Category Archives: Message

Ethics of Christian Love: “Sabbath Rest” (part 6 of 13)

Hebrews 4:1-13



We talked together about the 4th Commandment this morning:  You shall keep the Sabbath day holy, or set apart for God.  The Old Testament Sabbath was on Saturday – the last day of the week following the example of God in creation.  You recall in the story of creation in Genesis that God rested on the 7th day, and he ordered his people to do the same.  We saw this morning what a great act of love that was, especially in a world that will drive us to self-destruction with continued work.  The New Testament Sabbath was changed to Sunday in response to the fulfillment of the new covenant, seen in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We saw this morning that Jesus dealt with the issues involved with why God included the 4th commandment in the moral law.  We saw the following concepts:

  1. God’s command was given for our benefit – not his.  It was given for our health – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  The issue of morality comes in at the point where we value what God has given us or whether we are self-destructive.  Our inability to have balance in our lives destroys our precious relationships, destroys our bodies, cripples us spiritually and emotionally.  The point is that we do not trust God enough to take care of our needs so that we can take time to rest.
  2.  As we begin to interpret this commandment into specific kinds of behavior, we must be evaluating our needs in our relationship to God, our family needs, and our personal needs for rest and time set aside.  This comes before what we can or cannot do.  If we looked at our attempts to deal with this in the light of our children’s perceptions of what is important, we quickly become clearer about what we need to do.
  3. Sunday is a celebration of resurrection life.  It is a time of renewal in relation to the Lord of the Sabbath.  I wish we had a format in which to discuss this further because the balance that God is calling us to is so very important to all of us.

Lets go on to a series of concepts that run through the New Testament that take us one level deeper theologically.  These are the two key concepts: rest and sabbath.

The book of Hebrews begins to put these together.  First, the Hebrew concept of rest, as we read in Hebrews 4:1, “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”.  This does not refer to a Sunday afternoon nap.  (Not to knock the Sunday afternoon nap, it is just not the biblical idea)   Further, it does not refer to leisure or spending time at the lake or lack of work.

This concept is closer to what Augustine talks about when he speaks about our human incompleteness, a human restlessness or anxiety that can only be satisfied by God.  In other words, we were created in relationship to God, and human fulfillment, completeness, and peace can only happen when we return to that relationship.  rest, then, is more like peace or fulfillment opposed to restlessness or a kind of anxiety.  It has less to do with the prescription for tiredness, as we usually use the term.  It is about peace with God and ourselves, fulfillment and contentment with who we are and what our life is.

Allow me to spend a few minutes developing this concept from the Scripture.

1.) In Genesis 2 God rests after creation.  Obviously this is not because he is tired.  His rest is to enjoy his creation.  For example, he enjoys this time of a relationship of love with the humans he created.

2.)  Exodus 16:30 adds to our understanding.  Israel is told not to gather manna on the Sabbath.  You recall that at this point they were in the desert, totally dependent on God for their food.  God gave them manna to gather each morning – just enough for that day.  When they tried to gather more, it quickly spoiled, except for on Friday.  Then they were told to gather enough for two days, and it did not spoil.  All of this is tied to their trusting God to provide for their needs on the 7th day.  Their Sabbath rest, then, in this passage is clearly seen as their being confident in God.

3.)  Leviticus 23:32 is a reference to the Day of Atonement.  The Day of Atonement was the day in which Israel experienced God forgiving their sins.  They had to sacrifice and bull as a sin offering for the priest, and a goat as a sin offering for the people.  Then the priest laid his hands on a scapegoat while confessing the sins of the people.  The scapegoat was then taken out into the desert far from the camp, as it carried away the sins of the people.  This day, says the instruction of the Lord, was to be to be a “Sabbath of rest for you.”  This is the celebration of a renewed relationship with God.  It is basking, resting in the reality of being forgiven, resting in the joy of reconciliation.  It was a day different from all the others.

This concept is further developed in the Psalms:

4.) Psalm 37:7 (Read 37:1-7) Note that “Be still” is the same word as “Rest” – Rest before the Lord.  As one takes this apart the issue clearly becomes trust, confidence, a feeling of security, having our needs met – in opposition to being alone and fearful.  Verse 3 relates this rest to behavior, to doing good (by implication: do good in the name of the Lord, or for God’s sake).

(Read Psalm 55:1-8,22) 

5.)  Psalm 55:6 teaches us that there is no rest in escape.  The issue is that we cannot run away because we take our problems, our anxiety, our weaknesses, our fears and lack of trust or rebelliousness with us.  The alternative is stated in verse 22, “Cast your burdens on the Lord.”  This is the means of obtaining “rest” in the spiritual and emotional sense.  This concept is developed even more in the New Testament.

Matthew 11:28

6.) (Read 11:25-30)  Rest here means casting one cares and burdens on Christ.  We also much see that the context here is his revealing the Father to us.  Rest, then, comes in knowing God.  7.)  Hebrews 4 is the passage we read at the beginning.  In verse 1, rest is equated with faith or trust.  Sabbath rest means freedom from toil, freedom from labor in Christ.  Later, Sabbath rest refers to a correct relationship with God, peace of mind, fulfillment, and it is a symbol of heaven.

Putting this all together,  The fourth commandment is given to lead us to health, to life in worship to God, to rest in God, meaning peace, fulfillment.  Our Sabbath rest, then, becomes an image of heaven.  Rest is all about being right with God, being healthy spiritually and emotionally because we are at peace with who we are in Christ, and it refers to the completed relationships in our families and the church were we are at peace with one another.

The concept of the Hebrew Sabbath rest comes in the context of faith and trust in God when we cast our cares on him.  In Hebrews 4:1, the failure to trust and find rest is the absence of God, that thus it is a picture of hell because it is separation from God – anxiety and fear, a place where there is no rest.

It all fits together.  Anxiety, fear, constant work and worry rob us of spiritual, emotional and physical health.  Our rest is in God, our trust in him, our faith-growth is the experience that is a foretaste of heaven.  Rest, then, is not inactivity, but rather being creative and free from the burdens of life.  It is a celebration and enjoyment of our relationships with family and friends.  Our anxieties and worries cause us to retreat, to withdraw, to be eaten up inside.

As we go to the Lord’s Supper now, it is Jesus calling us to rest in him.  “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Ethics of Christian Love: “And What of Sunday?” (part 5 of 13)

Mark 2:23 – 3:6


We have been reflecting on the Ten Commandments together under the title “The Ethics of Christian Love.”  This is a process of asking ourselves some hard questions about our ethics, about our understanding of the values that guide our living.

Whatever happened to Sunday?  It seems like the issues used to be so clear, so simple.  As a child growing up in Western Michigan “keeping the Sabbath Day holy” was a command from God that was obvious in its implications for life.  For us it was a weekly ritual that started on Saturday — the house was cleaned, the car received its weekly bath, the dog got a bath, we all got a bath.  Then usually a brief Saturday evening to prepare for our New Testament Sabbath — a evening in which Sunday School or Catechism lessons were reviewed and bed time came early.

First 9:30 worship, then Sunday School, coffee time, a chicken dinner, a nap, an hour or so at grandma’s house (with adults talking about church), back to church after a hurried supper, friends over for coffee — THIS WAS SUNDAY.  It was all so clear to me that these were the things that God meant when he said: Keep the Sabbath Day holy.  Just as it was clear that Sabbath breaking involved riding bikes, swimming, going to restaurants, working, mowing the grass, etc.  I recall being impressed by a rather lengthy discussion on whether pulling weeds in the yard (defined as work) was a sinful act when done on Sunday afternoon.  The lines were carefully drawn.  It was OK to be at the lake on a vacation Sunday as long as we attended church and did not swim.  I confess bribing some friends to throw me in on a couple of particularly hot Sunday afternoons.

It was all so clear, but come to think about it, even then grandpa worried over what was happening to us.  Having left the small farming community and moving to the suburbs of the city seemed to him the beginning of liberalism.  He saw the thing breaking down when my mother peeled potatoes on Sunday morning instead of Saturday night like grandma did.  He expressed his concern over the influence of pagan neighbors who mowed their grass and watched TV on Sunday.  I guess I didn’t notice the questions being asked then already.  I do, however, remember feeling very righteous sitting in church on Sunday evenings listening to sermons to those Sabbath breakers who were not there.

Whatever happened to our New Testament Sabbath?  Perhaps Aunt Jenny was right when she said that too much education would mess up the children.  I suppose we all get to the point eventually that we have moments in which we look back wistfully at the simplicity of well-defined rules, to have one’s living spelled out in clear, unquestionable terms, knowing what God meant.  At a point past adolescent rebellion, we find ourselves looking back with a little more understanding of the process.  Somewhere my ancestors made some decisions about how they wanted their behavior to demonstrate their dedication and loyalty to God.  That most admirable decision, unfortunately quickly became a series of laws we did not really understand.  But before we too glibly dismiss that set of behaviors we need to ask two questions: First, do we understand the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy?  And second, are we sure that our children will not associate the Sundays of their family lives with something as irrelevant as chicken for dinner?

As we have looked at the moral law of God, we have seen that these ten statements are not the arbitrary whims of God that came out of the blue.  We begin to see that these laws get at the very nature of who we are and what our needs are as human persons.  They are very practical, and they were given for our good.

If there is one crucial or central thing in our study it is for us to see that it is our rebelliousness and immaturity that makes us view the law as an oppressive task-master.  It is the stance of unbelief that sees the law coming from an angry God who will get us if we don’t knuckle under.

For the children of God, these words were given from our Father to teach us real freedom and love.  These words come to us from a Father concerned about our growth, about our spiritual, emotional and physical health.



                In reading these verses from Mark it becomes clear that God is concerned about our needs.  “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” is Jesus clear statement.  It only makes sense that ignoring these commandments is not only about disobeying God, it is being self-destructive.  Because of his love for us self-destruction is always immoral.

The Creator understands our needs.  He understood that working seven days a week will eventually kill us.  God, in his wisdom, built a work-rest cycle into all of creation, emphasized by his own example.  Genesis tells us that on the 7th day of creation, God rested.  God first of all gave this commandment for the sake of our physical health.  I imagine this made a lot of sense to those people who gathered around Mt. Sinai.  They had seen the destructiveness of uninterrupted slave labor.

God also gave this commandment because of our emotional needs.  His motive is demonstrated all around us in men and women who are consumed with the need to succeed so that their children do not know who they are.  If we expect to be emotionally healthy we need to back-off from the intensity of routine work.  We need to be revitalized.  We need time to weekly re-establish those precious relationships with spouse, children, friends.  We need time to look inside, to re-evaluate our goals, to look at our life-style, to check our feelings about what is taking place around us.  Look at the growing resentment and misunderstood motives in families that fail to play together, fail to share dreams and frustrations, fail to share precious time in work and worship.  To fail to take this seriously is to ask for serious physical and/or emotional problems.  The price of disobedience is our health and the health of our families.

Very clearly, the commandment is also about our spiritual needs, about our need to be re-sensitized to the involvement of God in our lives.  Without prayer, Bible study, worship, and reflection on our relationship with God, our distance from God increases.  We deteriorate spiritually.  Instead of faith being the source of our strength for life, we either become more rigid or more distant.  This relationship is like all of our other relationships.  If we do not take the time to work on the relationship, it dies.  If I do not talk with or listen to my wife for the next week, it is predictable that we will be distant from each other.  If we keep it up, we will eventually begin to doubt our love and commitment.  Just as we need to share our goals, our feelings, our joys and struggles in our marriages, so we need to do that in our relationship with God.  The Psalmist says, “He knows our frame.“  He knows us so well, and knowing us he set aside a day every week for the protection of our spiritual health and the prevention of spiritual sickness.

In all of this we see God’s concern for our needs.  He calls us to keep the Sabbath holy.  Holy means “set apart” for God.  It is a day set apart from all others to respond to the fact that God is calling us to be whole, healthy, alive, people who carry his name.  Looking at all of this we begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”



But still, we are left with the question of working this out.  Our ethics, the values which guide our behavior, are based on God’s Word for us.  We have seen that God demands behavior that ensures our health and the health of our relationships.   God wants us to trust him enough to stop everyday activity and rest in him.  Our world demands us to be driven people who sacrifice health and family on the alters of ego and success.  HOW DO WE EXPERIENCE AND SHOW OUR CHILDREN the meaning of the love of our God in the New Testament Sabbath?  How do we celebrate every week the joy and freedom we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  God’s demand is that we take time for him, for ourselves, for our families, for community in Christ.

The significance of the “Sabbath” of my childhood that I began with, is finally the fact that my grandparents did try to show their commitment and obedience to God.  However, all of that turned too quickly into rules instead of understanding God’s love for us.  The Jewish religion of Jesus’ day had 200 rules governing their Sabbath.  It hardly seems restful and healing keeping track of all of that.  Jesus kept getting into trouble because he understood the issue, understood God’s intention.  They judged him to be immoral because he said that picking corn to eat, pulling weeds, or 1000 other “do’s and don’ts” is not the issue.  It all becomes ludicrous.  They could pull an ox out of the mud, but he was not supposed to heal on the Sabbath, as in Luke 13 where he healed a woman who had been sick for 18 years.  In frustration, he finally asks, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”

It is much easier to have a bunch of rules that control our behavior than it is to have an ethic born in the love and will of God.  Our Lord is Lord of our N.T. Sabbath, not to communicate 200 rules to grudgingly follow, bur for giving and renewing life.  Our Sunday, our Sabbath is a celebration of the resurrection – of life and renewal.

Such healing and renewed life in the context of relationship with the Lord means many different things to each of us.  It certainly means worship, different activity than our daily labor, healing spiritually – emotionally – relationally – physically.

What of Sunday for us?  What of our Sabbath?  God is loving us, telling us to take care of ourselves – ordering it, in fact.  The question of rest and renewal is relevant to all of us whether single, in a young family, or retired.  What are we teaching our children about Sabbath?  Are we telling them they are victims of the demanding slavery of success, or do we with God, show them how to take care of ourselves and be healed.  What will our children remember?  Practice?

There is one more, deeper concept running through all of this in what the Bible means by Sabbath rest.  We will discuss that this evening in our approach to celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

God is saying, “You don’t have to work all the time.  Trust me.  You are just destroying yourselves and your families if you do.  That is immoral.  I want you to trust me so you can have a Sabbath every week and be healed.”  What of Sunday for us?  What does your ethic tell you?  Can we hear God loving us here?

Ethics of Christian Love: “Integrity with God” (part 4 of 13)

Matthew 5:33-37; Exodus 20:7


Have you ever dealt with someone you could not trust?  I suspect we all have.  You know that awful feeling of having been misled, the feeling of having been used because someone did not tell you the truth or distorted the truth.  To tell the truth, to have integrity, to be in touch with reality, is basic to being emotionally and spiritually healthy.  To be called a liar, or two-faced, is so threatening because if it is true it means one of several very negative things about us.  Either we are deliberately misleading people, or we are too weak to face reality so we make it up as we go (one definition of mental illness), or we are too afraid to face the consequences of our actions.  “You have my word” is a statement intended to back up what we say with who we are.  Our signature on a contract is ‘our word’ in writing.

Yet people do distort the truth, perhaps out of insecurity, maybe a desire to be accepted, or a need to be loved.  People lie for personal gain or to cover up their faults or guilt.  Because of the lack of integrity in so many, people use oaths; although it is clear from the passage we read in Matthew that Christ considered an oath a way for an untrustworthy person to reinforce his word.  No amount of swearing oaths can determine what the truth is.  The honesty of the person is what counts.  Jesus commands, “Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

So what has all of this to do with taking God’s name in vain?  In fact, our integrity with God is a key issue in this commandment, but we may need to re-think it.  Sometimes we think about the commandments as if God has some need for us to obey them.  We have sometimes implied that God has a need to be honored, and that he is offended if we swear, using his name.  What I am suggesting to you this morning is that this command does not deal with God’s need, but ours.  God is dealing with our integrity in our relationship with him, or our lack of integrity with God.  This command is about our covenant with God and ways in which we break covenant with him.



In order for us to be clear on this, we need to see a couple steps.  The first one is to begin to understand what the name of God meant in the Jewish culture of the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament a person’s name was very important.  It was intended to reveal who a person was.  They did not distinguish between name and person.  This is a bit foreign to us; although if someone mocks our name we tend to feel it personally.  We generally pick names because they happen to strike a parent’s fancy or because we particularly like aunt Jenny, so we honor her by name our child after her.  Generally a name is merely a public statistic, a designation, a combination of syllables to get a person’s attention.  It was very different.  Jacob meant deceiver, and he lived out that description and became a real con-man.  After he wrestled with God his name was changed to show the life changing even that had happened.  Israel, his new name, meant “one who wrestled with God and won.”  The same is true for Abraham (father of a multitude), and Isaac (laughter for God’s gift).



God gave his name to Israel.  It was a very powerful symbol.  In fact, being able to use the names of God meant that he was present with them.  The name of God created fear, because any misuse meant offending God.  It meant declaring oneself out of relationship with him.  Mostly they just used a series of letters which they did not pronounce – YHWH.  They held the person so close with the name that any use of it was either worship or blasphemy.

An example of this identification happened just a few years ago.  There was a big scandal in Jerusalem over the issue of a new stamp.  The stamp was issued to celebrate a new synagogue, with a picture of the building on it.  It was predicted to become a collectors item because of it’s beauty.  However, someone put the stamp under high magnification and found that the name of God was on one of the windows of the synagogue pictured on the stamp.

For the orthodox Jew to use the stamp would be gross blasphemy.  They could not allow the stamp to be issued because then just everyone would be handling God’s name.  In fact, they couldn’t destroy it either, because that would be offensive.  In the end they decided to put them into a safe and let them disintegrate.  Even though this sounds extreme, it demonstrates our point about God’s name seen as his person.

The Bible uses many names to describe God: Yahweh = the name God used to reveal himself to Moses at the burning bush.  This reveals him as the author of life and salvation.  His “I Am” expresses the fact that he is the infinite and original, personal God who reveals himself in covenant relationship with his people.  Some of the related names that describe God are Jehovah-jireh (The Lord will Provide), and Jehovah-shalom (The Lord is Peace),   There are many more.  El is the general word for God and is used in combination with many words to describe God.  Elohim is the plural, a veiled reference to the Trinity; El Shaddai means God Almighty; and of course there are many other terms that refer to God: for example, Father, Abba, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here is the core teaching: using God’s name is a recognition that they we are in covenant with God, in relationship with God.  The simple use of it is an act of worship.  Taking that name in vain, to treat it lightly, to use it in an oath, to use it as a swear-word, is to declare that one is not in relationship with God.  It is declaring that we are out of covenant with him.  You quickly see that cursing with God’s name is only one part of the total breakdown of a person’s integrity with God.

We begin to see that God did not give this commandment only because he wanted to protect his good name.  He is not a crabby old man who is over sensitive about breaking the rules of protocol.  Rather, this commandment was given by a loving God who is so aware of human need.  This third commandment was not designed to protect the holiness of God, but to promote integrity and covenant faithfulness among his people.

What happens when we lose our integrity with God?  If we look at the history of Israel it meant national disintegration.  God was always calling them back from covenant-breaking practices, from doing what was right in their own eyes.  He was constantly calling them, as he is calling us from saying we are his people while we live from Monday through Saturday as if he is not central in life.  That inconsistency makes the name we use in worship a mockery, like a swear word.  This is hypocrisy that tares away at our self-worth and destroys our witness.  It leaves us spiritually empty.  In Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 we see that it is their lack of integrity with God that draws his anger.

They claim to be God’s people, but prevent others from entering the kingdom of God because of their actions.  Their dishonesty with God has destroyed them on the inside.  They have become empty, selfish, like pretty tombs that look nice and are full of rot and filth.

It would be so much easier this morning just to say that this commandment says, “You shall not curse” and leave it at that.  Then we could simply look down at people who use God’s name to make their point.  It does speak about cursing, and the public declaration that we are out of relationship with God.  More than that, it calls us to look at ourselves, at our integrity, at the honesty with which we use words in the worship service.  Are we faithful in our covenant with God all the time, not just in church?  We are as guilty of breaking this commandment when we worship and then walk out of here without being moved or touched or changed, as when we use his name in a curse.  We have taken the name of God in vain when we speak of our desire to be faithful to our relationship with him,  and turn around and treat other people badly.

This morning we call our covenant God – “LORD.”  We profess subjection to him.  We say, “OUR HELP IS IN THE NAME OF THE LORD WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH.”  We call him “FATHER.”  We say we love him.  Yet, if we are honest we have to admit there are times we feel like we lose touch with him.  We project our anger on others.  We get lonely, depressed and anxious.  We pigeon-hole religion so that it becomes relevant only in crisis and on Sunday morning.  All of this using his name in vain leaves us spiritually weak, shattered, uncertain.  We are all left to face the reality that there are times when we have been and are covenant breakers.

God’s reaction to our lack of integrity with him is to ask us to return to him, to confess our sin, and in dependence on him to become what we say we are: his people.  That kind of mercy and loving kindness is the reason we can risk worship.  He is the reason we can risk growing so that we become integrated people, people becoming whole in Christ, people being healed by the Holy Spirit.  The third commandment calls us to keep our relationship, our covenant with God as consistently sacred in all of our lives.

Ethics of Christian Love: “Cutting God Down to Size” (part 3 of 13)

Exodus 32:1-20; John 4:23-24


The second commandment which speaks of idols and “graven images” deals centrally with worship.  It is an answer to the question: HOW DO WE WORSHIP YOU LORD?  The commandment itself says what not to do; that is, not to make any likeness of God from anywhere in all creation.  Jesus states the positive side in our text.  Our task is to search out some of the meaning of worship this morning.



Let’s begin by going back to the context in which God gave his law to the people of Israel.  This was a primitive people.  They had been in slavery for 400 years.  They experienced miracles never before seen in being freed from the Egyptians: the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea,  being led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, God providing water, food, and meat for this huge number of people.  Now the first goal for their journey was to meet with their God to worship at Mount Sinai.  God’s man, Moses, had led them well, but now he was up on the mountain what seemed to them to be a very long time.  They began wondering if he was ever coming back.  They came to worship in the light of all that had happened, and in the context of their fears for the future.  They came to worship the one who is God above all, but with Moses gone, how were they to do that.

They made two mistakes.  In their impatience and lack of trust they did not stop to think that the God who brought them out of Egypt would surely bring Moses back.  They had been ordered to wait because God was going to tell them how they should worship.

They wanted to worship, lacking trust and disobeying, but they needed a symbol, an image to grab on to.  God was too distant, too vague, too big, and they wanted something they could grasp, cutting God down to their size.  They did not know any other way to make their worship real, and the calf or the bull was used by others they had seen to worship the God of power.  This was worship they had seen in Egypt, possibly even participated in, so they drew on their experience.  They built the calf as a means of worshiping God, a symbol they could look to, and then quickly lost the connection between the symbol and the reality of God.  They started wanting to worship, which they were told not to do, and when they did worship they ended up with an idol and the practices of pagan worship with all of its drunkenness and promiscuity.  It was not their intention in the beginning, but they ended up worshiping a piece of gold.

I suppose it seems strange to us that people would bow down to an overt idol like that.  We are likely to call it primitive and pagan.  Yet, if we think about it carefully, we can see in the dynamic here a reality that is not so very far from us.  We also use symbols all the time in order to help us approach God, take in the truths of God, experience the presence of God, and get some limited understanding of God.  We are surrounded by symbols: words are symbols, bread, wine, water, songs, prayer, an order of worship or liturgy.  This commandment is not against our using symbols in worship, but rather it is against making the symbols the object of our worship.  In other words, the symbols take the place of the reality – the reality of who God is, the reality of our spiritual relationship with him.  For example, if a person began to think that taking the bread and wine in communion is a way of being saved rather than pointing to Christ, as if the bread and wine have some special power, then the symbol has become the reality, then we are worship the symbol.  It is an idol, a substitute for God, a replacement for a personal and community relationship with the living God.

On the surface this seems clear to people, but when we dig into it we begin to see that being faithful to God’s moral law requires spiritual discernment.  Throughout Judaism and Christianity this issue has been a struggle.  It is about religion and religious practice that so subtly replaces the reality of our relationship with the living God.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ statement: true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth.

King Saul disobeyed God, and then thought all he had to do was something religious, so he made a huge sacrifice of animals to God.  God rejected his sacrifice and said through the prophet Samuel, “It is not sacrifice and burnt offerings that pleases the Lord, but a broken and contrite heart.”  The religious symbols and things that are meant to help us worship so quickly become the objects of our worship.  There is an interesting story in Numbers 21.  The people became impatient with their slow movement, and (vs.5f)

They spoke against God and against Moses and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There is no bread!  There is no water!  And we detest this miserable food!’    Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.  Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.  So Moses prayed for the people.  The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.  Then when anyone ws bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

The next statement is that the people moved on, but it is not the end of the story.  Evidently when they moved on, someone took the snake and the pole and put it among the things in their tent that they were moving.  We don’t hear about it again for 100s of years. In 2 Kings 18 King Hezekiah brought reform to Judah, rededicating the temple and leading people to worship again. Verse 4 says,

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.  He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.

 What God had given as a tool and symbol for healing, people ended up worshiping.  The temptation to worship at the feet of their religious symbols continued.  They did it to the sacrificial system.  For some the temple became their object of worship.  They did it to the law itself – worshiping the law rather than the one to whom it points.  The second commandment is about the form of religion taking the place of the content.  It is about religious practice replacing relationship of spirit and truth with God.  The second commandment is violated when the form becomes more important than the content.

All of this becomes interesting in the light of the struggles in churches in recent years over liturgy or order of worship.  It is not an accident that there is no prescribed liturgy in the Bible.  That was done in the Old Testament, and they often ended up worshiping the religious form rather than the God to whom it pointed.  Obviously people have personal preferences in styles of worship within scriptural guidelines; however, when forms become more important then content, when I feel comfort and peace from going through something familiar instead of coming from my encounter with God, I have an idol.  I believe every one of us need to examine our souls, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on this.  For example, there is nothing sacred or even religious about music or styles of music in themselves until we fill it with the content of praise and awe and worship to God.  It is all about using a tool or symbol in our relationship to God.  It is all about the content.  People had a fit when Martin Luther wrote the classic and powerful hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, and used a familiar, popular tune that was often sung in bars.  The content transformed the music.  In other words, music becomes a means of worship when it becomes a transparent tool to draw us into the presence of God, when it becomes a part of the spirit and truth of spiritual worship that Jesus talked about.

We could say the same thing for sacraments.  They are not holy until the symbol aids us in being in the presence of Christ.  The Bible is a book, nothing holy about it as it sits there closed on the table.  It is the Word of God when we read and the Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds,  and we are brought to our knees in faith and worship.

The images and symbols so easily take the place of reality.  When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem, he responded:  “You do not know what you worship.”  True worshipers are not concerned about place, but about the spirit and truth of who God is and who they are in his presence.

The story is told of a Danish Protestant Church in the 1850s where a strange thing happened every week.  The people would walk into church on Sunday morning and get to a certain place along the wall and would kneel.  There was nothing different about that part of the wall, and when questioned no one had the vaguest idea where this came from.  Their fathers had done this, so they did it; although no one then living knew why.  The reason for the practice was revealed later when the walls were cleaned, and underneath layers of white wash and paint there was found at this spot on the wall a picture of a Roman Catholic Madonna.  For years, without knowing and apparently without questioning or caring, these Protestant worshipers had been bowing at the place where the Madonna was once visible, and to their Roman Catholic forefathers 300 years earlier, meaningful.

I wonder how many things we do with no more meaning than that.  What traditions and symbols do we use that have lost touch with the reality of the God we worship, and themselves have become objects of worship?  How do we cut God down to size, not unlike those primitive Israelites at Sinai?  I suspect that doing religious things without thinking is tempting because it takes work to stay in touch with the spiritual part of our lives, with the meaning of our relationship with God.  The sad part is that religious habits and symbols without spirit and truth make us spiritually shallow and hollow people.

What is even worse is that the law of cause and effect is written into this commandment.  When parents are religious without being moved and transformed in their spiritual relationship with God, when parents are more concerned about form than content, their children tend to lose touch completely with why it was important in the first place.  It becomes meaningless to them, as meaningless as Israel’s golden calf would be for us.  And they lose the desire to know God, to worship, to be his people.

We come to worship in spirit and in truth – in the spiritual depth of personal and communal relationship with God, led by the Holy Spirit; and in the truth of his Word.  Without the Spirit, our worship becomes impersonal formal religion.  Without truth we are left with enthusiastic paganism – a new form of the golden calf.  “THE TIME IS HERE WHEN TRUE WORSHIPERS WORSHIP THE FATHER IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH.  THESE ARE THE WORSHIPERS THE FATHER WANTS TO WORSHIP HIM.  GOD IS SPIRIT, AND THOSE WHO WORSHIP HIM MUST WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH.”

Ethics of Christian Love: “Leap Into Freedom” (part 2 of 13)

I Corinthians 10:1-15; I John 5:1-5; Exodus 20:2-3



It is already a month ago that we introduced this series of messages on the Ethics of Christian Love by looking at the experience of the Galatian Christians.  We saw that there are two ways of seeing the moral law of God.  The one we are always tempted to go back to is to use the law as a way of trying to buy our salvation.  The result is always guilt and fear.  Or, as Christians, we can live in the Spirit of God, in love.  Then the law becomes a guide for how we are to love God.   What will we hear this morning?  Is this the statement of the all-powerful, angry God who judges, condemns and expects the impossible?  Or will we hear a loving Father and Savior giving us the roadmap that leads to freedom, fulfillment, and the expression of love?



The first thing we need to hear in the first commandment is that God is telling us about himself.  Who is this God who spoke from Sinai?  Who is this God who spoke through his prophets?  Who is this God who spoke so clearly in Jesus Christ?  Who is this God who comes to us in the Holy Spirit?

God’s people had been in slavery for 400 years.  He sent Moses to lead them out, to create out of this slave people a nation.  What did they remember about the God of Abraham after 400 years?  They saw his power in the plagues on Egypt.  They saw his might as the Red Sea parted and the Pharaoh and his army was drowned in the sea.  They saw his care in a cloud that led them by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading them to Mount Sinai where they could meet with their God.         Who is this God who spoke from Sinai and again in Jesus Christ?  I am the Lord your God who led you out of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God who works for your freedom?  I rescue you from slavery.

The first thing we need to understand this morning is that God is invested in our freedom, in our spiritual and emotional health, in our ability to live with each other in a safe and secure environment.  In other words, God did not give the law because he needed us to follow it.  He gave it for our benefit, our life, our health, our peace.  HE GAVE IT FOR US.  This is an awesome truth.  God is the Almighty, Holy, Creator, and we stand in awe as we should.  God is also our Father, our loving liberator from slavery, our covenant God who is invested in building relationship with us, the God who sent his Son to free us from guilt, anxiety, fear, sin and judgment by paying the price of our freedom.  This is the God who speaks.  This is what John meant.  To begin to see what God has done for us, to begin to comprehend his love draws out of us a love in return.  How do we love him?  “We observe his commands,” says John, “and they are not irksome.”  Why are they not irksome?  Because the world, the broken world we live in, enslaves us, but through faith in Jesus Christ we triumph over the slavery of this world.

This takes us to a kind of irony.  We are deal with law that gives freedom.  It seems at first to be a bit contradictory.  Law limits our behavior.  How does law give us freedom?  What is freedom?  It is one of our greatest values.  We have been willing to fight and die for political freedom – freedom from slavery and tyranny.  We have been willing to fight and die for other people’s freedom from tyranny.  Freedom is also something that God wants for us.  However, in an individualistic society we begin to define freedom as being about doing whatever I want whenever I want.  We are tempted to define freedom as not having boundaries.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But, the struggle with this constantly ties up our courts – where are the boundaries between individual rights and the rights of others and society?  There was a recent court case about child-pornography that demonstrated the point.

God is telling us that freedom is about living, about value of persons, about living together in security and safety, about trust and love, about being responsible in our roles and relationships.  Freedom is about joy, fulfillment, meaning in our lives.  That is why at least 7 of the 10 commandments are a part of every society that continues to exist.

Allow me a simple example.  Lets say that I decide I want to be free to drive 90 kmh down 13th Ave out here in front of the church.  What am I doing?  I am saying I am free to get myself killed or to kill someone else who happens to cross the street.  And if I am free to do that, so is everyone else, and now I am not safe to cross the street – and the net result is that everyone of us are enslaved by fear and insecurity.  It turns out that is not freedom at all.  Most people realize this need for traffic laws, but so many in our society think they can find freedom by stepping outside of moral law.

People are constantly striving for that which will give them freedom – to be valued and loved, to have the right to be who we are, to be safe and secure, to enjoy life, to have hope.  We work hard to free ourselves from the slavery of poverty.  We educate ourselves to be free from the slavery of ignorance.  We learn social skills to be free from the slavery of loneliness.  We could go on and on.  In fact, we could say that the freedom a person strives for defines their greatest fears and what is most important to them.  We in fact worship, give highest priority to that which we think will give us freedom.

God is saying to us this morning: “I am the God who is invested in your freedom.  I am the God who rescues people from the tyranny of Egypt (always a symbol in the Bible for the enslavement of sin).  I want you to be free, and this is how you do it.  Worship only me.  Have no other Gods before me.”  How does worshiping God alone free us?  Lets look at the alternatives.  I recently ran across a list of ancient Roman gods and goddesses.  Looking through the list it struck me that the only difference between the ancients and us is that they named their gods, their idols, their replacements for the one true God.  Let me share just a couple of them with you, see if they sound familiar.

MOIRAI was the goddess of fate.  She was the one responsible for the way things went, the way thing turn out when people have no control over them or do not want to be responsible.  One of her modern names might be THEY.  “They” start all the vicious rumors… They have already decided the issues… They expect how I should act and what I should say… They don’t like me… They will only accept me if I obey what They want.  There are no altars to they that I know of in the lower mainland, but worship of they happens every time people compromise their own values to look, act, and live the way others expect them to.  This old goddess invades every group from drop-outs to the radicals to the high-school to the church.  Worship of they demands complete obedience and the payoff is acceptance.  There is no freedom to be a unique person, to decide what is right and wrong.  I wonder how many people worship at the feet of they thinking they are free.

NARCISSUS was the god of self.  The legend is that this god was a little different from all the other gods and did some strange things because of his experience of falling in love with his own reflection in a pool.  Self is the measure and end of all existence.  The ultimate question in life is: What is in it for me?  The worship of Narcissus breaks up families, destroys character and personality, invades the halls of justice, threatens to destroy our environment, is a part of foreign policy, and constantly attacks community.  Narcissus’ followers can sound so loyal with slogans of our race, our color, our church, our form of government, our economic system.  It is all a liturgy of me and my.  It is about self-pity, and I am against it if it doesn’t serve me.  I wonder how many people serve Narcissus and think they are free, even after they have lost their freedom to give, love and share in their being only concerned about number 1.

BACCHUS was the god of pleasure: of wine, sports, fun.  He is so very flexible.  He can come in a glass, a joint, or he can look like living for the pleasure of vacation.  The true believer offers his all for the sake of pleasure, of course, in the name of freedom.

EROS was the god of sex, of physical attraction and sensual indulgence.  Eros is very clever and very popular because he looks like so much fun.  His followers very often are looking for meaningful relationships as a way out of their loneliness, but he has them worshiping at the feet of their feelings and sensations.  Eros is always a substitute for the freedom of real love.  He promises the joy of intimacy and gives the slavery of endless seeking and loneliness in using other people.

PLUTUS was the god of material values.  He enslaves his followers with the freedom of insatiable desire for me.  I’ll be happy and fulfilled with a better home, a nicer car, more money, etc. etc.  Plutus is alive and well.

VESTA was the god of provincialism, the god of reactionary politics and reactionary religion.  This is the god of the “good old days.”  He offers security in keeping things the same, avoiding the challenge of the moment, avoiding change, the god of “we always did it that way.”

Old gods don’t die, they just become more subtle.  Idolatry in all of its forms promise freedom, give for a moment, then enslave and addict.



Our God, the God who gives freedom, comes to us today and says, “Don’t have any other gods before me.”  The gods of this world are little, abortive attempts to meet your needs in ways that only produce new forms of slavery.  All of those gods promise you freedom that is tied to right now – no past – no future!  They require the most irksome sacrifice: ultimate emptiness, which is another name for death.  They offer the ultimate lie.  They say “freedom” and mean “slavery.”

“Worship me, love me, obey my commands which are not irksome if you are in my love, and you will conquer the world with all its little gods.”  God says, “I made you.  I know what the freedom you seek really is – LIFE.  I built the desire into you, the desire to be free, to be persons, to be able to give and receive love with out the fear that produces slavery.  This is a part of your nature.”  LEAP INTO FREEDOM – LOVE AND OBEY ME.

The ethics of Christian love begins with loving and worshiping the only God who has invested in our freedom.  He offers real personhood, real emotional and spiritual and relational health.  The warning of Paul confronts us: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”  The gods of this world are very tempting and seductive.  We stop today and ask again.  Who is our God?  What do we worship?  What is the real source of our freedom?  Are we moving toward greater freedom, or greater slavery?  Do we worry more or less?  Are we conquers of our world in Christ or its slaves.  The only real God calls us to freedom by rejecting all other gods, worshiping only him.

Ethics of Christian Love: “You Can’t Buy God” (part 1 of 13)

Galatians 3:1–14 (NIV84)

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? 6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:26–29 (NIV84)

26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.



The Galatian Christians had a problem, a problem that we often share.  If Jesus came to fulfill the law – moral law, religious rules, etc.; — if our sins are forgiven, how does law function in our lives?  Why through the centuries does the Christian Church keep turning back from being motivated by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to things like traditionalism, legalism, and ritualism?

This is an issue that comes up over and over in the New Testament, and through this series on “The Ethics of Christian Love” I hope we can hear God’s Word together.  This study was born out of a liturgical question: Why don’t we read the 10 commandments every Sunday like we used to?  Let’s begin by looking at why the biblical teaching about grace and the leading of the Spirit is so difficult for us.



How do we make decisions about what is right or wrong in any given situation?  How does the world work for us?  As I look at our culture, our world, I find it to be basically an economic world.  The pervading principle by which we run our lives is that we don’t get anything for nothing.  Life is seen as an economic struggle.  Everything we need, want and strive for in life has a price tag.  In an economic world the only question really is whether or not we are willing to pay the price.

This is pretty much a fact of life.  We buy our incomes and professional position with our abilities, time, talents, and education.  In turn we use our incomes to buy a kind of life-style.  Unfortunately, the principle has often been carried much further than that.  If we would honestly analyze our relationships, it would probably be very discouraging to see how many of them are reduced to a kind of contract:  I will meet this need in you and you do that for me.  If we listen to people carefully, the loneliness and feelings of alienation so prevalent in our culture is not about having no relationships, but having no relationships where we feel accepted and loved for who we are, no strings.

Many marriages have been reduced to an agreement, a contract.  So much of our culture is reduced to economics:  what does it take to get into certain social groups?  Are not the prices we pay things like the right income, the right attitudes, the right background?  This is very intense in most high school cultures: the price of acceptance is valuing the same things and having the same attitudes.

The same sort of applying the economic principles, buying and earning our way, has not been avoided in churches.  Acceptance into the fellowship has been contingent on keeping certain rules, having the right way of saying things, living a particular life-style.  The truth is we live in a world full of unspoken, unwritten, but very real contracts.  As a result, it is very natural for us, along with the people of Galatia, to approach God in the same way, to approach God with a contract.  It goes something like this:

Look, Lord, we can work this thing out.  We will follow a set of well-

defined religious rules so you can be impressed with our sincerity.  We will follow the letter of some rules we think you want, and in response your side of the contract is to save us, to give us eternal life, and to take care of us, especially if we get into trouble.

It all fits together.  I need to be cared for.  I live in a world where one has to buy that.  It is at this point that we run into one of the most confusing and disturbing facts in the Bible.  God won’t sign the contract.  Some religious people have gotten so frustrated by that, they simply raise the standard higher; thereby living in constant guilt because they cannot keep all the laws.  The Jews had over 600 just to govern the daily life of the religious person.  They had so many laws governing the Sabbath day that it was thought that if everyone in Israel just kept all the rules on one Sabbath the Messiah would come.  This is not an unusual way of thinking.  Our legislatures get frustrated because there is so much crime, so much breaking of the rules that society needs to function, so what do they do to solve the problem?  Make more laws.  Filled with guilt and frustration, it seems like some religious people want to make another contract with God: “We’ll be guilt ridden and miserable if you will feel sorry for us and save us.”   The problem is: God won’t sign the contract.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, pointed out that since God is perfect and reads all our thoughts and motivations, we need not only to keep the letter of the law but the spirit.  Then, not only is killing someone murder, but hating them is too.  Not only is being sexually unfaithful to one’s mate adultery, but a lustful thoughts are too.  We cannot buy God’s love, spiritual vitality, life because we do not have the right kind of money, but people keep on searching.

Because of sin, mixed motives, selfishness, ambivalence, failures and deception, we do not have the ability to please a holy God.  But people keep searching – if only we have the right prescription, the right theology, the right rules and experiences, — perhaps if we work harder – we will find spiritual life.  Maybe it is meditation – more discipline – more religion – more piety.  You can’t buy God.



The point of Galatians 3 is that God turns the whole thing up-side-down. The love of God, given throughout history and consummately in the life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ and in sending the Holy Spirit to us is a gift.  God loves us first.  He loves us because he chose to.  “This is love,” says the author John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and have his son as an expiation for our sins.”  Grace – freely given love for you and me – not because we are religious, not because we are special, not because we have done wonderful things, not because we earned it, but love given freely only because God wants a relationship with us.  This grace is so hard for people to accept.

And what does God ask us to do?  To turn away from all our attempts at doing it ourselves, to turn away from the running to find some way of salving the emptiness inside (that is going on everywhere in our society), to turn to him in our need to be loved and forgiven and accept his love.   Just to accept it, believe it.

Like most of us, the Galatian Christians of 45 AD, heard that message from the Apostle Paul, looked at all the things they were doing to find meaning and value in their lives, and accepted the offer of grace in large numbers.  But soon, with the help of some legalistic Jewish Christians they got the thing turned around again.  How were they going to control people?  How could they control religious life in the community?  Paul wrote to them: (Gal. 3:1ff)

Galatians 3:1–5 (NIV84)

Faith or Observance of the Law

3   You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

Paul’s language is intense.  He is upset.  Now they were turning grace back into religion, hopelessly attempting again to earn their own way.  In the history of the Christian Church it has happened over and over again.



But that still leaves us with a big question, doesn’t it?  God comes to us in a covenant relationship, saying just trust me, just love me.  But the moral law is still sitting there.  What do we do with it?  How does it fit?

Perhaps an analogy.  Psychology has defined the rules, what has to happen for people to have a successful marriage.  If we made a list of the rules and dynamics that need to happen, and you went into a marriage committed to follow the rules because you never want to be accused of not holding up your own end of things, how will you do?  Going to be miserable, aren’t you?  It won’t be long before you are keeping a list of each thing you have done, and what your mate did or did not do.  It just will not work.

However, if you deeply love your wife or husband, and you are both invested in your life together, and just do the things that flow out of your love, will it work?  Most likely.  Will you end fulfilling the rules and dynamic of relationships.  Yes, but only because you wanted to.

God came to Israel at Mount Sinai.  What did he say?  Here are some rules you had better follow or I will get you?.  No, he said that he was the God who loved them, who took them out of slavery, who wants them to be successful in putting together a society, and who wants them to love him.  God goes on to tell them and us how to love him above all and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He was responding to the question of people who have received God’s love.  How do we love you?  How do we stay in relationship with you?  How can we be spiritually alive?  How can we stay free of the slavery we have been in?

The moral law stands as a description of what makes a healthy society.  For the Christian, the person who has seen God’s love through history and in Christ, the person who has received the Holy Spirit, it is about freedom, about helping us to define love.  When we come to a time of confession, it is not about how many rules we have broken, it is about our failure to love our God.  Real confession is, “Lord, I have failed to love you and I want to be reconciled to you.  I want us to be together.”

A simple example may illustrate the difference in how the law works in judgment or the ethics of Christian love.  We all know that God wants us to worship him.  So why did you come here this morning?  If you came because it is a religious rule, perhaps enforced by your parents or family or tradition, if you came because you feel guilty when you don’t come, or if you came to impress God or someone else with your piety, you have accomplished nothing besides filling a pew.  God is not impressed.  You can’t buy God.  One the other hand, if you came because you have received God’s love and are looking for ways to respond, to worship him, to love him because you want to; then you are in fellowship with God here.

God wants to give you something – his grace, love demonstrated in the sacrifice of his own son so we could be accepted and forgiven, given a new identity and eternal life.  This Christian spirituality, this covenant relationship with God is a gift.  We cannot buy it.  We cannot earn it.  We can only reject it or accept it.

If we reject it the heavy hand of law, guilt, shame and the emptiness of spiritual anxiety are the issues around which we build our lives.  It is all economics – trying to buy life.  

If we accept God’s love, life is the freedom of loving him back.  Worship takes on a whole new freedom.  Relationships with others become an attempt at showing his love.  Christian action, teaching, ministry become ways of sharing what we have been given.  Our identity is, as we read in Galatians, that of the sons and daughters of God.  Our failures are failures to love, healed by reaching out to our Father to be reconciled.

The word of God challenges us to take spiritual inventory this morning.  Are we foolish, like those Galatians, turning back to try to buy God’s approval with our religion, with rules, and looking good on the outside?  Or are we affirming his grace and our love, and ready again to receive his Spirit and live there?

The Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom Come” (part 3 of 9)

Luke 11:1-4

            “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come.” Luke 11:1-4

The Lord’s Prayer is dearly loved in the Christian Church.  We say it frequently, and certainly in crisis.  Sometimes it is said for the sense of security we get from something old, familiar, and connected with our Lord Jesus.  Sometimes we need the words to help us pray.  When people who have told me they can’t pray I have encouraged them just to read it and sit quietly.  When we study it we become aware that it is filled with meaning and power.

May your kingdom come.  We say it easily, but what does it mean?  If we asked what people generally mean when they pray these words we would probably get a lot of different answers.  Some would say that we are praying for the return of Jesus, something like, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

Another popular idea is that God is supposed to help us build Christian institutions.  Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God.  He often said, “The kingdom is at hand.”  He brings the kingdom. Unlike those popular definitions he is referring to a sphere of rule, the creation of God’s kingship in the hearts of people through his own teaching, death, and resurrection – through faith.  In other words, God’s kingdom is people.  It is God’s people throughout the world and through time who are loyal to him as their Lord.  It is people who love the Lord and are brought together spiritually in him.  We are called to be the kingdom, along with his people all over the world and throughout the ages.

As we read the gospels we begin to see there are two key issues that we must deal with.  FIRST, the question that is the most basic one: are we members, citizens of God’s eternal kingdom?  It is the most personal, profound spiritual question we face.  SECOND, we need to understand that God’s kingdom is eternal and divine.  It is a kingdom that is not built on the power struggles of our world.  It is claimed not in power but in faith.  It is not political, not social or restricted to one human group, nor is it economic in nature.  This kingdom of God, which seems sheer foolishness to a world built on power and control, is already here in Christ, and it is coming as it spreads through the hearts of people throughout the world.  Finally, it is coming in all its fulfillment and glory with the return of Christ.  Then all power will be clearly seen as his.

Being citizens of this kingdom depends on our relationship with the Lord.  “May your kingdom come” means first of all, may your kingdom come in me.  Help me to be your loyal subject.  Bring about the realities of your love, righteousness, holiness, beauty and peace in my life.  Lead me into a greater reality than the mundane things I spend most of my time with.  Make my loyalty fitting for your kingdom so that my ethics and decision-making reflect that you are Lord.  May my priorities and will participate in what is divine.

Is the kingdom of God in you?  Are you a citizen?  There are many passages that speak about what it takes to be in God’s kingdom, to be real followers of Jesus Christ.


Let’s look at them by using the litany on the screen, titled:


Pastor: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.  (Mark 1:14-15)

People: We believe and celebrate the kingdom of God.

But who shall enter it?

Pastor:  Jesus said, “Not everybody who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do.” (Matt. 7:21)

People: Then only those who are obedient to the will of God enter into his kingdom.

Pastor:  Jesus said, “you shall be able to enter the kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful than the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (Matt. 5:20)

People: Then only those who keep God’s law perfectly in letter and spirit can enter.

Pastor:  Jesus said, “How difficult it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God!…. It is much harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” (Mark 10:23-25)

People: Are only those ready to give up everything fit for the kingdom of God?

Pastor:  “Remember this.  Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter.”  (Mark 10:15)

People: Then trust, dependency, and humility qualifies one for God’s kingdom.

Pastor:  “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

People: Then only the totally committed can enter.

Pastor:  Who shall enter the kingdom of God?  How can anyone qualify?

People: “This is impossible for people, but not for God; everything is possible with God.”

(Mark 10:27)


Declaration of Faith:

We are the covenant people of God because God has called us.  God has established his reign among us and in all who believe that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior.  We

believe and have seen his grace.  We have received his forgiving love.  We are the people of God – adopted into his family, citizens of his kingdom.


Life In God’s Kingdom

“After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.  When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else? Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.  Blessed is the person who does not fall away on account of me.’” Matthew 11:1-6

John the Baptist was in prison.  The things he heard about Jesus’ teaching and preaching did not quite fit his expectation of the Messiah.  In fact, it was disappointing.  He sent his disciples to ask the question: Are you the one we are looking for, or should we expect someone else?  Jesus’ answer was simply to tell them to report what they saw and heard in the miracles and teaching.  And he adds, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense in me.”

Jesus affirms that he is the one promised to bring the kingdom of God by the fact that people in need are served, are healed, are given life and good news.  (repeat … signs of the kingdom being present)

Are we a part of God’s kingdom?  As a church?  As individuals?  What is the goal or standard by which we would judge that?  Our world judges goals and success in terms of material wealth or power or influence or pleasure.  But the kingdom of which we are a part has a different set of priorities and standards.  The question for us as a church is this: are people being served, accepted, healed, and are they receiving good news.  The question here is not whether we have achieved great things, not whether we have become a mega church, not whether we are rich or powerful, but whether we are faithful to being the kingdom hands and feet of Jesus around us.  We begin to sense the importance of our ministry.  We are a part of building something that is eternal.

We live in a dilemma.  We live in two worlds, two kingdoms.  We live with two different sets of values, two sets of priorities.  Jesus described our dilemma.  The kingdom of God is like a king who was going away for awhile.  He gave one of his servants 10 talents, another 5, and another 1.  You know the story.  When the king returned the ones with 5 and 10 had used what God gave them for his kingdom, and they were rewarded greatly by the king.  The one with one talent buried it and brought it back unused.  The point is clear for us.  God has given us tremendous abilities, gifts, money and resources that can be used for the building of his kingdom in the hearts and lives of people.  When used for his kingdom these things will bring us joy and more blessing.  There was finally no joy for the person who refused to be faithful to God.  What are you and I building?  Is it important eternally?  Are people being served by us using our talent?  Are they hearing the good news?  Is new life given through the gift of love and the power of prayer and the good news we have to share?

It is very exciting when we think of the fact that together we are building something that is eternal in the hearts and lives of people.  Let’s be sure we have not buried our talent.  God promises joy, blessing, and fulfillment like nothing in our world can offer when we are faithful in his kingdom.

We are surrounded by kingdom building opportunities, just take the time to look at the volunteer board in the social hall.  One of the things happening this spring is a mission trip – a time of attempting to act out being the kingdom of God in some very concrete ways.  Our hope is that you will think about going, or pray for and support this team that goes out from us.  Lets take a couple minutes to listen to two people’s experience from last year.




May Your Kingdom Come Here!

It is clear from what we have seen that the Kingdom belongs to God.  He is sovereign.  To go against it is to fight against God.  So we are then a part of it by receiving his grace through faith.   It is a miracle that you and I can participate in the creation of a divine kingdom.  It is the miracle of faith when we acknowledge that JESUS IS MY LORD.  The Apostle Paul says that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  The Heidelberg Catechism says that to pray this petition means, “Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you.”  We hear that being kingdom people means that we are spiritually in touch with God and in community with each other, bound together in the love and desire to be obedient to our Lord.  Christ calls us to be unified in his love and under his authority, leadership, rule and eternal plan.  He said in Luke 17, “Don’t look for signs, the kingdom of God is among you.”  It is among you as you live in your family, in your work, in your worship, and in your serving and caring for others.

We are called to be kingdom citizens and kingdom builders.  God builds his kingdom within us and through us.  When we celebrate his covenant promises in the baptism of children and adults, we celebrate kingdom identity.  As we attempt to build a sense of community in worship together, it is covenant kingdom community.  The reason adult education, doing ministry, fellowship together, and trying to understand our unique role in kingdom building is so important is that all of this is the work of building the kingdom of God in the hearts and lives of people.  In John 17 Jesus prayed, “Father, make them one as we are one.”  Why?  “So that the world may know that you sent me.”  Why?  Because God is at work, not only calling individuals to salvation, but also building spiritual maturity in them and using them to serve and to witness to others.  God is at work through our calling as a church and as members, building an eternal kingdom that is bigger and more important than any one church.

Yet, unity builds the kingdom.  We have all met people who believe in Jesus Christ but do not think they need to be a part of a church.  What we observe in them is that they often do not do much spiritual growing.  The Apostle Paul used the image of a building.  Imagine the kingdom of God like a huge building.  Each person is a brick in that building, each church is a section of that building, and all together they make up an eternal kingdom.  But there are some bricks laying around on the ground – just laying there.  Do the ones laying on the ground add to the structure, do they fulfill their purpose?  They are still bricks, but refusing to grow into being what God intended.

We are called to unity and love in Christ.  Our working together, our love for one another, our participation in learning, growing and serving – all of this is a demonstration of the mercy, acceptance, grace and forgiveness of our God.  This is unique in our world.  God has chosen what is weakness and foolishness in our world, and made that the power base of his kingdom.  Here is the kingdom of peace that the prophet Isaiah talked about, “The lion and the lamb shall lie down together.”  This is the kingdom of love that seeks justice, and is filled with compassion for the poor.  This is the kingdom in which power is used to serve others and where the forces of evil within and around us are a constant enemy.

It becomes clearer what God is calling us to be and what we are really praying when we say: May your kingdom come.  In the middle of all that is unjust, dishonest, destructive to people, depersonalizing and demoralizing, and unforgiving, we are called to be a community of truth, love, peace, hope, kindness, and self-giving.  Today we pray that in your life, in my life, in every person’s life who touches this church, that in this church the kingdom of God will come.


May God build his kingdom within and among us, and empower us to be kingdom builders.

In your journeys to and fro, God direct you;

in your happiness and pleasure, God bless you;

in care, anxiety, or trouble, God sustain you;

in peril and in danger, God protect you.

The grace of God be with you all, now and always.

The Lord’s Prayer: “Holy Inflation: ‘Hallowed be Thy Name'” (part 2 of 9)

Luke 11:1-4; I Peter 1:13-25

When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he began by teaching them about the kind of intimacy God wants with us.  We talked about the meaning of the term Jesus used for ‘FATHER’ – Abba – ‘Father’ as a child would say it.  Until we understand it, the first request or petition of the prayer is surprising in the context of the closeness and intimacy of its beginning.  “HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME.”  Intimacy and awe at the same time?!

As we dig into the meaning of this prayer together, we will quickly see that these words can have a profound impact on our lives.  In truth, this prayer deals with the revelation of who God is and who we are in relationship to him.  Even though the words we study are so familiar, it is not an easy study.  To grasp the meaning of these statements takes some work.  This may be the most difficult petition to understand clearly.

Hallowed be your name.  In the Hebrew mind one’s name was equal to one’s person.  When you say someone’s name, their picture immediately comes to mind.  In addition to that, names were intended to be descriptive of the person.  This was so much the case that when Jacob (the deceiver) so radically changed, his name had to be changed to Israel.  This meant that they did not distinguish the name and the person.  Maybe the closest we get to this is when a name is a trademark. For example, what do you think of when you see this sign?  The trademark is identified with the product – a shoe.  They are one and the same.  That is similar to what we are talking about.  The use of God’s name was the use or misuse of his person.  To use God’s name in a casual, superficial, or cursing way is blasphemy.  It is among the worst of sins.  It demeans God. The Bible cannot rationalize using God’s name in a curse by saying that the speaker meant nothing personal.  Therefore one of the basic commandments of the moral law is, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”  As I mentioned last time, the Jews used the consonants YHWH to refer to God, not a complete word, out of fear that they might somehow refer to the person of God in an unworthy way.  We can feel in all of this the absolute demand for awe, respect, and even fear in the presence of Almighty God.  At first glance this looks like a contradiction to what we see in the intimacy of the beginning of this prayer.

When you pray, say, “Our Father, Abba, in heaven, hallowed be your name.”  The first thing we need to understand is that this is not a request that God or we make God’s name holy.  God is holy.  The word ‘holy’ means “separate for God” and is used as sacred, perfect, morally without flaw, pure, majestic, beauty and purity that is beyond us.  As creatures in the presence of holiness the only appropriate response is awe, wonder, praise, sheer adoration.  In the presence of holiness we feel small, want to bow down, must worship.  Here we confront what is totally beyond us.  Here human pride and arrogance are absurd.  Here human rebellion and sin are frightening.

God is holy, so the prayer means: “Let your name be celebrated, venerated, and esteemed as holy everywhere, and receive from all people proper honor beginning with me.”  The sense of this is captured in the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:23 where God tells Israel that his purpose through them is that the whole world will know the true God.

“Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.”

Our prayer is this: may all see your holiness through us.  The words we read in 1 Peter reflect this.  Our behavior shows something of the God we serve.  Peter said, (vs. 15) “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”  This holiness, this being set apart for God is defined in this passage as being self-controlled, obedient, living in the world but not belonging to it, and loving others.  As we take the words apart, we begin to feel a tension build between what seems to be God wanting us to share with him the most intimate details of our lives and the reality of dealing with a holy God.  I believe we want to continue to examine this tension very carefully.

The title of this message is HOLY INFLATION.  All of us who have to deal at all with money know what inflation is.  It means that our money is worth less, it will buy less than it did a few years ago.  If I go to the grocery store to buy the same groceries I did 20 years ago, instead of the $20 bill I needed then, now I need $100.  That is inflation – decrease in value.  HOLY INFLATION, devaluing the holiness of God is first of all sin – missing the mark with God, offensive to God, breaking trust with God, rebellion against God.  It also attacks the very heart of our ability to grow spiritually, to know the joy of walking in the presence of God.  What I hope I can make clear here is that the temptation toward “holy inflation” is one we all deal with.  Stay with me here.  If our spiritual life is about our relationship with God, this is about the center of that.

Jesus calls you and me to live in this tension – a kind of paradox – INTIMACY WITH A HOLY GOD.  It is a little hard to get our heads around.  However, it is the tension built into creation.  We are creatures and God is the creator.  Yet, we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God.  We are creatures (totally other than God) built for intimacy, for a love relationship with our creator.  This perfect tension was distorted in the fall into sin, and God calls us back to it in the redemption and restoration that we have through faith in Jesus Christ.

We have to admit that living in tension, in paradox, is generally uncomfortable for us.  We like things one way or the other.  We like clear, black or white, either/or ways of understanding life and the requirements on us.  I submit to you that living in the tension of relationship with a holy, sovereign God who we call “Abba” is the life experience of being what we have called “Reformed” or living in a Reformed biblical understanding.  It is holding in our hearts, minds, and feelings at the same time the sovereignty and awesome grace of our God.  Jesus leads us to experience it in what we have called the Lord’s Prayer.

“HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME.”  We pray that God will be seen as the holy God by everyone.  How then, does holy inflation happen?  How does God’s sovereign holiness get devalued by us.  It happens when we try to get comfortable by going too far on either side of that tension.  First, the intimacy side.  This closeness to God, this being known and loved is wonderful.  Here is someone who understands us and wants to hear our most private thoughts.  Our Holy Creator comes to us in Christ and says, “I love you.  Look at Jesus to see how much I love you.  I love you so much that if you will accept my love I want to live with and in you by the Holy Spirit.”   That is an absolutely overwhelming message, especially to people who at their core sense a feeling of worthlessness that they are spending their lives overcoming.  We receive that message on two levels.  Spiritually it says, “Because he comes to me I can begin to know God – his person, his plan and will for my life, God’s dream for me, his love.  I can eternally learn the love of a holy God that calls me beyond myself to him.”  The Heidelberg Catechism captures this spiritual message:

What does the first request mean?

Help us to really know you, to bless, worship and praise you for all your works and for all that shines forth from them: your almighty power, wisdom, kindness, justice, mercy and truth.”

Along with this spiritual message from God, there is an emotional or psychological message.  You and I have value, worth.  We are called to be healed, redeemed, forgiven because God’s love makes us eternally valuable to him.  Therefore we can see ourselves differently.  God is living within us.  God is calling us to use the means he provides to experience healing and wholeness.  This intimacy with God changes the way we see ourselves.  It creates true humility.

This healing, life-changing, redeeming truth can get distorted when people cross the line, acting as if they have God in their pocket, as if God is subject to and the victim of their feelings and desires, as if God is at their beck and call.  The holiness and sovereignty of God is lost in their acting as if God is a kid down the street or some Santa Claus or cosmic slot machine.  Sometimes this feels like the God of religious TV – the God the evangelist can manipulate if you just touch your TV screen and send in your money.  It is like one author sarcastically wrote, “God created people in his own image, now many in the Christian church seem to want to return the favor.”

Another version of this holy inflation is seen already in the garden of Eden and in the “monism” of many religious philosophies today.  In Genesis 3 the devil came to Eve, “You know, Eve, God really gave you these rules about eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil so that you won’t be like God, knowing good and evil.”  The temptation was to confuse the image of God within with the separateness of a holy Creator.  It is the temptation to replace God with ourselves or the creation.

God comes to us.  We do not discover God.  Intimacy with God is a true relationship with one who is totally other.  The prayer, may your name be hallowed, is a prayer to know God so that as his children we can bless, worship and praise him in response to his power, wisdom, love, justice, mercy and truth.  Intimacy with God is not the holy inflation that reduces God to an image of ourselves.

On the other extreme, inflating, devaluing the holy, also happens with distortions in the other direction, when we ignore or devalue the intimacy side.  This is what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day suffered from and is all too common in the Christian church.  This was only a God to be feared.  Our holy God, then, is no longer Abba, but only high and lifted up, so separate that he only has to do with formal acts of worship.  This is God beyond relationship. This is a God to worship on Sunday and to rely on at funerals, but who is neatly put into a compartment that has nothing to do with work, with decisions, with daily relationships, or with the feelings of each day.  This God is too distant to be involved with our feelings and struggles.  This is God who is irrelevant.  This too is holy inflation – because the Holy One who loves us is our Father 24 hours a day.  This distant God is then some other God, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  A healthy, spiritual, biblical, reformed Christian lives in the tension of Abba and awe – grace and sovereignty – open intimate love and holiness.  To go in either direction away from the tension devalues God.  It is extreme orthodoxy (not uncommon in the CRC) or making God into our image, acting as if God is waiting for our orders is holy inflation (not uncommon in evangelical churches).

The verses we read in 1 Peter show us the balance, the living in relationship with our sovereign and gracious God.  It is about worshiping faithfully and loving as we have been loved.  It is about reaching to be pure, “set apart for God” while living life to its fullest in his presence.  Jesus taught us to pray that our intimacy with our holy God will so affect our lives that others can see the Lord through us.  Or in Peter’s words, “Be holy because I, your God, am holy.”  Be set apart.  Live your identity as separate from God and belonging to him, his totally loved, adopted children.  We are praying that we reflect our Father, and that his holiness will shine through us.  Do we really dare pray that?  Do we reflect holiness in our relationships and the way we respect each other – relationships with parents, with children, with mates.  Do we look holy in the way we talk, in our work, in our play, in our sexuality, in our attitudes about money and the way we use it and share it?  Can we really pray this prayer?  I challenge all of us to think it through – awe and intimacy, being holy because our Lord is holy.  Does that describe you?  Me?  Us together in the Lord’s church?

Lets say the prayer on the overhead in unison: Abba in heaven, help us to know who you really are so we can worship you in spirit and truth.  And Father, don’t let us set you apart, rather set us apart for you.  Father, we are ready to be your children.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in Heaven” (part 1 of 9)

Luke 11:1–13 (NIV84)

1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “ ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ ” 5 Then he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 “Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

One day Jesus was praying, and when he had finished, his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  The prayer that Jesus taught them that day is understood to be one of the central teachings of Christianity.  In this prayer, that is so common we barely hear it, Jesus taught us about God and about our relationship to God.  We would probably be more accurate if we called it the disciple’s prayer.  I believe we will find this prayer to be hard to hear sometimes because it is so radical, so spiritually loaded, in some ways so unreligious, and so very personal.

This morning I would like to begin a series of Sunday morning studies with you on the meaning of Jesus’ prayer.  It is a guide from the Lord as to how we are to perceive and experience God.  I believe this will be a spiritual support to what we have been studying together attempting to deepen our spiritual lives.  We have asked the children’s worship teachers to teach or review the prayer with their children.  We ask everyone to say this prayer every day while we are studying it.  I believe you will find this to create an awareness of our spiritual growth as we pray and study this prayer.

“When you pray, say, FATHER…” In this one word Jesus was seen by his contemporaries as radical, if not blasphemous.  In Jewish religion God was so holy, so high and lifted up, so majestic, that there was great fear of depreciating God by using his name in a common way.  In fact, they almost never used the name of God.  To avoid the danger of misusing his name, breaking the commandment about using God’s name in vain, they just used a series of consonants: YHWH (abbreviation of Yahweh).  There are many names for God in the Bible, and this one refers to him as the God of the covenant, a God in relationship with his people.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray.  He did not discount the Jewish understanding of God as majestic and holy, but rather took them into a new dimension of relationship with the majestic God.  They were offended that he addressed God as Father, but what pushed them over the top was that he used Abba.  It was not even the formal term for ‘Father,’ but the term a child used.  It could easily be translated ‘Dad’ or even more accurately ‘Daddy.’  We might remember a mild form of this in our experience when we began changing the language of our prayers from “thee” and “thou” to “you” and “your.”  There was a great fuss about honoring God.

The first lesson of the Lord’s Prayer is mind-boggling when we stop to reflect on it.  Who is it that we pray to?  God is the holy, almighty, majestic, all-knowing creator of the universe.  God is so great that every time we try to talk about him we are in danger of depreciating him, understanding him with minds too limited to even begin to comprehend.  God is so great, and by comparison we are so small, that without his coming to us, we could not even know he is there.  It is like a grain of sand comprehending the earth it sits on.  This God, Jesus says, wants us to talk with him in prayer, and we are to address him with the intimacy and familiarity and comfort of a little child crawling on a parent’s lap: Daddy!  Everything in us as creatures, everything in us as sinners calls us to back away, to hide our faces, to take off our shoes because this is holy ground.  This is the God who made us, who is holy and perfect, and knows us completely – every strength and every flaw – and he invites us to call him ‘Father.’

Some of the religious leaders, hearing Jesus’ teachings, called him a son of the devil, they were so offended. He taught, “Whoever will not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter it.”  (Mk. 10:15)  I think there is enough of a child in each of us that we are touched by the picture of warmth and security, seeing ourselves crawl on the lap of God and being held by our loving parent.  There is also something in us that recoils at this intimate scene.  How can I worship someone that close?  This is the tension the prayer takes us into.  For many of us prayer seems to have been reduced to something like shooting off an email to God ( or maybe hoping that God will notice what we put on our facebook page. .  Jesus says, No!  This is about relationship, about intimacy, like a child in her father’s lap.

To whom do we pray?  The tension is one of the great offenses for many in Christianity – so much so that Christians have a tendency to avoid the tension by stressing one side or the other, but Jesus understood that spiritual health means we hold both sides of this paradox.  Some avoid the paradox by acting as if they have God in their pocket – using him as some sort of divine slot machine to put in prayer to get whatever they want.  Others keep God at a distance.  We need to hold the paradox.  God is the king and creator of the universe, God in heaven, and God wants us to come close, to be intimate and vulnerable with him.   How can God be so transcendent, so beyond us and so eminent, so close at the same time?  Something inside objects!  We have trouble allowing ourselves to be close, known and intimate with other persons who have faults like we do.  How do we do this with a holy, all-knowing God?  Imagine with me a dialogue with God about this.

“Lord, I enjoy worshiping you.  Sometimes your beauty, holiness, and power make chills go up and down my spine.  Do you really want me to talk with you about some of the realities of my days and nights?  That cannot really be worship, can it?  Isn’t the intimacy of “Daddy” too familiar, too demeaning to you?  How can I please you, if I am talking that intimately with you, that honestly?”

How would God respond?  Perhaps like this:

“After all the centuries of words batted around churches you still do not understand.  You have always assumed that the first issue in our relationship was that you have to win my approval.  Somehow, you thought if you looked good on the outside I would love you.  Do you really think I don’t know you inside?  I started loving you and being your Father before you were born.”

“But Lord, there are so many things in me that are unlovable, so many weaknesses.  I am ashamed to be known.”

“When your children were born and you stood looking at them on the delivery table, did you say, ‘I’ll love you if you are intelligent or a good athlete or a good musician’?”

“You know I didn’t.  I felt overwhelmed with love for them.”

“But Al, do you expect less from me?”

“But you are holy, and I am sinful.  You are powerful, and I am weak?”

“When your children disobey, do you stop loving them?  Your sin hurts me.  Your rebellion makes me angry.  Sometimes you walk away from me and ignore me.  You try to deal with me through your theology or through institutions or other people.  Don’t you still know that I want you to be my child?  Let me ask you a question.  Do you feel closer to your children when they get good grades or when they talk honestly with you and share their hurts and struggles?”

“When they talk with me.”

“And how do your children know you love them?  When you stand at a distance judging them or when you understand their world and empathize with their situation?”

“When I try to understand.”

“I sent my Son to take on your life, to know all the human things you want to hide from me.  He died your death.  Can anything be more intimate than that?  Can there be a greater demonstration of understanding, empathy or love?  Can I say more than that about wanting your love?  My child, intimacy and obedience are both issues of love.”///

Jesus said, “When you pray, say, Father, Dad or Daddy who is in heaven.”  The people in Jesus’ time had a problem with being this familiar with God.  Some people in our time have a problem because of their experience.  Our concept of a nurturing parent comes from our experience as children.  That fact is that many people have ambivalent feelings about their fathers.  Some of us had fathers who had difficulty telling us they loved us.  Some people spent their childhood trying to get their father’s attention.  Others didn’t have fathers or had a father who was never there or couldn’t understand.  And worse, some experienced abuse from their parents – verbal abuse, emotional abuse or even sexual abuse.  How can we communicate Jesus’ message about God when nearly 50% of the children in our society live in blended or single parent families?

In the counseling I’ve done over the years I’ve worked with many people who have experienced abuse as children.  That experience has made me realize that abuse of any kind is devastating to a child because without a nurturing parent it is very difficult to believe that anyone could really love us.  You see, abuse or neglect creates not only emotional illness, it creates spiritual illness.  One then has great difficulty accepting the love of God.  Grace seems beyond the abused person.

Jesus now calls us past the experiences with our parents no matter how good or bad they were or are.  He points us to the perfect, ideal, nurturing parent.  This is the Father who is always there for us, who always loves, who always is ready to understand and forgive, whose compassion is boundless.  He calls us to our Father in heaven.  We are called to update our assumptions and separate out the confusion, separating the parenting of God from the parenting of our parents.  This updating is a call to spiritual maturity.  In other words, we are called to dependency on the Lord, but that is not the dependency of immaturity or childishness.  This is a call to spiritual maturity, looking beyond our fathers and mothers to God.  This is the recognition that we are in relationship with the God who is our creator, who is our sovereign Lord – a parent who loves us but doesn’t need us to be needy.  We are not locked in to everything our parents think.  We each need to do our own spiritual reality check with God.

Given some of these kinds of difficulties and the push in our culture to be more aware of sexism, there have been some people who have felt that we should alter the language of prayer.  The argument goes that God has mothering characteristics as well as fathering.  Everyone who has thought about it knows that God is spirit and not male or female at all.  The communication of the Bible was to a patriarchal culture, so God’s choice of using ‘Father’ made sense, but isn’t that less relevant now?  Wouldn’t it be easier if people had the choice whether to address God as Mother or Father?  So the arguments go.  Certainly they have some validity around some people’s needs, and certainly we all are called to see God has a nurturing parent.  One can appreciate circumstances and needs where changing a pronoun is not so significant, certainly to the God who wants to have an intimate relationship with us.   However, I believe there is another reason why God chose the image of Father, and why we primarily need to be faithful to God’s choice.  We talked some about this in our evening teaching services.

The other Eastern religions (of course you know that Christianity is also an Eastern religion) around Israel and around the world had and have female images of God.  These are god’s who gave birth to their creation – a kind of extension of themselves.  The earth and people are a part of their god and strive to re-enter that union with God.  The Bible, on the other hand is radically different, and it reveals God as totally separate from us.  God is God and we are creatures he created.  He spoke the world and people into being.  It did not come through a birth canal.  Salvation is about relationship with God and God’s grace, not about going through enough reincarnations to be re-immersed into the mother who gave birth to us.  We hold the tension: God eminent, God transcendent.  This is so basic to Christianity.

Jesus taught us to pray: Our Father who is in heaven.  There are times in every one of our lives when we need to let the child in us feel the love of our Father in heaven.  There are times when our prayers are those of the adult child who comes to her Father to talk, to get insight, to learn, to seek advice, to feel our place as his adopted sons and daughters, to listen.  Both are the wonderful miracle that we can experience through Christ, closeness and love with our almighty, holy Father in heaven.

Do we have a Father in heaven who is close enough to love and big enough to respond?

The Apostle John writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are! (1 John3:1)  This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (3:16)

Being Reformed, we bask in the tension: God is sovereign, the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, totally separate from us and Holy.  God is your and my Father in heaven.  God is close – ABBA — for we are in Christ and his Spirit dwells in us.

There is probably no place we experience that more than in the sacrament – our transcendent God coming close to us – eminent in Jesus Christ.  We see him as close as anyone can get – taking on our guilt, our sin, our death; and offering to us the life he earned.

Blessed are those who are Persecuted… – (part 9 of 9) – Matthew 5:10-12; I Peter 3:13-17


We have been working our way through the challenging statements of Jesus called the Beatitudes.  These statements of Jesus summarize what it means that we are citizens in the kingdom of God. They open our hearts to the Lord, not just rules kept, but motives, feelings and attitudes.  In his commentary called The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott beautifully summarizes what we have been striving to understand.  I would like to read these paragraphs to you. (p. 54)

“The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple.  We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it.  This makes him or her meek and gentle in all their relationships, since honesty compels them to allow others to think of them what before God they confesses themselves to be.  Yet they are far from acquiescing in their sinfulness, for they hunger and thirst after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness.

We see the disciple next with others, out in the human community.  His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world’s pain.  On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin.  He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as peacemaker.  Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified.

Such is the man or woman who is ‘blessed’, that is, who has the approval of God and finds self-fulfillment as a human being.

We dealt with blessed are the peacemakers in our series in Advent.  This morning we reflect on the last and longest of Jesus statements:  “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

I suspect when we hear about persecution against Christians our first thoughts are about something that happens in other parts of the world.  I read a rather dramatic account of persecution in a book by Philip Yancy called What Good is God?  He was talking about how under Mao the Communist government in China was dedicated to eradicate Christianity and many people suffered greatly.  Yancy wrote:

“For several decades no one knew how the Chinese church was faring, especially in the light of leaked reports of social turmoil.  Had Madame Mao succeeded in her vow to destroy Christianity?   When China finally began to crack open its borders, some of the missionaries returned to visit, astonished to find that the church had exploded in size.  Aikman estimates the number of Christians in China today may exceed 80 million…. No one knows for sure because so many of them meet in unregistered (and illegal) house churches of 20 or 30 members.  This is the largest religious revival in history by far…”

Revival and growth under this kind of duress amazes us.  It is hard for us to imagine being publicly persecuted when we are living with a Bill of Rights in our constitution guaranteeing our freedom of speech and religion.  We are here together this morning without threat.  This week in the CRC prayer requests we were asked to pray for Calvin College students from Jos, Nigeria, where there is increasing violence which often aimed at Christians.



This is the sort of thing we would expect to talk about his morning, and that would be more comfortable.  But we have not avoided facing the other beatitudes head on and very personally, so what does this beatitude mean for us?  We immediately sense that Jesus is offering words of comfort to his followers and the early church who would face persecution because of him.  We hear Jesus telling people who are already suffering persecution, “Don’t be discouraged;” and to those who have yet to face persecution, “Don’t be surprised.”  There is a tone of inevitability here that makes us wonder.  Should we be experiencing more opposition?  Is there something wrong with us if we don’t?

First of all we need to read this beatitude very carefully.  People are blessed and should rejoice when they are opposed and suffer for righteousness and because of Jesus.  We immediately see that all suffering that Christians do is not necessarily a part of this blessing.  Some Christians suffered in the devastating stock market downturn and the resulting pain of lost funds and lost jobs in our economy over the last 2+ year.  They were really Christians and they were really suffering, but these two weren’t necessarily connected.  Even though God may have his purposes, often the things we suffer aren’t directly related to our personal actions.  For example, the doctor diagnoses you with a serious illness, or your company downsizes and you get laid off from your job.  There are some blessings in life that are simply a matter of common grace – everybody experiences them whether they deserve them or not.  The converse is also true: there are some troubles that are also universally experienced.  When Hurricane Katrina caused such devastation in New Orleans and the levees gave way – Christians and non-Christians alike suffered.  Jesus is referring here to personal and targeted suffering because of righteous behavior.  We have also all known Christians who were obnoxious in the way they dealt with other people, or condescending and judgmental, or less than compassionate and thus deserved every bit of rejection they received.  That kind of suffering is also not what Jesus is talking about.

So what is persecution because of righteousness and abuse because of Jesus? As I have tried to understand what this means for people like us three related perspectives emerge from scripture that I want to share with you.

What is the righteousness or the following Jesus that may draw fire and opposition?  The first perspective is a very familiar passage from Micah 6:8.  What are we supposed to be doing?  What does it look like for a Christian to live for Christ?  This righteousness isn’t so mysterious.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah reminds us to look back at what we’ve already studied in this series.  Our position as Christ-followers is to hunger and thirst for righteousness – – seeking to be people who treat all people with respect and fairness and justice whether in our families, our church, or with anyone else we meet.  It is about seeking justice for people, even those we disagree with.  If we do this we will get opposition from people who cherish their prejudices and need others to blame for their own lives.  In the same way, following the example of God, loving mercy – giving to those in need who have no claim on us — but giving just because we see and are moved by their need, may not be popular in an economy built more and more on greed.  We’ve discussed being poor in spirit and meek, cherishing our place as God’s people without the narcissism of needing to think it is all about us and that we are the center of the universe. Micah 6:8 directs us.

A second perspective comes from the passage we read in 1 Peter 3.  This passage deals with Christian civility.  We will look at it in more depth later.  Essentially Peter is telling us how to live in a indifferent or hostile environment.  Here is the formula:

  1. Be eager to do good (like being merciful).  If you suffer for it, you know you are blessed by God.  Peter emphasizes that it is better to suffer for doing good than to deserve suffering for doing evil.
  2. In your heart set Christ apart as Lord.
  3. Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you with gentleness and respect.  Notice how we give qa reason for the hope that is in us: with gentleness and respect.

Peter is saying that if we have to suffer for Christ, make it worthwhile and suffer for doing good.

Our third perspective focuses on Peter’s 2nd point.  “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.”  JESUS IS LORD!  This belief and life-defining statement drew all sorts of persecution for the early Christians.

Jesus is Lord – not Caesar!  This statement and belief often caused people to lose their homes, jobs, and families.  Some were enslaved, others thrown to the lions, and still others were crucified.  In the Roman emperor Nero’s time the Apian Way into Rome was lined with crosses for miles.  Still the church grew.  Jesus is Lord.

Will that draw insults and slander and painful rejection today?  Over the years I have known more than one person who lost his/her job because they would not compromise their integrity.  I’ve known more than one person who lost friends because they would not compromise their values.  Jesus is Lord – and that will draw some response from people in a materialistic secular society that is motivated by greed and power without concern for justice or people’s well-being.  Jesus is Lord – the Jesus of the beatitudes, the Jesus of the gospel is Lord – not some other Jesus who has been created by nationalism and civil religion that wraps him in the flag and worships moralistic patriotism whose creed is “my country right or wrong.”  The principalities and power of greed, nationalism, racial superiority, and entitlement are not Lord.  Jesus is Lord!  He is the Jesus we are called to follow, the Jesus of the beatitudes.  If we follow the Jesus of the Gospel we may well find opposition – some of it in our own community or family, or in our own church.  Rejoice and be glad, says Jesus when this happens because you know me and love me.  Do not be afraid.  You are in the line of the prophets, and God is keeping a record to reward his own.

We sense that all of this has been difficult because it is radical and counter-cultural:

  • Jesus says, blessed are the poor in spirit; our culture says, blessed are the proud, the arrogant, the achievers.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who mourn, our culture says, blessed are those who are self-fulfilled and self-sufficient, caring only for themselves.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who are meek, our culture says, blessed are the powerful, proud and self-serving.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and our culture says, blessed are those who are unrestrained to do their own thing no matter who gets hurt.
  • Jesus says, blessed are those who are merciful, our culture says, blessed are the manipulators who use people without awareness or concern for their needs or their pain.
  • Jesus says, blessed are the pure in heart, our culture says, blessed are the uninhibited, impure, lewd, and cynical.
  • Jesus says, blessed are the peacemakers, our culture says, blessed are the strong and controlling.
  • Jesus says blessed the persecuted for righteousness and for his sake, and our culture says, blessed are the expedient and the aggressive – people who have to win at all costs.

We are truly to be a part of a kingdom of God that is above the culture we are surrounded by.  The wonder is that God is building his kingdom in and among us.  It is an eternal kingdom.  It is a kingdom of light and beauty and joy.  It is a kingdom of grace, forgiveness, inclusion and acceptance.  It is a kingdom that touches and heals the deepest needs of people.  At the same time Jesus is clear that we are not to try to sanctify that which is not his and of him.  Before our prayer of confession and the song of assurance I would like to read a statement from Jesus that occurs later in the Sermon on the Mount.   Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”

We would like you now to reflect with us on this whole series of messages on the Beatitudes with a responsive prayer of confession and a song of assurance.  Please join us.

 God blesses those who realize their need for him, for the kingdom of heaven is given to them.  But we have been proud in spirit, inflated with pride in our own self-sufficiency.  We have forgotten how needy we are.

 God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. But we have not mourned over our sins, instead we have insulated ourselves from those around us, from their pain, needs, loneliness, and suffering.  We have even hardened ourselves so that we are unaware that our own lives cause grief to the Lord.

 God blesses those who are gentle and lowly, for the whole earth will be their inheritance. But we have valued toughness over gentleness.  We have too often chosen to be concerned with ourselves rather than with our brothers and sisters and neighbors.  Like the prodigal son, we want to satisfy ourselves rather than our Father.

 God blesses those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will receive it in full. But we have hungered after the pleasures, prestige, and possessions of this temporal world.  Like Esau, we have despised our birthright by choosing to satisfy our immediate desires.

 God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  But we have often presided as harsh judges over the lives of others.  We have been quick to place blame on anything or anyone but ourselves.  We have avoided obligations to care for or to help people in need.

 God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.  But we have defiled our hearts with idols of our own choosing, doubting that God will keep his Word and his promises.  We continually compromise the truth by trying to find meaning and security in our jobs, our friends, our pleasures, our projects—but not in God.

 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. But we are often at war with one another.  In a thousand little ways we demand to be catered to.  We seldom esteem others as more important than ourselves.  We often create strife by demanding our way rather than by walking in God’s Spirit.

 God blesses those who are persecuted because they live for God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  But we have too often retreated from the disapproval of others.  We’ve sought to please the world rather than risking the disapproval of those who need the Messiah.  We regard rejection for righteousness as a burden to be borne, rather thanan honor to be humbly received.  Lord, please show us your mercy. Lord, have mercy upon us in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.