Sunday, February 24, 2008

Blessed are the Merciful

... for they will receive mercy.

Matthew 5:8

One of my favorite movies is the Lord of the Rings – well, as a trilogy, it’s technically three of my favorite movies, but that’s beside the point. In this movie, two Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, have a dangerous task – to take an evil, magical ring of power deep into enemy territory to destroy it. While they are on their way, Gollum, the creature who formerly owned the Ring, attacks them and tries to kill them. When they finally overpower him, Sam wants to kill him. Frodo won’t let him. Instead, Frodo shows mercy.

As it turned out, Gollum led Frodo and Sam to their destination. He did not show them mercy – this was his way to later try to steal the Ring for himself. But his actions eventually helped destroy the Ring and seal victory for good over evil.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Showing mercy is counter-cultural. Instead of going for the jugular, mercy gives second chances. This beatitude walks hand-in-hand with blessed are the meek – while meekness holds strength and power under control, mercy deliberately uses power for the good of others.

But why should we show mercy? This is a self-fulfilling beatitude – God watches the measure with which we dispense mercy and promises to give to us in the same manner.

Are we ready to accept that? This comes along the same lines as something else Jesus said, something we repeat every week. When he was teaching his disciples how to pray, he told them to pray like this: “Forgive our sins, just as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Are we willing to accept that God forgives us in the same measure as we forgive others? How would we act if that knowledge made it from our heads to our hearts? Might we be a little more forgiving of others?

Listen to what Jesus had to say in Matthew 18:23-35

God has already shown us great mercy. 1 Peter 2:10 tells us that “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

God has given us mercy in great measure. And what does he expect in response?

Micah 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Let me finish with a couple quick thoughts on mercy:

1. God gave mercy to us while we were still sinners. We were effectively his enemies when he poured out mercy on us. The implication of this is that we aren’t supposed to simply show mercy to our friends, but even to our enemies.

2. Mercy isn’t a payment for what God did for us – we could never repay that. It is simply our response. I will sometimes stop to help someone, and often they have tried to give me money for my help. Instead, I tell them, “Someone has stopped and helped me before, and I’m just passing that on. Instead of paying me, the next time you see someone in need, you can help them.”

3. The measure of mercy we give will determine the measure of mercy we receive.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Blessed are those who Hunger and Thirst For Righteousness

...for they will be filled.

Matthew 5:7

Have you ever been hungry? I mean really, really hungry, where your stomach won’t leave you alone. I have participated in the Thirty Hour Famine several times – it’s an event that World Vision does to raise awareness and funds for world hunger. Part of the event is going without food for (you guessed it) thirty hours. One year when we were doing it, we took a group of homeless kids to Cosi Museum in Columbus. Each of the homeless kids was given some money to spent, and I remember one of them bought pizza… and made one of our kids, who was fasting, hold the pizza and carry it around all afternoon.

If you’ve gone without food for a significant amount of time, you know what it’s like to be hungry. But what about when you are hungry for something specific, and nothing else will do? There are times when I have a few of that kind of cravings – El Famous Burrito is one such craving, and there’s a Thai restaurant in Lima I really like.

I remember once when Tara and I went up to Lima to eat at that restaurant. I could already taste the curry. We could have gone to any restaurant we wanted, and we both had our hearts set on Thai. We got there, only to find that it wasn’t open on Mondays (or whatever day it was). We were crushed. We ended up eating somewhere else, but it wasn’t what we really, really wanted.

If you get cravings, you know what it’s like; you really won’t be satisfied by anything else.

Unfortunately, we’re often impulse eaters. We’re on the road and we’re hungry, so we stop at McDonalds, and has anyone here seen Supersize Me? Don’t get me wrong; I like McDonalds. But although they serve some healthy choices, those really aren’t why we go there, are they? We want the fries and the grease. We’re hungry so we fill ourselves with junk food.

This can be true of our spiritual lives as well. God created us to be in relationship with him. There is within each one of us what’s been called a “God shaped hole” – a longing that can only be filled by God himself. We can try to fill this hunger any way we choose – this is one reason that drug and alcohol abuse are rampant as people attempt to self-medicate. We try to fill the hole all sorts of ways, and none of them work. Only a right relationship with God will actually satisfy.

This is what this beatitude is all about – hungering and thirsting after the one thing that will satisfy, a craving for much more than food. Back in Matthew 4, the devil tempted Jesus. He was in the wilderness forty days, and he was hungry. Do you remember his first temptation? The devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus told him, “No – One doesn’t live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Obedience to every word that comes from the mouth of God is righteousness – a right relationship with God, and, as Jesus states here, the reward is that you will be filled.

God, however, won’t starve you – he doesn’t withhold his side of the relationship. Not from anyone. But unfortunately, many choose not to eat. We’ve snacked so much that we’re just not hungry. What have we snacked on? We’ve snacked on little sins. We’ve snacked on busy-ness. We’ve snacked on money. We’ve snacked on our self-sufficiency. We’ve had some great-tasting snacks like sports and family, things that are good in themselves, but taken in too great a measure can result in us losing sight of our relationship with God.

Are you really hungry for that right relationship with God? Is it more important than food? Is it more important than drink? If so, that’s awesome!! But if not, just how do you work up an appetite for righteousness?

I believe that one way we can work up that appetite by working for justice. My right relationship with God isn’t just between me and God – it’s also between me and my neighbor, and it’s between us – as a community of faith – and God. Are we actively working toward that end?

We can work up that appetite by sharing Jesus Christ with those who don’t yet know him. By acting as God’s hands and feet, by allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us to draw others into that right relationship with God, we work up a good appetite for the only meal that will satisfy our hunger.

We work up that appetite by devouring the Word of God – and obeying it. If we continue to do this, we’ll continue to work up a good appetite for a right relationship with Him… and we will be filled.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Blessed are the Meek

...for they will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:5

What do you think of when you hear the word "meek?" A mouse? I’ve found that it’s not an extremely positive word – people generally don’t want to be described as meek. It seems to carry the connotation of being weak or being a push-over.

The Greek word pra-os that has been translated "meek" or "humble" or "gentle" is also used to describe a soothing medicine, is used by sailors to describe a gentle breeze, and is used by farmers to describe a broken colt. What do these have in common? They all describe something with great power, held under control.

So can we work with a definition of meek as strength under control?

Think about this: superheroes always had their alter-egos: Superman had Clark Kent, Spiderman was Peter Parker. Both Clark Kent and Peter Parker were known for being nerdy. They held their super strength under control. These are good examples of meekness.

Why would anyone want to hold their strength and power under control? Aren’t we supposed to go for the jugular? Let everyone know how powerful we are so they can cower in fear of us?

Sometimes holding strength under control is the only way to protect our weak areas.

Superheroes always have weaknesses – and the draw of their stories is often a super-villain who tries to exploit those weaknesses. If he just walked around as Superman all the time, it’s probable that one of his enemies would manage to get to him with enough Kryptonite to defeat him.

How does holding our strength under control protect our weak areas?

Remember that this verse doesn’t just stand alone in the scriptures. It comes in Kingdom of Heaven context, and it follows after the statements that God blesses the poor in spirit and those who mourn. To be poor in spirit is to rely on God for everything, and to mourn includes mourning everything that separates us from God.

When we rely on God for everything and mourn our sinfulness, the next step is to willingly submit to God – submit everything to Him. Our biggest area of weakness is that we do sin, and, having sinned, we can’t get back to a right relationship with God on our own. So instead of simply trying to work through our own strength, we submit to God’s will.

Our super villain is Satan, who tries to make us think that we can do it all on our own, out of our own strength. This is what Jesus’ first temptation in the wilderness was all about. And it’s a constant temptation for us as well.

When we submit, we gain. When God called me to go on a mission trip to Russia, I didn’t know how I would raise the money. My "strength" was that I had earned my own money the previous summers to go toward tuition, and that summer I would be earning zilch. In fact, I’d be paying $3300 that I didn’t have for the privilege of earning nothing. I submitted to God’s will, and not only did I receive all of the needed funds for the trip (I even got enough to share with some friends who were going), but I also earned more that Spring than I had the previous Spring and Summer combined! I believe that was God showing me a little foretaste of what Jesus meant when he said, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

Sometimes holding our strength under control is the way to gain more than what we would gain by flaunting our strength.

I receive a devotional from the Voice of the Martyrs every day, and you’d be shocked to see how many of the stories there are of Christians being wrongfully accused, arrested, beaten up, thrown in prison, and even tortured – then, instead of getting revenge on their captors, willingly (even smiling) receiving their beatings, praying for their captors. Then their captors are so overcome by these attitudes that they begin to seek the peace that allows people who look weak to show such fierce resolve in the face of torture. They end up accepting Jesus for themselves – and those who held their strength under control gained more than they could have had they fought.

The ultimate example of meekness was Jesus Himself. Listen to Jesus’ words from Mark 14:36, shortly before He went to the cross: "Abba, Father," he cried out, "everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine."

He could have stopped the crucifixion at any time. But he chose to submit instead, and this is the result, as reported by Paul in Philippians 2:5-11:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honorand gave him the
name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,in
heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus
Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.

Because of His meekness, we are reconciled to God.

So as we live our lives with strength under control, we behave as Jesus did, and the results are like Jesus’ received: we get rewards ourselves, and we help others to have access to God as they witness our actions.

I want to close with a passage from the Psalms:

Psalm 37:1-3, 8-11, 16, 22, 27-29
1-3 Don’t worry about the wickedor envy those who do wrong. For like grass, they soon fade away.Like spring flowers, they soon wither. Trust in the Lord and do good.Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.

8-11 Stop being angry!Turn from your rage!Do not lose your temper—it only leads to harm. For the wicked will be destroyed,but those who trust in the Lord will possess the land. Soon the wicked will disappear.Though you look for them, they will be gone. The lowly will possess the landand will live in peace and prosperity.

16 It is better to be godly and have littlethan to be evil and rich.

22 Those the Lord blesses will possess the land,but those he curses will die.

27-29 Turn from evil and do good,and you will live in the land forever. For the Lord loves justice,and he will never abandon the godly. He will keep them safe forever,but the children of the wicked will die. The godly will possess the landand will live there forever.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Blessed are those who Mourn

...for they shall be comforted.

Matthew 5:1-12

Mourn = to feel or express sorrow; lament; grieve; to grieve for someone who has died

Last week we heard that God blesses the poor in spirit – those who are at the end of their rope and realize their need for God. While it doesn’t feel much like a blessing while you’re at the end of your rope, being in complete trust in God is the best place you can be in.

Today we hear that God blesses those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Any of us who has lost a loved one knows what it feels like to mourn. How is that a blessing? And though most of us have been comforted from that loss, is the benefit we get from the comfort actually worth the loss?

Let’s look at it from a cost/benefit point of view: when we buy something, whether we think about it consciously or not, we’re always making a judgment about something’s worth. Is it worth what I’m paying? Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances; we all complain about gas prices, but they haven’t risen to the point where we have refused to buy gasoline. When I was in college, I realized that the price of books had risen to an unacceptable level, but I had to buy them… so I sought out used books. I didn’t like a lot of the books I bought – but they were part of the cost of attending class, which was part of the cost of getting my education.

The trade off was this: I bought some overpriced books I didn’t like for some classes I didn’t want to take in order to get the education I wanted. The end result was worth it.

But with this beatitude, at face value it doesn’t seem like the end result is worth the price. Comfort doesn’t seem like it’s worth the mourning. I mean, if there was a way to avoid any death altogether, I’d sign up!

To me, this is where Bible study gets exciting: when Jesus says something ridiculous!

To find out what Jesus could possibly mean, there are two paths I’d like to take.

First, we mourn when someone has died, so let’s talk a little bit about life and death. Who likes to talk about death? Not me. It makes me uncomfortable, possibly because I’d rather be in control. Death is the ultimate control-remover.

Do you remember how death was first introduced? In Genesis 2, God told Adam that he could eat from any tree except for one – and if he ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would die. Then in Genesis 3, the serpent tempted Adam and Eve, telling them that God was a liar. "You won’t die," he told them. And though they didn’t physically die with their first sin, they spiritually died that moment.

Spiritual death is all around us.

So, what does mourning have to do with spiritual death?

First of all, spiritual death is worthy of mourning. One of the things we mourn about when someone physically dies is that we are separated from them. In spiritual death, we are separated from God. If we go through our entire lives separated from God, our reward is eternal separation from Him.

Our individual sins also separate us from God – and thus are worthy of mourning. Do your sins bother you enough that you mourn over them? Or are you satisfied that yours aren’t as bad as someone else’s? Here’s the truth: without God’s grace, we’re all spiritually dead – we’re just a bunch of zombies walking around like Night of the Living Dead. To make matters worse, we’re not only guilty of personal, individual sins, but we also commit corporate sin. As a church, are we concerned with those who are separated from God? Do we mourn that separation and do everything we can to bring them to God? Or do we walk around zombie-like, ignoring the spiritual death around us?

But what comfort comes from mourning spiritual death? Well, when it’s combined with last week’s beatitude, we mourn our sinful state and realize our ultimate reliance upon God – then the comfort that comes is salvation – life in the Spirit, which is true life indeed.

We’ve been taking the first path, the path of life and death, and let’s continue on the second path: let’s talk about the Kingdom of Heaven. If you remember from last week, I mentioned that the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-10 are bookended by the phrase "the Kingdom of Heaven" – meaning that all the concepts within are a cohesive unit having to do with the Kingdom.

So mourning and comfort have to be understood within Kingdom parameters.

In Revelation 21:1-4, we read the following description:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever."

This is the comfort that Jesus is promising for those who mourn – a time when we will see God face-to-face, a time when death is defeated, even spiritual death. Where nothing at all separates us from God.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.