Monday, September 30, 2013

Mercy Me

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Matthew 5:7

As we have been discussing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, something should be clear – we can’t do things the way culture dictates we do them. It’s back to the broad road and the narrow road – the broad one leads to death, and many are on it, while the narrow one leads to life, and few find it. It should also be clear that becoming the ones who Jesus pronounces “blessed” is not something that just happens by accident or by osmosis. It doesn’t happen because your parents were in church or even just because you come to services every Sunday!

It all starts with being poor in spirit – realizing that we are absolutely powerless to save ourselves, that what we bring to the table is worthless for salvation. And so we empty ourselves for God to fill us. We mourn our sinfulness and through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, God gives us comfort. We hold our power under control and are given everything money can’t buy. And we hunger and thirst for a right relationship with God, and God fills us.

Today’s topic is mercy. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Matthew 5:7

Now, a little history. For those who think that our culture is the pinnacle of godlessness, let’s take a peek into Roman culture. During Jesus’ time, mercy was seen not only as a supreme sign of weakness, but as a disease of the soul. That’s right, showing mercy was a disease. Survival of the fittest demands no mercy. After all, mercy might allow someone who shouldn’t survive to survive. Do you know how merciless the Romans were? When a baby was born, the father had the right to decide whether the baby lived or died. He gave the thumbs up or thumbs down, and if he decided thumbs down, the baby was left to either die by exposure or to be killed by wild animals. Incidentally, Christians were the ones who went around saving the rejected Roman babies and giving them life.

The Roman Empire was merciless; they enslaved over sixty million people. And what’s more, Roman slave owners had the right to beat or even kill their slaves without recourse. In fact, they had the same rights with their wives. A merciless society. This is the culture in which Jesus is preaching “blessed are the merciful.”

If Rome typifies mercilessness, what is mercy? Mercy is compassionate treatment of others, especially those over whom you have power. Mercy isn’t just feeling sorry for someone; it requires action. And true mercy is not sitting in a position of power over someone saying, “Because I’m so great, I suppose I’ll condescend to help them.” It’s not just false pity that helps someone just to make me look good. Mercy is compassionately meeting people’s needs.

Now, there are many people who would read this beatitude out of context and say that it makes sense; if you are merciful to people, then people will be merciful to you. I’m sorry to say, that’s not true. Be merciful to people and they will walk all over you. They will take advantage of you and they will tell their friends who will also take advantage of you. If you want to see how mercy works in this world, all you have to do is look at Jesus. He showed more mercy than anyone, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, forgiving sins, yet when it came down to it, he was executed.

So why would anyone want to show mercy? And why would Jesus call us to it? We are called to Christlikeness, and a major characteristic of Christ is mercy. Mercy not only comes naturally for God, but it is in fact part of who God is! If you want to know what God is like, his character can be understood through the Hebrew concept of chesed. Chesed is best understood as mercy, lovingkindness, or steadfast love. If you want to know about chesed, here’s something to consider. At the end of Exodus 33, Moses asked to see God’s glory. And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

In the next chapter, we read on that Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:5-7)

If you keep reading throughout the Old Testament, you’ll find this same description: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. You can find it in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:3; Nahum 1:3.

God doesn’t just show mercy; God is mercy. This is why God is the source of true mercy. How do we become merciful? By receiving it as a gift from God. How do we receive this gift? It only comes in the line of the beatitudes. First, being poor in spirit, in humility, you recognize your desperate need for God. Next you mourn your sin and the sinfulness of the world and you repent: turn from that sin. Then, in meekness, you surrender yourself to obedience to God’s will. Then you put your desire fully in God. Mercy flows out of this.

So let’s back up for a moment. We show mercy mostly through physical acts: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, giving practical help. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus presents a picture of judgment where a King judges based on these physical acts of mercy. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)

Showing mercy through physical acts is a way we identify with Jesus. We also show mercy, however, in our attitudes. Is our attitude one of superiority? Are we resentful, holding a grudge? Or do we allow mercy to flow freely through us?

And mercy does not have to be physical. Do you have spiritual mercy? Do you grieve for lost people? When it comes to praying for people who don’t know Jesus, are you actively involved? Or do you really care? Do you secretly believe that they deserve to go to Hell and you’re not going to do anything to stop them?

Understand that showing spiritual mercy is not leaving someone to their fate. Because of God’s mercy for us, we should be even more attentive to the spiritual needs of those around us. So pray for the lost and for Christians who are walking in disobedience. We also show mercy by preaching the Gospel – and I’m not just talking about pastors or preachers. Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

When it comes to disagreements with fellow believers, Paul gives this instruction to Timothy: 2 Timothy 2:25-26 “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” Notice that Paul doesn’t say you should go on Facebook and point out someone else’s faults. It doesn’t even say that Timothy should point it out from the pulpit, though in 1 Timothy 5:20, Paul tells Timothy that if a church leader sins, Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning.

The whole idea of spiritual mercy is that we lovingly confront the sinning brother or sister (notice that this presupposes a relationship with them) – we confront them with their sin for the purpose of helping them come back to faith. I’ve told you before that one of the most loving things I have ever been told was when my friend David told me, “You first invited me to church, but now I don’t see you living that lifestyle.” His comment was loving because of its intent, as Jude called us, to snatch others from the fire and save them. (Jude 1:23a).

There is a such thing as false mercy. This is where you pity someone but what you do doesn’t really help. When our assistance only serves to make us feel good for helping the so-called “less fortunate” or when it puts them constantly under our control or makes them dependent on us, then we’re not being merciful at all.

In the spiritual realm, there is also false mercy: feeling sorry for someone but completely overlooking their sin. That’s not real mercy. You might find that statement offensive, because didn’t Jesus overlook our sin?

Here’s the difference: Jesus paid for it, offering either punishment or pardon for our sins. If sin isn’t dealt with, it is left to fester. God’s mercy only comes with repentance, and is only found in Jesus Christ’s atoning blood. The Good News isn’t that God shook his head and said “Boys will be boys” or “humans will be humans.” The Good News isn’t that God glossed over our sin and just pretended it didn’t happen. The Good News isn’t that God compromised His holiness: a holiness that will not stand sin. The Good News is that Jesus’ blood is the payment for sin.

Someone always pays for mercy. As we receive mercy from God, please know that someone always pays for mercy, because mercy is related to justice. God’s forgiveness flows from his mercy, and his mercy flows from love. Mercy deals with pain, misery, and distress – the consequences of sin. Mercy deals with the symptoms of sin; grace deals with the sin itself.  Mercy offers relief from punishment, while grace offers pardon for the crime. Mercy eliminates the pain; grace cures the disease. Mercy says, "No Hell" while grace says, "Heaven."

In his mercy, God deals with us not in terms of what we are but in spite of it. And in his grace, God transforms us into who he wants us to be.

But justice is still served because Jesus paid the price on the cross. So this doesn’t mean people should be “let off the hook.” A price is always paid for justice. However, for those of us who have received mercy, how could we be anything else but merciful?

Since God is the source of mercy, the only way to have mercy is if God gives it to us. That comes through Christ. And through the beatitudes. Having more of God = having more mercy. The only ones who have mercy have come with a broken spirit before a holy God and sought his righteousness. You cannot show mercy unless you have the power to hurt. Especially when the person deserves to be hurt. This requires faith – you have to leave the offender and the offense in God’s hands.

Mercy is so important that God actually requires it of his people. Listen to 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.

This is what God requires of his people. And God rewards us by showing mercy to us – saving us through Christ. Saving us from the power and punishment of our sins. And he blesses the merciful by showing us mercy. Again and again.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Come Hungry

Hunger and Thirst

We are four weeks deep into Jesus’ sermon on the Mount, where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven – how to get in and what the kingdom looks like. He begins by pronouncing blessings, which the church has traditionally called “the beatitudes” – blessings based on a new order of things. He blesses those who are poor of spirit and empty, because when we are empty, then he can fill us. He blesses the mourners with the comfort of the Holy Spirit. He blesses the meek, those who hold great power under control by giving them an inheritance of everything that can’t be bought. And today he tells us to come hungry. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

I don’t know if you have ever had these restaurants around here, but one of my old favorite restaurants was called Bonanza. It was pretty much the same as a Ponderosa, a lower-scale steak joint with an all-you-can-stuff-down-your-throat salad bar. My brother and some friends and I used to have a contest where the first one to see a Bonanza got his bill paid by the others in the car. The best way to hit one of these places was hungry. After all, you were going to eat all you could – and we took this as a challenge.

I’m not trying to glorify binge eating, because it’s not healthy or positive. But the point is that we are all hungry for something. The secret to personal spiritual growth is spiritual appetite. There are plenty of people who wonder why they are in a spiritual rut, yet they have no appetite for spiritual matters. They don’t spend any time in the Word. Their prayers are laundry lists or “help me” lists or perfunctory blessings before meals (none of which is bad, they’re just not the entirety of prayer). Conversations, even with other Christians, aren’t about Jesus or about how to share the Gospel in an increasingly secular society. They have little to no excitement or passion for Jesus. They have no spiritual appetite.

We often have no spiritual appetite because we have grown so accustomed to spiritual snacking. We try to find our satisfaction everywhere… It can be easy to point fingers at those who fill their hunger with alcohol or drugs or material possessions, but what is just as bad is this: think about this scenario: it’s 2:30 pm, and you’re hungry. It’s going to be hours until you eat dinner. What do you do? Their old advertisements told us that Snickers satisfies us. So you grab a Snickers bar and chow down. Or maybe a bag of chips. Or some ice cream. Yeah, ice cream. So we keep on eating junk food and pretty soon we find that we have no room for anything of substance. The meal is served and we’re already full.

The same thing happens spiritually as well. If we settle for spiritual snacking, we won’t have room for spiritual maturity. If you wonder what spiritual junk food is – think of Oprah spirituality. Christian feel-good quotes alongside Precious Moment figurine pictures. I’m OK, you’re OK theology. We mix in a few Ben Franklin quotes like “God helps those who help themselves” and we subscribe to a theology that says that as long as we’re nice to one another we’re OK. And then we wonder why we aren’t living a full and fulfilling life.

French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote this in response: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

To paraphrase Pascal, there is only one thing that can satisfy our souls, and that is God himself. We can be hungry for all the wrong things, or we can be hungry and thirsty for the only thing that can satisfy.
Jesus calls his followers to hunger and thirst for righteousness. That’s one of those great church words that has lost its meaning. Righteousness is, simply put, is being in a right relationship with God.

The Jews saw righteousness as conformity to the Old Testament laws. The Pharisees, as the holiness movement of their day, heaped law upon law in order to adhere to the 613 individual statutes of the law. They behaved in a way that made them look righteous, but Jesus told his followers: unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

You see, they had all the acts down, but their hearts weren’t right. In fact, their greatest obstacle to receiving the Good News was their self-righteousness and self-reliance – their confidence in their own purity and holiness. They didn’t hunger and thirst for God. It was all about themselves, not about how much they needed God! In fact, it was as if they didn’t even need God, they were so holy and pure!

Righteousness isn’t just doing the right things, it is about having a right heart. Is your heart right? Righteousness is a response of our everything: heart, strength, soul, and mind. We cannot be in right relationship with God while our lives are stained with sin; sin separates us from God. This is why Jesus would tell his followers to be perfect; because unless we are, we have no part of God! But right relationship with God comes when we accept that we can’t do it on our own. We are poor in spirit. And we mourn our sin. And we meekly hold our power under control. Any of this sounding familiar? And the gift of Jesus Christ actually makes us perfect. But he won’t give it to us when we’re already full of ourselves or stuffed with spiritual snacks.

I love this quote from John Darby: “To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in God’s heart toward me. When the prodigal son was hungry he went to feed on the husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father.”

When he was starving, he turned to his father.

This is the word Jesus uses – not a “my tummy is rumbling” kind of hungry, not a “I’d like a drink” kind of thirsty, but starving. Dying of thirst. Do you want that right relationship with God like a starving person needs food?

One of the difficulties in our tradition is that we have often been guilty of calling people to the altar and then leaving them there. They come, hungry for that right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and they get saved and at that moment they are in perfect relationship with Him, but then we don’t help them continue to move ahead. The author of the book of Hebrews recognized this tendency in his audience. In Hebrews 5:11-14 he saw people who should have been spiritually mature, but they just weren’t.

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Are we, who are saved, hungry? What are we hungry for? Are we hungry for more and more of Jesus? Are we ever satisfied until we are more and more Christlike? Here’s another good church word: sanctification. Being set apart by God for God and being transformed by God into Christ’s likeness. It is both an instantaneous event, happening at our salvation, as well as a gradual transformation, culminating in our perfection! We don’t make ourselves sanctified or perfect – we seek, we hunger after it, we continue to fill ourselves with only that which really satisfies, and it is God who works in us.

The blessing in this beatitude is that when we hunger and thirst after a right relationship with God, then God satisfies. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. The picture here is one of being filled to absolute satisfaction.

In Matthew 6, still part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus elaborates on this, telling his followers, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

Because of who God is, we can trust God to provide. Many of us chase after all kinds of other things because we honestly don’t believe that God will provide. We worry about all these things when our relationship with God should be our primary concern. When we seek him first, not only does he give us what we need, but he also gives us what we want.

Psalm 34:10 says: The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. This is all about trusting God to provide for us. We have to remember God’s nature; many have portrayed God as an angry tyrant, just waiting to blast people who misbehave, doubt, or don’t believe. One false move and BOOM – lightning strikes. That is not God’s character! God’s character is this: Psalm 107:8-9: Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. Our God is a God of unfailing love and wonderful deeds. Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.

How does God go about doing this? There are times when we want something that isn’t good for us. If you ever go shopping with your kids, you probably have a plan designed with the check-out lanes in mind. You know that it’s no accident that all the candy is right at our kids’ eye-level, and they want it all. Not everything we see or want will satisfy. In fact, if we eat too much of it, we’ll get sick. But God knows what we need, even more than we know ourselves. In John 4, we read the account of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well. It’s a fascinating interchange on so many levels. Jesus asks her for a drink, which broke several cultural taboos. Then he told her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).

She deflected the comment, but Jesus stuck with it. In John 4:13-14: Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
In John 6:35, after Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children, the crowds were talking about the feeding, basically wanting him to feed them again: Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This gets to the heart of the matter: only Jesus Christ can satisfy, and when we seek God, when we hunger and thirst after a right relationship with him, God gives us the only thing that can satisfy: Himself.

So, how do you know that you are hungering and thirsting for righteousness?

First, you aren’t satisfied with yourself. This doesn’t mean that you need to be in a state of depression or self-hatred. Remember that God created you to be you – no more and no less, and God “don’t make no junk.” God made you the way you are on purpose. But also remember that your weaknesses are areas in which God shows his strength. By “not satisfied with yourself” I mean that you realize that your desires will not satisfy. By realizing this, you acknowledge that God has a bigger plan for you and that you’re going to have to get out of the way and let him work! Remember that God is the one who has the plan, and it is God who will work it to completion! But if you are satisfied with who you are and where you are, then you’re not hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

You are hungering and thirsting for righteousness when you find that you are no longer dependent on external things for satisfaction. This is where fasting comes in. Most of us depend on a whole lot of other things. We depend on our achievements and accomplishments for satisfaction, or even the external acknowledgement of those accomplishments and achievements. We depend on our relationships for satisfaction: spouses, friends, parents. I’ve known women who don’t think they are complete without a man. I know men who derive their worth from the woman beside them. I know men who depend on their toys for their worth. They will never satisfy. Hunger and thirst for what does.

Do you find yourself craving the Word of God? You sit down to read the Bible and it speaks to your heart and captivates your emotions. Listen to what Jeremiah wrote: When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty.” (Jeremiah 15:16) Does this resonate? Or do you feel like you’re going through the motions when you are in prayer or reading the Bible? If that’s the case, ask God to meet you there. Ask the Holy Spirit to remove self-satisfaction, to help you to want to be completely there.

If you are totally seeking him, you will find yourself discovering the pleasantness of the things of God. You’ll begin to see him at work all around you in every moment. You will even begin to appreciate God’s discipline. And your behavior will even begin to change as you don’t have to think twice or three times about obedience, no matter how demanding. You begin to see the reward in the things that God requires of you; you no longer see the difficult circumstances for themselves but rather, as an avenue to become more and more Christlike. And you’re satisfied with Christ himself, no matter what the circumstances.

So, are you hungry and thirsty for righteousness?

If you aren’t, but you want to be, take heart, you’re in the right place! For the hungry and thirsty find themselves in the paradoxical situation of both being hungry and thirsty for more and yet, at the same time, being satisfied completely by Jesus!

Ask the Holy Spirit to be enough for you. Make an intentional time every day to read and feast on the Word of God. Don’t just read and check that box off. Don’t just go through your prayer list and be done. Really feast on his Word. And while I’m talking about feasting, take a time of fasting. If there is something external that is taking your attention, fasting will help you gain freedom and independence from external things. And most of all, remember that it doesn’t come automatically, especially when we’ve tried for so long to satisfy ourselves with so much less than what we’re made for. Be patient. Don’t beat yourself up. But don’t settle for anything less that God himself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nobody From Nowhere

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

What do you think of when you hear the word "meek?" One picture generally comes to my mind and that is a mouse or a mousy person. Meek doesn’t seem like a positive word – people generally don’t want to be described as meek. It carries the connotation of being weak or being a push-over. You can probably think of someone who you might describe as “meek” – and it’s probably not a good thing. Meekness seems to present a contrast with strength.

The Greek word that has been translated "meek" or "humble" or "gentle" is πραος pra-os. Praos can also be used three interesting ways: it describes a soothing medicine; it is used by sailors to describe a gentle breeze; and is used by farmers to describe a broken colt. If you think about it this way, medicine can be soothing, but too large of a dose can be devastating. Sailors love a gentle breeze, but a gentle breeze can turn into a strong wind: tornados, hurricanes, derechos... And a horse is a large and powerful animal capable of injuring or even killing with its hooves.

The one factor that all of these have in common is that they all describe something with great power, held under control. So meekness isn’t weakness; it is better described as absolute power under perfect control. If you want a pop-culture reference to help you out, think about these two characters: there’s the mild mannered reporter, Clark Kent, and there’s the nerdy science student, Peter Parker. Both are introverted and shy and somewhat passive. Peter Parker is frequently the target of bullies. But what people don’t know is that Clark Kent is really Superman and Peter Parker is Spiderman. To maintain their secret identities, they hold their super powers under control. These are good examples of meekness.

But 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? Our culture is built on the ideal of American exceptionalism. We are bigger, stronger, and more powerful than anyone. We are rugged and self-sufficient. In this part of the country, especially, we pride ourselves in our independence. We don’t need anybody else coming in and telling us what to do or how to do it. If there is an issue, Wellston will take care of Wellston. Our strength, mined in the harsh coal mines and rugged iron producing terrain and fired through poverty and isolation, is not only enough to get by on, but it is enough to prove that we don’t need nobody’s help for nothing. So why would anyone suggest meekness?

The first reason is because we do need someone else’s help. We are not self-sufficient; we cannot save ourselves from our sins. If you don’t understand that, go back and study the first beatitude until you get it. We can’t be filled until we’re empty. Until we need Jesus, we can’t have him. Until we mourn our sins, we won’t be comforted.

And when we hold our strength under control, we protect our areas of weakness. Even superheroes have weaknesses – and the draw of their stories is often a super-villain who tries to exploit those weaknesses. Can you imagine Superman, just walking around as Superman all the time? It’s likely that one of his enemies would manage to get to him with enough Kryptonite to defeat him. It’s likely that an enemy would target his parents.

One of our biggest areas of weakness is our sin, and, having sinned, we can’t get back to a right relationship with God on our own. Many of us selfishly try to get back into right relationship with God – I’m sure I’m not the only one who has punished myself with guilt and shame thinking that I deserve it but also thinking that maybe if I do all these other things, it will be enough to get back into God’s good graces. 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 succumb to the temptation to do it on our own, we’re not really even submitting to God; after all, the Bible tells us that the only way to salvation and forgiveness is through the free gift given by Jesus Christ, and if we try any other way, we are in essence saying that we don’t need God, that we can do it without him. So instead of simply trying to work through our own strength to do something we are incapable of, we submit to God’s will.

And when we submit, we gain. I don’t know how many times this has happened to me. I’ll try and try and fail, and then I’ll give it up to God and I see success. God loves to use our weakness to magnify his strength. The Old Testament character Gideon is a good example of this premise. In Judges 6, we find the Israelites overrun by Midian. They were living in caves and mountain clefts for fear of the Midianites, and Gideon is threshing wheat in a winepress, hoping that he can save some from the Midianites. God’s angel shows up and says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12) Listen to what the angel said to Gideon: “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” (Judges 6:14)

If you wonder how Gideon responded, listen to Judges 6:15: “But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

There is so much going on here – it’s a sermon series in itself. But very quickly, Gideon is the runt of the litter, he doesn’t have the right last name. He lives on the wrong side of the tracks. He has never distinguished himself on the athletic field or the battlefield. He is a nobody from nowhere. Sometimes I’ve felt like that – when I tell people where I live, they always want to know, “Where’s that?” When we were in New Knoxville, I’d say “northwest Ohio” and they’d ask, “Up by Toledo?” Now I say, “Southeast Ohio” and they ask, “Is that near Marietta?” This is the kind of guy Gideon was. A nobody from nowhere.

But I don’t want to focus on his excuses. Let’s go back to what the angel said. Did you notice how the angel addresses him? He calls him a “mighty warrior.” Now how could Gideon be both a nobody and a mighty warrior? He is because God called him one. God tells him to go in the strength he has to save Israel.

Nice dodge, God. He’s already explained that he’s a weakling. The point is he doesn’t have strength! In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul basically says he has a lot to boast about, but he will only boast about his weaknesses. He reports: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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 weaknesses, 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. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

But God loves this situation, when we admit how weak we actually are, because he uses it to demonstrate his own strength. It’s been said that God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called. So if you think you aren’t ready to do something, step out in faith. The key of the story of Gideon is not Gideon. The key is who is sending him. He is being sent by God himself! And that is the case for us, as well, as the church.

1 Corinthians 1:25: For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

When we meekly hold our strength under control, we gain more than what we would gain by flaunting our strength.

I receive devotionals from the Voice of the Martyrs, 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.

Remember that meekness does not show itself when we are wrong, but when we are right. It is revealed when we are right and have the power to hurt someone who is wrong. An example from the Bible is David. In 1 Samuel 24, David is on the run from jealous King Saul, who is trying to kill him. At one moment, Saul goes into a cave, and what he doesn’t know is that David and his men are in that very cave. While Saul is doing his business, David creeps up and cuts a corner off Saul’s cloak. Saul’s life was in David’s hands, but he refused to kill him, saying to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 24:6).

Later, in 2 Samuel 16, David and his son Absalom were battling, and David was travelling when he encountered a guy named Shimei, a relative of Saul. He pelted David and his officials with stones and dirt and cursed him. David’s enforcer, Abishai, asked David (and you’ve got to admit he has a way with words), “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.” But King David reasoned, “Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him so. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.” (2 Samuel 16:11-12)

David could have had Shimei killed – the penalty for treason has always been death, but instead he decided to endure the stones, the dirt and the cursing, thinking that maybe (no guarantee) God will repay him for good for the distress. For meekness at its heart is completely trusting in God’s justice and not our own. We trust that God will be the one who rewards and punishes.

The ultimate example of meekness was Jesus Himself. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus invites us to come to him. “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 gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Where Jesus says, “I am gentle” the word he uses there is pra-os. Meek. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. When Jesus said this, he came in contrast with Israel’s historical kings. Just after Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam succeeded him as king. The people came to Rehoboam and said, “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” (1 Kings 12:4) The elders who had served Solomon told him “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” (1 Kings 12:7). But instead of listening to their wisdom, Rehoboam listened to his posse and decided on this response: “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.” (1 Kings 12:14) This led to rebellion and to civil war and the separation of Israel into two nations.

Contrast that to what Jesus is saying: even though he is God, he isn’t burdening his followers with a terrible yoke. Instead he leads by becoming a servant, his power fully under control. Whose control is he under? 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 the result is that he went to the cross and defeated death once and for all, reconciling us to God! And like Jesus, a meek person recognizes God’s authority and submits to it in every way, allowing God to work. Another way of saying it is that meekness says, “I can’t, but God can.”

Because in Him, we have greater strength than we can possibly imagine. So how do we gain meekness? This is a trick question. We can’t exactly gain it by working at it because at its heart, meekness is a fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That word “gentleness”… you guessed it. Pra-o-tes. From the root word praos. Meekness. We cannot manufacture fruit of the Spirit – it comes from the Holy Spirit. But we can cultivate it, and meekness, as we saw in the examples of modern day martyrs and in the biblical examples of King David and Jesus, is cultivated in the difficult experiences of life.

OK. So we have learned what it means to be meek. But that’s only half of the verse. The verse says: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5).

To inherit something, someone has to die and give you something. In this case, Jesus already died and gave us something. And in submitting to him, we also die. We die to self, and in so doing, we are given an inheritance in Jesus Christ. In fact, he promises us everything. Here and now, we do not have to be afraid of anything or anybody because God is in control of us and our circumstances. We receive our allotted portion as God’s sons and daughters!

However, the great enemy of meekness is impatience. The beatitude is in the future tense: the meek will inherit the earth. It doesn’t say we already have. We find a parallel to this beatitude in Psalm 37. This is the Psalm that says, 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. But listen to what else David says: 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 peace and prosperity. (Psalm 37:10-11)

And the conclusion of this Psalm: The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in times of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. (Psalm 27:39-40)

I want to close by reading this beatitude one last time. I love the way the Message paraphrases it: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Don't Cry

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4

“You know what I love about funerals? It’s great having all those sad, grieving people all in one room. I love all the tears. I love the misery. Most of all, I love the clichés and the platitudes…” said no one ever.

One of the universal experiences of life is the experience of sorrow; ever since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and death entered the world, we all experience grief. There are times when grief is so strong that you feel like you can touch it. When you’re grieving, nothing else makes sense. The strangest experience is leaving a graveside to see people going about their everyday business. Going to lunch. Taking walks. Going to work. Meanwhile your soul is screaming. Everything around you is darkness.

Jesus speaks into the darkness with the second Beatitude: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4

There is an old saying: Time heals all wounds. Whoever coined that phrase should be dragged out and shot. Time most certainly does not heal all wounds. Time doesn’t mend the hole in your heart where your loved one used to be. Time changes things, but it doesn’t bring healing. True healing comes from somewhere else.

There are actually many kinds of mourning. The first kind of sorrow and mourning could be called “general sorrow.” This is a normal part of life in this fallen world; it is perfectly natural to mourn. You can find this general mourning all over the Bible. For example, Abraham wept when his wife Sarah died. In Psalm 42:2-3 the psalmist mourns as his soul pants after God (loneliness). Timothy wept tears of discouragement (2 Timothy 1:3-4). Jeremiah preached in tears (Jeremiah 9:1 - disappointment). Paul wept tears of concern (Acts 20:31). If you are looking for some Bible trivia, the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, and it tells us that when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Though there are many reasons for sorrow and mourning, general sorrow is natural and normal.

A second kind of mourning and weeping, however, is the improper kind. For example, there are times when someone mourns because they can’t satisfy their lust or sinful desires. For example, in 2 Samuel 13, we read about Amnon, one of King David’s sons, who lusted after his half-sister Tamar to the point where he made himself sick because he couldn’t have her. In 1 Kings 21, King Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard so badly that he cried and sulked and wouldn’t eat.

Another kind of mourning is foolish, extended mourning of people who can’t let someone go. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t the kind of grief where you’ve gotten on with your life but then Christmas or an anniversary comes and along with it comes waves of sorrow. If you have ever watched the show “Hoarders” you’ve seen people whose mourning is out of control. It seems like every hoarder on that show suffered some sort of loss and not only could never get over it, but then became a hoarder, holding on to stuff because of their extended mourning and grief.

The last types of mourning are in a way unnatural. Their effects are the exact opposite of what God wants us to experience. They make wounds deeper. They turn memories into a punishment. Sometimes we react out of selfishness – we want something or someone not because of who they are but for what they do for us. I remember a funeral where the widow was angry at her husband for dying and leaving her alone. Now who was going to do the things he had done for her?  Yes, that’s a natural reaction, but staying there is crippling. It actually set him up as a little god – that she couldn’t rely on anyone, even God, to comfort her. Sometimes we grieve out of fear. Fear of failure, fear of change, fear of death. Other times we’re wracked with guilt – our way of atoning for past failures and sins in connection with the deceased. King David experienced this in 2 Samuel 15-20; his son Absalom has done everything to try to dethrone David, and finally Absalom is killed. David wept for Absalom so much that his soldiers actually felt guilty for winning the battle! – but David’s sorrow stemmed from his guilt over being such a terrible father.

Many of the resources I found completely spiritualized this Beatitude, and I agree that it has a powerful spiritual component, but before I go on, I want to pause a moment and talk about comfort for mourners. There are many times when we don’t know what to say, and the sad truth is many of us say stupid things to grieving people. When someone’s husband dies, we say things like, “God must have needed him more than you do.” When a child dies, we say things like, “God needed a little angel.” Or we avoid talking about the loved one because we don’t know what to say, or, even worse, we avoid the mourner because we don’t know what to say.

The Bible has much to say about comfort. In Job’s story, his friends came to comfort him and actually were doing a good job until they opened their mouths. A key to comforting someone is presence. Sometimes when we’re sitting in the dirt, we just need someone to come sit in the dirt next to us.

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Now, we’ll get to the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles in a moment. But since we’re going to stay there for a while, I want to look at the reason why God comforts us. God comforts us so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

There seem to be two types of people who have gone through difficult times. The first type is bitter. They say things like, “well, if I had to go through it, they should, too.” This kind of person walked five miles to school, uphill both ways, in six feet of snow (and so on) and kids now are ungrateful for the opportunity to learn. They should (fill in all the terrible things you had to do).

The second type of people who have gone through difficult times have found that their troubles have made them compassionate. I have heard from some of you how, after your spouse died, another widow came alongside you and invited you to sit with them. This is what Paul was talking about. If you have received comfort, give it. But the reality is that it is God who brings comfort.

Listen to these three verses from Psalm 119: Psalm 119:50: My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.
Psalm 119:51: I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them.
Psalm 119:76: May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.

If we know the Scriptures, we know that God makes promises and that God’s promises never fail. Sometimes we make promises we can’t back up, like the husband who promised to always be there for his wife, and then, what do you know, that liar went and died. But God’s promises never fail.

One of the Scriptures I am most frequently asked to read for a funeral service is the twenty third Psalm. Listen to verse 4: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

What this says is our God has the power to uphold his promises. It is not the deceased one who walks through the valley of the shadow of death; he has passed through it and no longer faces death. We who are left behind are the ones who walk through the valley. But as we navigate this valley, we have nothing to fear, because of God’s supreme power! Many times we think of something soft and nice bringing comfort, but this is a reminder that God’s power is comforting. It is a comfort to know that if God is with us right now, we have nothing to fear!

However, the Bible also presents our comfort in future terms. If you look through the Prophetic writings, you’ll find God speaking to a people who are exiled. They understood their exile as a punishment from God for their sinful behavior, but, while in exile, God says: Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord comforts his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. (Isaiah 49:13)

The promises God makes are welcome for those who mourn. Isaiah 51:3 says: The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

When you’re mourning, know that joy and gladness are coming. But is it coming for everyone? To get at that, look at Isaiah 57:14. For this is what the high and exalted One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Why would God be near the lowly and contrite? This gets back to the first beatitude: When we admit that we need God, he is close to us. The thing is that we frequently forget that we actually need God. We are so self-sufficient that we can fall into the trap of believing that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. This is why in Luke 6:24, Jesus adds: But woe to the rich, for they have already received their comfort.

We need to take this to heart, because we are the rich. If we think we can totally rely on ourselves, God will allow us to. But when we are lowly of heart and contrite, the Lord is near to us. I want to talk about being contrite for a moment. There are times when we are sorry but it’s only the “I’m sorry because I got caught.” We probably all know someone who is like this – when we drag our kids out and make them apologize, we’re teaching them something that we want them to carry forever – the ability and willingness to say, “I’m sorry,” but there are some adults who will only grudgingly say those words and only when they’re caught in the act. Then they’re usually mad at whoever it was who caught them. Listen to what Paul says to the church in Corinth: Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (2 Corinthians 7:10).

If we mourn our sin, it brings us to the place where we will repent, turn from it and go in the opposite direction. This kind of sorrow actually brings life! Some people have preached that once you’ve become a Christian, you won’t ever sin again. This leads to a lot of guilt and shame among Christians when they find themselves struggling with sin. The Holy Spirit continues to show us our sins both before and after we become Christians, and our attitude about it is key. Will we mourn our sin? If you think of sin like a disease, you can think of the Holy Spirit as our doctor, showing us where that sin exists in our lives. But are we willing to allow Him to do surgery, to cut the sin out of your life? Unless you mourn your sin, you won’t allow that, and you’ll never have the comfort of forgiveness. But much like disease, where some people deny their sickness, there are people who deny that they might even have sin imbedded in their lives or attitudes. Others think they can change their sin on their own – pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if you will.

This does not work. We cannot pull ourselves up to a place that is higher than we are. This is why James says Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:7)

A parallel passage to the beatitudes is Isaiah 61. Listen to the prophecy, and see if you can hear the words of comfort.

Isaiah 61 
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

The one anointed by the Spirit has become the “comfort of those who mourn.” Those who mourn right now do so because of the apparent slowness of God’s justice. But meanwhile, they rejoice because their salvation has found its beginning. The time draws near when they will be comforted – in Revelation 21 we read that we will live face-to-face with God where He will wipe away every tear – but in the meantime they rejoice in the knowledge that the kingdom has arrived.

It is clear through the scripture that mourning itself doesn’t bring comfort – the comfort comes from God. The people in Old Testament times wrote about calling out to God and knowing that he was near, but in John 14:16, Jesus tells his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth.” Then skip down to verse 26: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” The name that is translated “Advocate” in the NIV, stressing how he speaks on our behalf, is translated “Comforter” in the KJV, standing as a reminder that the Holy Spirit brings us comfort. And the Holy Spirit is not far from the Christian, but instead, lives within, every day revealing Himself to us, leading us toward perfection and one day, to the fulfillment of our salvation.