Sunday, August 17, 2008

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Matthew 5:1-12

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

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The sun was shining. Everyone was going about their daily business, pretty much oblivious to what was going on. Didn’t they know that my friend Ian had died that day? Didn’t they know that everything had changed, that we’d never be the same?

If you’ve lost a loved one, you probably know that feeling. It seems like everything should stop and stand still in honor of your loved one, but things don’t stop. The sun still shines. The earth still turns. Still, it seems like there is no comfort available, that the best you can feel is numb.

The good news, as Jesus proclaims, is that those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted.

Last week, we looked at what it means to be "blessed." This term means Shalom – complete wholeness in everything: mind, body, soul, and spirit. True Shalom only happens through the character and action of God. We also established that God’s heart is for the poor in spirit – those who realize their utter dependence on Him for everything. God rewards them with everything: namely, Himself.

Today’s beatitude is similar to last week’s. Blessed are those who mourn. This is a hard subject, simply by counting the cost. People generally mourn when someone dies, and what kind of comfort do we experience then?

Some people tell us things that in other circumstances would be comforting, but they just don’t ring true. Others who just should have kept quiet, say things that are downright hurtful.
Sometimes the best comfort that we can get is that in time, the pain subsides. I don’t know of anyone who has lost a loved one who can say that the pain is completely gone.

So, when Jesus pronounces that mourners are blessed by "comfort" on the surface, it kind of rings hollow.

However, this is simply a matter of us judging God by human standards. This is the same logic that says, "I don’t feel loved by my parents, so God must not love me either." It’s like if you watch me run a 5K race and determine from watching it that no American can run fast.

In this beatitude, Jesus is not just saying that comfort will just "happen" to those who mourn; he is using a verb (paraklethesontai) that specifically states that God will do the comforting.

Last week I read from Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

In the next verse, we find that the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD has called him "to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn."

Jewish Rabbis referred to the coming Messiah as the Comforter – now here He was, in person, ushering in this Messianic age, bringing comfort. But how does he bring comfort?

To understand how the Messiah brings comfort, we have to know exactly what is being mourned. As I mentioned, we identify mourning most closely with death and separation, and the ultimate comfort would be reconciliation. Even those whose loved ones have died receive comfort when they’re reminded of the heavenly reunion that awaits them. When we sin, we estrange ourselves from God.

While we mourn our sinful state, God sends this comfort: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, wiping away our sins, reconciling us to the Father, comforting us.

However, this is only part of the story. We, as Christians who have been freed from the guilt and power of sin, mourn for the seeming slowness of God’s justice. We see innocent children suffer and die. We see horrendous atrocities like in Darfur. We see brazen sinners acting with impunity, and we wonder how long this will go on. When we see sins wreck marriages and families, we mourn the sinful fallen state of the world. Revelation 6 shows a picture of those who had been martyred for the word of God and the testimony they had given. "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer.

We who are in the Kingdom also mourn for the lost. There’s a wonderful passage in Acts 17 where Paul comes to Athens. This passage is famous for Paul’s reasoning and debating with the Athenian philosophers, but did you know how it started? Listen to Acts 17: 16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. Did you notice that? Paul was "greatly distressed." Paul mourned for the lost, even though he had just come to Athens, he had a heavy burden for the people.

There are people in our lives who don’t know Jesus Christ. We all know people who are bound for Hell. We know people who are great people and do all sorts of neat stuff, but they’re far from Jesus. They’re all over this town. Maybe some of you are far from Jesus, too. Does that break your heart? Or do you just accept that they can do whatever they want and it doesn’t matter to you? I’ve got something for you to try this week: pray to have God’s heart for people.

See if you mourn for the lost then.

Here’s the deal: we’re in the in between days. The Kingdom broke into our existence in the person of Jesus Christ, but hasn’t come in its fullness. It can be compared to D-Day, at which time the Allies won the decisive battle in World War 2. This battle was the turning point of the war, but the war wasn’t yet over.

Jesus proclaims that the mourners can now rejoice, b/c the kingdom has arrived & salvation is at hand. He already won the war… but the individual battles still need won. This is our part. We can’t be expected to change the world if we don’t care about the lost.

If you really care about the lost – if you mourn their lostness, there is one great comfort that is available. The lost don’t have to stay lost, and you can do something about it! Here’s what to do.

First of all, open yourself to the leading of the Holy Spirit. He might put someone or a specific
part of town on your mind.

Then pray for that person or part of town. If it’s a part of town, prayer walk it – walk around the place praying! If it’s a person, pray for him or her every day. Write down their name somewhere you’ll see it – so you’ll remember to pray.

Finally, do something. As you listen to his voice, the Holy Spirit might have something for you to do, something concrete, something that says to someone that church people aren’t so bad, something that says to someone that God isn’t so bad. He might have you tell someone about Jesus – to be open about your faith.

Seeing our loved ones join Jesus Christ is the greatest comfort we can receive.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:

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

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

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

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

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

I have a good friend who really seems to believe that Jesus was just a really inspirational motivational speaker who had a lot of good stuff to say.

I have heard many people talk about how Jesus wants us (usually us clergy) to be financially wealthy.

To these people, I say, you haven’t listened very well to what Jesus said!

Understand this: Jesus wasn’t just a motivational speaker, telling you how to be nice and how to live your life well so that you didn’t end up living in a van down by the river.

No, Jesus wasn’t anything like that. Jesus had a lot of hard words for his followers. Even members of his closest circle of friends doubted. At times they wondered "who can understand this?"

Unfortunately we’ve often missed his radical message and replaced it with a message of sin management. We’ve exchanged the "deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me" message for a message of "I’m OK, you’re OK."

This is why over the next couple of months we’ll be looking at what Jesus said in his famous Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, we’ll be diving into a passage of scripture known as the Beatitudes… a series of "blessed are" statements Jesus made.

Before we dive into our first blessing, let’s look at what it means to be blessed.
BLESSING = Shalom

Some paraphrases of the Bible do us a great disservice by translating "Blessed" as "happy." This is more than just putting on a happy face. Blessing is always rooted in God’s character and God’s action. What does God want for us? What does God want from us? Remember what Jesus said was the most important commandment? To love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love neighbor as ourselves? Shalom is the essence of living that out – of having peace and wholeness in every aspect of life. And guess what – this does not happen apart from God. The only way to truly have shalom – true wholeness – is in God. We often think of blessing being things God has given us – we’re blessed with money, we’re blessed with health, we’re blessed with all sorts of things. But really, they’re only secondary. The only true blessing is God Himself.

OK, so it’s in this context that Jesus makes this statement: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
What kind of nut is this? Proclaiming that somehow it’s a blessing to be poor in spirit? And what’s more: he’s proclaiming this blessing as a present reality!

If we’ve already defined blessing as shalom, let’s define "poor in spirit." This concept has caused all sorts of trouble for commentators; he couldn’t mean "poor" as in "having no wealth" could he? Doesn’t everyone knows that Christianity is for the well-to-do – those with nice church clothes and fancy cars, that it’s our burden to carry to the poor and down-trodden so that they can join the middle class and be productive members of society?
I’m sorry, but that falls way short of God’s magnificent, awesome plan for our lives. God wants a whole lot more for us than that.

So what is Jesus saying?

Does it feel like it’s a blessing to be poor? Frankly no. It stinks.

Then how could Jesus get away with saying the poor are blessed? Don’t get confused by the phrase "in spirit" here – because the financially poor are also poor in spirit. They’re at the end of their rope. They’ve tried everything and got nothing. They’ve worked in their own strength – every bit of strength they have – and have fallen short.

And guess what – they’ve never been closer to God than in that moment.

The picture I have here is my friend Michael at the high ropes course. Michael slipped from way up high and held on for all he was worth. He held on and wouldn’t let go, even as his strength was beginning to fail him. He was scared to let go… even though he was securely harnessed in. Even though he was assured that he would not fall. He was at the end of his rope.
And that’s when God works best.
Why is that? It’s because we finally stop relying on ourselves for the things we cannot attain on our own. It’s like me going out to play basketball and deciding that I’m going to dunk. Guess what – that would take a miracle! There’s no way I can do that on my own. That’s what defines living a life of shalom – full reliance on God… for everything.

Being poor in spirit means that you have realized your utter reliance on God and have given up on doing it yourself. This is really humbling, isn’t it? But that’s where God wants us, because when we are there, we are able to rely on God’s grace and mercy for everything. Financial wealth isn’t to be trusted. Just ask those who’ve lost everything due to today’s economy.

Think about it – if you’ve got lots of possessions, who really owns who? If you’ve got to buy a bigger house just to hold all your stuff, you don’t own it anymore…

On the other hand, being poor in spirit is a blessing from God.

In Isaiah 61, the prophet says, "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor."

Here’s the good news: those who are poor in spirit are given – GIVEN – the Kingdom of Heaven. Did you notice that Jesus speaks in the present tense? He doesn’t say, "Those who are poor will get to go to heaven when they die." He says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven."

This is good news indeed! When we talk about the Kingdom of Heaven, we’re talking about what we say in the Lord’s Prayer: God ruling here on earth just like in heaven. When we rely completely on God, He gives us the Holy Spirit. When we seek first a right relationship with Him, he gives it to us and gives us the desires of our hearts as well! When we seek first the desires of our hearts, we find out that they are counterfeit – they don’t bring Shalom at all. We also miss out on the right relationship with God, the only thing that brings wholeness – Shalom.
This is great news for the poor – they realize their need for God and they hang onto Him for everything they’re worth.

This isn’t just a financial truth. It’s a spiritual truth, too. On our own, we’re helpless to escape from our own sinful nature. We’ve sinned and we continue to sin. Sin stinks. When we think we’re spiritually rich, all of our own volition, we’re full of pride and arrogance. And guess what? It doesn’t help us at all. While this blessing is good news for the poor and for the poor in spirit, it’s not good news for the arrogant. The kingdom of heaven is far from the arrogant.

If you find yourself poor, spiritually or financially, hold on to Jesus. He’s what you need.

If you find yourself rich, spiritually or financially, turn it all over to Jesus. That probably means sharing your resources with others. It probably means encouraging someone. It probably means denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus. Because if you do not, you risk everything. You’re holding onto what can’t save you, leaving behind what can.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Ministry of Reconciliation

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. For he says, "In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you."

I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

Extreme Makeover – Home Edition is a hugely popular television series. Entire towns work to give someone deserving a new home. Finally, MOVE THE BUS! And the new home is revealed.
What a glorious new home – the old house is gone – the new has come! This is God’s plan for our lives as well.

Let’s get a little background information on how this make-over has come to pass. In Genesis 15, we find a strange passage in which God tells Abram to take sacrificial animals and cut them in half, laying the pieces side-by-side. God made a covenant with Abram that night, confirming his promise from Genesis 12, when He said "I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others."
Then God’s presence went through the middle of those sacrificed animals, an act which signifies: may it be done to me as was done to these animals if I break my covenant.

Here’s the deal: God has always upheld his part of the covenant. We are the ones who have broken the covenant – over and over again. God did his part in making Abraham’s descendents into a great nation and making them famous, but they didn’t fulfill their part – to be a blessing to others. We are always blessed in order to be a blessing to others!

But here’s the deal: with a covenant, once the covenant is broken, it’s considered null and void. Only the wronged party is allowed to reinstate the covenant, not the party in the wrong. So there’s nothing that you or I can do once we’ve broken covenant. We’re helpless.

Pop Glass example: When I was in Russia, I met a guy named Radick. He was very spiritual and had a lot of questions. One night we were up pretty much all night talking. Radick held up a glass of pop and told me, "I’m like this glass – dirty through and through. I need to clean out the glass before Jesus can come in."

But the truth is: like that glass of pop, we’re helpless. A glass cannot pick itself up and clean itself out! It just doesn’t happen. And likewise, we can’t do the same for ourselves. Just filling ourselves with clean stuff doesn’t make the rest of us clean. Only God can do that.
From a worldly standpoint, Radick’s view makes sense: we have to do it ourselves. But scripture tells us that anyone in Christ is already a new creation – the old has gone, the new has come!

The Apostle Paul, the former persecutor of the Church, found himself reconciled to God and acting as Christ’s ambassador. He knows about reconciliation. This was God’s action completely – there was nothing Paul could do by himself. But God chose to not count our sins against us, that we might be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is not something we accomplish when we lay aside our enmity to God – it is something which God accomplished when in the death of Christ he put away everything that on his side meant estrangement. Though human response is required for it to be subjectively effective, God is initiator of the process. Paul recognized the magnitude of the gift he had been given, and that’s why he begs the Corinthians to be reconciled to God.

Back to the Extreme Makeover concept: I wonder how many people apply to get a new house. What about all the people who aren’t as deserving of a new house? They can only do so many houses… And I wonder what would happen if they redid a house like this one. What would the residents, undeserving as they might be, do with a new home?

This is the question that each of us has to ask ourselves. We, in our sin, were the crack houses. We were gross and nasty and utterly repulsive. Yet God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, that in Him, we might be made right with God through Christ. That’s what this "righteousness" concept means – being in a right relationship with God.

In other words, we have each been given the gift of a new life, the right life, the life we were meant to live.

Here’s the deal. Paul picks up a quote from Isaiah: "In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you."

Now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the day of salvation.

What does this mean? It’s time to live like a Christian. It’s time to bring your beliefs and your behavior into line with God’s saving purposes. In other words, it’s time to start behaving as Christians.

It’s time to take the blessings we’ve been given and to use them to be a blessing to others.