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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.

10-02 - Confronted by Righteousness

          For those who were here last week, I commend you for your dedication to being confronted two weeks in a row.  For those who were not here last week, we have begun to experience Jesus confronting his audience in and through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus confronted people not with accusations but with the possibility and promise of being blessed by God.  When Jesus was finished with his sermon, the gospel writer, Matthew, said the disciples and crowd were in awe of what Jesus said.  Matthew’s observation is important because we are drawn to imitate whoever captivates us with awe. 

          Last week, Jesus confronted his audience telling them that it was the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek, in a word, the humble of the world, God would bless not the wealthy, healthy, and those steeped in religious traditions and ceremony.  Those who were humbled and had a thirst and hunger for God would be filled with God’s righteousness.  In their filling with righteousness, the blessed would bless others with mercy, purity, and peace.  Humility, mercy, purity, and peace are the very essence of Jesus. 

Today, we will see that Jesus was just getting warmed up in confronting his audience then and now.  He was going to hold his audience in awe again.  And I want to begin having us look at what Jesus said about the law, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and righteousness itself. The law, as Jesus used the term, was the collection of commandments of God.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the religious elite.  These were the people the crowd admired because of their knowledge of the Scriptures and their faithfulness in observing all the various religious traditions of the day.  Finally, there is the matter of righteousness.

What is righteousness?  Think of righteousness this way.  Righteousness is being in the state as you ought to be.  There is a correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting about you.  You are authentic to the way you are supposed to be, and you have integrity because the way you think, speak, and act are congruent.  You do not think one way, speak a different way, and act, perhaps differently than you speak or think.  In righteousness, you are as you ought to be.  But there is always a but.  But who determines how you ought to be?  As Jesus used the term righteous, he, of course, was referring to God’s view of how you ought to be.  God made humanity right.  We were free, fearless, unashamed, content, happy to be in fellowship with God, and happy in fellowship with our spouse.  We were in the state as we ought to be because we were right with God.

With that introduction, let’s look at what Jesus said.

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. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus began assuring his audience that Law, the commands and promises of God, were not being replaced but fulfilled.  God’s plan was firm, and, in fact, Jesus was revealing that a major part of God’s plan now had been set in motion.  What was the part of God’s plan that had been set in motion?  It was to redeem people from where they were to where they ought to be.

This is a key point for us to understand.  God is never going to meet us where we pretend to be.  God is never going to meet us where we would like to be.  God is only and always going to meet us where we are.  It is a freeing thought that I don’t have to pretend to be some sort of holy saint before God makes himself known to me.  I can be me, just as I am.  I don’t have to wait until I achieve some measure of standing in the church or community or age before God makes himself known to me.  I can be me, just as I am in this moment.  The people were in awe because Jesus was saying in their words that God’s plan to make things as they ought to be was unfolding before their eyes.  What anticipation and excitement there must have been in the crowd at that moment.

But then Jesus unleashed the shocking and confronting news.  Jesus said, “20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  There were two shocking thoughts here. 

The first shocking thought, I suspect, was that Jesus audience said to themselves, “What does Jesus mean?  I must be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law?  That must have sounded impossible.”  The Pharisees were known for being careful in meeting the Law handed down by Moses, so much so that the Pharisees created more rules and practices to avoid even getting close to breaking the law.  The teachers of the law were experts on the Scriptures knowing every word of the Scripture forwards and backwards.  The standard Jesus seemed to set out was impossible.  His audience must have thought, “How can I outperform the Pharisees and teachers of the law in keeping the law?”

The second shock came a moment later as Jesus’ audience thought, “Wait a minute, for me to enter the kingdom, my righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  If that is true, then that means the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law isn’t good enough to enter the kingdom either!  The Pharisees and teachers would have to exceed their own standard of righteousness which they cannot.”  Jesus had confronted his audience telling them that admiring the standards and practices of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was misplaced.  Jesus did not want the audience to be better at being a Pharisee than the Pharisees themselves.  God was not interested in religious traditions and ceremony of a nation or group or individual person.  Instead, God was interested in the person, in their heart and willingness to have their hunger and thirst to being the person they ought to be met through their personal relationship with God himself.

God had spoken many times in the past about religious behavior and righteousness.  In the book of Amos, a prophet, God said, “21 I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.  22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  23 Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).

Jesus’ audience must have been stunned and in awe. Righteousness that leads to entry to the kingdom of heaven was not about burnt offerings, religious festivals and obligations, and outward practices.  Jesus really meant it when he said that God blesses the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek.  Those who thirst and hunger for God himself not some religious practices are filled. What does such a blessed person receive from God.  Theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3b), comfort (5:4b), the inheritance of the earth (5:5b), mercy (5:7b), the vision of God (5:8b), and adoption by God (5:9b).

Righteousness, the way one ought to be with God was not to be found in temple or other religious practices.  And it is still not to be found in church or religious practices. We should, therefore, enjoy how we worship God together with our songs and traditions, but we should hold onto those practices with an open hand.  We should recognize those practices are but an aid to us in pushing back against the distractions of the world and getting our minds and hearts focused upon God. But we need to see that our own traditions by themselves accomplish nothing in our redemption in becoming who we ought to be with God.

The Apostle Paul helps us by explaining that point this way.  “8 For it is by grace you have been saved (made righteous, made into who you ought to be), [it is] through faith—and this [salvation, redemption, righteousness] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works [sacrifices, traditions, songs, festivals, charity, good works], so that no one can boast [that they earned their salvation, redemption, or righteousness]” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  God blesses us with salvation, redemption, and righteousness when we are humble and meek enough to accept the gift of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus said to his audience was very confrontational and very much held people in awe.  The road to redemption in God had been opened in a way that the people had not considered.

Now one of the questions that Jesus’ audience might have had was, “If the enduring visible model of righteousness is not to be found in the behaviors of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, what does that model look like?”  Jesus had given a few examples of how we ought to look when we are as we ought to be.  Jesus gave two tangible illustrations of righteousness.

First, Jesus said, “13 “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a).  Jesus’ audience would have understood the significance of being salt. Salt changes whatever it touches. Salt was used to preserve food. Salt was valuable, even used in Jesus day as currency.  Salt was necessary to sustain life.  Salt could not be faked.  When you are as you ought to be, then you are like salt.  Noticeable from the world around you and you draw people toward you because of your qualities.

Second, Jesus said, “14 “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14a).  Jesus’ audience would have understood the significance of being light.  The people of Jesus’ time had light to see almost exclusively by the sun.  That meant half of each day was spent in almost total darkness.  To strike a light, a lamp, then was a stark and noticeable signal of life.  And so Jesus equated the righteous, those who had been restored to the way they ought to be, as a light, a city of a hill, a symbol of life.  They were unmistakable, un-fakable, capturing the attention of even the most casual of observers.

In both illustrations, Jesus was pointing to righteous people as salt and light, not to some religious practices they did.  And that is what we must take away from this week’s confrontation by Jesus.

We are made as we ought to be when we willingly empty ourselves of pride and submit ourselves to be fed and watered with the righteousness of God.  Jesus came to be that righteousness in all ways and to be that salt and light for us. Jesus gave his righteousness to us through his death on the cross, giving us a gift of salvation, redemption through him.

In a few moments, we will be taking a bit of bread and a sip of juice from a cup.  These simple elements are yet another confrontation from Jesus to his disciples who now include you and me.  Jesus said that bit of bread is body, and he beckons us to eat of his body. Of the juice, Jesus said is his blood, and he beckons us to drink of his blood.  To eat of a body and drink of the blood is a stark and confrontational thought. But that confrontation is turned to awe when we come to realize that the bread and juice are symbols of Jesus’ body and blood reflecting Jesus’ commitment to fill our hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).  Come now, let us be confronted and held in awe of Christ as we take of the bread and cup as reminders that following Jesus satisfies our hunger and thirst to be filled with righteousness.  Let’s take these symbols so that we can be reminded that through Jesus we have received the gift of salvation and that we are being restored into who we ought to be. Amen and Amen.

9-25-Confronted By God's Blessings

          Suppose for a moment that someone said to you, “I would like you to come to a meeting so that you can be confronted.”  I suspect many of us would either say, “No, but thanks for asking,” or we would ask many questions about being confronted and then say, “No thanks.”  Who wants to be confronted.  And we say that because we see being confronted or confrontation only in a negative way.  However, it is only by confrontation that we learn, that we change, that we become inspired, and that we come to be in awe.

          Are you skeptical about this notion of confrontation?  Allow me to give a trivial example.  My wife had a cousin who planned and prepared the family meals.  Due to a crazy work schedule, my wife’s cousin set the meals for each week to be identical, week after week.  Think of it as Monday was goulash, Tuesday ham steak, Wednesday was chicken, Thursday was spaghetti, Friday was fish sticks, and so forth.  Week after week the menu never varied.  You knew the day of the week by what you were eating. Then one day, one of the kids from that family, Billy, went out to dinner with us at a local restaurant. Someone suggested, let’s have an appetizer.  How about some calamari, squid?  As you might expect, calamari was not one of the weekly offerings at Billy’s house. When the calamari came to the table, Billy was confronted.  Should he try the calamari or not?  With much encouragement, Billy tried a bite of calamari and discovered new tastes and textures and was excited by what he had learned declaring calamari, “Awesome.”

          I have given you a trivial example for us to think about confrontation a little differently.  And with that, I would like us to begin looking at the more substantive confrontation that Jesus presented and still presents through his first extended sermon that we call the Sermon on the Mount found in chapters 5 through 7 of the Gospel of Matthew.  It will take us several weeks to lean into the sermon and there is great risk in doing so.  The first risk of course is that we have all heard sermons based on the Sermon on the Mount and therefore, there is a risk that we will hear Jesus words as though someone was reading a math book, dry and unexciting, or as though we were eating the 37th weekly meal of goulash so far this year.  But there is always a but.  But if we allow ourselves to be confronted by Jesus and to experience the confrontation Jesus presented to his audience, then we might find ourselves in awe of Jesus and be changed by him. 

That leads us to our second risk.  We might change because we are in awe of Jesus.  A confrontation that leads us to be in awe is a treasured experience.  When we are in awe of something or someone, we want to hold onto that sense of wonder. We something confronts us with awe, we want to capture that moment.  We take photographs of that thing or buy paintings of that thing to capture that moment. When we are in awe of someone, we see the possibility and the promise of something greater than we are and so we imitate who we are in awe of.

Jesus’ sermon on the mount confronted people and caused them to be held in awe.  We know people were in awe because Matthew put a postscript at the end of Jesus’ sermon. Matthew wrote, “28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).  The people were amazed and astonished by what Jesus said.  Jesus had confronted his disciples and the crowd of people behind the disciples, and all were in awe.  The teachers of the law taught about God as though they were reading from a math book, with a sense of total detachment, once again reciting the rules and regulations of religion.  They taught with the same delight one would have with the 37th weekly plate of goulash.  But Jesus taught with the authority of God, raising in the minds and hearts of the people a sense of the possible and promise of something greater than they ever had experienced before.  Jesus taught that kingdom of God was near and that they could be part of it.  Jesus had confronted his listeners and they were in awe.

So, we know how the sermon ended, “the crowds were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he taught as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:28b, 29a).  How then did the sermon begin?  How did Jesus confront his listeners?  Jesus began the sermon this way.  “3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3-5).  Jesus offered no introduction, no opening story, no whitism, or comment at all.  With the tension of the disciples and crowd all fixed upon him waiting to see what he would say, Jesus began to confront those listening with words of blessings of God. But these blessings sounded so strange. And we are going to discover the list of blessings is not random but sequential, each building upon the next.

Blessing were the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek, Jesus said.  These are words the disciples and the crowd did not expect.  Jesus’ words confronted the mindset of the Jesus’ listeners, who believed that only people like the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were prominent in the religious life of the nation were subject to God’s blessings. Jesus’ words confronted the belief that only people who were wealthy had been blessed by God or those who had no grief in their lives were considered blessed by God.  Jesus confronted the idea that people who were strong in mind and body were those who inherited.  We might be tempted to think for a moment that Jesus’ audience were silly and simpleminded ancient people lacking our sophistication.  But, there is always a but.  But if we were to ask ourselves or people on the street about what we most admire in other people today, we would likely get a list something like we admire people who are independent, competitive, wealthy, good looking, hardworking, trustworthy, etc.  I do not believe many, if any, people would put on today’s list of admirable traits being poor in spirit, being mournful, and being meek.  Yet Jesus said being poor in spirit, mournful, and meek were the exact traits that God desires and blesses.  And so, Jesus confronts our understand of who lives a blessed life.  Jesus was confronting his audience and now us to consider that God chooses to bless those who can let God be God, who will let God be their God. 

In the first three blessings, Jesus used statements of internal spiritual posture of a person, not a nation.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Blessed are the people who recognize that they cannot reform themselves.  Blessed are those people who know that they need God’s need grace.  Blessed are those who place humility is at the center of their life with God.

Jesus then said, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  God blesses those people recognize that sin separates them from God and that they sorrow at their own sin.  God offers a way out of sin to the repentant and into his presence and that is a blessing.

Jesus concluded the first three blessings this way, “Blessed are the meek.”  Meekness is not the absence of assertiveness or being a doormat.   Being meek is the absence of self-assertion.  Meekness is the opposite of self-ambition and envy.  Meekness is a willing to be in awe of God and receive from God.

          Being poor in spirit, mournful, and meek are not words of blessing to or from the world.  Being poor in spirit, mournful over sin, and meek are all deficient words.  But they are deficit words that lead to being blessed by God.  These words all reflect an emptying of oneself and making oneself ready to be filled.

          These words were astonishing because Jesus was saying that God blesses people, anyone who would come to him.  Blessings from God was not about your nation, tribe, social class, health, or wealth. Blessings from God was about your personal willingness to come to God in a spirit able to receive from him.  What an amazing thought that the God of all would care about each person, one at a time, to come and bless them.

          But how would this all work?  How would coming before God and being blessed by God change one’s life?  Jesus answered those questions in the next blessing.

          Jesus said, “6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).  With the right spiritual posture, emptied of self and ready to receive, there is a readiness a hunger and thirst.  For those who seek that hunger and thirst to be satisfied by righteousness, a right living with God, then there is a filling, an indwelling of God’s righteousness.  This indwelling is the very essence of God, given as God’s Holy Spirit.  The blessings Jesus was talking about are sequential.

When satisfaction for spiritual hunger and thirst is sought from God, then those seeking can be filled with the righteousness of God.  Jesus was setting the highest goal in life was righteousness before God.  The highest goal of life was not the most scrupulous observance of religious practices or traditions, instead it was righteousness with God, a personal standing with God himself.

          If we were to again survey American’s today and asked the question, “What is your highest goal in life?” we might expect to get answers such as “be happy, be financially secure, or to enjoy my family.”  I suspect very few, if any, people would say “My goal in life is to be righteous before God.”  But that is exactly the point of the opening to Jesus’ sermon.  And so, Jesus confronts our patterns of thinking, our goals, and aims in life and points out that we are satisfied when we pursue righteousness before God as our life’s desire.

          We often say or have said to us, “Choose wisely.  Choices had consequences.”  This is usually said as a warning, making consequences a negative term like confrontation is generally a negative term.  Jesus was confronting his audience with the idea that goals have consequences. Emptying yourself and seeking the righteousness of God means the consequence in one’s life will be to be blessed by God and in those blessings a change in action overtakes the person.

          Jesus addressed the change that overtakes someone blessed by God in righteousness in the next sequence of blessings.  Jesus said, “7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:7-9).  Being merciful, pure in heart, and peacemaker are not only internal to the person, but these qualities are also expressed outwardly toward and with others.

                    Jesus was telling his disciples, if you are right before God and you activate your faith and standing with God, you will be changed. You will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  You will extend mercy.  You will act compassionately toward others who are in extreme need expecting nothing in return from them.  You will act with a pure heart, with pure motives.  With God, you will be free to encourage, help, free others to join in a relationship with God.  You will have a most consequential goal in life of being a peacemaker.  You will be calling people to be at peace with God and with one another.  Goals have consequences and with God, those consequences are blessings of mercy, purity, and peace.

          Jesus confronted his audience like they had never been confronted.  Jesus confronted his disciples and the crowd seated behind the disciples to consider that they could have a personal relationship with God and be blessed by God.  They would be blessed as they emptied themselves, as they were satisfied by the righteousness of God, and as they practiced their faith with mercy, purity, and peace.

          As we said in the beginning, the people were amazed at what Jesus said because he taught as one who had authority.  The authority with which Jesus taught was not found in style of speech he used.  What Matthew was hinting at here was that the people were in awe because they were beginning to experience that Jesus was not just telling his disciples and others how to live, Jesus was telling others about his own nature and thus the nature of God.

The Apostle Paul would later write, “5b Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).  Jesus’ attitude was one of humility and meekness, ready to receive from God, even though he was God.  Jesus sought to be filled and satisfied by God.  Jesus once said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).  Jesus was righteous.  Jesus displayed mercy, purity of motives, and peacemaking as he healed, comforted, and freed all who would ask for God’s grace.  Matthew was hinting here at the end of the sermon that people had an inner feeling of amazement not just in what Jesus said but that Jesus somehow was the embodiment of what he said.  Because of that, the people were confronted to examine the righteousness of their life and to be amazed at Jesus and experience not just the possible but the promised opportunity of something greater and more satisfying in life.  There was the real prospect of imitating Jesus Christ.

Those possibilities and promise are for you and me as well.  God is ready to bless you and satisfy you.  God is read for you to bless you with righteousness and for you to become a blessing of mercy, purity, and peace for others.  But you and I must be willing to be confronted by the blessing of God. We must be empty to receive.  We must be hungry and thirsty for righteousness. We must be willing to bear fruit. 

Jesus has given us much to think about this week.  I would like you to come to church next Sunday so that we can be confronted again and held in awe of Christ.  For whatever we hold in awe, we will imitate.  Amen and Amen.

09-04 - Labor of Love

          This is Labor Day weekend.  Labor Day became as a federal holiday starting in 1894 and was intended to be a day of recognizing the contribution of millions of laborers across the United States.  While Labor Day still carries the distinction of celebrating workers, the day has also come to serve some other purposes as well.  Fashion conscious people say today is the last day of the year to wear white and seersucker.  Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer.  And, Labor Day, has been commercialized.  Aside from the Christmas season, Labor Day is the biggest shopping day of the year.

          Sometimes we forget that Jesus was a worker, laborer, a carpenter.  Like every carpenter, Jesus’ hands would have become callused and rough from working with wood and stone.  Jesus would have had cuts on his hands from splinters, jagged edged materials, and from tools.  Jesus created things such as places to live, furniture upon which to sit, or tools to accomplish other tasks.  These skills, Jesus learned from his earthly father, Joseph, who was also a carpenter. Jesus labored alongside Joseph and would have come home at night tired and worn from the day’s work.

          In Jesus’ day, there were no paid holidays, personal days, sick days, or vacation days.  Daily work was needed for daily subsistence.  The only exception, of course, was that Jews did not work on the Sabbath.  Jesus understood and participated in the labor markets until he had reached the age of about 30 years old.  We know this from the Gospel of Luke which says, “23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry” (Luke 3:23). Thirty was age that Jewish men were considered spiritually and morally mature enough to become rabbis and to teach.

          Very early in his ministry, from his transition from laborer to rabbi, Jesus returned to Nazareth where he had been raised.  While in Nazareth, “16b And on the Sabbath day he [Jesus] went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  He [Jesus] stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he [Jesus] found the place where it is written:  18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  20 Then he [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He [Jesus] began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:16b-21).

          Jesus had shared with his hometown friends and extended family that he had laid down the tools of his earthly father Joseph and instead his labors from that moment forward were to be done as the Messiah of God, in obedience to Jesus’ heavenly father.  For generation after generation, the people of Israel prayed that this prophesy, the coming of the Messiah, would be fulfilled.  Jesus’ words were thus a shocking announcement and one that should have been cause for a joyous response.  Jesus said this prophesy was being fulfilled by and through the person of Jesus, and that Jesus was blessing the people of Nazareth to hear the news.

          Luke wrote of the reaction to Jesus’ announcement by the townsfolk.  “22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22).  Luke’s description here sounds like the people were polite and attentive to what Jesus had to say but there is no indication the people have believed Jesus’ words.  In fact, rather than belief in Jesus there was disbelief.  Luke continued, the people said to one another, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ (Luke 4:22b).  The people were saying, “Isn’t this the kid from down the street!  Messiah, indeed!”  The Nazarenes had rejected Jesus and his announcement.

          But Jesus did not need the acceptance of the Nazarenes to be who he was, the Messiah. Jesus acknowledged the reaction of his neighbors observing that, “24 No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).  Then Jesus reminded his neighbors that in the past when the people rejected God, God reached out beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to reveal his purpose.  Jesus was suggested that the Nazarenes’ rejection of him would only lead to the good news, the healing the sick, and the proclaiming freedom to be extended and displayed to the Gentiles.  The labors of God’s Messiah would not be thwarted by unbelief.

          Luke wrote, “28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard [Jesus remind them of Israel’s previous hardhearted response to God] this. 29 They [The people] got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and took him [Jesus] to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him [Jesus] off the cliff. 30 But he [Jesus] walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30).  Jesus’ neighbors moved polite unbelief to a hate filled and murderous rage.  Anyone who dare point out their disobedience to God would be killed.  This is still the way of the world.  Polite unbelief by others today can turn vicious when that unbelief is pointed out as disobedience to God.  Despite the rage of the Nazarenes, they had no power over Jesus.  Instead, Jesus walked through the crowd because no one could take Jesus’ life without Jesus first laying down his life.  The time for Jesus to lay down his life had not yet come. There was still much labor for Jesus to do.

          The labor of Jesus was to proclaim the good news, proclaim freedom, give sight, and set the oppressed free.  Jesus left the Nazareth hillside to continue his labors.

          Jesus next arrived at the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus began proclaiming the word of God and people crowded around him.  So large had the crowd become that Jesus got into the boat of a man named Simon and asked Simon to put out a little from shore. “Then he [Jesus] sat down and taught the people from the boat.  4 When he [Jesus] had finished speaking, he [Jesus] said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’  5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets’” (Luke 5:3b-5). In response to obedience to Jesus, Simon and his partners, James and John, and Simon’s brother Andrew caught so many fish that their nets began to break, and their boats began to sink.  The men were shocked and fearful believing that in Jesus the fishermen were in the presence of God’s holiness.    “Jesus then said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.’ 11 So they [Simon, Andrew, James, and John] pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him [Jesus]” (Luke 5:10b-11).

          The contrast between the scene in Nazareth and the scene along the Sea of Galilee could not have been more different.  In the solemness and learnedness of the synagogue Jesus taught the word of God, he proclaimed the good news, and was thoroughly rejected by an entire town, first politely, and then with a seething murderous hatred.  Then, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus taught the word of God, he proclaimed the good news, and four men of hard labor acted in obedience to Jesus and believed they experienced holiness in the presence of Jesus. So committed were these four men to what Jesus stood for that the men willingly gave up their livelihood to follow Jesus.  Jesus was rejected by many who were driven by hatred and anger and followed by few who saw in Jesus’ a holiness that breaks the power of hatred, anger, and gnashing of teeth.  This contrast tells us that the labor of Christ is hard work, rejected by many and accepted by few.

          Jesus would say, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13).  The many in Nazareth rejected Jesus.  The few along the shore of Galilee found it.

          Jesus and the four fishermen then left the shores of Galilee and entered one of the local towns. “12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he [the leper] saw Jesus, he [the leper] fell with his face to the ground and begged him [Jesus], ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean’” (Luke 4:12).  Luke offered no explanation for the leper’s behavior toward Jesus in expressing his faith in Jesus to heal the leprosy.  Somehow the leper must have seen, heard, or experienced something of the holiness of Jesus and saw the holiness of Jesus as able to break through the leprosy and societal chains that had banished this man from the community.

          In response to this leper’s belief in Jesus, “13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man [the leper]. ‘I am willing,’ he [Jesus] said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him [the man]” (Luke 5:13). Jesus, God’s Messiah, was laboring in his mission of freeing the prisoners, not in some massive sweeping action over all the lands of Israel but intimately, but by one person at a time. Jesus was personally freeing each man or woman from their unique set of shackles.

          A bit later, Jesus was teaching, proclaiming the good news.  The religiously gifted people of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting among the crowd listening to Jesus. People from all over the region were bringing their sick to be healed by Jesus.  “18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.  20 When Jesus saw their [the men carrying the paralyzed man] faith, he said [to the paralyzed man], ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’ 21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, ‘Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Luke 5:18-21).  Anger, bitterness, bigotry, and envy were rising into the throats of the religious men. The politeness of these men to listen to Jesus was being replaced with that Nazarene spirit.  “The very idea.  Forgive sins?  Who does this man think he is?” the religious leaders thought.  The rage was growing within them and that rage was blinding them from seeing the holiness of Jesus.

          “22 Jesus knew what they [religious men] were thinking and asked, ‘Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he [Jesus] said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ home.” 25 Immediately he [the man who had been paralyzed] stood up in front of them [Jesus and the religious men], took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (Luke 5:22-25).

          The labor of God’s Messiah would not be thwarted by blindness, prejudices, envy, and bitterness of anyone, including the religious people of the day.  The labor of God’s Messiah was being offered to free the oppressed and Jesus did that for this paralyzed man in two ways.  First, in response to an expression of faith and to demonstrate the holiness of God, Jesus forgave the paralyzed man’s sins giving him the freedom of salvation.  This was the greatest blessing Jesus could have given this man.  Second, to demonstrate the authority to free the oppressed and to display the holiness of God, Jesus healed the man of his paralysis.

          The pattern of Jesus’ ministry would continue for another three years.  Proclaiming the good news, freeing the prisoners, giving sight to the blind, forgiving sins, and freeing the oppressed.  A few people followed Jesus while many others seethed in anger, jealousy, and hatred conspiring to find the right time to kill Jesus.  Attempts were made to take Jesus’ life, but none were successful until Jesus chose to lay down his life in obedience to God.

          As God’s Messiah’s work was coming to an end, Jesus had one more labor of love to perform.  Jesus would go to the cross for the sins of all humanity.  Jesus was creating an intimate and personal connection on the cross with everyone who would come to believe in him, including you and me. 

Jesus had you and me personally in mind when he went to the cross because he took your sin and my sin upon himself when he went to the cross. Because Jesus labored to take our sins, we are forgiven and released from the bondage of sin.  By faith in Jesus and his labor of love upon the cross, we are freed from our own religious and spiritual leprosy and paralysis.

Jesus would say, “28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29 NKJV). Jesus ended the need for us to labor in the hopes of being good enough to please God.  We are not on our own, but we are made right with God through Jesus.  Thank you Jesus.  Amen and Amen.

8-28 - New Purpose in Christ

          The last couple of weeks we have been speaking about newness in Christ.  We spoke about having a new life in Christ and a new attitude in Christ.  Today, I would like us to talk about the new purpose Christ gives to our life.

          Every life has a purpose. By purpose we mean to say that there is a reason, an aim, and a goal for each life.  The purpose of life that are common to all people were first described in the Book of Genesis.  The Bible says, “The Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden… The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:8a, 9).  After having created the garden, God created humanity.  After creating the man, “15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 1:15).  The first purpose of humanity was revealed.  The man was charged by God with being a steward, a caretaker, of what God had created.

          After the man, God created the woman.  The Book of Genesis again says, “27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:27-28).  God gave humanity additional purposes.  Namely, the man and woman were to form a partnership and together fulfil the purpose of caring for what God provided.  The natural outcome of that man and woman partnership was expected to be children who would grow in number and care for the entirety of the earth.  The Book of Genesis says, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This then is another purpose for humanity.  That the partnership of man and woman would become a marriage, and that marriage was to be the nucleus of the growing family. 

The man and woman were not to be independent nomads coming together just for the purpose of creating children and then going their separate ways.  The purpose of humanity was to come together for the purpose of forming families with the marriage of the man and woman at the center.

God was laying out for humanity that there was a purpose to be served.  Those purposes included stewardship of what God created, stewardship of marriage, and stewardship of the offspring of that man/woman relationship.  These God-given purposes are universal purposes; meaning these purposes are given to every man and every woman.  And, we don’t want to miss this point, these God-given purposes were given to humanity with one and only one rule, obey God.  Following God’s word, obedience to God, was the glue that would hold together the other purposes of life.  What did obedience mean then?  Obey God’s word: “Do not eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

So in the beginning, all of humanity was given four purposes.  Be stewards of God’s creation.  Be stewards of marriage.  Be stewards of the children.  And be obedient to God.

None of those purposes have ever changed or been revoked by God and each purpose remains applicable to every man and woman.  Let me explain that latter point just a bit. Everyone is to be a steward of what God has created.  I think we all get that point.  We are here on earth and must do our part to care for what has been entrusted to us. Everyone is to be a steward of marriage. To fulfill that purpose, those who are married are expected to care for each other in the marriage and those who are married or unmarried must encourage the marriage of others and respect the boundaries of those marriages.  When we attend a wedding, whether we are married or single ourselves, we are fulfilling one of our God-given purposes by encouraging and supporting the couple getting married.  When we attend the funeral of someone’s spouse, whether we ourselves are married or single, we are fulfilling one of our God-given purposes by giving honor and acknowledgement to the grief of the surviving spouse.  All of us are responsible for being stewards of marriage.

All of us are responsible for the stewardship of the children among us.  Certainly, the parents bear a primary role but every one of us plays a supporting role. We are entrusted to support the development of children.  Think of it this way.  Suppose for a moment, you come out of church building, and you see a child, a toddler of two years old, standing in the street.  There are no other adults around or near the child.  You see cars coming up the street in the direction of this toddler. I have absolutely no doubt that every person here, regardless of parental status, physical limitations, or marital status would respond as quickly as they could to guide that child to safety.  None of us would think, “I hope someone else like their parent comes along to guide that kid out of the road.”  Why would we respond quickly to that child?  Because every person here knows in their bones that they have a God-giving purpose of stewardship for children.

I have taken a lot of our time thus far to talk about these universal purposes because I want us all to see that from the beginning, God has shown himself to be a God of purpose.  And every one of the God-given purposes, caring for his creation, nurturing marriage, caring for children, and following his word is intended to bring about abundant life.  God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.

Unfortunately, the first man and woman, did not adhere to all the God-given purposes.  The man and woman did not follow God’s word and ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Sin came into their lives and sin spread into the lives of their children leading to the corruption of every one of the other God-given purposes.  How badly corrupted did our purposes in life become?  Think of it this way.  The Bible contains 1,540 words about life lived in which people followed God’s word and his purposes.  And the Bible contains an additional 781,597 words about life lived after sin entered and corrupted God’s purposes.  We come to see that absent following God’s word, humanity is unable and unwilling to follow its God-given purposes of caring for creation, marriages, and children.  Oh, there are many who work hard at caring for creation, relationships, and children but ultimately all these efforts are destined to fall short unless people first submit to following God’s word.

That latter point is a sobering thought.  Unless there is an expression of obedience to God, then all our efforts to have a society that genuinely cares about creation, marriage, family, and children will necessarily fall short.  Why?  Because if we make care for creation, marriage, family, and children our idea, done our way, as our self-given purpose, well then, we can also choose not to have those purposes.  There is nothing binding me to my own purposes except me and my resolve, my emotions, and my feelings can change in an instant and so can yours.  But if we accept caring for creation, marriage, family, and children in accordance with God’s word as God-given purposes, then we cannot change those purposes.  We can only follow them or not.

How then do we see this picture of God-given purposes and obedience to God play out in our life today?  What is it that God is telling us today?  Let’s look at those questions through the passage we read earlier from the Book of Acts.

We enter the scene as the Apostle Paul, was giving testimony to King Agrippa about Paul’s behavior towards the followers of Christ before Paul encountered Christ on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Paul was speaking, “I [Paul] too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name [everything about the person] of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests, I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they [the Christians] were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them [the Christians] punished, and I tried to force them [Christians} to blaspheme [publicly renounce Christ]. I was so obsessed with persecuting them [Christians] that I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (Acts 26:9-12).  Let’s just catch our breath for a moment.  Paul held nothing back.  Paul laid bare that he, Paul, had made it his purpose in life to destroy the life of Jesus Christ and to destroy or take the life of any man, woman, or child who dared to believe in Jesus Christ.  We hear Paul’s summary of his behavior, and we should be able to tell right away that Paul is on the wrong side of God.  Remember, we know from Genesis that God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.  Paul’s self-given purpose was to bring about misery and death.  We, therefore, know from Genesis that Paul was acting outside the will of God, outside obedience to God.  Let’s see how Paul’s disobedience was addressed.

Paul continued his testimony to King Agrippa, “12 On one of these journeys [to a foreign city] I [Paul] was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests [to continue hunting Christians]. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road [Jerusalem to Damascus], I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’  15 Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied’” (Acts 26:13-15).  Jesus made himself known to Paul in a unique way; like a blazing white light that knocked everyone to the ground.  In that encounter, Jesus charged Paul with being disobedient to God’s will by Paul making it his own purpose to persecute Christians and thus persecute Jesus himself. I could well imagine that Paul must have thought this was his end.  Remember, though, we know from Genesis that God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.

With that in mind, we return to the final segment of the passage today of Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa.  Paul testified that Jesus said to Paul, “16 ‘Now [Paul] get up and stand on your feet. I [Jesus] have appeared to you to appoint you [Paul] as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people [the Jews] and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them [the Jews and the Gentiles] 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they [those hearing your testimony] may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [made right with God] by faith in me’” (Acts 26:16-18).

Let’s see what Jesus did here.  First, rather than end Paul’s life for being disobedient, Jesus gave Paul a new life.  Two weeks ago, we spoke about the fact that those who accept Jesus have two lives. One life lived following Jesus in the here and now and a second life lived in the spirit with Christ in heaven. 

Paul would later share the with the Christians in the church of Philippi the two-life condition of Christians.  Paul said, “21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die [bodily] is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 2:21-24).  Paul learned on that road from Jerusalem to Damascus under searing white light the truth we know as well.  In Christ, we live twice because in Christ we have new life now and life even after death of the body.

Jesus then told Paul, “I am sending you to them [the Jews and the Gentiles] 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:17b-18). Paul said his identity had been established for him as he carried his commission from the high priest in Jerusalem. Now, Jesus said, “Paul, with your new life you will get a new identity and that identity is from me.”

Paul had a new life and a new identity.  We then should expect Paul to have a new purpose.  And that is what we see coming from Jesus next.  Jesus said to Paul, “I am sending you to them [the Jews and the Gentiles] 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:17b-18a). Jesus told Paul to call the Jews and the Gentiles to repent, that is turn from their own ways (darkness) and come to Christ (the light), to turn from the power of Satan to the power of God. Why did God want people to turn from darkness to light and Satan to God?  Jesus said it was so those hearing Paul’s testimony about Jesus, “may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [made right with God] by faith in me [Jesus]’ (Acts 26:18).  God sent Jesus for the purpose of bringing about the redemption of humanity from sin to obedience so that they could be right with God.  Jesus was now sending Paul with the purpose of sharing the redemption message with others.  And we know that God-given purposes always bring about abundant life.

Paul obeyed Jesus and shared the good news of life, identity, and purpose in Jesus.  The other apostles obeyed Jesus and shared the good news of life, identity, and purpose in Jesus.  Those who heard the apostles likewise shared the good news with others and that pattern has been repeated to include those who shared the good news with you and me. We are heirs of the same purpose Jesus gave to Paul.  We too are to share the good news with others and encourage a turning from darkness to light, from death to life.  There are many “spiritual” toddlers in your life and my life standing alone in the street in the path of oncoming traffic who need you and me, not someone else, to guide them out of the street and into the safety of Christ.  Jesus has given you and me that purpose.  Let’s go, obedient to God, and accept as our purpose to bring life to others.  Let’s share the good news of Jesus.  Let’s be obedient to God’s word.  And let’s care for what God has created, care for the institution of marriage, and care for the children.  These are the God-given purposes given to us in our new life and new identity.  These purposes always bring about abundant life.    Amen and Amen.

8-21 - New Attitude in Christ

          We spoke last week that believers in Jesus Christ have two lives.  In Christ, we have an abundant life in this world as we follow Jesus’ and a second life awaits us in the spirit with God in heaven.  Today, since we are here in this world, let’s speak a bit more about our life in Christ in this world.

          When we accept Christ in the here and now, our identity becomes fixed to Christ’s identity.  Our identity is so set by Christ that we openly carry the label, Christians.  To be a Christian is to state that we are a follower of Christ.  To be a Christian does not mean we are a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or any other denomination of church.  To be a Christian is a complete identity.  When we say we are a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Lutheran we are simply describing the setting in which we choose to practice the outworking of our identity in Christ.

          So, if we accept Christ and the identity of being Christian in the here and now, what does that mean?  How does our new identity in Christ expected to be seen by others?  I think one of the best ways to see what it means to be a Christian is by looking through the lens of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the early church.  Paul wrote his letter about 50 AD to 60 AD.  The frame in which Paul wrote was simpler than today.  For Paul, there were two groups of people: pagans and Jews. Gradually, coming from each of those two groups was an emerging group called the People of the Way or Christians. When Paul wrote his letters, there were no denominations of Christians.  However, at the time of the emergence of the Christians, the Jews began persecuting the Christians for being Christians.  Later, the pagans would become the chief persecutors of the Christians.

          In the emergence of the Christians, under persecution, instruction was needed as to what it meant to identity as a Christian.  We know from our own natural lives that for instructions to be effective, instructions must be simple, easily remembered, able to survive the test of time, and be applicable under all circumstances.  Paul’s letters provided instruction to the emerging church.  But Paul knew his instructions to church must not be his own. Paul knew his instructions needed to be of God because Jesus intended the Church to be the instrument of proclaiming God’s good news.  And that good news, the gospel message of salvation, was to change the world.  The latter point bears repeating.  The Church founded by Jesus was intended to be an instrument through which God would share the salvation message and move the world to change.  And so, Paul’s instruction to the Church about what it meant to identify as having a new life in Christ, needed to simple, easily remembered, survive the test of time, be applicable under all circumstances, and lead to changing the world. What was it then that Paul was moved to write about the identity of Christians?

          Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.  Paul began his letter with these opening statements.

  • 3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.
  • 9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. 
  • 27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

There are a couple of important points we need to make here.  First, Paul was writing to other Christians.  Paul’s letter is not for the world at large.  Paul’s letter is a letter to a Church, and must be read in the context of the Church.  Second, we see that Paul was joyful at the thought of Christians in the Church.  It did not matter to Paul what city the people were in who formed the church.  What mattered was the world was changing because the church existed.  Third, Paul prayed for these people.  Paul prayed for a deepening of their faith, of their understanding, and for a more bountiful harvest of the fruit, the product of their righteous behavior.  Paul wanted these people to flourish.  Finally, Paul prayed that whatever this collection of Christians did, that it would do so in a manner worthy of Jesus.

Paul’s letter was providing Christians that we should be joyful every time we see that Christians are gathered, whether that is expressed in the form of a new church or in the form of a worship service.  Paul’s words mean that we should be celebrating not only what we do together as Christians, but we should also celebrate what other Christians are accomplishing, whether across the world or across the street.  We should be joyfully praying for them.

In my devotional this week, I read an illustration that I want to adapt here.  Almost all of us at some point in our life had a sports team, or individual involved in competition, or watched with anticipation an Olympic sporting event on television.  We were rooting for someone or some team in those competitions.  We wanted our team or person to win against the others. Perhaps in that event, someone from the other team or the opponent committed a foul, stepped over the line, or went out of bounds causing that team or individual to face a penalty or other added challenge.  What did we do in response to their transgression?  We cheered hurrah, of course.  This is natural.  We are excited to see our team prosper and be recognized for their hard work even if it meant we cheered a new hardship for the opposing team.  Sometimes in the economy of church life, we forget to pray for the work of other churches and even sometimes we can have a bit of delight in the failings and struggles of another church.

But we must ask ourselves this, “Does God cheer when someone we know goes out of bounds and sins?  Does God say “Hurrah” when another church struggles or stumbles along because of a misstep in their faithfulness?”  I do not think so.  I think God is grieved by sin and missteps by individuals or churches themselves.  Paul was telling his friends in Philippi that he prayed for them always.  He prayed for them in their success and in their stumbling. We should likewise be praying in joy for other Christians and churches whether they are enjoying a season of success or a season of distress.

Why should we pray in such a way? We should be joyful for ourselves and other Christians because the fact that Christians gather is a sign that the world is continuing to change for the better.  Let me say that again.  We should be joyful for ourselves and other Christians because the fact that Christians gather is a sign that the world is continuing to change for the better.  Now in today’s chaotic and conflicted society, you might be inclined to think I have lost my mind to say that the world is getting better.  My sanity or the state of the world would be a good topic of debate but not for today. Instead, what I want you to image is what the world would be like without Christians.  If you think society is coarse and life is not worth what it should be worth today, can you imagine what this world would be like without the influence of Jesus through his people, the church?  I shudder to think what life on earth would be like.  Jesus changed the world and is continuing to do so through his church.  Paul recognized what the church was accomplishing before his own eyes, and Paul was overjoyed.

From a posture of joy and prayer for Christians, Paul then imparted the much-needed guidance to all Christians about how to live out an identity with Christ.  Paul said it in just a few words which we can sum up this way, “If you identify with Christ, if you are a Christian, then “adopt the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:5a).

People who identify with Christ have a new life with Christ and therefore, Paul says, ought to have a new attitude in toward life.  And the attitude of a Christian is not a mystery or tailored to be different from one Christian to the next.  Paul said the attitude of all Christians for all times for all parts of the word, expressed in all languages and in all denominations should be the same attitude that Jesus Christ expressed.

Attitude refers to a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, thing, or event.  Paul said that Christian, the Church, must adopt the attitude of Jesus Christ.  We think about that for a moment, and we think that makes sense.  If my identity is tied to Jesus, then by attitude should come from him.  We think, “Yeah, that makes sense…but wait, what is the attitude of Jesus Christ?”  Paul would say, I am glad you asked.

Paul wrote, “5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.  7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant,  taking on the likeness of humanity.  And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).  Jesus’ attitude in a single word was one of humility.

          Paul said Jesus expressed his humility first by emptying himself of status in heaven and taking on the likeness of humanity, becoming flesh and blood.  So in heaven, Jesus humbled himself to become human.  That was step one.  On earth, Paul said, Jesus then expressed his humility by “assuming the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7).  So on earth, Jesus humbled himself to serve others.  Jesus was and is God.  He has absolute power over all there ever was, is and will be.  And yet he humbled himself in heaven to become human and then as a human, he humbled himself on earth to become servant.

          I was reading something the other day that made me think. It began with the proposition we have heard before, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  This little proverbial saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” means that whenever a person has power over others, that power corrupts him or her.  Power morally destroys a person’s nature and fills them with destructive pride. However, this was not true of Jesus.  Jesus had absolute power and yet power never corrupted Jesus.  Why was Jesus not corrupted by power?  Perhaps it is because the proverbial saying should be, “Absolute power, removes the mask we wear, absolutely.”  Meaning whenever a person has power over others, that power eventually removes any masks they wear revealing their true self.  This proverb would be true for Jesus and all of humanity. The absolute power of Jesus Christ removed any mask any might claim Jesus wore and in doing so we discover Jesus is the same with or without any mask.  Jesus was and is humble through and through.  Jesus was and is slow to anger, abounding in love, bringing comfort and encouragement.  This is what Paul meant by the attitude of Jesus.  But we know that people, we have people in our life, that have power over others, and they like to appear kindhearted, generous, and benevolent. And yet, as they gain power the mask fails and drops, and we see a very different person.  This is who we are as humans.  This is the world. 

Paul was saying we cannot wear the mask of being Christ, we must adopt the same through and through attitude of Christ.  And the attitude of Christ is thoroughly humble. Now being humble does not mean we are to become a doormat to others or live like a monk or have a low sense of self-esteem.  Paul gave descriptors to the humble nature of Christ in the opening of the second chapter of his letter.  Let’s look at how Christ expressed humility.

In verse 2, Paul asked whether his readers had:

  • Encouragement in Christ.  The humility of Jesus was expressed as being an encourager of people.  Jesus was available to people who were discouraged and lacking hope.  He lifted people up and walked with them through their fears.  We then to adopt the same attitude of Christ must be open to others and be encouragers.
  • Consolation in [His] love.  The humility of Jesus was expressed in loving others, particularly those who the society refused to love or respect.  Jesus loved and elevated in this life women, children, Samaritans, Phoenicians, fishermen, and tax collectors all who of whom were outside the center of religious life. But more important than elevating them socially, Jesus loved them before God.  We then to adopt the same attitude of Christ must love others and use our sense of love to elevate them.  We must love others to lift them up before God.  Love them by praying for them.
  • Fellowship in the Spirit.  Jesus expressed humility through fellowship.  Jesus celebrated life and broke bread with his disciples, with friends, and even detractors.  Jesus invested in the lives of others in intimate ways.  We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be willing to be intimate with others.  If we have a home, do we open it to be used for fellowship.  If we do not have a home to receive people, do we walk with people or make an effort to include them into the fellowship of the church?  Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Having the same attitude as Christ is to draw people together in fellowship so that Christ is evident in the Spirit.
  • Affection and Mercy.  Jesus expressed humility through affection toward others and conveying mercy.  Jesus called his disciples “friends,” a term of affection.  In mercy, Jesus gave relief to others.  We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be appropriately affectionate toward others not as a response to affection received but in advance of receiving affection. We need to become good enduring friends to each other and offer relief without asking.

In verse 3 and 4, Paul went further and told his readers that to adopt the same attitude as Christ meant, “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  Jesus’ concern was for others.  The concern for others was the reason God sent Jesus.  We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be concerned and act in the best interests of others.

Believers have the identity of Christ but must express that identity with the same attitude as Christ that is with through and through humility.  Christ’s humility is expressed toward other believers with encouragement, love, and affection.  It is a humility that offers fellowship and mercy as well as acts on behalf of one another. The attitude, the humility of Christ, expressed by Christians is a light into an otherwise dark world of self-centeredness.  The humility of Christ did and will continue to change the world and Jesus invites each of us to be part of that exciting future.  Amen and Amen.

8-14 - New Life in Christ

          I find it interesting to look at odd statistics about people who live in the United States or perhaps it is statistics about odd people who live in the United States.  Either way, I looked at statistics about how many those living in the United States own cats.  The data suggests that one in every four American households has one or more cats. In fact, of those households with cats, they have an average of 1.8 cats.  I am not sure what a 0.8 cat looks like.  Of cats, many owners will say, their cat has nine lives.  The idea of a cat having nine lives is an old idea likely coming from ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.  It is an interesting thought that a cat could have more than one life. But we know they have only one life.

          Whether you are a cat owner or not, we all share this same trait with cats.  We too only have one life.  We are born from our mothers only one time.  We had no say over being conceived or being born.  But each of us came to receive our one life. Despite what some celebrities might say about having lived in a prior life, we do not possess the myth of the cat in which we have nine or more lives.   Believing that we can comeback in a new body and live our life over again is a delusion.

We have only one life.  While we share with the cat that we each only have one life, there is a substantial difference between our life and the life of a cat.  A cat has a physical life only.  But our life is composed of two parts: a physical being, we call the body, and a spiritual being we call the soul or spirit.  When a cat dies a physical death, the cat’s life is complete. When we die a physical death, our bodies cease but our life defined by our soul continues.  Upon the death of our body, our soul or our spirit continues.

Earlier this year, in the Thursday night Bible study, we explored what happens to our soul or spirit upon the death of our bodies.  Early Biblical beliefs found in the Old Testament, suggested that upon death, the souls of all humanity came to rest in Sheol, a shadowy place of eternal nothingness.  Sheol was a place to be avoided because whether you were faithful or disobedient, existence was the same, a complete separation from God.  The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described Sheol this way, “18 For the grave cannot praise you [God], death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18).  It was thought that death was hell for all.

While the view of death and the destiny of the soul changed somewhat over time, it was not until the coming of Jesus, God in the flesh, that the truth was made plain.  And the truth Jesus revealed was mind-blowing.  We read a little insight from Jesus about the soul’s destiny earlier today when Jesus said, “32 Whoever acknowledges me before others [other people], I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others [other people], I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).  Jesus brought forth a new revelation that changed everything.  Acknowledging Jesus in life before our physical death meant that Jesus would acknowledge us to God in heaven.  Renouncing Jesus before our physical death meant Jesus would renounce us to God in heaven.  Jesus’ point was that there is something other than Sheol that awaits those who believe.  That other thing is heaven.  Jesus would also say:

  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).  For the believer there is not eternal nothingness, there is eternal life.
  • I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live (John 11:25).  For the believer there is life not death.
  • “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).  For the believer there is not nothingness for the soul, there is something exciting awaiting, a home with God.

Jesus revealed that what we believe in our one life as body and soul had a direct bearing on what became of our soul upon the death of our body.  For all souls were destined to Sheol, later named hell or Hades, unless acknowledgement of Jesus was made prior to physical death.  In acknowledging and following Jesus, then it is not death that awaits the soul but life.

Jesus explained this revelation to one of Israel’s teachers of Scripture, Nicodemus, this way.  “Jesus replied [said], ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’  ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’  Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:3-6).  We sang the substance of this passage earlier when we sang: “A ruler once came to Jesus by night, to ask Him the way of salvation and light; The Master made answer in words true and plain, ‘Ye must be born again.’”

Jesus’ message confounded the learned teacher Nicodemus.  How indeed can a person be born again?  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4b). Nicodemus was, of course, correct. We cannot be physically born again. Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth.  He was talking about a spiritual rebirth.

The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus left open the question, “How does someone experience a spiritual rebirth?” 

In the natural life cycle, birth precedes death. Logically then rebirth, a second birth, must follow a death.  Jesus explained the spiritual rebirth this way, “39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

          I suspect when Jesus revealed this truth to his disciples, his followers, and even his detractors, people hearing Jesus’ words had to take a moment and think about what Jesus said.  We can think of Jesus’ words this way.  “If we never look beyond [our physical] life, we will die twice.  First, the body eventually dies, then the soul suffers a second death as it is cast away from God forever.  But if we die to self and trust in Christ, then we live twice.  We live in this life first, and then, when the physical heart fails, our spiritual ‘heart,’ having loved God is united to him forever.”[1]  Thinking in the context of two lives or two deaths is a way of understanding Jesus’ words, “39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

          Jesus spoke again of these two deaths and two lives just before his own physical death.  “23 Jesus replied [said], ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me’” (John 12:23-26).

To live twice, we must lose our life to Christ.

          Jesus was laying out a revolutionary thought about physical life and eternal spiritual life.  Jesus’ revelation carried risk and danger.  To place faith in Jesus meant people had to abandon the religious practices of their families and society.  To place faith in Jesus meant people of no faith must abandon the world of doubters and skeptics and come to belief.  Jesus’ revelation was an announcement that spiritual warfare had begun.

          Jesus said to accept him is to engage in warfare against everything else in life. Jesus understood that his message was so revealing and radical that at first to follow him would cause strife not peace.  We read earlier today that Jesus said, “34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34-36).  Jesus understood to become his disciple would not be universally accepted by family and friends.  Becoming Jesus’ disciple was not then and is not today universally accepted. 

In fact, today there is a growing intolerance to Christians even in the United States.  I read last week an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that non-religious parents are a growing segment of the American population raising non-religious children.  The editor acknowledged that America is becoming less moral as it becomes more secular but that should not worry anyone because there are societies such as Japan and Scandinavian that do not embrace Judeo-Christian values but are peaceful societies.  The editor seems to want to ignore data coming from societies that alternately persecuted, outlawed, or widely reviled religion in which over 90 million people were killed in such places as the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan.  The spiritual warfare Jesus spoke about first occurs in the family setting but eventually plays itself out in the politics and moral practices of governments.

          Jesus knew his message of hope would cause tension because we must continually choose to follow Jesus even if members of our own family are opposed to our choice. Our life must be guided by the wishes of God over the wishes of our own loved one.  Jesus said, “37 Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). 

Jesus’ words seem harsh and hard to hear and they may be hard for us to fully comprehend.  Jesus explained what he meant this way.  As Jesus was walking along the road one day, several people were following him, interested in becoming a disciple.  “One man said to him [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  58 Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  59 He [Jesus] said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he [that man] replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  60 Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:57-60). 

Let’s focus on the second conversation the man who wanted to bury his dead father, but Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus’ words on one level seem harsh. The man’s father is dead, and he would like a moment to bury his father before continuing his journey was Jesus. That seems reasonable.  But Jesus rebuffs that idea and offers the man a seemingly ridiculous solution, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  “Let the dead undertaker bury your dead father.”  And we walk away confused by this exchange unless we realize that the man’s father is not dead but very much alive.

Let’s look at this exchange again in that context. Jesus said to a man walking with him, “Follow me.”  That man replied, “Lord, let me go and first bury my father.  As long as my father is alive he would never bless or accept my decision to follow you.  Let me wait to follow you after he is dead and buried.”  Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead.  Your father in refusing to accept me is and will remain spiritually dead.  Let those like your father who are also spiritually dead bury him when he dies. But you, to accept me means that you are alive.  You who are alive must go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  In this context, we see that the man was struggling to accept Jesus because his family would not accept his decision or him.  We now see what Jesus meant when he said, “35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father’” (Matthew 10:35a).

Jesus said to his disciples, and he is saying to each one of us today, choose to follow me that you may be born again into that second life.  It is a life in which Jesus’ becomes the guide of our life now and our advocate before God.  And our choice matters not just to us but matters to the society in which we will live out our physical life.  But discipleship in Jesus is costly.  To follow Jesus means we have so test ourselves and see if our heart is committed to Christ.  Is Jesus really the most important thing in our life?  Is Jesus more important than money, sports, leisure activities, travel, friendships, work ethic, prayer, and study?  Or is Jesus so important to us that he informs every aspect of our life? Are we proclaiming the kingdom of God as we walk through life?  Does our belief in him inform the ways we spend money, engage in sports and leisure activities, travel, friendships, work, prayer, and study?  Have our beliefs cost us anything?

We have before us today a choice of two deaths or two lives.  What determines the difference between death and life is whether we publicly accept Jesus before others and live that choice sincerely.  If you have publicly accepted Jesus, blessings on you.  You have chosen the path of two lives, now live it out by proclaiming the kingdom of God in everything you do.  If you have never been invited to publicly accept Jesus or was hesitant to accept previous invitations, today is the day for you make a choice for two lives.  Don’t hesitate.  Don’t say, “I’ll do it is someone else goes first.”  There may not be another opportunity to publicly express your faith in Jesus and know with certainty that you have passed over from death to life. If this is where you are today, then as we sing our next hymn, just come and stand next to me as we sing our praises together.  Jesus’ words call to you, “Come, follow me.”  Amen and Amen.

[1] Doriani, Daniel M., Matthew: Volume I: Chapters 1-13; Reformed Expository Commentary, (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ), 452.