Jesus said and putting it into practice brings peace to me and sense of relief.  Knowing God will forgive my shortcomings as I earnestly seek to better follow Jesus gives me comfort that no matter what, I am loved.  Knowing that my days of eternity will be spent in heaven with the company of God is such a joy in the present.

          So let us all be amazed by the words of Jesus. Let us be attentive to what Jesus said and do what Jesus asked us to do.  I think if we could do that, we would truly be glad and rejoice.  Amen and Amen.

11-06-Righteousness Received

          Sabastian Maniscalco is a comic who likes to poke fun at everyday life.  One of Sabastian’s comedy sketches describes the difference between the way we respond to an unexpected knock on the door to their home today versus 30 years ago.  Sabastian observed that 30 years ago, a knock-on door was a cause for excitement and happiness within the home.  Everyone in the family went to the door to see who had come for a visit.  Folks opened the door and hoped that it was company that they would like to welcome into our home.  There was a desire to share hospitality with the unplanned arrivals.

          Now when our doorbell rings or there is a knock on the door, everyone goes quiet in the house.  Who could that be at the door?  Folks spend effort now to see who has arrived.  A check is done on our phones and see if the doorbell captured on video who is standing on the stoop.  Folks peek out the side window to see if the person is familiar to us or if they are someone we want to receive.  This is, of course, if the house is not in a gated community or in a building that has security before anyone can reach our door.

          I make mention of this distinction because the words from Jesus we read earlier today, “7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7), are immediately at odds with much of our contemporary culture. In culture of Jesus’ day, families, villages, and tribes of people needed to work together to ensure their mutual survival.  We spoke last week about being thankful for the provision of the daily bread.  Food, gathering enough to eat, was the central task for each and every day.  Hospitality and sharing with others of your immediate family, extended family, village, tribe, and even traveler passing by was expected.  However, in our culture, virtual every household has food in a refrigerator and pantry and as many as 40% of American households have two or more refrigerators or freezers.  We live with a great deal of self-sufficiency and independence.  As a culture, we don’t expect anyone to knock on our door to asking or seeking much of anything.

          In the Gospel of Luke, we would gather some insight into the idea of dealing with the unexpected knock on the door.  Jesus told this parable, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:5-8).  A friend traveling through knocks on a neighbor’s door seeking shelter and something to eat.  The person receiving that friend had no food to offer but would not stop until he found a friend who had some to share.  In Jesus’ day, people asked, sought, and knocked to fulfill their needs.  So, Jesus words to his audience had immediate meaning.  We tend not to ask, seek, and knock these days. We tend to point and click.  We let Amazon, Grubhub, Doordash, UPS, and FedEx fulfill our needs.  Independence in life feels very empowering and is very much the hallmark of success in our culture.  But there is a downside to an independent lifestyle.  In our independence in living, we can develop a lack of reliance on God for anything.

          So, we need to step out of our culture to think through what Jesus was saying to his audience when he said, “7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).  Jesus was, of course, talking to his audience about adapting their habits of survival of the body and follow the same approach for their spiritual life by placing reliance on God to meet their spiritual needs.  Jesus was saying, “Take the mindset that you have in which you ask, seek, and knock as part of your everyday habits with each other to sustain life, and apply that mindset toward your relationship with God as you pursue righteousness from God.”  7 “Ask and keep on asking and it [God’s righteousness] will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 AMP). Jesus wanted his audience to see that seeking God’s righteousness was even more important to their lives than asking or seeking the next morsel of bread and that God alone was the source of that provision.  No matter how “good” our family is or how nice our neighbors appear to be, we cannot receive the righteousness of God from another other than God.  “6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

          Jesus’ words are strange to our culture today as we discussed because of our independence and Jesus’ words are strange because many believe they are a “Good Person,” and do not need God.  If you don’t believe that someone is a “good person,” just ask them. They will tell you.  In the Gospel of Luke, we would read Jesus’ response to the “Good Person” argument. “18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, ‘Good Teacher [You who are essentially and morally good], what shall I do to inherit eternal life [that is, eternal salvation in the Messiah’s kingdom]?’ 19 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is [essentially and morally] good except God alone’” (Luke 18:18-19). Since God alone is good, then for us to be good in any sense, we must ask, seek, and knock for that goodness from God alone.

          This is why Jesus told his audience on the hillside, 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 was not talking here about getting anything or everything from God.  Jesus was talking about being filled with the righteousness from the kingdom of God.

          To illustrate to his audience the wisdom and generosity of God, Jesus offered this illustration.  “9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil [sinful by nature], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

          Jesus was saying to his listeners, “You are sinful by nature but not so sinful that when your children are hungry and ask for food you will give them stones to eat.  You know enough to give your children bread or fish to satisfy their hunger.  If sinful people know that, how much more will God, who alone is good, give good gifts to those who seek him?”  Jesus had promised earlier in the sermon, “6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

          God is prepared to give good gifts to those who seek his righteousness and his kingdom in the now.  What might those gifts include?

God gives salvation, the forgiveness of sin, and the promise of eternal life.  Moreover, we learn in the book of James that, “5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:5-6).  So, God is prepared to give us pure wisdom.  God gives us “the fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). These are just some of the good gifts that are available to us from God, but we must ask, seek, and knock.

          Asking for, seeking out, and knocking to access the good gifts of God makes us more like Christ.  Having the grace and wisdom of Christ, we are then able and qualified to share the good news of what we have received, how we received it, and from whom we received it.  This is what Jesus was emphasizing to his audience.

          Jesus then concluded this part of his sermon with these words, “12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). As children we were taught to refer to Jesus words here as the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” 

The Golden Rule has existed in many different expressions throughout history.  In ancient Egypt, the rule was, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another."  In India, the rule was, “Do not do to others what you know has hurt yourself.”  In ancient Greece, the rule went like this, “"What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either.”  In ancient Rome, the rule was, “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you."

          But there is a problem with the Golden Rule as we were taught it as a child or as developed in other cultures, ancient and modern.  The abbreviated version of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount we were taught, “Do onto others as you would have them do to you,” and the other versions all make the individual taking the action the sole determiner of what is good or not hurtful.  Nowhere is God found in the Golden Rule regardless of its form or origin.  Jesus never said we should determine what should be done.  Jesus never said anything like that, in fact, Jesus said the opposite.

          Jesus made his statement after encouraging and commanding his disciples to seek an understanding of goodness and righteousness from God alone.  With the wisdom and righteousness of God, Jesus followers could then know the perfect will of God.  Knowing then the perfect will of God, Jesus’ disciples were equipped to do onto others as you would have them do to you [as though they also knew the perfect will of God.] In this form of the Golden Rule, the actor is not the determiner of what should be done.  Instead, God determines what is good.

          To emphasize the point that God determines what is right and good, Jesus said in full, “12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  To do what God desires means that the actor has fulfilled the entirety of the ethical behaviors of the Old Testament.  Jesus had said a bit earlier in this sermon, 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  Jesus came to fulfill the promises of God’s Messiah and to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in their ethical treatment of others.  Jesus, God in the flesh, was the actor in treating others in the true righteousness of God.  Jesus is rich in the wisdom and grace of God and thoroughly able to exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit with “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22) was showing and treating people with the grace of God.

          The Golden Rule as it is taught to children and sold on various forms of merchandise is nice but it is incomplete because as presented it eliminates God from the equation.  That was never Jesus’ intent nor is it a viable way for the followers of Jesus to live.

          In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would teach his disciples and us something about the righteousness of God that would go far beyond what any follower could ever do.  Then, one evening, years later, Jesus showed what God’s righteousness looked like in full bloom.  Just before Jesus was arrested, Jesus took bread, and he blessed the bread.  Jesus gave that bread to his friends and said, “I want you to take this bread and eat it because the bread is my body.”  The disciples were hungry for righteousness and Jesus wanted to fill them as had been promised.  So, Jesus gave them the bread as a reminder that their desire for righteousness, their hunger, could be satisfied by taking in all Jesus ever said and did.  Jesus was fulfilling the sum of the Law and the Prophets by blessing those who hungered for righteousness.  In a similar manner, Jesus took the cup of wine and blessed it.  He gave the cup to his disciples who were thirsty for righteousness.  Jesus quenched their thirst with his own life-giving blood.  Jesus did things for his disciples that we would never do for others.  Jesus did these things as a way of expressing the depth, breadth, width, and height of God’s love.

          In a moment, we can participate in Jesus’ gift of the bread and the cup.  But to participate, we must be humble of enough to ask, to seek, and knock upon the door to Christ.  If we do, we will receive good gifts from the good God through our savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.  Do not feel like a stranger to God.  He is home and will be excited to hear you knock on His door.  Let us pray.        

 

10-30-Righteousness in Practices

          How do we spend our time?  What is it in life that consistently, daily, occupies our minds and hearts?  The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics asked such questions in a 2021 survey of Americans.  In that survey, the statistics of an average Americans were also compared against the average for those who actually participate in a particular activity.  For example, when it comes something like sleeping, the average American sleeps 8 hours out of every 24 hours.  The participation rate in sleeping is 100%.  Everyone in America sleeps at some point, even if it is less than the average of 8 hours.  Let’s look at another example, when it comes to working, the average American works about 3½ hours per day.  But not every American works.  In fact, only 43% of all Americans participate in work.  We all participate in sleep but only 43% participate in work.  Now, of those Americans who do work, the average workday is not surprisingly 8 hours long.

          Let’s consider how time Americans spend on religious and spiritual activities per day.  The statistics there suggest that the average American spend 0.11 hours per day on religious activities.  That is about 6½ minutes per day.  But only 8% of all Americans participate in religious or spiritual activities every day.  Eight percent (8%) of Americans have a daily practice of participating in the continuation or development their religious or spiritual life.  A great many more people attend a weekly church service and then do not participate in any religious or spiritual development after the service concludes.

          Here is the good news.  Since you are here or you are listening online to this sermon, you on this day can become part of the 8%.  It does not matter if you have not been in church for a long time or not.  The past is the past.  Today you are part of the 8%.  The hope for each of us is that tomorrow and each subsequent day, we will remain part of the 8% who daily participate in our faith journey by praying, reading the Bible, reading devotions, listening to Christian music, playing Christian music, singing Christian music, reaching out in the name of Christ, writing cards of encouragement, and the list goes on.  Faith is a daily exercise.  Faith has never been about convenience or occasion.  A few minutes ago, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and we said, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We are praying for and seeking God’s provision daily. We did not pray, “Give us this day our weekly bread.”  Faith is daily.

          Faith is a continual step by step lifestyle.  And through that daily faith journey we are fortunate people who get to enjoy and experience the presence of God daily.  We know that faith is a daily exercise and that we are fortunate people through Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount.  We have been studying these words for a few weeks now.  The core of the message from Jesus’ sermon was coming to understand what it means to live a life based upon living daily through the righteousness of God.  Jesus said when we empty ourselves and make ourselves hungry and thirsty for righteousness, God will fill us.  Here is the thing though.  We know our bodies hunger and thirst for food and water.  And so we eat and drink to satisfy that physical hunger and thirst. Then, some time later we are hungry and thirst again for food and water.  The same is true for living in the righteousness of God.  When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, God fills us but as we live out our life, we are depleted.  We need to be refreshed and refilled by God on continuous basis.  While we are saved once we need a constant refreshment of righteousness.

          Because we need to be continually refilled, Jesus said we need to do some very specific practical things.  Jesus began with praying.

          Matthew recorded Jesus’ words on prayer beginning this way.  5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).  Jesus told his listeners to pray for their needs but to do so in a private, non-showy way, and with sincerity, simplicity, and brevity. Jesus was telling his listeners make your petition direct to God and ask him for what you need the most.  In righteousness, express to God what you need from him.

          Jesus was challenging listeners to avoid appearing like the pagans or those who are insincere in their prayers.  Insincerity and rote repetition in prayer had been a problem in Israel and it remains one today in our own Christian circles.  In the book of Isaiah, we would read a critique of the Hebrew prayer life and religious practices centuries before Jesus.  God said to Isaiah, 1“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.  Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).  That is not a good opening line for Isaiah’s listeners to hear God express.  God was upset and wanted all of Israel to know it. But what was God upset about? God, through Isaiah said, “2 For day after day they [Israel] seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.  They [Israel] ask me [God] for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them” (Isaiah 58:2).  God was expressing here that the prayers life of Israel was formal but insincere.  There were the motions of prayer and the appearance of wanting God but in their hearts, they had no real desire for God, on God’s terms, to come near.  Jesus said don’t be like the hypocrites who act formally in public like they want God but do not live as though they want God. Instead, Jesus was saying, in desiring righteousness, seek God privately with sincerity, simplicity, and brevity and seek him like you really want him.

          To show his listeners how to speak to God, Jesus gave an example, a model of how we should pray.  9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’” (Matthew 5:9-13).

          The prayer Jesus offered was sincere, simple, and brief.  It was interesting that Jesus began with the word, “Our,” and not the word, “My.”  If I prayed, “My Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” that might be just fine, but it suggests that I am on my own with God.  But when I pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” whether I say it with other people or I say it alone, the word “Our” reminds me that I am not alone.  I am part of the body of believers.  And that together, we can all enjoy the presence of God.  That is one of the great things about being part of the 8%.  We are reminded daily that we are not alone and that together we can enjoy the presence of God.

          Beginning with the words, “Our Father in heaven,” Jesus encouraged his listeners to acknowledge God is over all things and that God’s name, everything God stood for, is holy and set apart.  God is hallowed, meaning God is incorruptible and unblemished.  Secondly, the prayer sincerely asks that God to draw near, so near, that all the kingdoms of earth would be conformed to the likeness of the kingdom on heaven in which God’s word is absolute.  But until that happens, we give thanks for God’s daily provision for our life.  Until the day all earthly life and heavenly life is indistinguishable, we pray that God refreshes us in righteousness by forgiving, by treating others, as God has treated us, with forgiveness and mercy.  Until we are no longer tempted by sin, we pray that God keeps us from sin and shows us the way out of sin so that we are never found to be corrupted.

The Lord’s Prayer is a model of prayer.  We can use the exact words Jesus used or we could say similar words if we wanted to do so.  But whatever we do, we want our words of prayer to reflect sincerity, simplicity, and brevity and a genuine desire to be in the presence of God.  This is the idea of prayer.

          Coupled closely with the words of prayer is the act of fasting.  Fasting is the voluntary abstinence of food for a period to be humble before God and to seek God’s presence.  Fasting, like prayer, had been a problem in Israel.  From Isaiah Chapter 58 again, we see the fasting scene in Israel played out from God’s perspective.

          Isaiah began with God’s view of the voice of Israel, 3 ‘Why have we [the Israelites] fasted,’ they say, ‘and you [God] have not seen it?  Why have we [the Israelites] humbled ourselves, and you [God] have not noticed?’” (Isaiah 58:3a).  The Israelites were complaining, “God we fasted as an expression of our religious practices but you, God, don’t seem to notice.  God, if you are not going to notice, why should we fast?”

          God offered his response to Israel’s lament this way.  “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. [They were hangry].  You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4).  The Jews were forgoing food and saying, “God, why haven’t you done what we wanted?”  But the truth was the day of fast was not spent with God, it was spent at work. The day of fast was not spent being refreshed in righteousness, it was spent in fist fights and bitter words.

          God said, ““Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).  Fasting was supposed to break down the formation of barriers, refill people with God’s righteousness, develop a sense of joy in being in the presence of God, and to help people become more merciful, like God, not more warlike.

          Apparently, fasting among Jesus’ disciples and the crowd behind them had become problematic, rote, and insincere.  Jesus said to them, “16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 5:16-18).  Fasting, like prayer, Jesus said must be a positive experience done to improve the relationship between the individual and God. It was not to be done for theatrical purposes or notice and the applause of others.  The fast, the voluntary creation of hunger, was to serve as a reminder to be filled with the righteousness of God.

          In two different and related ways, prayer and fasting, Jesus had addressed to his disciples and the crowd behind them that a continuous filling and renewal of God’s righteousness was available and necessary.  But the behaviors to have such renewal must be genuine and sincere.

          What can we learn from Jesus words here?  Today, we are part of the 8% of Americans who are enjoying the presence of God daily. We are active and alive in worship, song, and hearing the word the God.  We are acknowledging that God is over all things and that we desire his forgiveness, and we desire the grace to forgive others.  We are part of the body of believers.  All these things make for a wonderful day.  All of these things make us want to come back next Sunday and do it again.

          But…what about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?  Jesus was saying, “Do not give up these days as well to enjoy the presence of God.  Do not give up these days to be refilled and refreshed in and with the righteousness of God. Pray.  Fast.  Read the Bible.  Engage in Bible study with someone or some group.  Worship.  Work through a devotional.  Journal about how you are experiencing God.  Serve in and through the body of Christ to others who are struggling.  Sing songs of praise to God.  Meditate on God’s Word.  Be fed daily by the presence of God.

          Everyone here is on the right road and the right path to be part of that 8% who enjoy the presence of God daily.  We all have a perfect track record for this week.  Let’s keep it up.  Amen and Amen.

10-23-Righteousness Expressed in Mercy

          We began our series on the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago with the postscript to Jesus’ sermon provided by our gospel writer, Matthew, who said, “28 When Jesus had finished saying these things [finished the Sermon on the Mount], the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he [Jesus] taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).  Jesus amazed and astonished the disciples and the crowd.  Jesus’ words carried such power that people’s minds and hearts were being changed.  The hardness and the self-serving nature with which they were born and developed through living an unforgiving world was changing.  Jesus was breaking their hearts not with sorrow, as happens in grief. Instead, Jesus was breaking the hardness and indifference surrounding their hearts so that the love of God could be felt and experienced.  Jesus is still breaking the crust surrounding hearts and mending the brokenhearted.  It is a beautiful thing to witness the hardness surrounding a heart being broken and a broken heart being mended.  That is the delicate power of the amazing and astounding Savior and Lord who is here among us today.

          Jesus amazed and astounded his listeners because they heard of the possibility and promise of being in God’s presence in the now and for eternity.  You know, too often in life people narrow each others possibilities. Too often ask one another, “Do you want this, or do you want that?”  Life choices are presented as an either/or option, “this or that.”  Jesus was offering the “and both” option.  I like “and both” options in life.  Jesus was asking his listeners, “Do you want to have God’s presence both now and for eternity?”  For those listening, Jesus’ words of possibility and promise were startling.  Many of Jesus’ listeners thought God would only bless people in the present, in mortal life.  When life was over, many believed that there was just a shadowy eternal existence separated from God.  That was their either-or view, God now and then never after death.  Today, I suspect many people think they live in a shadowy existence without God and hope that there is a better life after death with God. That is today’s either-or view, a reversal of the view in Jesus’ day.  Jesus said both views are missing the true joy of having God now and for eternity. That was and is astounding news.

          Jesus had begun his sermon of possibility and promise with the list of blessings, expressing the fortune that awaited those who walked the path he had come to walk.  Of that path, Jesus said the fortunate people, the blessed people, would have both blessing now and the future.  We might read that list of blessing this way, “The fortunate people will have the kingdom of heaven (future), they will be comforted (now), they will inherit the earth (future), they will be filled (now), they will be shown mercy (now and future), they will see God (future), they will be called children of God (now), and theirs is the kingdom of heaven (future).  I am sure there are other ways to construct the list, but the point is Jesus was talking about God in the present and for eternity, the “and both” option.

          Having set in the minds of his listeners a view of God now and the future, Jesus wanted his listeners to see that they could live their lives in the now very different.  And Jesus began to explain that difference beginning again with something the people knew. Jesus said, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’” (Matthew 5:38).  Jesus was quoting the Mosaic Law that established rules for compensation for damages incurred in life.  The Law was established primarily to prevent excessive retaliation from occurring.  If someone knocked out your tooth, you had the right for compensation equal to but no more than your own loss.  For the loss of your tooth, you could demand something of as valuable as a tooth such as a tooth.  You could not demand someone lose an eye or hand or their life because they caused you to lose a tooth.  The law was there to limit excessive retaliation.

          Now in on this hillside, Jesus was sharing with his listeners a new life with the righteousness of God within them now and forever.  Jesus said, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ [That is the known] 39 But I tell you, [This is the unknown] do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, [instead of slapping their right cheek] turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, [instead of countersuing or arguing over a trifle of life] hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, [instead of complaining about it and threatening to get even] go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:38-41).  These words from Jesus were intended to show how God treated them.  God treated them with tenderness and in  a hope of breaking the hardness of hearts.  For in the economy of God, the wages of sin is death.  Sin is a slap in the face to God.  So under the Mosaic principle of an eye for an eye, God was entitled, had the right to the wages of sin and take life for sin.  But righteousness expressed through mercy was being displayed by God, not assertion of rights or retaliation.  Jesus wanted his followers to treat others the way God treated them.

          In a very small way, I saw the essence of this standard of turning the other cheek played out in of all places at the end of a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Now going to the DMV never seems to bring out the best in people.  On this day, I arrived to get in that long line at the same time as two other gentlemen. I think each of us had equal claim as to who was there first and should be next to enter the end of that long line. I dropped out of the competition very quickly and decided to take the last position.  The pending competition was just not worth it to me.  The other two gentlemen were not going to budge for the apparently coveted next to join the line position, and soon words started between them as to who was entitled to that next spot.  Tempers flared, swear words exchanged, and for a moment I thought fists were going fly.  After a moment, one of the two men, we will call him Bruce, pushed his way ahead of the other man, we will call him John.  Bruce was adamant he was going to be ahead of John no matter what.  John was angry but seemed to accept that Bruce was going ahead of him.  A few minutes later, I looked down at the floor and noticed that Bruce had dropped his license.  I thought for a moment, I wonder how Bruce is going to react when he finally gets to the clerk at the DMV window and discovers he does not have his license.  I quietly picked up Bruce’s license from the floor.  What to do? I cannot say why, but I felt I should not return Bruce’s license to him.  Instead, I got John’s attention and gave Bruce’s license to John.  It was a risky move.  John looked at the license for a moment and chuckled.  Then John tapped Bruce on the shoulder and handed Bruce the license and said, “Here, you dropped your license.”  Bruce looked at the license for a moment and then must have realized that John, instead of retaliating against Bruce, extended kindness to him.  Bruce thanked John and then offered John to go ahead of him.  It is a beautiful thing to see a hardened heart break, even just a little bit at the DMV.

          Jesus’ words meant that with God in your life now and forever, with His righteousness, with God’s own example, hurt and harm can be met with generosity and grace.  For actions expressing mercy from righteousness, lead to the conviction of the other’s unrighteousness and sets the conditions for reconciliation.  “Do not resist the evil person by exercising your right to retaliation, instead, allow the Holy Spirit of God working through you to overwhelm them with grace and break the hardening around their heart as well.  Be an instrument of God’s blessing.”  In short, show the grace you have received from God by extending mercy and grace to others.

          Jesus had given his listeners some very specific examples of withholding their rights to retaliation and giving grace.  Jesus then went a step further and said, “43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

          I can well imagine Jesus’ listeners began to murmur among themselves.  “Did he just say love our enemies?  Does he seriously want us to love the Romans, the tax collectors, and the pagans?”  There is ample historical evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ audience hated the Romans for conquering their lands.  The Jews hated other Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans.  The Jews hated the pagans and their disgusting habits. But it was hard to argue with Jesus’ words.  God did, indeed, causes the sun to rise on the good people and on those who were evil. God did, indeed, allow the rain to fall upon the crops of the good people and upon the crops of the evil. God was gracious toward all. Jesus had said, “9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Now Jesus said again, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44b-45a).

          These are some of Jesus’ most challenging words.  To withhold retaliation from someone who slapped you is one thing.  You could walk away holding your anger within and hatred from such encounters.  But now Jesus wanted his followers to proactively respond to their enemies with love and prayers made on their behalf.  Jesus was pointing out that God had not given up on those who were his enemies. God provided for their needs as an expression of his desire for a right relationship with them.  God has not given up because he is perfect.  Jesus said do not be “half perfect” by loving only those who love you back.  Follow God’s example and be righteous towards all.

          As I said, these are some of Jesus’ most challenging words.  Love your enemies and pray for them.  Let’s think about Jesus’ words this way for a moment beginning with prayer. What does it mean to pray?  What is prayer?  A prayer is a request we make to God, sometimes on our own behalf and other times on behalf of someone else.  Although it may seem as though there is great variation in our prayers, the foundation of every prayer we make is for peace.  When we pray for someone’s health we are asking for the restoration of peace within their body.  When we pray for someone who is depressed, we are asking for the restoration of peace within their mind.  When we pray for someone experiencing a difficult family situation, we are asking for peace with family relationships.  When we pray to God, we are giving our concern for that person to God and asking God to give that person peace in the manner and timing of God’s will. To lift someone up in prayer and ask God to grant them peace, in whatever form our prayer is offered, causes us to think differently about that person.  We are beginning to express concern, care, and compassion for that person, all of which are necessary for us to come to love them.  Love your enemies and pray for them.  It is life changing for you and your enemy when we begin to pray for their peace because it cracks the hardness surrounding our own heart.

          Before we close on Jesus’ thoughts today, I want to briefly add Jesus’ words that follow these but are found in Chapter 6 of Matthew.  I think they belong with the subject of expressing righteousness through mercy. Jesus said, “1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  As we discussed last week, righteousness shapes our motives. Here, Jesus was cautioning his listeners not to express mercy to those who had slapped you and those who are your enemies and then crow about it.  “Look at me and what I did.  That man right there slapped me on the right cheek, and I offered the left and God convicted him in his heart.  And then there was this guy who was such a miserable person toward me.  I prayed for him, and God gave him peace because I asked.” To brag to others Jesus said, would reveal personal motives for the praise of other people and the blessings God had promised would disappear because the applause of others was what was sought and received.

          So what do we do with Jesus challenging words, words that caused his listeners to be astounded.  I think there are three things for us to consider.

          First, everything Jesus said begins with a hardened heart that has been broken.  Righteousness from God cracks the hardness that can, will, and does surround our hearts.  When that hardness is cracked, we are then able to feel the movement of our personal relationship with God.  We need to let God crack the hardness that surrounds our own hearts.  I can assure you it is a beautiful thing to behold.

          Second, Jesus called us to let the Holy Spirit be the instrument through which He can crack the hardness of others.  When people can see God’s love working through you, someone they can see, hear, and feel, God’s love becomes real and becomes an experience they can hold onto. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to flow through us the more perfected our relationship and understanding of God becomes.  The more we allow God to shine through us, the more we come to realize how much grace God has extended to us.  When we realize that, more of the hardness surrounding our own heart is broken and removed.

          Third, Jesus called us to be light on the hill and let our light shine before others and Jesus then said be careful not to crow about what you have done.  There is no conflict in those commands.  We are to let the light of God shine through us to another person, but we are not then to brag about what we have done to our friends and family. Shine and let God have the glory.

          It is a beautiful thing to witness the hardness surrounding a heart being broken.  Let us then go forward enabled by the Holy Spirit to be an instrument of God that allows others to feel the love and peace God is offering as freely to all as He does the rain.  Amen and Amen.

10-16-Righteousness & Faithfulness

          A church worship service, like the one we are experiencing, is a phenomenon, a remarkable thing.  Once a week, across the land, millions of people come together, and they assemble in buildings that none of them personally own, even though many of them have keys to those buildings.  Once inside, they greet as friend those they know and those who they never have met.  The people gather in a room that is set aside for a specific use, often that room is used only once a week.  Once together, someone begins to lead the group with announcements about what has happened, is happening, and will be happening.  Not too many people listen to that part of the service.  Then the group rises and prays in one voice to God.  You would never see that sort of thing in a local shopping mall.  After the prayer, musicians start playing the instruments and the people begin to sing. In some places, the words being sung a quite old, like seraphim and cherubim.  Those words only get said one time.  In other places the words sung by the group are everyday words, like love, soul, and praise.  Those words are repeated in the song, seemingly without end.  Then after singing, someone gives a sermon, a message, or a homily. Sometimes those speaking do so for 10 minutes, and others go for an hour or more.  Sometimes the speaker’s words leave the people feeling encouraged, or challenged, or deflated, perhaps on occasion terrified, and sometimes the people are left bored.  After the speaker goes silent, the people sing a couple more songs and then leave to resume their normal activities of life until the next Sunday when the people gather again to repeat the phenomenon.

          Why do the people participate in this phenomenon? What are the people’s motives in participating?  Perhaps you have not thought about this question before or for a while.  I thought I might share my answer to these questions.

When I was a kid in the Catholic Church, my family participated in the phenomenon, frankly, because we were afraid not to do so.  We feared being sent to hell for not at least attending.  Fear of going to hell was the same reason we ate fish on Fridays.  Our motives were self-serving based on fear. 

In my late 20’s, my motives for going participating in the phenomenon we call a church service changed.  I participated not out of fear.  I participated, again frankly, because I was asked to attend by the woman I was dating. That woman later became my wife. Once church with her, my motives for participating soon changed again.  At church, I came to realize that something, someone, was missing in my life, namely Jesus Christ.  I did not know in any real way who Jesus was and what he had done for me. I was someone who knew him not.  As I got to know Christ, I gave my life back to him, and my motives for church changed again.  I continued to attend because I wanted to remain close to Christ and to his living body in this world, the church.  For in this fellowship with Christ and his followers, there is closeness to God, there is opportunity to reform my behaviors to become more like Christ, there is an opportunity to serve others, and an opportunity to be encouraged in times of trouble.  I guess my motives still sound self-serving, so I suspect God has some more refining to do with me.

Our motives in life matter because motives reveal much about our inner life, our thinking, and our heart.  I have given my testimony as to the changing motives I have experienced in life for participating in the phenomenon of weekly church services.  There are other motives that play heavily in our life. Consider for a moment our motives for sinning.  Say what? When we sin, we comfort ourselves with the motives that caused us to sin.  Motives console us.  We justify ourselves by conditions that preceded the sin.  Consider a childhood example.  “It is not my fault!  He hit me first!  I was just defending myself when I hit him in the nose!”  The child was saying, “I would not have sinned had he not hit me first.” We are comforted with our motives for sinning, in that example, someone else’s prior behavior caused me to sin.  We learned that sort of answer from the Bible. Consider when God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Genesis 3:11).  Adam answered, ““The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12).  Adam was saying, “If you had not given me that woman and had she not given me that fruit, I would not have sinned.”  We always seek motives for sin.

Our motives, whether for positive activities in life or negative behaviors, are important to us even if we do not think about our motivations. Our Scripture reading today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about having our motives shaped by righteousness.

          Jesus began teaching his disciples and the crowd behind them about motives again by citing something that the people knew.  Jesus said, “27 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” (Matthew 5:27).  That is number 7 on God’s top 10 list of commandments.  The command is very straightforward.  Sexual relations are to remain between a married couple.  The people Jesus was speaking to understood that.  That was the known part of the discussion.  Jesus then said, “28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).  You can almost sense a little stirring in the audience and a bit of body shifting going on as people began to think about the implications of Jesus’ words.

Jesus’ point was that righteousness expressed in marriage is to be motivated by a faithfulness.  To be faithful to a spouse is a very human way to see, experience, and model the faithfulness between God and his people.  In the Old Testament, adultery was often used to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. There is some hint in Jesus’ words about faithfulness coming from righteousness found in the first of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shall have no other God’s before Me.”  In the New Testament, Jesus is often described as the bridegroom and the church his bride.  So to look at other women and dream about sexual relationships with them, is a break in the motivation of human faithfulness and a break in the model of faithfulness to God, and it is in some ways a form of idolatry.  Faithfulness then comes from righteousness in which the person is motivated by a pure heart.  Jesus had just told his audience, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity in heart, purity in motives guided by righteousness is the avenue to God.

You can almost hear the wheels turning in the minds of his disciples as they thought about this situation of faithfulness to their spouse while perhaps in the company of other women who they found attractive.  As those wheels turned, Jesus added these words, “31 Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).  Jesus’ words meant, “Guys, if you do find yourself attracted to woman other than your wife, do not think you can divorce your wife and be free to pursue a new wife and therefore be innocent of lust!  For if you did that, your motives would not only be an expression of unfaithfulness, but your motives would be the cause of many to sin by being wrapped up in adulterous relationships.”

Faithfulness is a motive fueled by righteousness.  Faithfulness in marriage is an expression of our human capacity to maintain a faithful spiritual relationship with God.  This thought is presented to the church this way, “11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).  Our motives matter.

Jesus then continued to express the matter of motives more broadly and applicable to everyone whether single or married. Jesus again started with what the people knew so that he could share with them what they did not know but needed to know.  “33 Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ [That is the known.]  34 But I say to you, [This is the unknown.]  do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).

The issue Jesus was taking on was righteousness in our motivations for speaking and giving testimony.  Here too, there are some hints about commandment 9 of 10, “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ and commandment 3 of 10, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.”  Let’s look at this just a bit.

First, Jesus said that people were not to take an oath by those things that are of God.  Do not swear by heaven for that is God’s dwelling place.  Do not swear by earth for that is God’s creation.  Do not swear by Jerusalem for that is God’s city.  Oaths based upon God and what is his are all ways of taking the Lord’s name in vain, using God’s name in a useless and non-worshipful manner.  Then Jesus added, and don’t also do something ridiculous by swearing upon your own head because you are not your own creation.  You cannot, on your own, change the color of even one hair, but God can.  So do not swear upon your head as though you have some power like that of God.  Jesus’ point was do not use the Lord’s name in vain to prove that you are not being false witness.  Righteousness will never demand that you break one commandment to prove you are keeping another.

In my prior occupation with the federal government, I interviewed hundreds of people for various reasons.  Sometimes it was to collect information.  Other times it was to confront someone who had been suspected of engaging in unauthorized or illegal activities.  When I interviewed the latter group, those who it was believed had been engaged in wrongdoing, I always knew we were getting closer to the truth when the individual I was interviewing spontaneously took an oath in the interview. Let me give you an example.  When asked directly about the alleged wrongdoing, the person would say, “I swear to you, on my mother’s grave, or on my children’s life, or as God is my witness, that I did not do it.”  Almost without exception, we would later determine that the behavior being denied under that spontaneous oath did, in fact, happen. Why was there such a correlation between the use of an oath and the commission of a lie?  Because an oath is perceived as a bit of sacredness.  Using the sacredness of your children or God to encapsulates a lie causing the hearer to not want break what is sacred to examine the words within.  Jesus was saying righteousness, not some made up or spontaneous oaths, must shape our motives for our testimony.

Secondly, Jesus said, “Let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” Well, what does that mean?  Think of it this way.  Why might we take an oath?  We might take an oath when we go to court where a court officer may ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”  And as a witness, we would be expected to answer, “I do.”  The idea behind an oath is that from the moment someone takes an oath, until they have completed their testimony, their words will be and must be the truth.  The implication is that prior to taking the oath or after giving testimony, telling the truth is optional.  There is a hope that we and others would tell the truth but there is no requirement to tell the truth and no penalty for lying.

Jesus was saying in righteousness, with a purity of heart, you must always speak the truth by saying “Yes” for “Yes” and “No” for “No.”  If you always tell the truth, then there is no reason or cause for you to take an oath.

Lying, with its many motives, is a widespread concern in our country. Studies have shown that nearly 96% of American adults admitted to lying about something either as a kid or as an adult. I think the remaining 4% lied in the survey!  In one survey, 40% of those surveyed admitted to having lied within the past 24 hours.

I teach a ten-week class in Christian Ethics.  One of those weeks we look at the Christian life and lying.  There are some Christian writers who argue that as a Christian is permitted if one of three things is true.  The lie is for a good cause.  Or the lie arose out of necessity.  Or the lie was “medicinal,” meaning the lie is necessary to correct a larger problem.  Do you see how motives can lead us to do what we think is noble even if we must break a commandment or two to be so noble.

The ancient theologian, Augustine, had a very different view about lying. Augustine said, “God is the Father of the Truth, and His Son communicated the Word of Truth.  Lying, regardless of the motivation, stands opposed to the truth.” Therefore, Augustine said, “to lie is to abandon God.”

I think Augustine was on the right track.  God is Truth and so to is His Son.  Jesus said simply, let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.”  Just tell the truth.  Lying makes for a bad witness to unbelievers.

Jesus confronted his audience with a known commandment of God, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” which is the seventh of the ten commandments.  From that opening, Jesus revealed to his audience and to us that at is core, adultery involved deception, lying, and unfaithfulness not just toward the spouse but toward God.  Righteousness whether for married or single people requires that there be no mixed allegiances.  We must be faithful to God for He is faithful to us.  We must not be adulterous in our relationships with others for those relationships model the intimate faithful relationship God desires with each person.  We must not be deceptive or lying in our words or make others believe our words are true by stating them with an oath. Instead, we must be faithful and true in our words, always.  We must let righteousness shape our motives so that we are pure.  We must not break one commandment to prove our faithfulness to another one.

Jesus came as the truth, and the life, and the way.  Jesus came to forgive my sin and not to endorse my motives for sinning.  Jesus came as the righteousness of God that I am be filled with Him and be righteous as He is righteous with pure motives in my heart.  Let us be pure of heart and motives following Jesus’ words and example. Amen and Amen.

10-09 - Righteousness in Real Life

          I want to begin by thanking you for being here and continuing with the challenging words we have been experiencing in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  This is our third week examining the confrontational nature of Jesus’ sermon but with are coming to see that Jesus’ confronts not with accusation but with awe because Jesus reveals the nature of God and the way we were meant to be.

          As we continue today with Gospel of Matthew, we find that the editors of our Bibles have inserted a title to the opening of Jesus’ sermon calling it “The Beatitudes.”  I do not like titles in the Bible.  In general, I think they inhibit our understanding of what was said because we are more apt and able to remember the title of book or passage than we can remember its content.  The title, “The Beatitudes,” was never clear to me anyways because as a kid whenever I heard the phrase, “The Beatitudes,” I thought the person was saying, “The Be Attitudes,” as though one should “be” this way and not that way.  The English word, “Beatitudes,” comes from the Latin word “beatitudos,” because in the Latin Bible each of Jesus sayings begins with the Latin word, “beati,” which became in English “blessed.”  Now the Latin word, ‘beati,” was a translation from the original Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew which was, “markarious” (ma’ car e os).  Markarious was not a religious word, but was a word used to convey a fortunate person.  So, in the opening words to Jesus Sermon on the Mount, we might read them as, “Fortunate people are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Fortunate people are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Fortunate people are those who are meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3-5, paraphrased).

          In Jesus’ eyes, we are fortunate when we have emptied ourselves of pridefulness and then filled ourselves or allowed ourselves to be filled with the righteousness of God.  Last week, Jesus shocked his audience and said that “20 I tell you that unless your righteousness (unless that Godly filling) surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

          Righteousness, that state of being restored by God to the way we ought to be, to the way we were created by God, is at the heart of Jesus’ sermon. For when we have been filled with righteousness from God, then we are truly fortunate people.

          Having set that there is a relationship between righteousness and being fortunate in God’s eyes, Jesus turned his attention toward teaching how righteousness plays itself out in real life, with real people, and real circumstances. We need that sort of teaching from Jesus because, as has been said by others, we don’t want to be so heavenly focused that we are no earthly good.  Fortunate people must live out their earthly lives in the human community.

          With that notion in mind, Jesus moved his sermon forward with these words found in Matthew, Chapter 5, “You have heard it said…”  Jesus used this expression much in the same way we might say, “I know you have heard this before…”  In using such expressions, the speaker is acknowledging what the listener already knows and has been taught in the past.  Jesus began this part of his sermon with acknowledging what was known to his audience about the prescriptive nature of the Law and the commandments. Jesus did so because Jesus wanted to take his audience from what they knew to what they did not know, which was how is the righteousness of God lived out in real life situations.

          Jesus said, “21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ [That is the known] 22 But [here comes the unknown] I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).  Jesus was saying, “I know you have been taught that you shall not murder, that is number six of the top ten list of commandments, ‘Thou shall not murder.’” You know that Jesus said then came my favorite theological word, “but.”  This is an important word because that word signals the unknown thing that must be known is coming.  “22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [Stupid! Idiot! Dummy! Moron!] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).  Jesus was not abolishing the law but instead was enlightening his audience and us that righteousness in the kingdom of heaven demands that we neither murder a person’s body not their reputation.  Righteousness lived out means that we do not choose to be angry toward another person, because anger is a choice, and we do not choose to have contempt for another person.  There are two ways we should consider Jesus’ teaching here. 

First, I think is the most obvious.  We shall not kill outright, that’s murder of the body, nor are we to kill someone softly, that is murder of their reputation or spirit.  To kill outright is to take someone’s life.  As Jesus said, “You have heard that said to people long ago.”  To kill softly is to abuse another person. When we abuse another person, we kill them, only we do it softly, often without injury to their body itself. Abuse can be done physical, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, and spiritually.  If you have been abused or if you have a friend or family member who has been abused, you know what it means to be killed softly.  The body may not have died but permanent damage to the spirit has been done.  And so, Jesus was saying any form of abuse violates the righteousness underpinning the commandment not to kill and such behavior must not be found in the life of a righteous person.

Secondly, I think Jesus meant his words to also mean that if you are a fortunate person because you have the righteousness of God in your life you must remember that you are not better than anyone else.  You are fortunate because you are better off with your relationship with God but you not better than anyone.  Meaning, fortunate people are not to kill others by elevating themselves.  Jesus would express this sentiment in a parable, a story.  Jesus said, “10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).  The Pharisee, acting as though he was better than others, took righteousness into his own hands, elevated himself, to slay others with his words.  The Pharisees was killing others softly by elevating himself.

          Those who are humble enough to accept the righteousness of God are fortunate people indeed, but they must not kill either outright as the commandment states or softly as Jesus teaches.

          Jesus then said to the fortunate people that they must not act simply in a neutral way of not taking life, outright, softly, or by elevating themselves but fortunate people must act in an affirmative way of reconciling and healing. 

In the next bit from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  The first affirmative step is that those who are fortunate must act affirmative to reconcile all differences with brothers and sisters, meaning others who are equally fortunate.  So important is the need for believers to be reconciled with one another that Jesus said, “If you are in church and the thought comes to you that you have done something to offend another believer and that person is not there with you in that moment, leave church and make things right.  You can come to church again, but you may not be able to reconcile with that person again.”

          As I read these words, I was reminded of a story of a man shipwrecked on a deserted island.  As time passed, he concluded that he needed to build himself shelters against the elements.  After many days and weeks on this island, the man spotted a ship on the horizon.  Excited by the prospect of rescue the man lit a signal fire to call attention to himself. Soon a small boat came from the larger ship with a rescue crew.  Those from the rescue boat came ashore and the man was elated to be saved.  As the man set about to gather his things, he pointed out to the leader of the rescue party the hut he had built for himself and the church he had built in which he worshipped God.  The leader of the rescue party said they were fine structures but asked the shipwrecked man about a third building the man had obviously built but had not mentioned.  The shipwrecked man looked over at the third structure said, “Oh that.  That is the church I used to attend.”

          We must use care in not acting like that shipwrecked man and abandon as though disposable the relationships we have with other fortunate people.  We must be affirmative in our relationships with our brothers and sisters who are also trying to walk this narrow road of righteousness.

          I suspect Jesus’ audience was in shock in considering just what it meant to walk with God, but they probably came to understand Jesus’ points.  That might have been until Jesus confronted them with these words, “25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court” (Matthew 5:25).  So, to be righteous, we must not kill others outright or softly and we must reconcile with our brothers and sisters but we must also pursue an adversary to make things right.  What Jesus asked must have seemed demanding to his audience, but as we who see the whole life of Jesus can understand, in these confrontational words of Jesus, Jesus was describing his very essence.

          The Apostle Paul must have thought considerably about what Jesus unfolded here because Paul had two important observations. First, Paul said briefly, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8b).  While we were still an adversary of God, Christ pursued us, even unto death, to make things right for us with God.  That is righteousness that causes me to be in awe.  Now, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not ask us to die for our adversary, as he did.  Jesus just asked us to be righteous enough that we would make things right with our adversary, and keep on living.  Do we do that?

          Second, and more extensively, Paul said this, “16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this [good fortune] is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:16-18a). We pause for a moment to see that God through Jesus lived out the righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount and reconciled us to God as a first order of business.  Our reconciliation with God, becoming fortunate people, makes us new and able to see people from other than a worldly point of view. 

Paul then hits us with the second step, “And [God] gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he [Jesus] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:18b-20a).  Paul said Jesus’ gave us, his new creation, his fortunate people, the message of reconciliation and sent us out as his personal representatives to live out that message.  Paul made an important observation for us here.  To reconcile with a brother or a sister is not an act of personal will done in the flesh.  It is, instead, a spiritual act done through and for Christ.  To pursue an adversary then is not an act of personal will done in the flesh, it too is a spiritual act done through and for Christ.  That is what it means to be an ambassador of Christ. We act through and for Christ.

Paul finished this thought with an exhortation. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [That is step one.] 21 God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” [That is step two.] (2 Corinthians 5:20b-21).  If we did not see directly from Jesus, we should see from Paul, that our good fortune, our markarious, beatitudos, or blessed state comes from being reconciled by God so that we can live out in the real world the righteousness of God.

How do we come to summarize all that Jesus has confronted us with today starting from the simple acknowledgement of what his audience and we have heard said before, “Thou shall not murder.”  Jesus audience knew that, and we know that.  But what followed from Jesus’ lips amazed his audience and should amaze us.  Jesus was revealing that his public ministry would be one not of anger or contempt for the heart of another person but instead would be one of reconciliation and pursuit of even his adversaries.  Jesus was going to demonstrate to his audience and us how to express a righteousness that surpassed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus was going to demonstrate how he would be salt and light in the world.  Jesus was taking his audience and us from the known to what had been unknown. Jesus’ intent was to make his followers the most fortunate people who ever existed and then charge them with the same ministry of reconciliation that he lived out in the real world.

We must be both heavenly focused and earthly good. We can do that when we are first reconciled to God by accepting Christ.  In that reconciled state, we will be filled with the righteousness of God.  Having been filled, we then can carry out the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us by God.  Now that is a fortunate person indeed.  Amen and Amen.

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