Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bright and Salty

Matthew 5:13-16: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Who remembers the old Mission Impossible show? One recurring theme was the mission: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, more specifically, the Beatitudes, where Jesus pronounces the blessings of his Kingdom. He has been teaching his disciples a radically different way to live. There is a paragraph break here, and Jesus goes on from his “blessed are” formula but this is really part of the same sermon. Jesus has just stated the rewards for obedience, culminating with: “great is your reward in heaven.” But none of them is in heaven yet, and now Jesus goes on from the blessings and tells his disciples: your mission, should you choose to accept it…

You are the salt of the earth. In today’s culture of Christian celebrities, TV ministries and megachurches, and following Jesus’ talk of heavenly rewards, Jesus brings his disciples eyes back to the here and now. There are plenty of evangelicals whose sole aim is to get to heaven, but Jesus reminds his disciples that they have a job to do here and now. They are salt.

Salt was a precious commodity in Jesus’ time. We think of salt as a flavoring agent; if we don’t like the way something tastes, especially if it is bland, we add salt. Face it; French fries without salt are pretty nasty. And egg whites without salt are tasteless. An unfortunate stereotype is that Christians in our culture are the ones who are bland and tasteless. We’re characterized by what we’re against instead of what we stand for. But what might the church look like if we concentrated on flavoring the world? What if the church once again cultivated the best art and music? What if Christian movies weren’t cheesy? (OK, I know that some are getting better, but there are still a whole lot of them that aren’t).

In Jesus’ time, the preciousness of salt was because of its function. Salt not only flavors, but it preserves. When people of Jesus’ time butchered an animal, they had a couple of choices of what to do with it. Cook it and eat it now, preserve it with salt, or let it spoil. And Jesus calls us, as Christians, to be salt in a decaying world.

Decay follows death, and death is all around us. The Bible says that everyone apart from Jesus is dead in their sins. We live in a world, where, like in the movie, the Sixth Sense, the little boy says, “I see dead people. Walking around like regular people. They don't see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead.” When things die, they begin to decay, and decaying things begin to fall apart. So if you want to know why families fall apart, why marriages fall apart, why law and order fall apart, it is because of death and decay. And the root of this death and decay is sin.

But salt hinders corruption and staves off decay. Honestly, there is only one cure for sin, and that cure is Jesus Christ – and Jesus commissions his followers as salt, to preserve a decaying world. However… salt that is still in the shaker cannot preserve anything. Can you imagine having a big hunk of meat sitting on the floor, next to the freezer, rotting? Likewise, the salt isn’t any good if it’s not in contact with the meat. In college I read the book Out of the Salt Shaker by Rebecca Manley Pippert, a book on lifestyle evangelism. One of the keys to effective evangelism is getting the salt out of the shaker, actually being with people who aren’t Christians. If we spend all our time with other Christians, we eventually won’t even know anyone who isn’t a Christian. Then we can bemoan our dwindling church size and how Sunday School used to be crowded and how we used to have young families and youth and who could possibly be our next generation of leaders, but if we’re not in the world, who are we reaching out to?

This is a reminder that we are called to be in this world. We aren’t of this world; the Bible says we belong elsewhere and describes us as strangers and aliens here, but while we are here, our lives are meant to be a witness. We can look around and think that our society is going to hell in a handbasket, and that may be right, but take a hint from Jeremiah, who was exiled in an enemy land, to whom God said, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7). Instead of looking at “those people” and shaking our heads about their bad choices or their tattoos or their lifestyles, what might happen if we would seek their peace and prosperity?

This isn’t to say that we have to accept their lifestyles as normative. Nor do we have to adopt their customs. But if we are not close enough to touch them, we cannot hope to have any effect on them. Jesus calls us to bring salt to them, salt which will make them thirsty for the Living Water that only Jesus can provide.

Please remember, however, that salt stings when it touches an open wound. Don’t expect the world to just accept it – that’s often where the persecution I spoke about last week comes in.

Jesus then doubles the metaphor by calling his followers the light of the world. Now if you are confused, thinking it was Jesus who is the Light of the World, you can look back in Matthew 4:16, where we read (from Isaiah) the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” you will see that you’re right. Jesus is the light of the world.

But Jesus is commissioning his followers to bring His light into the world. Much like the moon doesn’t create its own light but reflects the light of the sun, as Christians, we don’t make our own light, but we shine Jesus’ light into darkness. We live in the land of the shadow of death, a land of decay and of darkness.

This is a world shrouded in darkness. There is so much knowledge available – it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet at your fingertips. We don’t even have to go anywhere anymore; you have more information available on your phone than most libraries have ever had. But all this knowledge hasn’t translated into wisdom. We have knowledge but we are in the dark and don’t know how to use it. Moreover, we don’t know our way out of the darkness. If you’ve ever been in pitch darkness, you know that a little light goes a long way.

Jesus goes on to define this light. He says we bring his light to the world by doing good deeds. I want to make sure you realize what he’s saying here. Jesus is not just saying “be nice to one another.” He isn’t just saying “do nice things for people.” He isn’t advocating so-called “random acts of kindness.” These good deeds that Jesus calls for are works motivated by love, energized by the Holy Spirit, and done to the glory of God. Remember that our good deeds, no matter how good they are, are not the light, they are merely the reflection of the light. The result of this light is that outsiders begin to praise God. They go from being outsiders to true worshipers of God! This is, in Jewish terms, the whole purpose of doing good deeds.

Now, there are important differences between salt and light. If I were to stir salt into a glass of hot water, you wouldn’t necessarily know by looking which glass had salt water in it and which was fresh. One commentary I read said that “salt is hidden and works secretly and slowly.” I wouldn’t necessarily say we are to be “hidden” but salt is so much a part of our lives that there is no way to separate it. We can’t help but make a difference in the world around us, because we’re so salty. Being salt is having the integrity of solid Christian character. The influence of our Christian character is quiet and penetrating. People see a difference, though they might not be able to put a finger on what it is. That’s what salt is like.

Where salt works quietly, however, light is seen and works openly and quickly. People see the result of light. This isn’t to say that we do our good deeds for everyone to see; we don’t. But being light is living out solid Christian conduct, which people end up seeing. The influence of Christian conduct is obvious and attracting. People want to be around it.

Salt and light balance one another. They go together and reinforce one another. And they are both absolutely necessary. If you have light but do not have salt, you have Christian conduct without Christian character. The word for someone like this is hypocrite. But on the other hand, if you have salt but no light, you supposedly have Christian character but you don’t have Christian conduct – the result is disobedience. The book of James would even contest your Christian character; our Christian conduct is the way our Christian character is revealed.

Jesus calls us to be salt and light. But along with this commission, he also issues strong warnings. “A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.” and “If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

Both salt and light must make contact if they are to do any good. If our worship doesn’t move us to action, it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do. If we go to Bible study, Sunday School, church, if we sing in the choir, but if we aren’t bringing salt and light to the world, Jesus says we’re a waste. There are times when we get a complex – we’re so much better than “those people” but Jesus is essentially saying if we become dull salt, we will get thrown out into the street outside where the people walk over it and trample it down, until it is like all the other dirt of the street. There is nothing sadder than a former Christian, one who used to be on fire, one who used to be salty, but is now no different from the world. A hidden light is no light at all.

In some ways, I think we risk becoming dull salt and hidden light. If you think about it, most of what we do is specific to us. While most of our activities except for our community lunches and dinners are not “members only” they are not necessarily marketed toward outsiders. While it’s great to fellowship with other Christians, do we routinely interact positively with non-Christians? Are we presenting the Gospel to them in word and deed? Do people know what we are for as opposed to just what we’re against? Is our character consistent with the Bible? Does our conduct reflect Christ? And furthermore, are we only salt and light when we are expected to be? Are we only salt and light when it’s a part of a Church program? Or is it who we are in our inmost being?

Jesus calls us to be salt and light in a decaying and dark world that needs Him. Will you answer that call?

Friday, October 18, 2013

This is Gonna Hurt

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 5:10-12.

Jesus’ ministry started out all the right ways. He was baptized in the Jordan and was tempted in the wilderness. From there, he went, healing the sick and preaching good news. Then Jesus gathered his disciples to instruct them about the kingdom. Through these instructions, which we have come to know as the beatitudes, Jesus pronounced various blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, and the peacemakers. As we wrap up this section of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims a blessing on those who are persecuted for their faith.

As we get started, let’s define our terms. Persecution is hostility and ill-treatment based on race, political or religious beliefs.

In our culture, the concept of persecution is thrown around with little regard for the scope of Christian persecution happening all over the world. Is the removal of the Jesus picture in Jackson on the same level as the Muslim attacks on Christians in the Central African Republic? When a teacher tells an elementary school student that her reading of the Bible does not count as non-fiction, is that the same as bombs being thrown into a church in Kenya, injuring 15? What about those Christians in countries where Christianity is illegal, like North Korea and Saudi Arabia? Places where you can be imprisoned for owning a Bible and executed for becoming a Christian?

There are debates about what exactly constitutes persecution – that until some threshold is met, it’s not persecution. My thinking on this, however, is if you’ve been mistreated, then you find out that someone else was treated worse, that doesn’t mean your mistreatment was OK! No matter the scope, persecution is persecution.

That said, I don’t want us to go out crying that we’re being persecuted when we’re not. When we demand preferential governmental or societal treatment for being Christian, we begin to take the step from being persecuted to being the persecutors. And it is important to understand what persecution is not as we try to understand this concept.

Listen to what the Apostle Peter has to say about this: In 1 Peter 2:19-20, he is talking to slaves about their conduct with masters, both good and bad, but we can take a lot from what he says: For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for being good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

One thing he is saying is that if you are a jerk and people treat you like a jerk, that’s not persecution. That’s you getting your just desserts. If you are routinely mean to other people, don’t cry “persecution” when they are mean to you. Many people in our culture cry “persecution” when the government says a teacher can’t force a class to pray a Christian prayer, but what would happen if the teacher was Islamic and forcing our kids to pray to Allah?

Or in another scenario, what about the Christian employee who cries “persecution” when he is reprimanded at work. He says it’s because he is a Christian, but the reality is, when he gets to work, he spends 45 minutes reading his Bible in his cubicle and spends the rest of the day pushing Christian beliefs on his co-workers. No, he’s getting a reprimand because he’s a poor employee, not because he is a Christian. This summer I got suckered into a big story about Christian persecution in the US Air Force. The story indicated that a certain Master Sergeant was fired because a superior officer took exception to his opposition to gay marriage, an opposition which was based on his Christian belief. The reality was that most of the Master Sergeant’s assertions were falsified, and the Air Force reaffirmed that “He should also have known, while Air Force members do have the right to speech and religion, that right does not mean airmen can say whatever they want, whenever they want.”

There are times when bad things happen as natural consequences for our behavior. The Christian at work who was a bad employee got reprimanded because he wasn’t doing the work he was hired to do. There are other times when bad things are just part of life in a fallen world. When you get cut off in traffic, you’re probably not being persecuted for having a Christian “fish” on your bumper; it’s just because the other driver is careless. Getting a nail in your tire on the way to church just might not be spiritual warfare – it might be that you drove through a construction site yesterday!

But Peter is saying, “Don’t get yourself picked on because you’re a jerk.” Because the reality, as Jesus knows even this early in his ministry, is that persecution is inevitable. He doesn’t tell his disciples, “if you’re persecuted…” Instead he uses the word “when.” He knows it will happen because it happened to the prophets and because it would happen to himself as well. This is why Peter can write: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The prophets were persecuted, Jesus was persecuted, and his followers have been persecuted ever since, and it shows no signs of stopping. Many people would recognize the Roman persecution of Christians, where, simply because of their faith, Christians were fed to lions and forced to face gladiators in the Coliseum. But did you know that in the two thousand years of the Christian faith, 70 million Christians have been killed for their faith, 45.5 million of whom (65%) died in the 20th century. (National Catholic Register )

In other words, in the past 100 years, more Christians were killed for their faith than in the previous 1900 years put together. Some of you are probably thinking, “I’d rather not be persecuted.” To be perfectly honest, I think that’s a valid point of view. Persecution isn’t fun. It’s not glorious or glamorous. Even Jesus seems like he would “rather not” have gone to his death for us. He prayed to God, saying, “Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.” But the fact was, that wasn’t his final word. He continued by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

We can, however, escape persecution if we want to. If you want to escape persecution, just live like the world lives. Jesus talks about a broad and a narrow road – make sure you stay on the broad road. Make frequent use of the phrase, “Everybody else is doing it…” Let the world’s standards be yours. If the culture says you can’t pray in school, then pack it up and stop praying. Don’t ever take a stand for Jesus. Make sure nobody really knows if you’re a Christian or not. Be nice and friendly, but make sure never to mention the name of Jesus Christ because that might offend somebody, and don’t spend that much time with him because somebody might see your Bible and think you’re one of those Jesus Freaks.

You don’t have to be persecuted. But remember Jesus’ words from Luke 9:26 when you choose this path. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

If nobody knows you’re a Christian, they will never persecute you for it. But just as a brilliant light is painful to the eye, so also the light of God’s holiness is painful to a sinner and he seeks to hide from it. And human response is to lash out against that which makes them uncomfortable. Once someone complained that I talked about running too much. Why was this a problem? Because that person said it made them feel fat and lazy. So instead of doing something about feeling fat and lazy, they attacked me. The same thing happens on a greater scale for followers of Jesus Christ. Even when you’ve done nothing negative toward someone, they see that you’ve been with Jesus and the Holy Spirit begins to nudge them, and they don’t like it. They don’t like being wrong. And they will lash out. The truth is, they aren’t even really attacking you; Jesus says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19) You are hated because of Jesus.

And so the question becomes: how do we respond to persecution? Our response to persecution is important. Jesus tells us to rejoice when we are persecuted. 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 5:12) When we are persecuted for our faith, we have a great reward awaiting us. So rejoice and be glad. You might be saying, “Wait a minute, I can’t do that.”

That may well be true, but with God all things are possible. So what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. And the Apostle Paul, when he was imprisoned and writing to the church in Philippi, did it, so we know it is humanly possible. He gives this instruction: But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)

Look toward the reward, not at the circumstances. God might be using unpleasant circumstances to mold you into what he created you to be and toward Christlikeness. Some Christian philosophers pose that God allows suffering in the world because this is God’s process of “soul-making.” If there weren’t hardships and struggles, we would have no reason to ever change or grow. If you look back over your life, it’s the difficult times when we see the most growth. And the book of Hebrews goes so far as to say that even Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8: Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered).

Not only do we grow through times of suffering, the Apostle Peter tells us that through our suffering, we can relate to Jesus himself. Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12-16)

Some people question: Why does God allow bad things to happen? Why doesn’t God intervene and stop these God-haters from hurting, torturing, even killing Christians? Couldn’t God do this soul-making in another way?

The first answer is God doesn’t because of God’s ultimate love for us. In a fallen world, we still have the choice to love God or not, and God won’t force us to love him – forced love is not real love. And so we have the choice to do what we want to do. And in the free choice that God gives us, God allows us to choose whether or not to follow him. Romans 1 says that because humanity refused to glorify God or give thanks to Him, God gave us over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. God basically said, “you don’t want to follow me? OK, you can do what you want. But don’t be surprised at the results.”

When we do bear up under persecution, however, not only do we relate to God and not only do we grow in Christlikeness, we are given new opportunities to witness. Did you know that the Greek word for witness is martyr? Yes, the world martyr is simply a transliteration of the Greek. Francis Chan tells the story of pastors of unregistered churches in China who were persecuted by the government. They were stripped of their jobs and made to go door-to-door collecting garbage. Do you think this was an easy, cushy job? I don’t. But here’s what it did: it put them in direct contact with all sorts of people who they would have never met had they not been punished as garbage collectors. They praised God for the opportunities they got!

The Apostle Paul says the same thing in Philippians 1:12-14: Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Paul took the opportunity to preach the gospel to everyone, especially his guards!

Finally, when we endure persecution, Jesus promises the reward of the Kingdom. The way Paul puts it in his second letter to Timothy is: We will reign with Jesus (2 Timothy 2:11-12): Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us.

It’s our choice. Reign with him or not. And the final word, from 1 Peter 4:19: So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Time for Peace

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9

When I visit in the nursing home or hospital, I like to ask if there are any prayer requests – besides the obvious. I would visit Betty Hammond at Jenkins, and her prayer request was always the same. She would ask me to pray for peace. I knew she wasn’t being flippant or casual by asking – this wasn’t a Miss America contestant saying, “What I really want is world peace.” Betty truly wanted to see peace on earth.

I think in our inner core, we all want peace. The difficulty is how we define peace. With everything going on in the news, you might have missed that last week marked the twelfth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. Would there be peace if we somehow “won” there? What about if we immediately withdrew our troops? Or, perhaps a more legitimate question – will there ever be peace in the middle east? Is peace simply the absence of fighting, or, as someone once said, is peace simply when both sides stop fighting long enough to reload?

When I was growing up, I had this best friend named David. When we were in middle school, my sister hated David with a passion. Any time they were around each other, they were at each other’s throats. One time, though, David was at my house and after he left, my sister said, “Did you see that!? We didn’t fight!” But that’s not true peace. That’s just a cease-fire.

We sometimes think of peace in terms of “As long as I’m the one in power, and as long as I’m not attacked, then there will be peace.” This isn’t what Jesus was talking about. In fact, if you look at the context into which Jesus spoke, Israel was not the world power. They were under nominal peace under Roman rule, which meant, as long as they didn’t upset their Roman rulers, they could live at peace. So this wasn’t true peace either. If you think of it in these terms, would a slave who worked for a “pretty decent master” who “didn’t beat him much” really live at peace?

In Jesus’ time, there were some Jews who were called Zealots. At least one of Jesus’ disciples was a Zealot. This was the militaristic arm of the Jews, those who hoped to throw off the Roman rule. They sought and hoped for a warrior Messiah who would flex his muscles and return the power to them. Those who were expecting a military Messiah were probably shocked to hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That wasn’t their kind of Messiah! Their Messiah was a warrior! For the Zealots, peace would be attained through power. Might makes right. That may look like peace for the winner, but for the loser, it doesn’t.

Peace doesn’t come because you beat someone into submission. I often ask couples who come to me for premarital counseling, “How do you fight?” Sometimes I get that doe-eyed, “oh, we love each other. We never fight.” But there are two reasons a couple doesn’t have conflict in a long-term relationship: one is that neither one of them cares about anything. The other is that it’s not a full partnership. One member of the couple makes all the decisions and the other member doesn’t have any say. That isn’t peace; it’s a recipe for disaster.

So if all of that isn’t peace, what is? True peace is best found in the Jewish concept of Shalom – which is wholeness of body, mind, and soul. This kind of peace doesn’t just come because someone is not currently at war with someone else. It is much more than that, because Jesus promises that he gives true peace even in the midst of terrible circumstances. As he was preparing to be crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Jesus does not say that peace means being without conflict. As long as we live in this sinful world, there will be conflict. The biggest enemy to peace isn’t war or fighting. The greatest enemy to peace is sin. Sin separates us from God and thus separates us from one another. John MacArthur goes so far as to say: “Regardless of the circumstances, where there is conflict, it is because of sin.” In Isaiah 48:22, God says, “There is no peace for the wicked.” Sinful humanity cannot create peace. All of the protests and all of the disarming we could do can never create peace. This is the reason that Communism didn’t work: sin got in the way. As long as there is sin, we will not have peace.

This brings up something that seems counter-intuitive. Because sin is the root enemy of peace, and where sin remains, there cannot be peace, a peacemaker roots out sin. Peacemaking is not easy, nor is it peaceful.

In Matthew 10:34, Jesus makes the wild statement: “Do not think I have come to bring peace on the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This statement has always confused me, because isn’t Jesus all about peace? He is – in fact, He is the Prince of Peace. So what’s this about a sword? Hebrews 4:12 can help us figure it out. The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Think about it this way: if I had to have surgery, would I tell the surgeon, “Whatever you do, don’t cut me!” That would be stupid and dangerous. Think about cancer: you probably know someone who has had a cancerous growth removed and who has not had any recurrences of the cancer. Can you imagine someone who is otherwise healthy deciding that they’d rather have the cancer spread and kill them rather than to have a skilled surgeon remove the cancer?
The peacemaker relates to sin much as the surgeon relates to cancer.

I’ve told you this before, but it makes my point. When I was in college, I got a good start with church, but I got sidetracked pretty quickly. One day, my fraternity brother, David, came into my room and after a little small talk, he told me, "You first invited me to church, but lately I don’t see you living that lifestyle."

That comment hurt a lot, but it was true. But David didn’t say it to hurt me; he said it to help me. David, by bringing up the truth about how I was living my life, was a true peacemaker. Peacemakers often bring pain before healing, because peace cannot exist where sin remains. Peacemakers will not “let sleeping dogs lie.” They will not protect the status quo if it is ungodly and unrighteous. They are not willing to “make peace at any price.”

If we are to make peace, we can’t avoid facing truth, and we can’t avoid facing others with the truth just for the sake of harmony. In the short term, I’d have rather had David just leave me alone, but I could not truly be at peace with God or with others until my disharmony with God was confronted. We often shy away from truth because it doesn’t feel loving to confront, but if we want to look at Jesus’ example, he was both at once.

In John 4, we read of Jesus’ visit to Samaria, where he encountered a Samaritan woman at the well. This is a well-known story of Jesus breaking cultural taboos to reach out to the marginalized, but here’s something interesting: Jesus confronted the woman about her living arrangement when he asked her to go get her husband. She tried to change the conversation by talking about worship, and He confronted her false ideas about worship (Samaritans worship on Mt. Garazim while Jews worship in Jerusalem – Jesus said that true believers worship in spirit and truth).

Truth (with a capital T) always confronts sin, because our God is the God of peace. I’m not a big one on bumper sticker slogans, but it’s true that with no Jesus, there’s no peace, but when you know Jesus, you can know peace.

This is the first step to being a peacemaker. You first must be at peace with God. The beatitudes are a recipe for that peace. Being at peace with God comes when we are in right relationship with him, when we are poor in spirit, knowing we cannot do it on our own but that Jesus did. When we mourn our sin. When we hunger and thirst after righteousness. God gives us peace. The hymn says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” It always begins with me having peace – peace with God. We cannot be peacemakers if we are not at peace with God.

But Jesus doesn’t just say, “Blessed are the ones who are at peace with me,” though that is true – it is a life-giving blessing to be at peace with God. But God calls us to more than that. Which is why, when people say, “I don’t need church. I can worship God best on the golf course,” my response is, yes, you can worship God there, but you can’t be the Christian God calls you to be without other people. Because you’ve been called to be a peacemaker.

A peacemaker not only makes peace with God, but a peacemaker leads others to make peace with God. We can only get so far in making peace with others when they are not at peace with God. We aren’t a country club who live in our peaceful little corner while “those people” fight. No, we are sinners cleansed by Jesus Christ and sent into the world to bring his peace to the world! One way we do this is by finding a point of agreement. When we do this, we don’t compromise God’s truth; indeed, when the Apostle Paul ministered in Athens, he found them worshiping all kinds of gods. In Acts 17: 23, the Bible reports that Paul found an altar with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. He told the people, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” Notice that Paul didn’t start by denouncing their polytheism. Paul didn’t start by telling them they were on their way to Hell for worshiping false gods. Paul started where they were and found a point of agreement, something they could both believe in. I have friends who I debate theology with, but we didn’t start there. We started with friendship based on a point of agreement. Someone who doesn’t agree with you won’t all of a sudden decide to listen when you start out by attacking them, but when a relationship is built, they may just listen.

A peacemaker also makes peace with others. Our relationships are vertical (with God) and then horizontal (with others). The Bible tells us that even if we are bringing a gift to God, we are to leave our gift at the altar and go make peace with our brother before we offer the gift. Notice that it says “brother.” And remember that context when it comes to rebuking others about their sin.

In Matthew 18:15-17, we’re told that if someone in the church sins against us, we are to confront them one-on-one. If they don’t listen to you, take another church member or two with you to confront their sin. If they refuse to listen to you, you’re supposed to bring it to the church, and if they refuse to listen to the church, they are to be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector. Not to confront sin doesn’t preserve peace, but makes a truce with sin. Sin that is not dealt with will disrupt and destroy peace. In Jeremiah 8:11, God denounced the corrupt leaders of Israel for proclaiming "peace, peace" when there was no peace.

Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers, and the blessing is this: Peacemakers will be called sons of God. Our more modern translations say “children” of God, but that doesn’t grasp the significance of what Jesus was saying. Remember that when Jesus was saying this, there was a difference between being a son and a daughter. Sonship was a relationship that gave the son the dignity and honor of the Father and it was sons who were entitled to inheritances. Jesus does not limit this blessing to the male portion of the audience; instead, He opens this blessing to women as well! Now, regardless of gender, each peacemaker has equal claim to sonship.

And since we are God’s children, beloved sons and daughters, God gives us gifts. In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus says this: Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread will give a snake? Or if your child asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! The parallel verse in Luke 11:13 goes like this: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

The ultimate gift that God gives his children is Himself. Consider Colossians 1:20: Through (Jesus) God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God made peace with us and calls us to be peacemakers as well. We are blessed to be God’s children. Complete fulfillment will happen in heaven, but partial fulfillment happens now. All heaven rejoices as another member is added to God’s family – all heaven rejoices because God named each one as His child.

A little post-script: Know that God’s peacemakers will not always have the peace of the world. Next week we’ll look at our final beatitude: peacemakers are often persecuted. In Christ we have forsaken the false peace of the world and consequently will not have peace with the world. But while we live in a world full of conflict and strife, know that you are a beloved child of God given all the rights and privileges of being his son or daughter!

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

Sunday, October 6, 2013

This is the Pure Stuff

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:8

A few years back, our family took a trip to Chicago. One of the activities we had planned was to go to the top of the Willis Tower (that used to be called the Sears Tower). But when we got there, it was rainy and overcast, and we decided it would be a waste of time to go up in the tower. After all, the big reason to go up to the top is for the view. There is no sense in paying the entry fee and going up, only to realize that all you can see is the inside of a cloud.

This is a sticking point for God’s people since way back. In the book of Exodus, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with great miracles: the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea… God led them with a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. They could see God somewhat. Then God called Moses up to Mount Sinai and gave him the Law, and meanwhile, the people came to Aaron, saying, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1b) Basically what they are saying is, “I haven’t seen Moses our leader for a long time. I haven’t seen God in even longer. We need something we can see.” And they built a golden calf to worship.

Because they couldn’t “see” God, they needed to have something they could see to worship. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. So the issue is, how do we see God? Or, how do we worship a God was cannot see?

This is one of the issues that brought forth Jesus’ incarnation – which is the church word for Jesus becoming flesh and living among us. John 1:18 tells us that “No one has ever seen God, but God the Only Begotten, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” So Jesus has seen God, and it is his job to make God known. In the Sermon on the Mount, especially through the Beatitudes, Jesus lays out the characteristics that God requires, the qualities God blesses. And today’s beatitude is: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

To understand the concept of purity that Jesus was teaching, we need to understand his culture. I mentioned Moses and his trip up Mount Sinai earlier – Moses met with God and God gave him the Law, including the Ten Commandments. Most of us would probably agree that we’re pretty good on the Ten Commandments, right? We don’t have gods before the One True God. We don’t worship idols. We rarely misuse God’s Name. Well, some of us don’t. We remember the Sabbath day. Or at least we have had good debates about what that really means. We honor our parents. We don’t murder. Yeah, we are really good at that one. No adultery. No stealing. No lying. No coveting. OK, so some of those are harder than others. And we care more about some of them than others. And we’ll get into Jesus’ interpretation of the Law in a later sermon, but suffice it to say, keeping the Ten Commandments is a goal that many try and try to attain. Unfortunately, that is not the goal, but the starting place. James 2:10 tells us that “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

Jesus is saying that it’s not enough to keep most of the Law. God isn’t concerned with “degrees of holiness” where you’re “mostly holy.” God deals in absolutes, and anything less than God’s standard of holiness is unacceptable. In fact, Jesus even says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

When it comes to perfection, we have to admit we have a problem. I have a friend who likes to bring evidence that there are levels of sin, that some are worse than others, and I have to agree, a so-called little white lie isn’t as bad as blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, but the fact is sin is sin, and one little tiny sin is a blemish on perfection and leaves the sinner impure.

To put it another way, if you are making fudge, how much excrement is too much to include in the recipe? If anyone answered anything more than NONE then make sure to show me what you made for today’s potluck so I can avoid what you made! Likewise any sin at all leaves the whole person impure.

But that’s not all. In college, I read a Russian short story about when electric lights were being brought into the countryside. They wired each house for electricity and brought them light bulbs. When they came back through to see how the electric lights were working, they found the houses dark. No, the bulbs hadn’t burned out. No, the electricity hadn’t failed. But what they found was that the new electric lights had illuminated just how dirty their homes were. Instead of dealing with the filth, they simply turned off the lights.

We cannot simply shut off the lights and ignore our sin and pretend it doesn’t exist.

And so we satisfy ourselves by being complacent with our own pet sins because at least I’m not hurting anybody, or at least I’m not like so-and-so. To address the former, of course we’re hurting someone – even if we’re hurting nobody else, we’re cutting off our own relationship with God. And Jesus addressed the latter in Luke 18, where he told a parable about two men who went up to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector, and “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ (Luke 18:11-12)

The Pharisee wasn’t the hero of this parable, that’s for sure. Yet we compare ourselves with others – robbers and evildoers and adulterers and tax collectors and at least I’m not Hitler or Osama bin Laden. Or we try to justify ourselves by our accomplishments and achievements – most world religions are all about earning your way to reward. Christianity isn’t like that, though. It’s all about what God did.

And so David writes in Psalm 24:3-4: Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.

Having clean hands is all about having right actions. The saved are the ones who behave in a certain way. And having a pure heart is about the condition of the inner core of a person: our thoughts and motivation. Do we work really hard to try to live out Jesus’ commandments, or are we transformed to the point where our external purity flows from who we have become inside?

The Jews in Jesus’ time knew what purity meant. Their religion was all about purity – they had purity laws about everything: food; food preparation; skin diseases; clothing; you were never allowed to mix the pure with the impure. Here’s what happened: if something pure even came into the presence of something impure, it was all made impure. So they had special rituals they had to follow in order to become pure again, usually culminating with going to the Temple and offering a sacrifice.

A difficulty with this system is this: when you live in filth, a shower doesn’t help all that much. When I was in Russia, our dorm’s showers were scary. Very scary. Then we went to a summer camp and the bathroom situation was even scarier. But one day we walked an hour through the woods to this bathhouse with wonderfully clean showers, a pool, a sauna… it was wonderful. I hadn’t felt so clean the whole time I was in Russia. But when we left the Banyo, we had to walk back through the woods for an hour back to the camp, and it was hot and sticky and buggy in the woods, and by the time we got to the camp, we were just as sweaty and gross as we had been before we cleaned up.

The shower didn’t help all that much. In the moment, we were clean, but it didn’t last. And that’s exactly the situation that the Jews experienced with the who sacrificial system.

Only God can purify our hearts. This is why King David prays the prayer that we sang earlier: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10) We can’t purify our own hearts. The Bible says that our hearts are full of evil, and, honestly, who can argue. Even when we know what’s right, we find ourselves doing and thinking what we know is wrong. In Matthew 15:19, Jesus is talking about clean and unclean, and he says it’s not the things you eat that make you unclean. But your words and actions come from the heart, and listen to the unclean things that come from the heart:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. We must admit that our hearts are sinful and unless our hearts are changed, we cannot see God. Jesus calls for a pure heart, which means we are utterly cleansed from all of our filth and completely free from sin. It also means we have pure attitudes, complete integrity, and singleness of heart as opposed to duplicity and doublemindedness.

One of my favorite Bible passages comes from Ezekiel 36. Ezekiel is preaching to a people in exile, a people in the midst of their punishment for worshiping idols and shedding blood. Their conduct and their hearts were far from God. But God delivers this word of hope. Listen to verses 24-29a.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.”

That new heart? This is the pure heart that Jesus is talking about. It is a heart that is saved from all uncleanness. It isn’t just the old heart that is full of sin, but indeed a completely new heart.

In Exodus 33:20, when Moses was back up on Mount Sinai after the whole golden calf fiasco, Moses asked to see God’s glory. God responded that “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.

However, now Jesus is making the bold claim that the pure in heart will indeed see God. This is the greatest reward we can even hope for. Jesus is giving a taste of what is to come. In Revelation 21, John shares the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and the new Jerusalem coming out of heaven as a bride prepared for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

In that day, we will see God face-to-face and live. But it’s not just something we have to wait for. We can actually see God here and now! We can daily live in God’s presence. Many of us have experienced that mountain-top experience where we know that we know that we’re feeling God’s presence, maybe at a camp or a worship service or a retreat, but then we come back down to the valley of daily life and it’s harder to experience him daily. But with a pure heart, we can daily live in the presence of God. We begin to understand him. He cleanses the eyes of our souls so that we can see how he is working around us. We can see him in the people around us. His Word comes alive to us and speaks directly to our souls. And people around us know that we’ve been with God. There is this wonderful passage toward the end of Exodus, where Moses had come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and the scripture says that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. (Exodus 34:29b)

When you are regularly meeting with the Lord, your face will glow. People will know there’s something different about you. The weekend when I moved to Wellston, I was out early for a run – it was really hot out – and I ended up talking to this guy I met. After we’d talked for a while, he asked what I did and I told him I was a pastor. He said he knew it. When I asked him how he knew, he laughed and told me, “You don’t have any tattoos or piercings and you’ve got all your teeth.”

That’s not what I’m talking about. But there’s a couple I see sometimes on the bike path and one day I was talking to them at McDonalds and they had already figured out before we even talked about churchy things that I was a Christian. She said, “There is just something different about you.” She wasn’t talking about my lack of tattoos or piercings! But when your right behaviors are springing from a pure heart, people can tell. They can see something different about you.

So, how do we get this pure heart? How does it happen? Understand that we can’t claim it on our own. We are bathing in dirty water, because we are impure people trying to make ourselves pure. We can’t just clean it up on our own – because it will soon be dirty again. But God isn’t limited like that. In Acts 15, the Apostle Peter is talking about Gentiles, those who weren’t a part of God’s people, and how God accepted them in. He says that God didn’t make any distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, for he purified their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)

This is the same thing he does for us. Sin must always be paid for, but Jesus already paid the price for us on the cross, so we just have to receive what has already been done. Jesus says that his Word purifies his followers (John 15:3-4a: You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.) So remain in him, in God’s Word, and meet with him in regular prayer. And your heart will be pure, and blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.