Category Archives: Message

Blessed are the Pure in Heart… (part 8 of 9) – Matthew 15:1-20


Together we have been doing the challenging work of attempting to understand and apply Jesus’ beatitudes.  These statements take us beyond the 10 commandments and ritual laws of the Old Covenant.  These statements are about citizenship in the kingdom of God.  They go beyond rule-righteousness to heart-exposure that opens our most private attitudes and motives to the transparent scrutiny of God.  We can create a façade that looks good for the people around us.  We can look religious, talk and act pious, even rationalize to ourselves the duplicity of our motives, attitudes and feelings, but God sees through it all.  Jesus was so threatening because his insight and words cut through to a person’s core – tax collectors, disciples, sinners, and religious leaders alike.  Then, like now, so many people depended on cosmetic surface changes or ceremonial ritual, which changes nothing unless the heart, the center of a person is cleansed and transformed.   The difficulty with the beatitudes is that if we take them seriously and let them scour our spirituality we find ourselves standing fearfully naked before the Lord.  Suddenly our defenses seem silly, our hypocrisy shallow, our game-playing pointless, and our facades transparent.



Jesus said, “Blessed” (happy, content with a real sense of emotional, spiritual and physical well-being unlike any security we can buy) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  In modern science the heart is a very sophisticated pump in our chest we cannot get along without.  I can remember my oldest son struggling with his newest learnings about the human body and the words of his Sunday School teacher who told him that God wanted to live in his heart.  He would look down at his small chest and wonder how there would be room for all of that.  In biblical Hebrew thought the heart is the core of the human person, the control center, the center of our personality that reveals who we truly are and where the Spirit of God lives in us.  That idea carries over into the way we use the term.  If you tell someone that you love them with all your heart, you are probably not talking about a pump in your chest.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”   Purity means unmixed, as with a metal – without alloy.  It refers to a person with unmixed motives and a heart not contaminated with impurity.  It also means that it is the same through and through.  The Bible talks a lot about the human heart and its need for purity.  In 1 Samuel 16:7 God reminds the prophet Samuel as they were looking for David to be the next king of Israel: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” meaning all your personhood.  In Jeremiah 29:13 God calls to his people, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  Romans 10:10 says, “for it is with your heart that you believe and are justified.”    The heart is more than our mind, more than our emotions, more than our choices – it is the place where all these come together to shape our life and faith.  The pure in heart are people who are free from impurities and the same through and through.  What you see is the same on the outside as on the inside.  That would be the opposite of a divided heart in which there are compartments – one for God and Sundays, one for career, another for family, and maybe another for pleasure.  But, if you have an undivided heart, your thoughts and feelings and will are not in conflict with each other.  It is all one – all influencing each other.  Then one lives one life – from the inside out and our faith is significant in every part.



In Matthew 15 the Pharisees came to Jesus because they were upset with the behavior of his disciples.  They were a little like my grandmother who used to say that cleanliness is next to godliness.  If you’re Dutch you have probably heard that before.  By the way, that is not biblical – just the truth according to Grandma.  The Pharisees asked (15:2), “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat.”  They were not really so concerned about good hygiene.  (By the way kids, this is one time you are not to follow the example of Jesus’ disciples.)  The Pharisees where concerned about defilement.  A person who was “defiled” was ceremonially unclean.  They could not enter the holy place in the temple.  They couldn’t celebrate festivals with the rest of the congregation.  A person could be defiled in a number of ways: by coming in contact with a dead body or a diseased person, by eating unclean foods, or by contact with a Gentile, or just not properly washing their hands before eating.  Incidentally, they had developed a whole ritual about hand washing several times a day (one that went way beyond anything in the Bible).  It was done with fingers outstretched and held up in the air with water poured over them.  For them it had become a public display of spirituality: the more you washed and the better you washed the godlier your were.

Wilkerson pictures (tongue in cheek) a member of the nominating committee for elders standing up to say: “I’d like to nominate Ben.  That guy can wash!”  “I second the nomination” says another, “I understand he gets up at 5:30 every morning to wash.”  “And his children are very clean as well!”  Jesus sees through it all, and is obviously angry with their hypocrisy.  He points out that while they do all this ceremonial cleaning, all this religious stuff on the outside, on the inside they are creating loop holes in the law so they do not even have to take care of their own parents.  He quotes the prophet Isaiah about them: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”  This is so important that their hypocrisy means they worship in vain.  God isn’t listening.  This is the impure heart.

Jesus confronts everyone who is religious, but hypocritical in their attitudes and behaviors.    It is not the stuff on the outside that counts, not the stuff we take in, but what comes out in our talk and behaviors that makes us unclean.  Later when Peter asks him to explain Jesus said:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man ‘unclean.; but eating with unwashed hands do not make him ‘unclean.’

Jesus accuses them of pretending to honor God, when in reality they were serving themselves and advancing their own status in the community.  The Message translates this verse this way: “These people make a big show of saying the right things, but their heart isn’t in it.  They act like they are worshiping me, but they don’t mean it.”  They have their hearts and lives compartmentalized.  This was very radical for the Pharisees and for the disciples to hear.  Jesus was challenging one of the most fundamental and widely accepted spiritual practices of the day.  He saw their hearts were not in it.  It would be like questioning the validity of Sunday School or Bible studies.

Some of us have had echocardiograms and angiograms of our hearts.  There they are on the screen.  If there are blockages the white spots show up in the arteries. Let’s let Jesus speak into our lives at this point!  This beatitude is like an echocardiogram of our spiritual heart, of the very center of our being.  If you have been listening at all, then with me you feel like the further we get into this the more uncomfortable it becomes.  The prophet Jeremiah said, (17:9) “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  Beyond cure?  Who of us is ready to say there are no compartments in our hearts?  Who of us will claim purity, even as Jesus points out all the hypocrisy of evil thoughts, ugly feelings, and bad choices?  I doubt that any of us would volunteer to have our spiritual echocardiogram put up on the overhead screen this morning.  The heart is a place where anger is nursed, where thoughts of adultery, sexual immorality, and experiences with pornography hide. It is a place where gossip is at home and destructive thoughts of comparison and superior judgments of others flow out.  It is where our self-centeredness and defensiveness lives.  We have listened to Jesus accuse the Pharisees of being dirty dishes that are clean on the outside and full of filth on the inside.  He said they were like whitened tombs – pretty on the outside and full of rot.  With any honest introspection our condescension of them disappears.   It is too much like us.  Jeremiah said the heart is beyond cure.   Who can understand it?  Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  How will we ever see God? No hypocrisy?  No impurity?  Totally consistent?  How will we ever see God?  Is it impossible?  No hope?



There are at least two responses to all of this.  For some people this is way too much exposure, way too much truth, way too much vulnerability.  They will run from the truth with denial, telling themselves they are, after all, really pretty good people.  The second response is to acknowledge that our only hope is to have our hearts cleansed, purified, and transformed.  The only hope is to have God give us a new heart.  Psalm 51 reassures us: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  Again David calls out in Psalm 51:

(1-3) Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.


Again: (10-12)

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.


The only real answer for the “hearts beyond cure” as yours and mine are is the cleansing of the atonement of Jesus Christ.  As we begin to grasp this the accusing words “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” become the words of promise.  It is only in trusting his atonement, in the grace that recreates soft hearts with God’s love written on them, in the transformation of God’s work within us, in the adoption to be God’s daughters and sons, in the sanctification work of the Holy Spirit again today to make us see our total dependence on the grace of God – it is only in this salvation that we will see God.  And Jesus’ promise is that in him we indeed will see God.

We will see God because the blinders are lifted off our eyes and we will see him at work all around us.  We will see his hand at work in his church, in our community of churches, in each other’s lives.  When our hearts are single and focused we will see his plan moving in our lives.  And the promise is that we will indeed see him again when we claim the place Christ has prepared for us.

Again this morning we face the choice.  Our pride maintains a divided heart.  A hard look at our reality, at our spiritual echocardiogram, leaves us grasping the promise of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  God’s promise comes to you and me through the prophet Ezekiel: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone, and give them a heart of flesh.”  God promised us a heart transplant.



As we walk away from the beatitude this morning, we are called to introspection, but not to hopelessness.  We are called to faith and the transformation of God.  And we are called to action in a world that constantly attacks our hearts.  2 Corinthians 7:1 says, “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”  It is not easy, but gratitude and the desire to see God calls us to partner with him to turn away from those sins that bring impurity to our new hearts.  Every one of us has some special temptation or addiction or weakness that wants to pull us back from seeing God.  We battle in his love and power, and we are promised that those who have pure hearts in Christ will see God.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Blessed are the Merciful… (part 7 of 9) – Matthew 5:7; Luke 7:36-50


Before Advent began we were working our way through a challenging series of sermons on the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  The first four statements were inward in their focus – dealing with our attitudes and exposing our hearts toward God.  However, all the beatitudes are deeply personal and cause us to take a hard look at ourselves.  We talked about what it means to be blessed.  It is more than just happy, it includes joy, well-being contentment.  Strictly speaking it is the highest state of well-being available to a person.

We talked about the poor in spirit – the humility of understanding who we are in the sight of our perfect God.  We talked about the blessed being those who mourn the not only their own failures, but the suffering of people in our world, and the humility of the meek who know they are not the center of the universe.  We reflected on those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who just get sick of all the injustice and hatred and violence and crave the righteous judgment of God.  In it all we have sensed the issues of our relationship with God in a broken world.  We feel the pain of introspection and the hope of the promises of the kingdom of God.


Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  What does it mean to be merciful?  The word mercy shows up over 150 times in the Bible.  Interestingly the vast majority of those times is reference to what God does.  Luke 6:36 says, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”  In Ephesians 2:4 the Apostle Paul laid it out: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, make us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions…”  James describes true religion as action which shows mercy.  What is mercy?

Mercy begins with sympathy – feeling another person’s pain or need, but it does not stop at the feeling; it leads to action.  In his work on the beatitudes Brian Wilkerson says that mercy is better than pity.  When you pity someone you feel sorry for them, you acknowledge their need or pain, but you are not moved to actions.  Pity actually creates distance between yourself and the person in need.  Mercy draws you closer.  Mercy is kindness or compassion where it is not expected because the person showing mercy is under no obligation to show it.  When you forgot your homework, and your teacher lets you turn it in the next day without penalty, that’s mercy.  When a police officer catches you running a stop sign and decides to let you off with a warning, that’s mercy.  Mercy goes beyond what might be considered normal and natural.

In one of his radio spots, Chuck Colson tells a story from Iraq about a US triage facility doing its best to save the lives of two Iraqi insurgents.  The team had done everything possible to save the lives, but one of them was not going to make it without receiving a huge amount of blood.  The call went out through the facility for volunteer donors, and within minutes, dozens of American soldiers had lined up to donate blood.  At the head of the line was a battle-hardened soldier named Brian.  When a reporter asked if it mattered to him that the was giving his blood to an enemy soldier, Brian replied, “A human life is a human life.”  That’s mercy – unexpected kindness toward a person in need.

Mercy is similar to grace, but slightly different in its focus.  Mercy is a response to a person’s need.  Grace is a response to a person’s sin.  Mercy offers healing or help.  Grace offers forgiveness and restoration.  Mercy often precedes grace, and leads to grace but is focused on the need.  Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan grabs us because we see mercy that crosses the chasm of racial conflict without hesitation.

When we see mercy it touches us because mercy sees a need and responds.  It does not ask about justice or if a person deserves the suffering they are in.  It is gracious love acted out. God is merciful.  When we read the Old Testament story of Israel, we see the repeated cycle of God’s blessing, the people’s prosperity, then they would fall into sin – usually following a false god.  God would allow them to experience the consequences of their sin – often with being invaded and ruled by a foreign government.  Then, in their desperation that would appeal to God for mercy, and God responded.  It was not about what they justly deserved.  It was not about some claim they had on God.  All that had been relinquished.  They simply pleaded for God’s mercy.

The truth is that this is where you and I stand before God.  He has been merciful to us when we did not deserve it, when justice demanded another outcome, when holiness demanded our destruction, when disloyalty and selfishness demanded God to turn away leaving us in outer darkness separated from the one who is life and light and love.  Embedded in this beatitude is Jesus expectation that we are to act like God, people who treat others with mercy when they don’t deserve it.  We are to look past our judgments to other people’s pain or need and respond to that.


In the passage we read in Luke 7 we are told about Jesus being the guest of the Pharisee Simon.  It was common practice for Pharisees to entertain traveling teachers or rabbis.  It was also common practice on such occasions to leave the door open so that interested people could slip in and sit around the edges to listen to the conversation.  However, no one expected someone like this woman to show up.  We do not know her name.  We do know that she “lived a sinful life.”  We are not told exactly what that is; although we can be pretty sure that it did not mean she had some unpaid parking tickets.  She was either a prostitute or a notorious adulteress.

This was an auspicious religious gathering.  Women were not welcome, and especially someone like this.  Then the sensuality of her behavior was scandalous.  Letting her tears fall on Jesus’ feet was intimate.  Then wiping them with her loosened hair was outrageous.  A woman would only let down her hair in the privacy of her own bedchamber.  Then she emptied expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  Needless to say the religious conversation stopped and no one was passing the food.  They were shocked and offended, not just with the woman’s behavior, but at Jesus’ response.  He seemed comfortable with her presence and her public display of affection.

Verse 44 says, “Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?’”  Of course we suspect that Simon had not taken his eyes off the woman since she entered the room; and neither had any of the other fine, upstanding men around that table.  Simon had seen the woman, but all he’d seen was her sin.  Verse 39 gives us a glimpse into Simon’s heart: “When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”

Jesus saw something very different when he looked at this woman.  He saw whatever woundedness and desperation had led her to such a life.  He saw the abuse and exploitation she had suffered at the hands of men.  He saw the guilt and shame that kept her trapped in that destructive lifestyle.  Jesus saw all of who she was, but looked beyond her sin to her need.  Here is a person who men either exploited or condemned.  Jesus saw her as something more than merely sexual – more than just ‘that sinful woman.’  He saw a human being – a person who needed what every person needs: love, acceptance, and forgiveness.  So Jesus didn’t pull away in embarrassment to save his reputation.  He didn’t rebuke her for the life she’d been living, even though he knew about it.  He didn’t correct her awkward expression of worship.  That was what the Pharisees in the room expected a prophet to do, but Jesus didn’t respond in the expected way.

Instead he graciously accepted her extravagant and unorthodox display of affection.  He rose to her defense when those around the table wanted to pass judgment on her.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house.  You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  There, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little loves little.

  He dignified her behavior by describing it as worship of the highest order.  Then,  with the grace of God he pronounced her forgiven of all her offenses.  That is mercy!  That is unexpected kindness.  That is a picture of God’s mercy.  I am reminded of Psalm 130:3: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord who could stand?”


In this beatitude Jesus is telling us that if we want to be happy, fulfilled, contented, we need to see other people the way God does – with mercy.  Recall that mercy is a feeling that calls us into action.  The Pharisees looked at the woman who worshipped Jesus with her tears and her perfume and saw her sin.  His mercy saw a person and her need.  We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  And yet there is something in us that would prefer to see our stereotypes – the categories we put people in – rather than see persons and their need.  We tend to see nationalities, or religious affiliation or race or lifestyle.  There is something in us that appeals to what is fair, what is just, what people deserve, what they have done to themselves, “they made their bed let them lie in it….”  Of course, it’s different when we appeal for mercy.  We grasp for mercy and the grace that follows it.  We recognize in ourselves that our lives changed after we received mercy and grace, not before.  Yet, we want others to change first.

What a difficult time Christians have had getting on the movement to reach out to people who suffer from HIV Aids!  It was easier for most to ignore the incredible suffering and say it is a gay disease so they deserve it.  I am so grateful that God didn’t deal with you and me that way.

What does this mean for ministry?  Of course it first means we open ourselves to what is happening around us.  We become aware.  Maybe it is being merciful by looking at the volunteer opportunities in the foyer.  I was struck by a quote from A Hole in Our Gospel: “God can steer a parked car.”  We need to open our eyes to needs and see reality.  We’ve lived too long in a protective bubble.  Several years ago John Burke did a church plant in Austin, Texas.  They were trying to figure out what their church should look like and how to approach people.  They began by doing some research about people in Austin under 40 years old.  Who would they be reaching out to? Some of these numbers would not fit Modesto, but I suspect what they came up with is pretty common in this country at this time.  Here is the moral climate of this country and some of what we are dealing with.  Here is their list:

  • One out of every three women in their community will have had an abortion.
  • Nearly two out of every six women will have been sexually molested.
  • Most of the men will have struggled with pornography.
  • Most of the singles will be sexually active.
  • Six out of ten will think that living together before marriage is a good idea, and five out of ten will already have lived with someone.
  • One in seven will abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • About 85% will be unchurched.

What will we see?  Mercy – God’s or ours – does not stick its head in the ground but rather see reality.  It is not a denial of sin.  Three times in this story the woman is identified as a sinner, and Jesus himself used that word when he spoke to her.  It just sees people and their needs first.  Notice that after showing his mercy to the woman, then confronting Simon, he offered her the grace of forgiveness.  What does mercy see?  Think of it this way.  If you found a Rembrandt painting covered with mud, would you focus on the Rembrandt, or would you focus on the mud?  Hopefully, you would focus on the painting, recognizing it as a masterpiece of great worth.  Eventually you would have to do something about the mud.  You’d find an expert to clean it up for you without damaging the painting.  But you would be excited about the treasure you found.

When that woman walked into the room Jesus saw a masterpiece, but all Simon saw was mud.  Jesus saw a woman, created in God’s image for eternal glory.  Simon saw her inappropriate dress, her embarrassing behavior.  Jesus saw her potential as a human being.  Simon saw her sinful past.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  The merciful see how God has been merciful to them.

We are challenged to check it out.  What happens inside of us when we see someone’s need or pain?  What do we see first?  Is it time for us to take stock and go back and check out how God has dealt with us?  That is the challenge in this beatitude.  That is the Word of Jesus for us today.  These beatitudes can change the way we see the world if we let Jesus speak into our lives.  Is it radical?  Yes – it is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are the Hungry & Thirsty (part 5 of 9) – Matthew 5:6; Psalm 42

We’ve been working our way through Jesus’ teachings called beatitudes – the attitudes, characteristics, and relationships that build in people in God’s kingdom.  We have seen that Jesus’ words seem up-side-down, counter-intuitive in our culture and world.  This morning we approach the 4th beatitude we begin to see a pattern – these first four speak to our involvement with God in a broken world, similar to the first part of the 10 commandments.  But these are not laws, yet as we make them a part of ourselves they transform us and change our behaviors.   The beatitudes remind us of God’s promise through Jeremiah: “I will write my law on their hearts” –changing us on the inside.

Jesus words seem radical because in our world it’s all about materialism: how much money can we make so we can feel successful and good about ourselves?  How much prestige and power can we amass in order to feel secure in our world?  How much control of people and our life situation can we get so you don’t have to worry?  It is the story of nearly every advertisement, every competition, every social game of one-ups-man-ship.  How is it working?  Are we generally a secure, happy, contended, fulfilled,  and self-confident people?  Is that what you see when you look around? The amount of anger, depression, panic attacks, anxiety, stress-related diseases, broken relationships and suicide in our culture continues to grow.  We spend literally billions of dollars on medication to control our lack of emotional and spiritual health.

Jesus calls to us from a mountainside: to be happy, content, less stressed, and feel the closeness of God we need by being poor in spirit.  We need to understand that God’s gifts include everything we are and have.  Our job is to receive, enjoy, and use those gifts the best we can as his stewards – building with what God has given us for our families, for using our gifts in the world, for his kingdom.  We know it all comes from him, and in response to our stewardship he gives us joy, security, more blessings, even eternal life.  They are all gifts from him.  It changes the way we feel and behave.

Jesus said that those who see reality for what it is, who mourn and grieve the brokenness, the injustice, the sin, the pain in our world; and who grieve their own sin – missing the mark in loving God above all and loving people as ourselves – we are blessed with personal salvation in Jesus Christ.  And God gives us a community within which we work together to impact that world for him.  Again, he is the one who gives so our needs are met. And we find health in seeing the truth and experiencing the healing, redemptive power of his love as his people, his children, his ambassadors in the world.

Blessed are the meek, the people who are not filled with anxiety because they do not need to be the center of their universe, because they don’t need to be in control, because they do not need to control how everyone thinks about them, because they do not need to impose their will on others – blessed are the meek because God will give them a clear sense of themselves and a feeling of being at peace in their skin.  They know the source of their security, and they begin to experience their own version of God’s presence in the land – in their own version of Canaan.  The meek know the health of a quiet spirit, the ability to listen to others, and the joyful freedom of knowing it is really not all about us.

We begin to see a pattern – not only of attitudes that we who love the Lord and are a part of his kingdom are growing toward (I doubt that any of us are ready to say we have arrived), — but we begin to see that Jesus is talking to us about both emotional and spiritual health for those who are a part of God’s kingdom in a broken and uncertain world.  And we see a pattern that each of these are about responses to God as well as what he gives.

Blessed, happy, contented are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.  We could spend days on the word “righteousness” alone.  It is used 442 times in the Bible.  Let’s struggle a bit with this together.  What does it mean that we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness?  Does this touch our experience at all?  Allow me to ask you some questions.

As you look out at the world and as you see what is going on —  perhaps when watching all the bad news and destructive behaviors on TV or reading the newspaper – do you sometimes feel just tired of it all?  Do you sometimes see things about the way people relate in the church, or even more, do you sometimes look at the struggles in your own life as you try to get rid of the attitudes and sins that just keep sticking their head up, do you just get sick of it?  Do you get tired of seeing the injustices in our world, tired of exploitation of people who cannot defend themselves?  Do you get tired of people hurting each other – tired of gossip, of fighting, of hating and being hated?  Do you get sick of the exploitation of sex everywhere we look?  Do you get sick of listening to political campaigns that have little to do with real politics and everything to do with ½ truths and mudslinging?  Do you get tired of hearing about war, and racial hatred, and religious hatred?  Do you get sick of people acting as less than human image bearers of God?  I suspect that if we feel this kind of weariness with the world we are in fact hungering and thirsting after righteousness.  Do we get tired of those honest moments looking inside and seeing in ourselves the things we dislike in other people – realizing that we react negatively to others because we see in them a little of ourselves that we hate?

Where do we find something that will begin healing, begin to make some changes, begin to energize us with hope?  We know the answer is not found in another self-satisfied religion – not a “health and wealth” gospel, not American civil religion where we make believe salvation is tied to a country or social system or economic system, not another legalistic set of rules that attempt to make us look superior to others while we find the loop holes.  The answer is not found in another self-help program.  The answer is not found in another violent power struggle between people or religions so we can impose our rules on others.  We hunger and thirst for righteousness.  What is righteousness?  Let’s search the scripture together.  Looking at various places this is used we see three manifestations of or three parts to righteousness.  Let’s try to take them apart.

The first is legal righteousness – being right with God.  This is justification – being put in a right relationship with God.  Jesus and the New Testament authors talk a lot about people who work hard in the attempt to keep enough laws and rules to be legally righteous, to be OK with a Holy God.  It is all an attempt to do it ourselves, to be good enough, to be righteous.  The problem is that it all becomes external because we cannot be holy, because our thoughts are polluted and our motives mixed.  After a while it takes on a strange kind of fundamentalism—trying to force others to follow our rules, and is self-justifying as we look at how much better we are than others.  The Bible is full of pointing out that this does not work.  Read Romans 9 and 10.  Jesus said in Matthew 6:33 (in a discussion about worrying) “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

How do we do that?  Seek his righteousness? Here we face Luther’s dilemma – how do we keep the law.  We cannot.  We can only receive God’s gift through faith in Jesus’ Christ just like in the previous beatitudes.  As the Apostle Paul looked at this in his own struggle he said:

(Philippians 3:7-9) ”But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ –the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

Again in Romans 5:1 he said, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  How?  Through the atonement of Jesus Christ – his righteousness is God’s gift if we believe it, if we are willing to see ourselves and hunger for his victory in our losing battle with being good enough.  We need only to embrace him to be filled.

Along with the legal righteousness there is moral righteousness.  That refers to our character and conduct which pleases God.  Right after stating these beatitudes Jesus goes on to compare kingdom righteousness to that of the Pharisees – the religious leaders who we would look at as leading admirable lives. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Why would he say that?  They were trying hard. A study of the gospels reveals that their “righteousness” was a false one – it was about religious rule keeping and not about living within the covenant relationship with God.  It was about doing it themselves, about the competition of who can do it the best, who can look the best, who can come up with the most God-talk, about all the anxiety and stress that create emotional and spiritual sickness instead of the healthy humanness of intimacy with God – and having that transform our character and conduct.  In Matthew 23:15 Jesus makes the shocking statement that in all their religious efforts and outreach the Pharisees were only really making converts twice as much sons of hell as themselves.

So how can our righteousness be superior to that of the religious leaders around Jesus.  He gives examples of that later in the chapter.  The law is not about superficial obedience.  For example, when God commands us not to kill, it is not just about not doing away with our enemies; it is about valuing people, about building bridges to people.  The covenant intent is renewal of people, restoration of community, peace – shalom with God in community.  It is about being fully human in covenant community with God.

Adultery in God’s kingdom is not just about having sex with someone else’s husband or wife, it is about lust, it is about looking with intent, it makes everyone guilty.  It is about pornography and sexually objectifying people as opposed to dignifying others in all our thoughts and deeds, serving them and not ourselves, benefiting the community.  He goes on, it is all about covenant life, about moral righteousness.  And again, we first recognize that by ourselves we are not better than the Pharisees, but then we again see the gift of God in all of this.  Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are righteous,” he said, “Blessed or happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  If we seek it, if we depend on the Lord to help us, if we pray for the Holy Spirit to empower us we will be filled with the comfort of forgiveness and the joy of seeing growth, and the peace and health of the kingdom of God.  All of this is first of all about changes inside – changes in our hearts and minds, in our character and attitudes, in being transformed by the righteousness that is God’s gift through faith in Jesus Christ.

Finally there is hunger and thirst for social righteousness.  We have talked a lot about that recently – the injustice, the greed, the sickness, the sin we see in our world resulting in untold suffering.  Our hunger and thirst for being right with God in the way people deal with each other in our world overwhelms us until we see God’s gift of giving us a covenant community within which to support each other and to practice together our giving, our learning, our reaching out to the powerless and hurting, our hunger for righteousness.  Again, being filled is God’s gift of righteousness now (his seeing us in Christ and loving us where we are in the struggle) and the future of his eternal kingdom where love and justice and wisdom will rule.  We are God’s kingdom representatives in this world.  Peter said it this way: (1 Peter 2:9) “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  Together we seek social righteousness.  Last night Sandy and I heard Greg Mortensen, author of Three Cups of Tea, speak about building schools in Afghanistan, and building relationships in the communities.  This Lutheran guy from Minnesota, who everyone said was naive, is not a consultant to the US military because he has the most significant relationships.  Social righteousness!

Again we see that God offers his joy, his blessing, his happiness and fulfillment and health to us – not because we have arrived, but because we hunger and thirst to be people and for a world that is right with its creator.  Our desire, our intent, and our openness to his using us for the growth of his kingdom are enough.  We are his people, people served and saved through the righteousness of Jesus Christ who IS THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD.  Are we hungry and thirsty for righteousness, or do we get lost in the rat race?  We come now to accept his gift again, and recognize that we are tired of a broken world and want his kingdom to come.

Blessed are the Meek… (part 4 of 9) – Matthew 5:5; Psalm 37:1-17

There are all sorts of messages coming at us all day long attempting to convince us of the true nature of reality – the news media, politicians, sales and advertising, TV, radio, internet of various types – all of it telling us how things really are.  Contentment, happiness, joy, fulfillment, life meaning is all about getting on top, about power and control of people and circumstances, about prestige, about financial success, about popularity and acclaim, even about having all the right answers and claiming God is on your side.  Then we come here.  And we listen to Jesus teach us about the way God sees the world, about his kingdom, about reality that is so radically different from what we hear all day long. I wonder if it will even make any sense to us.  Let’s try. It is important.

A few weeks ago we saw how Jesus’ life paralleled Moses from his birth to the time Moses took God’s law to the people at Mount Sinai.  Now we listen to Jesus on a mountain side revealing the Word of God to a newly constituted Israel.  In Moses’ day it was radical that Israel would be told that there was only one God to whom they owed him all their loyalty and obedience.  That made them totally different than the world around them, a world of polytheism – many gods and divided loyalties in trying to appease the many.  Jesus’ words sounded just as radical to his audience – and they still do.  Who is truly happy?  Who is truly blessed and fulfilled and content?  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Happiness in God’s reality does not finally come to the “owner operators” but to those who know that they own nothing, that everything they are and have is gift from God for them to use.  These are people who experience joy, freedom, and contentment  in the reality of their poverty and their obedient stewardship.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Those who see the pain and suffering of the world, those who see how broken it all is, those who see their own guilt and distortions and alienation are the ones who are blessed.  They refuse to turn away from reality – as committed as Jesus was when he set his face toward Jerusalem.  They know the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ, and they will know the joy of being in community, blessed by God because each contribution to the world is a gift given to and blessed by God.  How different is that from what we are told happiness is?

Attitudes of being poor in spirit and knowing godly sorrow are characteristics of those who are maturing and growing in the kingdom of God.  Theirs is true joy, deep contentment and happiness, and the promise of life eternal because they have found true life meaning in God their Creator and Savior.  What a challenge for spiritual growth this is!  It is living in the fruits of the Spirit.  What an amazing God we have!  This changes the way we see everything else.  It changes our feelings, our relationships, and the way we interpret our lives.  Our world would never understand, at least not until they meet Jesus on that mountainside.  In Jesus’ world the pride of the rabbi teachers was learning, the pride of the Greeks was intellect, and the pride of the Roman’s was power.  Jesus said that only the humble can receive from God, only the humble are teachable and can learn, only the meek can receive forgiveness, only the gentle can walk in grace and live in love.

Jesus said, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  In order to understand this we need to spend a little time understanding the meaning of meek or words that are very close are: humble, gentle, or people with a quiet spirit.  This word has been greatly misunderstood.  In a world that values and admires the aggressively strong, the powerful, the football player pounding his own chest, the obscenely rich, and the super successful, meek has come to mean weak, a doormat, a milk-toast passive person lacking in any sense of self-worth.  That has been further engrained by false pictures of ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild – sweet, passive, un-political, un-disturbing.  Too often “meek” has meant telling women who are being abused by their husbands they need just to endure it silently, or people who are being hurt that they should just be nice.  This is NOT what we are talking about!

Meek, humble, gentle – the word has been defined as strength under control.  In Galatians 5:23 “gentleness” is described as a “fruit of the spirit” – a gift of strength from God.  Proverbs 16:32 says that meekness is stronger than a warrior: “Better a patient (same word as meek) man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.”  The Apostle Paul uses the term as a way of living worthy of the calling we have from God: (Ephesians 4:1-2) “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis said, “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays; he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody…. Probably all you will think about the humble person you meet is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”  James reminds us that humility or meekness is a choice, a command: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.”  Dr. Lloyd Jones wrote that a humble and gentle attitude toward others is determined by a true estimate of ourselves.  We know who we are under God and along side of others as God’s stewards.

In order to dig deeper, I would like to take you into three stories that show what it means to be meek.  In Numbers 12:3 the word “meek” is used for the very first time in the Bible.   It is used about Moses, which is striking since we have talked about the similarities between Moses and Jesus.  Let me read to you the first 3 verses of Numbers 12:

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.  “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked.  “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”  And the Lord heard this. (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)

            We are all aware that one could not call Moses weak or passive.  You recall that he was the one who killed the Egyptian for abusing a Hebrew slave.  When he ran from Egypt, the very first thing when he arrived in Midian, he saw a group of girls being harassed by a bunch of burly shepherds.  He took them all on, rescuing the girls.  Whatever Moses was, he was not weak.  And Moses, as leader of Israel, was not timid.  He went into Pharaoh’s courts to make demands for God.  When Israel worshiped the golden calf while he was receiving the 10 commandments from God, he ground up the calf and made people drink it in their water.

In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron attacked Moses’ person for marrying a black woman from another nation.  They also attacked his calling from God.  They attacked his person for what they saw was a failure in judgment, and they attacked his calling as chief prophet for Israel.  Instead of reading that Moses defended himself, we read that he was very meek.  He was confident and trusting that what God had told him about himself was true.  He just waited for the Lord to defend him, which in this case happened very quickly.  Moses was more than ready to defend God when the people worshiped and idol, but let God defend him when he was attacked.  Moses was more than ready to say, “It is not all about me.”  I will trust God’s promises.

How often don’t we need to learn to trust God again – to give up defending ourselves, to give up worrying about the future and whether he will in fact care for us?   How often do we again need to give up our pride and the need for everyone to like us, and allow God to lead and guide us?  Moses was called the most humble man on the earth because he allowed God to defend him.  He did not get all defensive and aggressive because they spoke badly of him.   Interestingly, the scene reversed and Moses ends of up defending Miriam to God.

Jesus quoted Psalm 37 in this beatitude.  Israel’s enemies abound, and they are an accusation.  Surely if Israel were God’s people as they claimed their enemies would be destroyed.  Surely life would be easy if God is for us.  There must be something wrong with them.  David reassures them in this Psalm:

“Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
(verses 7-11 define meekness)
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it only leads to evil.
A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found.  But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.

The opposite of meek or humble is arrogance, anger, control of others by power or manipulation.  Again, we see that meekness is ultimately letting go of our right to be angry and all about our not defending ourselves, making it all about us, while we trust the Lord.  It is God who will give us contentment, happiness, peace, and a place of security.  Just as Canaan was the promised land of milk and honey – the promised place of security and home – so God will make us inherit our place of security and contentment and joy.  Have you known strong, quiet, humble people who seem interested first in others and seem content in their own place and skin?  I have.  They are people you want to call “friend.”  Contrast that with controlling, manipulative people who are always looking for more, needing something more to feel OK about themselves.

Jesus understood this trust in God.  If you look closely at the story of the gospels you see the temptation that began Jesus’ ministry played out over and over.  If he just took things in his own hands – filled the people with bread, worshiped Satan, or did some really public miracles, then he could avoid God’s way of redemption – the way of suffering and atoning death and resurrection.  All he had to do was defend himself and do his own thing and make it all about him.  Of course, that would abort salvation and abort God’s plan of transformation.  Shortly after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 11:28 & 29 he said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek (or gentle – same word) and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

What does Jesus meekness or humility look like?  He who drove the money changers from the temple, took on the religious leaders, healed diseases and raised the dead was neither weak nor timid.  Yet in Matthew 26 when the high priests pressed him with false accusations, and finally said, “Are you not going to answer, Jesus? What is this testimony that these men are brining against you?” the text tells us in verse 63 that “Jesus remained silent.”  He did not defend himself.  How did Isaiah predict it?

“He was oppressed and afflicted, and yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,  so he did not open his mouth.”

            In Matthew 27:11-14 Jesus stood before Pilate.  Again, a host of liars stood up and attacked his person, accusing him of being a liar.  And what did Jesus do?  With an incomprehensible strength, confidence and dependence on God to defend him, he just stood there like Moses, refusing to defend himself.  Now it was about God’s plan – he gave himself in meekness with “your will be done.”  Pilate was amazed at his silence and his strength.  This is meekness.  Jesus is meekness.  He did not retaliate or defend himself.  Because he believed in God and what God said about him, he simply waited.  He waited for God to defend him with truth.  As Dr. Lloyd Jones wrote: “He knew who he was and had a true estimate of himself.”

People who are maturing in God’s kingdom discover meekness, gentleness, humility.   The proud, the defensive, the owner-operators, the powerful, the successful in their own eyes, the uncommitted to anyone beyond themselves have a lot to say.  Sadly sometimes we have mistaken that kind of power for leadership in the church –people who have a lot to say in defense of their own rights and wisdom.  I have been in church meetings where in the middle of all kinds of proud talk a meek and humble person silenced the room with a simple question about what it means to trust in God now.

In our walk as kingdom people we will encounter opposition.  The enemies may be people who slander us, like Mirian and Aaron did Moses.  Or they may be circumstances or lost opportunities or poverty or physical illness or old age or even death.  Finally the meek, the gentle, the humble see reality – having given up proud self-defense and justification – and trust God to defend them and give them a safe and secure place – their own version of Canaan.  They are content in their own skin – God’s gift of place.  They have a true estimate of themselves.  Their strength and controlled.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.  Today, we look at ourselves.  Jesus is calling us to the community of God’s kingdom.  Like you I know some angry, bitter, resentful, Christians who are full of self-justification, full of being superior, full of being proud and right in all their judgments of others.  Today Jesus is telling us that the mature in God’s kingdom are a part of a new community.  Their attitudes are characterized by being poor in spirit, ready to mourn the pain of the world and their own guilt, and the meek who refuse to even defend themselves, but focus on loving like God does.  Today we look at ourselves.  Blessed are the meek, the gentle, the humble for they will inherit the promised land, the earth, the kingdom of God.  They will receive a place of peace as God’s gift.  Again we are challenged to grow in spiritual maturity in God’s kingdom.  Let’s commit to that together.  What is God’s plan for us now?

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (part 3 of 9) – Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:17-36; Psalm 51

A few weeks ago we began a challenging series of messages on the characteristics or attitudes of people who are maturing in the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ teaching turns the values of our culture and society up-side-down.  As one author wrote: “Reality is stranger than we think.  The good life – happiness, contentment, wholeness, a sense of well-being and shalom with God and people – the really good life doesn’t come from any of the things our culture says will give them.”

We began this study by seeing that Jesus’ life in the 1st 5 chapters of Matthew was parallel to the life of Moses.  Matthew’s audience would have immediately seen this.  Moses took Israel to Mount Sinai after God saved them from the slavery of Egypt.  God gave his law to direct them into becoming a community – his people, the people of Israel.  Jesus sat on a mountainside delivering a message from God – a message about the new kind of community the newly constituted Israel was to become.  This is the way of the truly human community in God’s kingdom.

In God’s community, in God’s kingdom, the values of the world are up-side-down.  We saw two weeks ago that poor in spirit is rich, and today: sad is happy, blessed, meaningful.  As Jesus bluntly said in Luke 6 (the parallel passage) it is not those who laugh (the Greek word actually means to gloat) but those who grieve who know true joy.  Again we need to re-orient our thinking as we did last time.  I know this is not easy for us, but understanding God’s kingdom and our role in it is worth the work of thinking it through.  Maturity and joy in God’s kingdom, for us as God’s people, is being poor in spirit – knowing that all we are and have comes from the Lord as gift.  True transforming power comes from the model of Jesus who suffered and died in self giving love.  True human maturity and blessedness comes from the opposite of the arrogance of self-made people; rather it comes in being poor in spirit.

Now we read, in addition, blessedness, wholeness, true lasting fulfillment come through mourning, through sadness and grief.  Those who mourn appear to be most unhappy.

So what is this godly sorrow?  The word used here is intense – to mourn or grieve like at the death of a loved one.  How can this be related to happiness? Balm? Being healed and comforted?  Just to be clear, this grieving is not about walking around with a long face, not moping, not self-indulgent “poor me”, and not a lack of a sense of humor.  It is ironic, but sadness and joy and not mutually exclusive.  So how does grieving bring us to joy?  Let me share a story about a friend that may help us understand.  He gave me permission to share his story.

I first met John because he occasionally came to our church in Fort Collins.  He attended with his wife and children whenever we had something special.  His wife was the director of youth education.   John made it clear to me that he came for his family and that personally he had no need for religion of any kind or for God.  God was for people who couldn’t handle life.

John taught engineering at Colorado State University.  He was a very pleasant person, enjoyable to be around; yet always distant.  You couldn’t get close to John.  Slowly his story came out.  He flew bombers in the Vietnam War.  When I said that must have been very hard, he laughed and said it was the easiest and best duty out.  You got up, attended briefing, got your targets for the day, flew for several hours, dropped your bombs or napalm, and came back to party until you dropped.  My shocked look just drew a shrug and a dismissive comment, “you never thought about what you did.”

A couple years after I first met John there was a Vietnam memorial week at Colorado State University.  Being a veteran, he was expected to participate.  What he was not prepared for was that he was asked to host a film – a film showing the plight of the Vietnamese people who were on the ground when bombs were falling around them, and perhaps worse, napalm.  The film was very explicit, showing the suffering, maimed, burned, and dead.  John called three days later. He had essentially wept for 3 days over the chaos and suffering he had brought to people’s lives.  The film shattered his denial.  He had been trained to be a technician flying an airplane, and trained only to think about targets – not people.  All of John’s defenses broke down.  He finally broke through his denial to mourn the suffering and condition of the world.  It took awhile, but he began to see how his denial had also prevented him from being close to people.  His defenses had prevented intimacy and deep friendships.  He had worked hard to avoid being a part of a community, especially a church community where people were asked to look inside and confess their brokenness.  Now it all started crashing around him.  He needed a community for hope and healing.

Blessed are those who mourn.

John mourned the suffering of those people on the ground, and that finally allowed him to lament his own loss of innocence, his superficiality, arrogance and pride, failure to value human life, and eventually his loss of relationship with God and people.

How did David say it in Psalm 51 that we read earlier? “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  What do the people in God’s community grieve?  Why are they sad?  What do the blessed mourn?  We grieve the condition of the world.  We grieve the sin and brokenness and distorted priorities and values that create untold suffering.  This is not about being obsessed, but it is about being aware.  It is about grieving the reality that 25,000 people die each day from hunger and hunger related causes, while our world produces enough food to feed everyone.  It is about grieving about 350 million children who are hungry.  It is about grieving about 2.6 billion people who live on less than $2 a day, and 1 billion who live on less than $1.  By contrast we each use about $105 a day.  We grieve because malaria kills a child every 30 seconds – a disease that could be controlled.  We grieve when we leave our comfort zone to encounter the pain of peole in this world like Albert was sharing with us.  We grieve a world where there is spouse abuse and child abuse and crime and racial hatred.  We grieve a world where there is greed that is overwhelming: greed for money, greed for power, greed for control at the expense of anyone in the way.   The Apostle Paul said it in Philippians 3:18-21:

“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.  Their mind is on earthy things.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

            And Godly sorrow takes us to another level.  We grieve over our own sin.  The community of God, the kingdom of God, comes here to worship, and a part of that is honest self-awareness and grief.

We come each week with the words of David:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

            David’s confession is filled with the pain of grief.  He wants to open himself up completely: “blot out”… “wash away”… “cleanse” all my transgressions, my iniquity, my sin.  Take away everything that is evil in God’s sight.  Here we come to God confessing our dark side, our selfishness, our feelings of arrogance, our stereotyping judgments about other people, our impurity, our lack of caring and concern, our defensiveness that keeps us from being God’s kingdom community.

Blessed are those who mourn, (for the world, for themselves) for they will be comforted.  How does that work?  Listen to the dynamic in Romans 7:21-25:

“So I find this law at work:  When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from the body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Our mourning, our honest sadness, our grief about sin and alienation and brokenness in our world is necessary in order for us to find balm, healing, joy and the laughter of blessedness.  The analogy of our bodies is this: wounds must be opened and cleaned otherwise they fester, get infected, and eventually kill us.  The analogy of our psychology is that hatred, resentment, fear, false pride, self-judgment etc. must be exposed in the context of acceptance and trust in order to be healed.  In terms of our relationship with God and each other, our sins need the grief of contrition, confession, cleansing, so that we can be healed, renewed and comforted.

How are we comforted?

Jesus comforts us first with the joy of salvation.

Our tears are turned to laughter when we see the wonder of his love.  We look at Calvary and grieve because of the cost to cover our sin, then we laugh with the joy of those who are freed from bondage, who are cleansed from disease, who are released from the pit of guilt and fear into eternal life with God beginning now.  We laugh with a new a new identity as God’s children, God’s ambassadors, and God’s ministers.  Life is not limited to what we see, but is full of what we hope for.  It is not bound by our weaknesses, but is the stuff of God’s dream for us to be all we can be.  This is the laughter of true joy.

How are we comforted?

Jesus calls us into a new community – his kingdom, his body on earth, his church, his people. 

That is what the beatitudes are all about – a new community with values that are radically different from those of this world and of our culture.  These are characteristics of a people who are redeemed and transformed by God.  These are the attitudes we strive for so we can look like our Lord.  This is the community of acceptance, accepting each other because we all have known the acceptance we have received from God in Jesus Christ in spite of all our brokenness.  This is a community of forgiveness and reconciliation because we have been forgiven and reconciled to God.  This is a community of love because we have been loved.  We are now called to be imitators of God and to love one another.  This is a truly human community – with the goal of being human the way God intended humanity.  Here we are comforted by one another, even as in the first comfort of salvation we are comforted by God.

How are we comforted?

We are called to be on God’s team, and so we are joyful for the right reasons. 

The laughter that is referred to in Luke 6 is another word for gloating, the laughter of looking down at someone else.  We are laughing not at but with each other.  We are called to work together to make a difference in the world for God as his stewards.  We do this in community, each one doing a small part that God promises to receive and bless and use because he sees it as each act of love as a gift to himself.  That is the reason we have the Peter Fish offering today – a small act for those who are hungry, given to God.  Many of us have been dreaming about what our ministry focus looks like.  What if we as a community each contributed a small part to produce a well for fresh water for people who are dying without it? Or perhaps we could work with a small congregation in some 3rd world country to enable them to do more effective ministry.  There are many possibilities.  It just seems that God is so clearly calling us to refocus our ministry in order to make our individual and community ministries concrete.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  A couple years ago I got a phone call from John.  He told me about his family – boys grown now, and that he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church.  He struggled with his guilt, trying to do it by himself for a long time, but finally he turned it over to the Lord.  He found comfort and joy.  What about us?  Are we willing to grieve for our world and for ourselves so that God can comfort us and use us to build his kingdom?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  This is Jesus’ teaching about people in the kingdom of God.  We would never put it together like this.  I wouldn’t even think of it.  This is the characteristic and attitude of truly human people in God’s kingdom.  Is this who we are?  Let’s have the courage not to just dismiss it because it is not our idea.  It is God’s idea.  Will we reflect on it this week?  Act on it?

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit (part 2 of 9) – Matthew 5:1-16; Isaiah 6:1-8

Last week we began this series of messages by looking at how Jesus mirrors Moses in the first five chapters of Matthew. Now we are on a mountainside with one greater than Moses hearing a word from God about being his people – his kingdom. This “new” word is more than another external law or a bunch more things to do; rather it opens the characteristics, the attitudes, the transformation of the new Israel, the followers of Jesus Christ. Here is the ethics of the kingdom of God – a summary of what the law and prophets and gospel produce in a redeemed and truly human person in God’s kingdom. Law is about what we have to do. This is about what we are, what we need to be.

And all of this is confusing, counter-intuitive, and up-side-down. Jesus called his disciples to him – this newly constituted Israel and described eight characteristics of the mature and sanctified Christ-follower – people of whom the kingdom of God is. Let’s try to define the pieces so we can begin to understand.



“Blessed” …. I had a supervisor when I was in training to be a pastoral counselor who told us that we need to assume that people spent 100% of their time attempting to make themselves happy. Though cynical, he may be close to the truth as we observe how people around us function. Jesus said something radically different about functioning in God’s kingdom. “Blessed…” the word is rich in meaning: blessed by God, content, secure in God, happy, complete, fulfilled.

This is certain what everyone wants, works for, dreams about for themselves and their children. What does it take to be happy? Enough success to feel secure? A retirement program that allows us to do all the things we couldn’t do when we were working 60 hours a week? Admiration from others? Popularity? A great education for the kids? Lots of attention from other people? Power and control over our little piece of the world? The American dream – work hard, get rich, be secure? Health? An adoring family? People’s love and gratitude? Being the “best” at something? What gives us happiness? OK, in our deepest hearts we suspect that there is not enough of any of these to maintain our happiness even if we give our life to it.


Poor in spirit

So Jesus turns it all up-side-down: to be truly happy, blessed, fully and truly human again you need to become poor in spirit. Poor? Doesn’t this word frighten us? POOR? POVERTY? That has to be a contradiction, a paradox, or an oxymoron.  To understand this let’s think first just about being poor. When we see extreme poverty we are moved to help.  It is so awful compared to our existence we can hardly imagine.  It scares us. Look at this 1 minute clip to make our point…….  We saw the anxiety producing words: poverty is – hunger, lack of shelter, no education, no health care, no choices, powerlessness. Isn’t this what we fight to avoid?

Happy are the poor in spirit? Spiritual poverty … spiritual poverty is the recognition, is the deep self-knowledge, that we stand before a Holy, Almighty, God as a beggar with nothing to offer. This is the exact opposite of all sinful human pride, of arrogance that tells us the illusion that we are independent and in control. This is what the prophet Isaiah realized as he stood before God in 6:5: “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

It is all upside down. We judge people and success and value and class of people around their wealth. Jesus says – they have none, and when they know that they will be happy!? I am reminded of Jesus looking at the churches in Revelation. He comes to Laodicea in 3:15-17 and says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich: I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”


Happy is Free

OK, so what is happy about? How can this poor in spirit stuff add up to happy or blessed? In the humility of understanding that we have nothing, in the awareness of our total dependency on God, we are free. FREE? Free to live in a thousand gospel-like ways, ways in which people who have the illusion they are rich are not free. For instance, if we are poor in spirit, have the right view of ourselves we are free not to worry and be anxious because we are trusting God to give us what we need that we cannot give ourselves. We are free not to try to control everything because we know that is an illusion. We cannot really control anything but ourselves. We are free to value other people. We are free to forgive, free to allow others to be broken because we know ourselves and give only what we also need.

And ultimately, beyond all those things we are free to receive: receive anything and everything God might give us, receive anything and everything our Father who knows our needs and is outrageously generous might offer us, receive as wonderful gifts that fill our joy. Here is the wonder of what Jesus is saying: if we are poor in spirit, poor in the inside, not having any illusions about who we are, but aware of our total dependency on God, then we are free to be – to become truly human again. We can receive from God and depend on God as we were made in the first place. We are then ready to know the blessing of the joy that Jesus won in offering himself to bring us back to God.

Jesus wants us to reflect on that – happy – blessed – complete – whole – contented are the poor in spirit who know everything they are and have is received.  And once that get through to us – that everything we receive is gift: gift we don’t deserve, gift freely given, then we become rich in gratitude and joy as we use and develop and enjoy and share the abundance of gifts  — owning and deserving nothing.


Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is for them or of them.

When Jesus came teaching he said “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, or “the Kingdom of God is near.” That kingdom, God’s eternal rule came personified in Jesus. The structure of the language here says that God’s kingdom is “for” or “of” the poor in spirit. He came with power and wisdom to defeat the powers of evil in our lives and world. However, his atonement for us, his servanthood, becoming sin, suffering and dying established the reign of God in a new way in the lives of his people.

The Kingdom of God. We are kingdom people. We belong to his kingdom first of all – before any other political power or state or government.   We sense that we are called to bring about the kingdom. We pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer: “May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” What did those 1st century Jews here when Jesus talked about the kingdom? They, of course, thought about restoring the glory of Israel by reinstating the throne of David and throwing out the Romans.  This would bring the promised Messiah. So they were doing everything they could to hasten the kingdom of God. How did they attempt to do that? We need to pay careful attention to this because we see parallels among us.

  • The first group was the Zealots who championed the way of violent revolution. They would usher in the kingdom of God by sword and spear, by slaying the enemy. They beatitude would be “blessed are the physically strong, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  • The Pharisees championed bringing in the kingdom with religious observance. They believed by scrupulous adherence to every jot and title of the law they would bring the kingdom of God. If they could just get everyone to do it right God would have to listen. “Blessed are the religiously strong, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
  • A third group were the Essenes who championed flight from the world. They would usher in the kingdom by setting up safe cities in the desert away from the world. Their beatitude would be “blessed are those who are strong enough to renounce the world, leave it behind and create a safe place where they can create the kingdom of heaven.”
  • Finally, there were the Sadducees who believed they could hastening the kingdom with political cunning and gaining political power. They did not want to fight like the Zealots or hide like the Essenes, but instead get seats of power in the world. Their beatitude: Blessed are the politically powerful, for they can force the kingdom of heaven on the world.

These were the four ways in Jesus’ world. Any of it sound familiar? And what did he think of them? He astonished all his hearers: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, the happy ones who are given the kingdom are not those who sit near the seats of power, not the religiously strong, not the militarily strong – but those who know they are poor and powerless. He went the direct opposite direction from the people of his day. This was his way of being human, being the faithful people of God. How did this work?

They were called to bless the world, and they were trying to kill it with violent revolution. They were called to liberate people and they were enslaving them with rules and religious observance. They were called to be a light to the world and they were putting their light under a bush in the desert, in their own little private development. They were called to be distinct from the world and they were yoked with it in all they were doing. He brought the kingdom of God by caring for the downtrodden and rejected in society. He brought the kingdom of God with a cross, suffering, and death. God brought his kingdom in the power of his resurrection in our lives. The poor in spirit bring the kingdom of God with their compassion, with their hospitality, with the loving spirit of the early church, with the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven as God builds it in the hearts and lives of his people one person at a time. The unfaithful still want to build the kingdom with power or politics or oppressive religion or living their lives in some bubble in attempts to hide from the world. We are called to be poor enough in spirit to receive. Are we? The program for building God’s kingdom, for being truly human in an inhumane world is turning the other cheek to your enemies, going an extra mile, giving your shirt too if they demand your cloak, and forgiving. The program for the kingdom is confession instead of arrogance and compassion instead of judgment. The program for the kingdom is being a light in the world and serving the poor, the down and out, so that the reign of God can break through. The goal is serving not winning.

Jesus said, Blessed, happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. It makes no sense until we understand the gospel and see Jesus who won the kingdom by being willing to suffer and die for you and me. We are now called to be his ambassadors, the children of God, the poor in spirit who understand that everything we do and have and are is a gift from his hand. We then understand that poverty of spirit is owning the wealth of the kingdom.

Jesus, like Moses, gave us the Word from God on a mountainside. Are we able to hear him, or are we too engrained in building the kingdom our way? It all begins with how we see ourselves – anxious, fearful owners or in poverty of spirit receiving everything from God and using it for him with joy. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Maturing in the Kingdom: Introduction to the Beatitudes (part 1 of 9)

Matthew 5:1–10 (NIV84)

1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.



This morning we are going to begin a new series of messages that are going to challenge us.  I confess I have wanted to work on this series for a long time, but never have.  This is not easy.  As we have seen over the last year as we have tried to listen again to a Christ-centered gospel, his message is radical in our world.  That was clear last week when we talked about stewardship.  I sense that most of us are ready to hear the gospel, and not just listen to what we want to hear.  Some of us have indicated that looking at our spiritual relationship with God at this level makes us uncomfortable.  Jesus has a way of doing that.  His teaching in this introduction to the Sermon on the Mount stands against so much of what our culture values.  It is counter-intuitive, radical, and takes us to the heart of the kingdom of God.  Jesus came proclaiming this message: The kingdom of God is at hand.  It is here – in him, and now in us, and will come in all its fullness when he returns.

Matthew 5:1 tells us that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.  His disciples (note who he is teaching here), his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them…”  This morning I want to introduce the beatitudes.  What are these 8 sentences we read?  How are we to understand them?  How did Jesus intend for us to hear them?  How are they to function in our lives?

Let’s first clarify our goals.  The first goal is for us to understand the scripture and the kingdom of God more deeply by opening ourselves to Jesus’ words, even if that seems difficult.  Our understanding and starting from the right place is critical.  If we don’t get this right it is a little like the rocket scientist aiming a rocket at the North Star.  If our starting point is even an 8th of a degree off, we will miss by a million miles.

For example, the beatitudes have been understood and interpreted as Jesus telling us how to get saved, laying out the conditions to become a true believer.  If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to be poor in spirit.  Let’s be really clear, that is not what Jesus is doing here.  This is not a list of rules to follow to be saved.  There are two manifestations of God’s grace.  There is saving grace – that which we receive when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.  There is also a grace for his disciples, for believers, that is transforming grace.  This is what we are talking about when we sing May the Mind of Christ My Savior dwell in me…   In the beatitudes Jesus is telling his disciples then and now how to be more fully and more faithfully his people in the world.  This is about the fruits of the Spirit lived out in our attitudes.  This is Jesus teaching us how to be ever more truly human people in the kingdom of God while living in a world that is horribly confused, violent and marred by sin.

That leads us to the second goal – seeing a standard as kingdom people to reach for.  What does being filled with the mind of Christ look like?  These are be-attitudes.  God is building his kingdom in the hearts and lives of his people.  We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  These statements are the kingdom attitudes and aspirations of the Christ-follower.  This is about grace that transforms us.  Studying this is not like having some preacher offer us three statements that are going to make us healthy, wealthy and wise.  The beatitudes will call us to check out attitudes that have become deeply entrenched habits in our lives.



The beatitudes are difficult, and very important if we are going to understand our spiritual life in God’s kingdom.  In order to be clear and accurate we need to see two contexts in which these statements come from Jesus.  These two are the theological and historical contexts – and they are like lens through which we see so we can understand.  First the THEOLOGICAL.

First, Matthew was writing his gospel to a Jewish audience.  These people would have known their Scriptures far better than we do.  They knew the Old Testament inside and out.  They had much of it memorized.  So when they saw in this gospel the slightest echoes of the Old Testament story, they would have heard it readily and easily.  Secondly, there are constant echoes of the Old Testament story in the opening 4 chapters of Matthew.  We need to read it like those 1st century Jews.  You may know the story, but let me tell it again so we can hear what some of Jesus’ audience heard.

It begins in the book of Genesis where the good creation went bad because of human disobedience to God’s Word.  But instead of giving up the project, every time sin got really, really bad, God enacted a judgment while at the same time selecting or electing a particular man to be, as it were, his new Adam – his way to carry on with and bless the world.  When the world was destroyed in a flood, Noah was elected; he was to be God’s blessing to the world.  And then, when the world was again dismantled at the Tower of Babel, with all the babbling and divided nations, Abraham was elected: he was to be God’s new Adam – his blessing to the world.

But what happened to Abraham?  Well, after tracing Abraham’s family tree – or, as Genesis called it, after tracing each generation of Abraham to the end of the book, his offspring (the 12 sons of Jacob) settled down in Egypt.  And while that was OK for a while, when we flip the page and enter the book of Exodus, we see that because Israel had become a huge people, their being in Egypt had become very bad.  They, the hope of the world called to bless the nations of the world, were now enslaved by the world, enslaved by a tyrannical Pharaoh who didn’t know God.

But, what happened?  We know from Sunday school that God raised up a Deliverer – Moses.  Moses was born in strange circumstances.  As tradition has it an elderly woman name Jochebed gave birth to him, bringing him into a very dangerous world.  King Pharaoh had issued a decree for infanticide: all Israelite baby boys were to be killed; thrown into the Nile.  But as we have been told, the Deliverer Moses was miraculously himself delivered.  The Nile River delivered him right into the heart of Egypt!  When he grew up, Moses began God’s campaign to free his people and establish the kingdom of God in the world.  Moses went to Pharaoh to say for God, “Let my people go.” And after a time of stubborn refusal, and God’s plagues against Egypt, Pharaoh finally had to let the people go, and dramatically, as they came out of Egypt, they were brought down and through the waters of the Red Sea, and then, immediately, they were sent out by the Spirit of God into the desert.  While there Moses led the 12 tribes of Israel to a mountain, Mount Sinai, where they received the Word of God through Moses.  They received the 10 commandments on stone tablets.  They received their charter for life, their blueprint for being human and the people of God in the world.

Now reflect with me on Matthew’s gospel because Matthew knew his audience was in much the same situation as Israel when they were in Egypt.  They were ruled by a tyrannical ruler – not Pharaoh, but Caesar of Rome.  Matthew began his gospel with a genealogy (same word used in Genesis).  He started with Abraham and traced it all the way to Jesus.  Jesus we are told was to be Israel’s Deliverer – and of course, within the context that would have been understood by Israel, he would be their deliverer from Rome.

Jesus, like Moses, was born in incredible circumstances – and remarkably similar ones.  In Matthew 1 and 2 we are told that he was born of a woman named Mary, who was very young and who was a virgin.  Besides this, Jesus was born into a dangerous world.  It was a world where the evil King Herod issued a Pharaoh-like decree for infanticide in Bethlehem.  All the baby boys under 2 were killed.  The Deliverer Jesus, just like Moses, was miraculously delivered himself, and sent to the center of Egypt.  What is even more amazing is that when he grew up, Jesus, just like Moses, began God’s campaign to free his people and to establish the kingdom of God in the world.  In chapter 3 we are told about John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus.  After coming out of Egypt and growing up, Jesus went down to John the Baptist and, in a highly symbolic moment, was brought down through the Red-Sea-like waters of the Jordon River in baptism.  And then, immediately after his baptism, Jesus, just like Israel before him, was sent by the Spirit of God into the desert.  And there, in the desert, he like them, was tested – in a test that lasted 40 days and 40 nights instead of 40 years.  And then, Jesus gathered around himself a band of 12 disciples, the number of the 12 tribes of Israel.  He gathered them around himself, like Moses did, and led them to a mountain, where, as the new and greater Teacher, Jesus sat down and began giving his newly constituted Israel a new and greater blue print and charter for being human in a very inhumane world.      Not the 10 commandments this time, but the 8 beatitudes.  And not on stone tablets – but this time, if Jesus was to have his way, to be written in their hearts.  For that is all part of his plan – the deeper mission Jesus is on.

That is the theological context of what is happening on this mountainside.  Jesus was being recast by Matthew.  He was being deliberately portrayed as the new Moses who is challenging a new Israel who will gather themselves around his teaching – challenging them to receive a new charter and blueprint for being his truly human people in the world for the sake of the world: blessed to be a blessing.  That is what is going on here with the Beatitudes.

That brings us to the second context – THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT.  Why did Israel need this?  Why did Jesus need to say these beatitudes at all?  He wasn’t saying it to save them – we know that.  They are all to be saved by his grace.  Jesus gave these statements because, very simply, Israel of the 1st century had on the whole become unfaithful to God.  They were not living as truly human people, salt and light, the city on the hill.  They were not living as God’s people – blessed to be a blessing.

You see, as can happen in the Church of Jesus Christ today, and does happen all the time, the people of Israel in the 1st century thought they were elect – chosen by God – because somehow or other they were a little better than others, a little more deserving of grace.  And with that kind of thinking in their heads, it was easy for them to think of God as their God, their kind of private tribal deity, who of course was for them and against everyone else (especially their enemies).  The next obvious step was for them to forget that God called, chose, and elected them for the sake of the world and to be a blessing in their world.  For them bringing in the kingdom of God was all about their prosperity, their political success, and their returning to the glory days of Israel.  Now they were thinking just like the rest of the world and became a part of the problem instead of God’s solution of salvation.  It is in this historical context that the beatitudes will ring with radical, up-side-down, mind-bending words from God about his kingdom – his not ours.

So here is our challenge for the coming weeks.  These blessings from God can only be heard if we are committed to listening to Jesus – the new Moses who comes with the same authority as the 10 commandments.  Listening means truly opening ourselves to the transforming grace of God speaking.  This is not about telling God what we want him to say to make us comfortable, or to demand what we have always assumed he was saying.

Jesus will speak about what it means to be a truly human person in the kingdom of God whose image we bear.  This does not look anything like the American dream or the messages of our culture, or the moralisms that indicate that if we are against a couple things we are Christian.

One of the reasons this is a challenging pilgrimage through the beatitudes – and for that matter through the whole of the Sermon on the Mount – is that his teaching is unexpected, surprising, and counter-intuitive.  His call is for us to be Christ-followers ready to again receive his transforming grace so we can be truly human, living a truly God-blessed life.  This will be a challenge for me and for all of us.  Do we have the courage to really hear him?  This is about the transforming grace of God.

Why do this?  Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount give us some clarity as we approach the beginning.  Matthew 7:24-27:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.   The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

The Shadow of Remembering – A Good Friday Meditation

On this Good Friday we come here to remember Jesus and his sufferings in this service of darkness.  When he instructed us on using the elements of the Lord’s Supper he said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  I would like to reflect on that with you for just a few minutes this evening.

Our lives are full of symbols.  The more complex a society becomes the more symbols we use.  We greet each other with a handshake, a symbol of welcome and acceptance.  We are surrounded with symbols pointing to reality, giving identity and meaning, offering beauty, expanding awareness and sometimes manipulating us; everything from road signs to names to titles.  Flags and words and numbers are all symbols pointing to a reality.  Pictures, paintings, TV advertisements, on and on, all are symbols pointing to something else.  Some of us have jobs that deal almost totally with such symbols.  And sometimes symbols change in their meaning over time, some words do not mean the same thing they meant 10 years ago.  In Jesus time the cross was a symbol of the greatest curse; being hung up – rejected by earth and refused by heaven.

Our service this evening is very simple, but rich in symbols that carry powerful messages about truth: the cross, bread and wine, candles portraying light, and life, and the darkness of their being extinguished pointing to darkness and death.  Christian symbols carry profound messages.

In giving the Lord’s Supper Jesus understood the use of symbols in some special ways because he understood the rituals of the Old Testament.  They were all symbols pointing to him: lambs sacrificed and rams taken out of the camp with people’s sins laid on them.  He told us to use common bread and wine that would create images and memories of him, his suffering on the cross, and his resurrection.

The first thing we need to know about symbols is that they move from being just a sign to a personal experience when we have faith.  For example, we come here and see a cross, and it has personal meaning for us because we are Christian.  We would need to talk a long time to say everything that symbol means to everyone in this room.  If a person did not know anything about Christ, it would probably be no more than a rather unusual decoration.

Jesus said, “Use these signs in remembrance of me.”  How do we remember?  I find it a fascinating thing that our minds have a two track memory.  On one track we remember symbols: words, pictures, scenes, facts, situations.  On the second track we remember feelings.  I am sure you have all experienced being in a situation that had similar dynamics to something you experienced before, and found previous feelings returning.  Maybe you heard a song on the radio, and suddenly you experience a whole set of feelings that your mind is recalling even before you remember the facts.  On many occasions in my ministry I have seen people singing in church with tears running down their faces, perhaps because the song we are singing was a favorite of someone they have lost.  Sometimes the feelings we experience seem strange and out of place because we do not immediately recall the original situation.  It is common for me to experience grief on the anniversary of the death of my dad even before I recall that it is the anniversary of his death.  I feel sad and am not sure why, and then I will recall what time of year it is.

Our Christian symbols call to mind our personal experiences with the Lord.  But there is another kind of memory at work here as well: it is collective memory.  There is a kind of memory we share with our families or with our community that comes through hearing the stories over and over, knowing the history.  That collective memory is also a part of our identity.

I had an experience that demonstrates collective memory.  You know how children are often fascinated by stories about their parent’s youth.  My boys used to ask me question, and I would tell them stories about my growing up.  One night I was telling them a story about my great grandfather, describing him in some detail.  My dad happened to be listening to all of this with some humor.  At the end of the story he said, “I could not have told that better myself. How did you know all of that?”  My immediate response was, “I remember it.”  He laughed, “Your great grandfather died before you were born.”  I had heard the stories so often at family reunions and from my dad that it had become a part of me.  I remember it as if it were my own experience.  In the Christian Church we have a collective memory that comes from telling the stories of the Bible, from experiences of Christians – a collective memory that is merged with our personal memories.

What happens when we remember, when the symbols and the feelings are recalled with intensity, when the drama of our memories are merged with the collective memory of God’s family?  It is a moment of reliving, experiencing again, something that comes out of the past but is now a present experience for us.

We begin to see that when Jesus said, “Do this is remembrance of me,” he is talking about something far more profound than casually recalling some event.  This is an instruction for us to “live again” the events, the wonder, the drama of God’s gracious love – not only in general, but specifically for us.  We are called to remember, to relive it, to stand again with Mary and John at the foot of the cross.

This is really what this service is about tonight.  In its simplicity of telling the story again with the scripture passages, we relive in memory the darkness surrounding the atonement he made for us.  It is not just an historical event, it is a part of who we are, a part of our experience, a part of our very identity.  We use these symbols to jog our personal and collective memory.  Jesus calls us to remembrance tonight, to a communion that shares an experience of being loved in a way that cannot be paralleled.  We shudder in the darkness of hatred.  We ache in the reality of betrayal by people he loved, and feel the pain of the darkness of desertion and broken trust.  We weep with the agony of his spirit in Gethsemane, and feel the brokenness of disunity.  We stand in awe of his going through the darkness of his dying and the surrender to the will of the Father and the grave.  We wait in darkness for the joy of his resurrection.  We do this in remembrance of our Lord.  

Lukewarm? Feed the Fire! – Revelation 3:14-22 (Laodicea)


In this season of Easter we have been reflecting on how the light of Easter shines in our lives.  What does it mean for us to follow the resurrected living Christ?  On Easter we asked, “So What?  What Does it Mean that He’s Alive?”  Then we walked with Christ and the people on the way to Emmaus reflecting on their words: “We had hoped, but we have not seen him.”  Last Sunday we heard Jesus ask Peter and us, “Do You Love Me?”

My plan was to begin a series in June on the letters to the 7 churches from the first part of Revelations.  However, the Gem’s theme today is taken from the last of those letters, so we will begin today and start at the end.  It all begins in Revelation 1 where the Apostle John saw a vision of the resurrected, ascended Christ walking among the golden lamp stands that represented the 7 churches in Asia Minor.  More accurately they are cities or areas with many groups that together made up the church in that area.

What strikes us first is that in John’s vision there is no doubt that this is the  glorified Christ speaking.  He is the Lord addressing his churches.  John sees him (vs. 13)

“dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  His head and air were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.  His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.  His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”

In the pictorial power of apocalyptic literature John and his Lord want to get our undivided attention.  The words that come out of his mouth powerfully reinforce the picture and call us to our knees in worship: “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One: I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever!  I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  Living with the resurrected Christ brings us to awe in worship.

The City

Jesus is identified to Laodicea with some interesting names.  He is the Amen.  Christ is the AMEN – (we say the word to mean, “so be it” or “it is true for us”) it is a Hebrew word that means foundation or the faithful one or the trustworthy one.  He is therefore the faithful and true witness – the revelation of God.  He is the very WORD OF GOD.  He is the ruler or foundation or first one at the creation of God.  This takes us back to John’s gospel: all things were made through him.  The images would have reminded the church at Laodicea of Paul’s words in Colossians about the eternal Christ, the 2nd Person of the Trinity – which would have come to them given their location.

Of all the churches addressed in this first vision of Revelation, Laodicea was the richest, the most successful.  The city was a commercial center, noted for its black wool and carpets.  It also had a medical school, and it was well known for the eye salve called Phrygian ointment.  The Roman historian Tacitus writes that Laodicea was so rich that after an earthquake there they turned down aide from Rome.

An interesting thing about this city was that they had no local water supply. They had developed a stone aqueduct system to bring water from the hot springs of Hieropolis about six miles away (note map).  By the time the water reached the city is was tepid and had a bad taste.  As we look at the realities of the city and the detail in the letters it becomes very clear that though apocalyptic in style, these letter were written to specific churches and real people.

The Judgment of Christ

This is the last letter in the series of 7, and it is the most devastating statement of all the letters.  It seems that Laodicea is a church so self-satisfied that it is totally blind to its true condition.  It is so far from what it should be that Jesus stands outside, knocking for admittance to the lives of individuals who call themselves Christian.  Notice again, Jesus is outside.  That pictures should always challenge us.  We need him in here, inside.

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were cold or hot.  So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”  The image of lukewarmness is so powerful and contemporary, because they knew from experience the reputation they had for nauseating water.  It is hard to imagine anything more devastating for a Christian Church than to hear the risen Christ say, “You make me sick You are just like your water.”  It is clear that as they were, they were unacceptable to God.  Jesus goes on to explain the reasons for their lukewarmness.

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”  Financiers, physicians specialized in eye ailments, clothing manufacturers are among the most notable citizens of Laodicea; but poor, blind, and naked is the verdict on them and their church.  These were Christians who were so self-confident, so self-righteous, so impressed with themselves that they didn’t even see the deterioration in their spiritual life to the place where they were lukewarm, hollow shells doing church stuff without humility, without passion, without joy, without compassion, without Christ.

Standing outside the church Christ calls to them:  don’t you understand the true source of your riches, your clothing, and your sight?  “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”  (Notice all are images from the city and their prideful attitudes) They thought they were going to get security from their wealth.  They thought they are going to get beauty, importance, acceptance and grace from their black clothing.  They thought they are going to be healed by their physicians, but they remained insecure, broken, and spiritually blind while they told themselves they were wonderful.  One gets the impression here that what angered Christ was not so much their condition but that they were so satisfied with themselves.  It was their apathy.  Christian apathy disgusts Christ!

I am reminded of something I have struggled with and see almost every day in others.  Some of us are driven in our work or driven to be successful or driven to be the best at something so we get acknowledgement and attention from others so that we will feel worthwhile and valuable.   We end up feeling depressed and lonely because our work cannot give enough value to make us happy and content.  There is not enough popularity, not enough power, not enough success, not enough attention or love or pity, not enough narcissistic manipulation – not enough stuff external to us to give us a sense of value, contentment, happiness and joy.  It all falls short because the only real source for human value is the God who made us in his image and the Savior who redeemed us back to that image.  Here our spiritual life and physical life and emotional life all come together as one.  Once we claim that, accept it in faith, know it in Christ, then other gifts from him in our lives reinforce and strengthen us so that we are free – free to give, free to love, free to hold life loosely, free to feel compassion, free to be the ambassadors of Christ in other people’s lives.  Christ calls to us: Come, get from me the real gold that makes you truly rich, that buys clothing that surrounds you in love and acceptance, and salve that makes you see reality clearly.

And sometimes we just settle for what we get from the externals, just get really lukewarm about life, just self-satisfied in our lies to ourselves, self-centered and apathetic in our religion, and Jesus stands outside and calls and knocks and threatens to spit us out.  The only good thing that the church in Laodicea had going was their opinion about themselves, and that was false.

Jesus judged this church more harshly than all the others, but he doesn’t turn away, even though he expressed his disgust.  Affirming his love and call to them he said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”  Sometimes when we struggle – especially with our feelings and relationships and discontent and fears – we would do well to remind ourselves of this statement.  “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent.  Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.”

The focus of the Gems study this year has been about how do we see lukewarmness? and what do we do about it?  One of the statements in their material says this: “Countering spiritual apathy, rejecting casual Christianity is desperately needed.  We live in a culture that has created its own version of faith – a faith that focuses not on God and what He wants, but on the individual – on me and my comfort and my wants.  It is imperative that we wake-up and pay attention to how our culture is influencing us.  We need to replace this lackluster faith with a vibrant passion and love for serving Christ.”  We need, according to the Gems theme, to feed the fire.

They studied symptoms of lukewarmness and spiritual disciplines to counter it.  The goal was to get the girls to sense Christ standing at the door of their hearts and calling to a deeper spiritual life, a more passionate love.  We hear Jesus telling us this morning to be aware of his love for us, to be earnest and repent – to evaluate our lives, our attitudes, our faith, and seeing if our self-confidence is really just apathy.  I think every one of us sense there are times in our lives when we need to earnestly review where we are at, and then repent by inviting him back in.  I would challenge you as I challenge myself today to overcome any resistance, denial or apathy and examine ourselves to see if Jesus is standing outside looking in and calling us.

As obviously frustrated as Jesus was with Laodicea and is with us sometimes, he calls to us with love and promises: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”  Eating together, just like for us at an intimate dinner party – it is enjoying each other, it is sharing, it is communion with Christ, it is seeing him in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine, it is intimate joy with our God.   And the promises keep coming.  “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  Here is the wonderful picture of victory.  We will be with him.  We have a seat reserved at the divine banquet and a seat reserved on the divine throne.

This letter from the risen Christ through John to the church at Laodicea ends with a formula statement.  You will hear it often in these passages: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  It means, pay attention!  This is important!

What do we do with all of this today?  We celebrate with the Gems, grateful for them and for their growth and study.  And their study challenges us to earnestly evaluate ourselves and repent of any lukewarmness we find in us and feed the fire.  In the promise to do that we bask in the love of Christ who calls us to dine with him and spend eternity with him.  We are challenged again with the reality of living with the resurrected Christ in this season of Easter.

Christ Attends the Needs of His Church – Revelation 3:7-13 (Philadelphia)

We have been working our way through the seven letters to the 7 churches in the first vision of the book of Revelation.  Since we began with the last letter – the one to Laodicea, we are ending this morning with the letter to PhiladelphiaLast week we concluded by talking about the absolute necessity of continuing to be a Christ-centered church in a world that has many other agendas for us.  In the letter to Philadelphia we hear the living, resurrected, glorious Christ speaking to and attending to the needs of his church – in this case one that had little strength in itself.  Philadelphia was the smallest of the cities and the smallest church addressed in these letters.


In order to organize our thoughts around this message I would like to use the statements about who the Lord is, and relate that description to the situation in Philadelphia, to the opposition they were receiving, and to the realities of their faithfulness and Jesus’ promises.  This is a wonderful way to end our series – seeing the Christ who attended to the needs of Philadelphia and who attends to our needs.

1.         “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true.”  Who do we serve?  The Lord who is God: absolutely pure throughout, righteous, consistent, trustworthy, without deceit, and with perfect integrity.  Holy and true.  He is the one who knows us.  He knows our deeds.  He knew that the small church in Philadelphia hadlittle strength.   He sees reality clearly and without distortion.  This is the Jesus we are called to follow, to love, and to obey.

If you watch NFL football (and you may not this year), you may have seen a quarterback after a play has been run, standing with his finger in his ear hole of his helmet.  That may look a little strange, like many other things in football, until you understand that there’s a little speaker in his helmet.  An offensive coordinator is talking with him.  He sits high up in the press box where he can see the whole field and what everyone is doing.  He can see things people can’t see from the sidelines.  He can see everything the other team is doing.  All the quarterback has to do is listen to the voice in his helmet and follow it.  This picture of Jesus reminds me of that.  He is the one who sees it all.  He, as we shall see in a moment is the one who opens and closes doors.  He is truth and holiness.  He is the beginning and the end – Alpha and Omega.

That description stands in stark contrast to the people opposing this small church, people Jesus called “the synagogue of Satan.”   Philadelphia was like Smyrna in that they had to face opposition from the local Jewish population.  Of course “Satan” is the father of lies.  Unlike Christ, who is the truth, these people claim a lie; they claim falsely to be the holy and only people of God.  But they in fact were pseudo Jews.  Jesus promised that the people who were persecuting his church would be made to see the truth: that God loves his church. That truth will bring these people who claim God as their own to their knees.

2.         Who is this Christ who attends to his church?  He opens or shuts the doors of opportunity for this small but faithful church.  Let’s look closely at this intriguing passage about who our Lord is.  “These are the words of him who holds the key of David.  What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open… See I have placed before you an open door.”

These words come from Isaiah 22:22 where Isaiah prophecies for God that Eliakim, a faithful servant who exhausted himself for God’s people, will be given strength and authority.   He is the doorkeeper for God.  The verse says, “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David, what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.”  He goes on to promise to make him a safe and secure person to hang on to.  This idea continues to grow throughout the rest of the book of Isaiah – the keys to the house of David – eventually come to mean offering entry into the kingdom, the city and the temple of God.  As it is picked up in the New Testament it is, of course, having the door opened for us to enter the kingdom of God.  The doorkeeper with the keys is the one who opens the door for us, or shuts us out.  The keys of the kingdom were taken from the priests and Jewish leaders and given by Jesus to his disciples.  (Mt. 16:19)  So Peter and his associates have the privilege of first admitting not only Jews, but also Samaritans and Gentiles, to permanent membership in the kingdom.

As we translate the whole history of the idea, as it developed in the Bible, the Lord we serve is the one who for Philadelphia and for us opens doors of opportunity for building his kingdom.  Jesus said to Philadelphia, “See, I have placed before you an open door.”  We sense that this church may be small and have very little influence and be seen as weak, but there was an opportunity that Jesus wass giving them.  He responded to the fact that they had little strength, but yet they had kept the faith, had not denied his name, have followed his word.

3.         This Christ who we serve will take this church and make it strong and secureThat promise flows through this letter.  Christ is going to bring the synagogue of Satan to its knees before this church as they recognize that Christ loves his church.  In verse 12 he says that he promises those who overcome that they will be “a pillar in the temple of my God.  Never again will he leave it.”  The promise of security, stability, and permanence must have touched these people deeply.  Not only were they a small minority and subject to persecution from others, but Philadelphia was an insecure place to live.  It was the youngest of the cities.  People had to run from the city on the occasion of several earthquakes – and the one in 17AD totally destroyed it.

Philadelphia was a city with an insecure identity.   It had been named Philadelphia after its founder, then when Tiberius rebuilt it he renamed it Neocaesarea.  Then Nero changed the name back to Philadelphia.  Then Vespasian, the Caesar from 70 -79 named it Flavia.  It is kind of like, “Who are we this year?”  Jesus promised to those who are faithful and overcome, “I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.”  They will have a name, an identity and a place that is secure.  This is forever.  They have an identity – a permanent name that identifies them with God.  They are safe.  They are known by their new name.


The Christ we serve is holy and true.  He is the ones who holds the keys of David – opening the kingdom of God and the doors of opportunity for our ministry.   He is the one who makes us secure and gives us an identity.  He is the one who knows us completely and is not offended by our weakness.  (He doesn’t care if we are not a megachurch or if we have great power, he cares about our faithfulness.)  We sense the power of his words as they apply to us as well as Philadelphia 2000 years ago: “I know your deeds.  See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.  I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and not denied my name.”  He is not offended by our smallness or weakness – even though he is the Lord of glory.  We are reminded here of the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.  “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Christ calls to you and me through this letter to Philadelphia.  He calls us to patient endurance.  He calls us to the courage to move through the open doors he offers open doors for wholeness and health, for ministry and building his kingdom.   He calls us to faithfulness – to keeping the main thing the main thing!.  I suspect there are more than a few of us here this morning who wonder how it all fits together, wonder how it will all end, who feel weak or confused or insecure.  We might be young parents trying to keep up with small children who sometimes run us ragged and we feel anything but in control.  Some of us struggle economically and we are feeling anything but secure.  We might be in relational pain, feeling anything but confidence and peace.  Some of us are facing serious health crises, and we feel anything but strong.  Some of us feel cultural pressures coming at us from every side – peer pressure, career, the media, political pressure, social pressure – so many things that want our attentions and to pull us away from being Christ-centered.  Some feel like they are in a hopeless and helpless place as we worry about family members who seem spiritually or emotionally lost.  We may be teenagers whose friends wonder why we just don’t give us all this religious stuff.  Some of us face constant temptations to give in to the destructive patterns we have known in our feelings and relationships, or there is constant pressure to give in to addictions that are destructive.  Some of us face moral temptations around our sexuality or fiscal honesty.  Some of us just want to escape or are tempted to be unfaithful to ourselves, to each other, to our mates, or to God.

This morning we need to hear the Christ who says: I know your deeds, your circumstances, your faithfulness.  And he knows when we have failed.  Jesus calls us back to patient endurance, to be faithful to him, to keep the main the main thing.  We are called to understand that in surrender to him when we are weak we are strong.  We need to hear Jesus say it to us very personally: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Do you, do I need to surrender to that grace this morning?

This morning is our time to embrace the Christ who addresses his church, to hear who he is for us:  he is the holy and true one.  He is the one who opens doors.  We prayed about Redwood and Jan shared with us this morning how he has opened doors in ways that are almost shocking to us.  He will open such doors in your life and in mine.  If you are one of us who is feeling weak this morning, look past the weakness now and find that open door.  It is there somewhere.  In the meantime he calls for patient faithfulness.  He is the Lord who makes us secure and gives us a new name – a new eternal identity as the sons and daughters of God who will spend eternity with him.  We have a new name.  We carry the name of God.  We are his people, co-heirs with Christ, ambassadors of the King,  WE HAVE A NEW NAME.   It is the name of God.  It is our eternal status.  Our Lord is the one who gives us security.  He makes us pillars in the temple of our God.


In these letters we have seen the glorious, resurrected, Christ walk among his churches.  In these 7 letters we have heard him bless those who are faithful with promises specifically fitted to their situations and needs.  We take comfort from knowing that he knows us and knows our needs as clearly and completely as he knew theirs.  And we have been challenged – by the luke-warmness of Laodicea, by an Ephesus that had all the theology right but lost their love, by the faithfulness of a suffering people in Smyrna, by the compromises with immorality and idolatry in Pergamum, by the clever rationalizations and justifications and philosophical excuses for unfaithfulness in Thyatira, and by getting lost in culture and politics like Sardis.  We are challenged.

We end today by looking again at the Lord who walks among the candlesticks and knows [the Church] and every one of us completely.  We hear is call to faithfulness, to being Christ-centered, to every one of us to be Christ-followers with patient endurance.  I hope we can take in the comfort and the challenges of these letters.  I would encourage you to read back through these messages on our web site to sense again what it is like to stand in the presence of the Lord we serve.  The holy and true one says, THIS IS IMPORTANT, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”