Tuesday, August 27, 2013

You Can't Be Filled Until You Are Empty

I love history. I find it fascinating to go down to Buckeye Furnace and imagining what life was like back when this was a burgeoning iron production hub. I enjoy museums and historical sites. I even worked at a living history museum for two summers while I was in college. So when I went to Russia on a mission trip, I was really interested in the history of the city where we lived. Everything seemed to be named after someone named Minin, so I asked my roommate who he was. I found out later that he was a merchant, but he became famous for mustering a volunteer militia who expelled the Poles from Moscow, but my roommate couldn’t come up with that. He finally suggested that maybe he had been a famous warrior who had won a battle against France. I knew that wasn’t true, but I didn’t know his story. Finally, Oleg said authoritatively, “Minin was a great man.”

 It’s funny that many people can live somewhere for a long time but they don’t know all that much about where they live. This is why the Sermon on the Mount is so important for us; we can live our whole lives in the church but never understand what the Kingdom is all about. I know plenty of people who are trusting in their ability to live life as “great” men or women… or at least as “better than average” men or women. But Jesus describes the Kingdom in some seriously radical, different, even, can I say, “weird” terms. He uses this sermon to describe to his disciples the kind of Kingdom He wants to build in the lives of his followers.

In Jesus’ time, Judaism was dominated by four distinct groups. The Pharisees were the traditionalists – the holiness movement of the time. They were extremely concerned with keeping even the tiniest aspects of the Law, going so far as to write lots of new laws in order to make sure nobody accidentally broke one. They made quite the show of their holiness, making sure everyone knew when they were fasting and how much they were tithing.

The Sadducees were the liberals. They weren’t so interested in tradition or the shows of holiness, but they were extremely wealthy and influential. One of their main premises was that they rejected the idea of an afterlife. Sadducees thought there was no resurrection. I always learned to differentiate these two groups by the word trick: the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection, so they were “sad, you see.”

There were also the Essenes – a separatist group that thought the best way to keep holy was to keep yourself apart from the negative aspects of society. If you lived away from all the nonbelievers in your own compound, you could keep from being polluted by their sin.

Finally there were the Zealots. They were the militaristic ones who thought they should arm themselves for a war. Interestingly, Jesus, who is all about peace, called a Zealot as a disciple. Can you imagine how Simon the Zealot felt when Jesus began to describe the life in His Kingdom?

As a preacher, understanding your audience is a key to delivering an effective sermon, and Jesus understands His. He knows that they need to know what His Kingdom is like. So he dives right in. He pronounces blessings – happiness that is rooted in salvation – ushering in the end times. The Pharisees thought that holiness was simply a matter of outward actions, so they worked hard to keep their behavior in check, all the while, ignoring the attitudes of their hearts. But the Beatitudes describe the attitudes that ought to be in the believers life and heart. As 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The four branches of Judaism might have come up with these “blessings” – Blessed are the ones who follow every facet of the Law…
Blessed are the ones who use their position and wealth to lead…
Blessed are the ones who draw apart from a polluted and sinful world…
Blessed are the ones who fight for their beliefs…

But Jesus starts with this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

Now, if you thought the stuff of the narrow road and small gate were weird, this is flat out insane. It’s not the way our culture works, and it wasn’t the way the culture worked in Jesus’ day, either. But Jesus is radically reinventing culture. Just an aside here: the Beatitudes are meaningless to anyone who has not trusted Jesus as Savior. This isn’t a self-help sermon: “How to Get to Heaven in Eight Easy Steps” where if you just do all these things and work them really hard, you’ve got it. It’s all about a transformation of the attitudes and desires of our hearts.

It’s no accident that Jesus starts here; many commentaries agree that the Beatitudes build on one another, starting with being poor in spirit. But what does it mean to be poor in spirit?

First of all, don’t mistake poor in spirit for poor financially. There are times in the Bible where Jesus talks about rich people – once he told a rich young man to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor and then come, follow me. When the man went away sad, Jesus told his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus isn’t saying here that one has to be poor financially to enter the Kingdom. He is just stating fact – that it’s hard for the rich to not be owned by our possessions. But poor in spirit has a different meaning. If Jesus meant the financially or materially poor would inherit the Kingdom, then why would we ever want to give money or food to the poor? Why would we want to help them? Why would the Bible tell us to? Because if that was what we were to aspire to, it would be better to take from them, to oppress them…

To be poor in spirit is to realize who you are. They realize that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and that “all” doesn’t mean “everyone out there,” but, rather “me.” Anyone who is truly poor in spirit is the one from whom the ground of self-sufficiency has been taken, the heart on its knees, characterized by an utter dependence. In other words, I’m a sinner and there’s nothing I can do about it. But to be poor in spirit isn’t to sit around moping about “poor old me.” In fact, many times when someone is giving you their “poor old me, I’m such a miserable person” shtick, what they are really doing is fishing for a complement. “Oh, you’re not that miserable! You’re such a great person!” All that you have there is false humility.

What Jesus is describing is also nothing new. It’s the same thing we read from David in Psalm 51:17: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. And Psalm 34:18: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The Greek word that we translate “poor” is a specific kind of poor. We’re surrounded by poor people, but there are all kinds of poor. There are people who are working poor – they have jobs, but they’re just getting by, maybe paycheck to paycheck. This isn’t the word Jesus uses. The word he uses could be translated “begging poor,” meaning you’re so poor you have to beg. And so Jesus illustrates this concept in Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Did you see the fundamental difference between these two men? The Pharisee thought that his holy actions would bring justification. But the tax collector knew he was a sinner and he knew he couldn’t do anything about it on his own. So he threw himself at God’s mercy. Being poor in spirit is the fundamental characteristic of a Christian, because you can’t be filled until you’re empty. This is the first beatitude because until we admit our need, we can never receive what God has for us.

The opposite of poor in spirit is spiritually proud. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story was only interested in showing how good he was. He shows off his Sunday School perfect attendance medals. He’ll be quick to tell you all of the church positions he has held and currently holds. He’ll tell you all of that, but honestly, spiritual pride is not evidence of holiness but of sinfulness. When Jesus’ disciples asked him who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:2-5)

Anyone who is poor in spirit will accept God’s estimate of themselves. We have to know who we are, not on our own, but that our true identity lies in Christ. This does not mean we stop doing the things we’re good at or like to do. It does not mean we have to deny our personalities or try to suppress them. It simply means we have to know ourselves as God knows us. God made us in His image. We sinned and ruined the image, but the Holy Spirit has been drawing us toward God because of God’s great love for us. Jesus died for us because we couldn’t save ourselves. This is who we truly are.

And if this is who we truly are, the poor in Spirit yield everything to God for Him to make us all that He wants us to be. God is at work transforming us, but He won’t go where He is not welcome. He will not transform the stiff-necked or proud. So yield to God daily and draw your strength from him.

Some would have us focus on how bad we are, how far we’ve fallen, all the times we’ve failed God, and, while those facts are out there, this isn’t the goal of being poor in spirit. God isn’t just heaping shame on his people. So instead of focusing on how bad we are, focus on how good God is! Focus on Christ and the blessing he gives us!

And in that state, look for opportunities to serve others. I’m not talking about the opportunities that will get you written up in the paper, but look for daily small opportunities. Instead of thinking of yourself, ask God to show you how you can serve someone else, not because they are somehow “less fortunate” but just because God loves them.

Those who are poor in spirit accept others and serve them because they have accepted themselves. You know who you are in Christ and you know that nobody can separate you from him. They further accept their circumstances. If we look back to what Paul says in Philippians 4, we can learn a lot about this. In verse 11, he starts: I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. The poor in spirit have a right attitude toward material things.  Verse 12: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. What is that secret?  We find it in verse 13: I can do all things through him who gives me strength.

A self-satisfied and self-sufficient person has no need for God and is not poor in spirit. This is why Proverbs 3:34 (which is quoted in 1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6) says: God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.

Just a word of warning from Andrew Murray: humility is the grace that, when you know you have it, you have lost it.

So, how do we become poor in spirit? I want to start with a warning. Don’t start by trying to do it yourself. There are some who would go live in a hut in the woods, but it’s not about monasticism. Others would jump into serving others with the goal of becoming something, but it is not about us doing something, it’s about God.  So if you want to become poor in spirit, spend time in the Word. Spend time in prayer. Daily live with God. Becoming poor in spirit has to be led by the Holy Spirit. If you find that you are being controlled by something other than God, that has become an idol. So if you can’t part with your money, you are serving money. If your family is more important to you than God, your family is an idol. A remedy to idol worship is fasting. Not simply fasting from food, but from whatever it is that is controlling you. If your money is your god, give it away. The oldey-timey phrase for this is starving the flesh.

And as you are doing this, ask God. God is the one who gives good gifts. God may just be waiting for you to ask. Even Jesus says (in Matthew 7:11), “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

The last matter I want to get to is this: Why does poor in spirit bring blessing? The main reason is that this kind of humility is Christlike. Philippians 2:3-11 says:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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.

This is who Jesus is, and Jesus was rewarded for it. In the same way, we are called to be like Jesus, and we will be rewarded. When we submit to Jesus Christ he shares his authority with us.

Pride makes a slave of a person while humility sets that person free. Self-promotion makes us a slave to people, things, and circumstances. Poverty of spirit puts us in the position of looking to God for everything we need. If you need nothing but God, what can anyone do to you? But even more, when you need nothing but God, you’ll find that God gives you all you need and more.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bless Your Heart

Sermon on the Mount Intro
Matthew 5:1-12

Around a decade ago, there was a Christian fad where we were asked to frame our lives and experiences around a question: “What Would Jesus Do?” So in any given situation, we were urged to ask that question and to behave as we would imagine Jesus would have behaved. That is a good practice and proves helpful in our interactions with others, but the reality is that there are times when it’s not as helpful – for example, if I am in the stern of a boat sleeping during a terrible storm, what would Jesus do? He would calm the storm. Since I can’t exactly do that, what do I do? Of course, asking the question What Would Jesus Do? is of no use if you don’t know who Jesus is or what Jesus did!

Now, most of us have known someone who lives by the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Part of the beauty of what Jesus said is that not only did he say it, but he lived it as well. He talked the talk and walked the walk.

There are sometimes, however, misconceptions about exactly what Jesus said. This is why I am starting a new sermon series this week looking at the largest single collection of Jesus’ sayings, the so-called Sermon on the Mount. In effect, I am doing a sermon series on a sermon series! We’ll be delving into Jesus’ sayings from Matthew 5-8.

One of the tasks of Bible study is discovering the who, what, where, why, and when of the text. If you jump into Matthew 5, you find Jesus’ motivation for preaching this sermon is “when he saw the crowds.” Who exactly are the crowds? They are described in Matthew 4, where Jesus is depicted calling his disciples and then going out into Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News of God’s Kingdom (Good News is literally the Gospel) and healing every disease and infirmity. So all through the region, the news about Jesus spread, and, as you might imagine, people came from far and wide for healing. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea the region across the Jordan followed him (Matthew 4:25).

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry is his response to the crowds: he had compassion on them. You can see his compassion first in the healing, but Jesus recognized better than anyone that you can heal a body but if the spirit hasn’t been healed, you’re no better off than before. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:26)

Before we even get to his teaching, it is important to see why Jesus is teaching. I’ve been reading an amazing book, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor, and the authors make an important point: if we help someone physically but do not care for their soul, we have not really helped them. Where do they get this crazy idea? From Jesus! The idea is that there are factors that cause poverty that are deeper than just a lack of money, and Jesus actually cares about the whole person. So we find, as Jesus has been healing the sick and demon-possessed, now he brings his disciples to him and goes for a time apart to begin to teach them. He has such compassion on the crowds that he wants to multiply his effectiveness – to send twelve well-prepared disciples out to change the world, and they’re going to need taught.

I want to interject just a little cultural background here: in Jesus’ time, the rabbi sat while the listeners stood. This was just the way things worked then. In fact, even the early church buildings never had pews – the congregation expected to stand (don’t worry – we’ve got no such plans to go back to the old days!). So Jesus sat and taught.

I think it’s interesting the way that Jesus went about things with his disciples. He first went and called them to follow him – which was the opposite of how traditional rabbis did things; potential disciples had to come to the rabbi and apply to become his disciple. The rabbi then accepted or rejected them. Not so with Jesus – he went and called his disciples. Then he immediately started to work with them, and after they had ministered together for a time, sat down to teach them.

So as we prepare to dive into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I have to ask you – who here has done a major home-improvement project? Not just stripping some wallpaper and painting some walls, but something major. One thing you’ve probably already discovered is that there is no such thing as a simple home-improvement project. At the church in New Knoxville, the fellowship hall floor was pretty nasty and needed replaced, but when they got the floor up, they realized that the sub-floor needed a whole lot of work. Then when they got the new floor in, they realized how grungy the walls looked…

Our parsonage in Millersport needed work, and there was ample time before we moved in, but I sometimes think church time is on a different kind of clock than regular time, because they finally got around to ripping the back end of the house off (including half the kitchen) on Labor Day, and we got a wonderfully rebuilt dining area and a half bathroom on the main floor and a new bathroom and laundry room upstairs… just before Thanksgiving. We lived in the midst of a huge home-improvement project for months.

Why am I talking about home improvement projects? Because the kind of transformation that Jesus brings about in us is kind of like a home improvement project. Just when we think we’ve figured out the issue, we find that the issue has a whole bunch of other stuff underneath and behind it. And when we dig out one sin, we find that there are others. But Jesus wants to transform us from the inside out. Which means he’s going to be blowing out walls, tearing out floors, re-pouring foundations, building new roofs, and all while we are living in the midst of it.

So Jesus begins teaching with a familiar passage that has become known as the beatitudes. Matthew 5:3-12 includes Jesus pronouncing various blessings. This wasn’t an unheard of practice – there are records of such blessing statements from other Ancient Near East cultures even before Jesus. The Old Testament contains forty-five blessing statements, some of which are familiar. There are times when we quote Psalm 33:12, often around the National Day of Prayer: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”

We can recognize Psalm 84:12, if not the actual verse, at least the content: “Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.”

We probably have heard the content of Psalm 94:12 and if you really think about it, it probably makes you squirm: “Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law.”

In the Old Testament, this blessing is translated to mean “Oh, the happiness of the one…” ascribing happiness to someone because of their praiseworthy religious behavior or attitude. The whole idea was that they were judged as fortunate because, as everyone knew, God rewards those who trust in him with worldly well-being.

We generally use the same formula as we pronounce blessings. I’m not talking about the southernism “Bless your heart” which means “you’re such an idiot.” We generally pronounce blessing after the fact – when something good happens, when we get the answer to a prayer, when we get an unexpected bonus, when someone knows just what we need and comes through with it, we say we’ve been blessed. While I agree that we experience God at work in all kinds of ways, and it’s always a good thing to stop and thank God when we see those answers, I think we can cheapen what it means to be blessed by God when we understand blessing only in those categories.

Maybe it will help you to think about it this way: if you like watching t-ball games and you think that’s all there is to baseball, never considering that there could be something more, like the World Series. Or going to high school musicals and thinking that’s all there is to musical theater, never considering that there are all sorts of musicals on Broadway. Yes, we are blessed all the time and in many ways, but God’s blessing is unique. Indeed, there are even situations where, like in Malachi 3:15, we get it all wrong. “But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.” There are plenty of people who have material and financial success and have done so by sinful practices, and our culture considers them blessed.

So to read the beatitudes without a clear vision of what Jesus means by “blessed” is unhelpful at best.

There are Bible translations and paraphrases that haven’t helped either; some translations just use the word “happy” – while this is part of it, again, it’s like thinking you just watched the World Series when you were really sitting out there watching three and four year olds hitting off a tee.

When we think of blessing in the Bible, there are a few things that are clear. First of all, blessing, true blessing, always comes from God. If you look back to Genesis 1, when God was creating, on the sixth day, God created humanity, and God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28)

When Noah and his family came out of the ark, Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1)

How about God’s covenant with Abram, one of the most important verses in the Old Testament: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3)

God is saying more than “you’ll be happy.” Indeed, God’s blessing is life itself. Which makes it interesting to see that on the seventh day of Creation, God blessed the Sabbath. Meaning that Sabbath rest is life-giving.

But by the time we get into the context of the New Testament, blessing has deeper meaning. It no longer only means life strictly in the mortal sense. In fact, by this time, blessing has become widely associated with the end-times – that blessings are completely future-oriented; when we get to Heaven, we’ll receive those blessings. This is the same thought-process that saw the old Black spirituals come about – though there is trouble and distress now, you just wait until we get to Heaven!

So Jesus steps into this situation and pronounces blessings – which his audience would understand to mean “end times.” However, it didn’t seem to be the “end times” and this world didn’t seem to be Heaven, so Jesus must have had something else in mind. Or did he?

You will note that blessing in the New Testament is always related to the joy of the presence and activity of Jesus himself. What he is in effect saying is exactly what he said in Luke 4 when he read from Isaiah and closed the scroll and told the congregation: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) He is saying that the new day is at hand. With Jesus, the end-times have begun! Everything that the prophets said is now starting to come true!

There’s a lot in life these days where you figure, if people would just use common sense, they’d figure things out. But you’ll find in the next few weeks that what Jesus is pronouncing “blessed” isn’t exactly common sense. In fact, it doesn’t make any worldly sense at all. Instead of saying things like, “Blessed are those whose lawnmower starts on the first try, for their shoulder won’t hurt all day,” Jesus pronounces the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted as “blessed.” Surely he isn’t so deluded that he thinks those states are preferable to wealthy, filled, and at peace!

Really, what he is declaring is, “Happy are the unhappy, because God will make them happy.”

So what we see in Matthew 5:3-12 is God granting salvation and a new paradigm. Blessed, in this context, really expresses happiness that is the result of God-given salvation. When you realize and understand and experience God’s salvation, you have a kind of happiness that transcends everything else. To go back to the home-improvement analogy, you can live with a huge sheet of drywall partitioning off half of your dining room, because you know that the room you’re going to get is going to be great.

And unlike the situation we had in the Millersport parsonage, God is at work! Maybe God is working behind the scenes, but God is at work in your life, transforming you while you live in the midst of the transformation. Part of the difficulty of the beatitudes is that we live in a culture that says, “Your house is fine the way it is.” And then there is the Christian subculture that expects everyone to have it all together and not sin – when we show up and there’s sawdust everywhere in our lives and it’s pretty clear that major work is going on, but it’s far from finished, how do people respond?


Now that I’m finished with the introduction, are you ready to get into some home improvement?