March 11, 2019- The Beatitudes, For Us- Matthew 5:1-12

holy spirit2

Seeing the crowds, he (Jesus) went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (children) of God.

 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:1-12 (ESV)

The Beatitudes are difficult in the way that the Ten Commandments are difficult. They are beautiful. They are good. And there is no way that any of us can live by them perfectly.

We teach our children to be independent almost from day one. Independence and autonomy are ingrained into Western culture, but in God’s economy, we are blessed by our trust and dependence upon Him.

We can’t even believe in God and trust Jesus on our own. Faith itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When we come to a place where we have no tangible reason to believe- when we are abandoned, ill or destitute, Jesus sustains us with the reality that He is with us, and that we are already citizens of the kingdom of God.

In Jesus’ resurrection we have hope that death is not the end. We will be reunited with the vast cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and all tears will be washed away, when Jesus returns to remake heaven and earth.

When we are at the end of our strength and powerless, we are reminded that powers and principalities and governments are temporary, and that corruption in governance will eventually be overturned.

In the new heaven and earth there will be no more evil. We will have incorruptible bodies free from the curse of sin.  We will no longer endure injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment.  There will be no illness, violence, or suffering.

As Jesus has forgiven us, so we are able to be forgiven and to forgive others. We will no longer have to carry the burden of past injuries and grudges- nor will those things be held against us where others have failed to forgive us.

The veil will be removed from our eyes, so that we can love God with a purity that is not marred by our fear or desire for self-preservation.

In Christ we will have peace, not as the world gives but as only He can give. As the apostle Paul encourages us: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7 (ESV)

Even as Christians are persecuted and ridiculed for our faith more and more, we are in good company. No one can take away the promise and the hope that we have in Christ.  It’s not always easy or popular to do the right things (and we are by no means perfect at this) but by the power of the Holy Spirit we are blessed to stand and we are given the courage and the confidence to stand.

As we examine the Beatitudes, it is not a “to do” list for us, but a “God does through” us list. We are not the engine behind our transformation, and we cannot make ourselves holy through our own efforts.  It is only by the grace of God that He gives us the faith to believe and trust Him.  Christ alone redeems and transforms us.

This is good news.

July 16, 2018 – Setting Our Minds on God-Mark 8:31-38

crucifix5And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:31-38 (ESV)

The apostle Peter gets it so right (Mark 8:27-30) then he slips up and gets it so wrong. He goes from rightly naming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, to having Jesus call him Satan- all in less than a chapter of Scripture. Even the apostle Peter was a saint and a sinner at the same time.  No one wants to hear about persecution or suffering, especially when it comes to one who doesn’t deserve it. No one wants to contemplate losing his or her closest friend, especially in the way that Jesus had to die.  On the surface the thought of the Lord of Life having to die a cruel death seems counterintuitive. How can the Messiah save His people if he is rotting in a tomb?  And what is this business about rising again after three days?  No wonder Peter protested.

The necessity of and the reality of the crucifixion is hard to put one’s mind around. The closest we can get to understand the barbarity and sheer repugnance of crucifixion was historically accurately depicted in the movie The Passion of the Christ. The truth of the resurrection, which was not shown in that film, is even more difficult for us to get.  How can the dead be raised?  Better yet, how can death lead to life?

It is really easy to get tied up in the pursuit of things in this world. It is easy for us to get comfortable and to take confidence in our physical or mental ability, in our relationships with other humans, or in our possessions.  The reality is that while those are good gifts from God, they are not our reason for living.  All of those things, as good as they may be, are only temporary.  Only God is forever.

Taking up one’s cross is not a popular thing to do. It may cost us friends or family. It may cause others to think we are silly or uneducated. Our confession of Christ may cost us material wealth or temporal security.  It may cause us to go to prison or even be killed, which happens routinely in countries ruled by governments that are hostile to Christianity. For the sake of the Gospel we might be called to sacrifice for others in ways that have a heavy cost- materially, physically or emotionally.   Yet we know our life is with Jesus, no matter what our circumstances in this life might attest.  We cannot be ashamed of the Author of life.

We don’t take up our crosses to earn brownie points or add currency to a merit account. Nothing we do- or don’t do- can earn us salvation. It’s all on Jesus.  Even our faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus – by faith- because we were created for the good works He planned for us (Ephesians 2:10).

Are we setting our minds and hearts on the things of God? Do we have peace knowing God is in control? The Holy Spirit is always with us and in us. We can always pray for God to give us faith, strength, hope and His peace no matter what our circumstances.

July 13, 2018 – One Gospel, One Way- Galatians 1, 1 Corinthians 1:18

apostle paul

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)  Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.  And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.  They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they glorified God because of me. – Galatians 1

There are many voices all around us that demand our attention. Demands of work, family and the world around us scatter our minds.  It’s easy to get our priorities messed up in today’s world- and even easier to create a value system (a religion if you will) of our own.

The media and the culture send us messages that “there are many paths to heaven,” yet if we go to Scripture, we learn from Jesus that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The only way to eternal life is through Him. (John 14:6)  We can’t earn our way to God’s favor.  All we can do is accept the gift of faith.

The story of the apostle Paul doesn’t point us to Paul, but to Jesus. Jesus is the one “doing the doing” as it were.  Jesus is the one who knocked the Pharisee Saul off of his high horse as he was traveling to Damascus. Through the Holy Spirit the Pharisee Saul – who once had approved the persecution and killing of Christians- became the apostle Paul, who wrote a large part of the New Testament and was eventually martyred for the cause of Christ.

Our culture isn’t accepting of the Gospel that Paul preached. The theology of the Cross, that we are both crucified with Christ and raised with Christ, is just as abhorrent to 21st century sensibilities as it was to those in the 1st century.

Some people twist the Good News into a license for anything goes (antinomianism) which denies the reality and the evil of human sin as well as the power and the necessity of Jesus’ death on the Cross to save us from the death we have earned and deserve.

Others preach a “gospel” of legalism or works-righteousness that requires rigid adherence to a series of rules and regulations and self-denials and penances to appease an angry and vengeful God who is stalking us and condemning us for every possible error or flaw in our conduct.

Still other so-called pastors, preachers and teachers teach for shameful gain the illusion that God is like a vending machine, perpetuating the error of Johann Tetzel that through the sale of modern-day indulgences we can buy our way out of hell, and/or have our “best life” here on earth right now. Jim Bakker, Rod Parsley, Leroy Jenkins and countless other modern-day wolves in sheep’s clothing who teach the false gospels of word-of-faith, prosperity gospel, or sell “miracles” for money fall into this category.

It is true that we need to hear and know God’s Law, and that left to ourselves, we have earned and inherited death and hell, but the purpose of knowing God’s Law is to show us our desperate need for the Gospel- the free salvation that Jesus bought for us on the Cross. We are not going to have a perfect life this side of heaven.  We do have Jesus walking with us, the Holy Spirit in us, and God’s promise that by His grace we will not be tried beyond what we can bear.  We do not have the promise of “prosperity now.”

Being nice doesn’t save us. Being social justice warriors can’t save us. Sending money to the televangelist du jour doesn’t save us or give anyone prosperity- except the one to whom the check is made out. We cannot do anything to earn or deserve anything from God. Even the ability to trust the One Who died on the Cross comes to us as a free gift from God.

Any “gospel” that denies the reality of and the need for Jesus’ death on the Cross is no gospel at all. The assurance that Jesus died to save us from our sins and that He rose from the grave is the Good News. It is the Good News of eternal life versus eternal death in which countless martyrs and saints over the centuries have stood firm.

As people who are called Christians and followers of Jesus, God’s opinion is the only one that matters.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)

 

December 26, 2017- He Brings a Sword- Matthew 10:34, 37-39, Acts 7:57-60, Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:16-18

Jesus sword

 

(Jesus said:) “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword…

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. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:34, 37-39 (NIV)

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:57-60 (NIV)

Ironically, the Prince of Peace did not come to live among us to bring us flowers and kittens and warm fuzzies, as much as we may have wish He did. He brought a sword. He meant business.

Sometimes being a Jesus follower can seem to be a bit of a buzz kill. We just celebrated the wonder of Christmas and the awe of being in the presence of the Babe in the manger. However, Jesus came here among us not only to redeem us from sin, but also to reveal the truth and to show us how God meant for us to live.  He came here not only to heal the sick and comfort the broken hearted, but also to upset the money changers’ tables, and to challenge the hypocrisy and corruption of the status quo. For those in power, Jesus was a threat to their power, and so were Jesus’ followers. Ultimately, for Jesus to redeem us from our sins, He had to sacrifice Himself and die.

We as Jesus’ followers share in His suffering and sacrifice as well. He has a mission and a purpose for each of us that He has determined in advance for us to accomplish. Our missions in this life will sometimes be joyful and sometimes heart wrenching and tragic.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV)

This is part of the good news of God-with-us, as difficult as it can be at times. God has created us to be where we are needed, to be the instruments through which His kingdom is built and maintained and grown. The young man named Saul from the Acts 7 passage, who stood by watching as Stephen the martyr gave his life defending his faith in Jesus, was to become the apostle Paul.  Saul thought he was doing God a favor by getting rid of Jesus followers- only to be set straight on the Damascus road, redeemed by divine intervention, and made into one of the most influential Jesus followers of all. God has ways of naming, claiming and redeeming His own, not to mention, at times, a very catty sense of humor.  As the prophet Jonah found out, if God asks you to do something- it was what He made you for, and you will end up doing it.  It’s far more pleasant to do God’s work the easy way and not have to find out about the hard way, but we humans are stubborn.

Our faith in Jesus may make us unpopular or controversial. We may upset the status quo.  We may cause conflict and strife even within our own families, for standing for what is right.  Even today in some places, standing for Jesus can lead to persecution- including starvation, imprisonment and even execution.

It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me. Philippians 2:16-18 (NRSV)

We are all called in some way to give of ourselves for the sake of the kingdom of God- some in living lives of generosity and sacrifice, and some even to give their lives, like the martyr Stephen.

The wonder of the manger and the tender heart of Mary are part of the same story of our redemption as Jesus’ sorrow of the garden, His bitter crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection. As we look into that makeshift cradle, we are also looking at the cross- and we are drawn into the story we were created to participate in.

 

June 23, 2017- The Blessing of Persecution- Matthew 5:10-11

bullying

(Jesus said:) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.   Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:10-11 (NRSV)

As a frequent recipient of a good deal of bullying at the hands of my peers when I was a child, I have a difficult time with seeing persecution (which is a form of bullying) as a positive thing.

But persecution can be considered a blessing- if it comes about for the right reasons.

Granted, I was bullied because I was small, sickly, near sighted, strange looking, had very bad coordination, and didn’t always have the best wardrobe.  Those weren’t very good reasons for bullying, but then kids can be cruel.  Anyone different than the norm is automatically a target, and I was a particularly easy target because no one would defend me.

If anything experiencing persecution requires one to think about the reasons why.  Are some people jealous of the peace and hope that we have in Christ?  Are we sometimes targets for others’ vitriol and poor attempts at humor because we don’t exactly conform to the world’s standards?

As a Jesus follower, being persecuted or mocked for our faith may be evidence that we’re “doing it right.”

This doesn’t mean that we are supposed to sit back and be doormats, or to get thrown head first into bushes or trash cans and do nothing about it.  Self defense, and the defense of others is a basic human right.  It does mean that we are called to have God’s beautiful attitudes in the face of persecution anyway, even if we get made fun of or much worse, for living them out.

It also means that we are called to speak out against injustice.  When we know how it feels to be persecuted, we see God’s heart towards others who are living with persecution.  We are more compelled to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves, to defend the innocent and the suffering, and to work to end the systems that make persecution possible.