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The Facebook Detox Challenge

facebook-wallpaper

Hello, my name is Isaac, and I am a Facebook addict.

I don’t say this to make light of people who struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. I don’t say it because I think it is a cool catch-phrase. I say this as a true realization that I have a real problem: my compulsive need to check Facebook is interfering with my goals in life and is robbing me of happiness.

Why am I picking on Facebook, and not, say Twitter or Instagram or the Web in general? Because, no other online service has become such a routine part of my day. In this increasingly “connected” world, I find I can no longer maintain a healthy balance between the time I spend on and off of Facebook. While I occasionally engage in other social media, like Twitter, Facebook is the only social tool that captures my attention and distracts me from life on an increasing basis.

I recently went through the oddly painful process of whittling down my Facebook friends list, in order to cut back on the negativity I was seeing in my news feed. I “unfriended” anyone with whom I had not had a real connection in at least the past year. If you remain on my friends list, it is because we have had at least one Facebook interaction, message, email, phone call, or face-to-face conversation in the last year.

This was a last ditch effort to try to reclaim a balance in my Facebook usage, but, alas, it hasn’t solved the underlying problem — me.

I realize many people can check their Facebook once a week, or even less frequently, and be fine with it. I cannot. For whatever reason, it has become an albatross to me.

I do still see some tremendous value in the platform, particularly as a pastor, who wants to remain connected with the people in my church and community, as well as colleagues and friends from other places. It is also a useful tool for advertising happenings at my church (Union United Methodist).

For these reasons, I don’t want to quit the service entirely. But my unmetered access is mitigating these positive attributes for me, personally. So, I am proposing another solution – a Facebook detox, if you will. Others may have come up with something similar. I don’t know, because I honestly didn’t look. So, here’s my plan.

 

The Challenge – Phase 1

The biggest tradeoff I have made in the name of social media is spending less time reading real books. I am still an avid reader, and am generally working my way through several books at a time. For example, I am currently reading a biography of John Wesley, the science fiction novel Dune, by Frank Herbert, the fantasy novel The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan, and just finished Manage Your Day-to-Day, by the fine folks at 99U.

The problem is that it now takes me significantly longer to read through books than it used to, because I am more often wasting time on Facebook or reading articles I find linked there. And even while I am actively reading real books, I often feel the urge to put them down and take a quick peak at my News Feed.

To top it off, I’ve noticed that it has become increasingly difficult for me to concentrate on the “meatier” books that I believe will enrich my life, such as good theology, research books for my PhD thesis, and classic literature. Perhaps I have gotten too used to social media soundbites, or maybe it is a combination of that plus the over-sensational and under-delivering drivel that often masquerades as news or long form articles. Whatever the cause, the more time I spend reading online material, the harder it becomes for me to engage with material of a higher quality that adds value to my day.

So, Part 1 of the Facebook Detox Challenge will be to correct the impact it has had on the written materials I consume (Look for Part 2 in a future post). Here’s how it will work.

I propose to remain logged out of Facebook until such time as I have read 5 books, one from each of the following categories:

  1. Devotional Works – a book, whether ancient or modern, which reflects deeply on the Christian life and/or scripture.
  2. Professional Development – In my case, as a pastor, this means a book on preaching, teaching, Biblical exegesis, leadership, etc.
  3. Topical Research – in my case, this will need to be focused on my PhD research, but for others who want to take up the challenge, it could be any topic you find interesting and about which you would like to learn more (e.g., history, physics, astronomy, medicine, etc.)
  4. Literature – classic literature or poetry.
  5. Fiction – because God has given us wonderful imaginations, and we all need to dream.

Upon finishing a book from each category, I will allow myself to resume logging in as a normal user and see if my relationship with Facebook has changed. If not, I will repeat the process.

**Exceptions:**Because I do use Facebook for my work, I need to make some exceptions to the no-log-in rule. If you are in a similar situation, you might adjust this list to suit your particular scenario.

a) During my detox period, I will occasionally post articles or other status updates from a third-party app (I prefer Buffer), because I want my people to see it.

b) I will still log in weekly to post worship or event related information to my organization’s Facebook wall, because I don’t have someone who can do that for me at this time.

c) I will respond to Facebook Messenger messages, because that is the primary means some people use to reach me. However, for this last one, I will use the app, so that I don’t have to log into Facebook proper.

You may have already gained mastery over your social media usage. But if, like me, you are struggling to maintain balance in your use of Facebook (or some other platform), I want to encourage you to try a detox for yourself.

I’m beginning mine today.

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Sermon: Stories, Actions Speak Louder

stories

“Stories: Actions Speak Louder”
Matthew 21:28-44

Parable of the Two Sons

28 “But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30 Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32 For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.

Parable of the Evil Farmers

33 “Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. 34 At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. 35 But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. 36 So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.

37 “Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ 39 So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”

41 The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”

42 Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures?

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is wonderful to see.’

43 I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. 44 Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

 

I. Introduction

Sarah and I met in college, when we were both very young (she was 18 and I was 21). As I think I’ve mentioned before, I had been working for an astrophysicist (that’s a rocket scientist) writing software to control the hardware systems we used to conduct research on objects in space. That all sounds really impressive, I’m sure. After I had been there a little less than a year, we hired Sarah to work as assistant to the professor in charge and to write grant proposals. We became quick friends, and both share a storehouse of funny stories we could tell about our coworkers there. They were an interesting bunch.

I sort of fell into my role there, when the professor, who also taught physics, discovered I had written programs for my graphing calculator to automatically solve all of the advanced equations we were learning in class. Not only did he allow me to use those programs on my tests, ensuring that I got a great grade, but he also offered me a job. And during my time there, he continued to challenge me with unusual problems to solve, and entrusted me with responsibilities that would ultimately influence the outcomes of many research projects.

Just having the opportunity to work on such creative pursuits and get paid for it was thanks enough. But one year, our boss surprised us with an incredible gift to express his thanks for our work. He submitted mine and Sarah’s names to the National Science Foundation for an award that recognizes the contributions of students to science. That spring, we each received the NSF Student Fellowship Award, which is something I will always treasure.

But there was one slight problem with the award process. You see, our boss told us that there was a special dinner coming up to which we were invited. He asked each of us to attend, made sure we were aware of the dress code, and then even reminded us about it later. But he didn’t tell us that the whole purpose of the dinner was to give us the awards. I told him that I would be there, thinking it was just a regular dinner–and then I promptly forgot about it.

The day of the awards dinner came and went, and I never once thought about it. Needless to say, my boss wasn’t too pleased when I didn’t show. He had wanted to bless me with something special, but I hadn’t followed through on my commitment to be present that day, and as a consequence, neither one of us enjoyed the event in the way that he had intended.

 

II. We are all guilty of paying lip service to our commitments

My guess is that all of us have at one time or another made a commitment to something and then failed to follow through on it. It may have been an unintentional oversight–maybe we were overly committed and simply forgot–or it may have been intentional, and we had no intention of following through from the beginning. Accidentally failing to follow through on most commitments will have little long-term effect on our lives, though there certainly are exceptions. The fact of the matter is that our society is so busy, that it is common for people to miss things. Other than a brief sense of mild annoyance, most of us probably don’t get too concerned when someone else doesn’t show up, and we expect others to forgive us quickly when the fault is ours–at least when we have a good excuse.

But committing to something and then intentionally choosing not to follow through can have more significant consequences, particularly from a spiritual standpoint. At the very least, it calls our integrity into question. We are told in the Bible that we should let our yes be yes and let our no be know. We are to neither swear by things that we had no hand in creating, nor should we work to explain our every answer. And Christians, above all others, should keep their word, so far as it is in our power to do so. We may fear the repercussions of saying no to someone, but any outcome we are likely to face is far better than breaching our own integrity.

When we knowingly agree to something, but have no intention of following through, it is called “paying lip service” to that commitment. When we become comfortable with paying lip service to things that are seemingly inconsequential, it becomes easier to do so with things of eternal significance as well. If we continue to willingly dabble in attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to God’s best for us, they have a way of dragging us on into deeper levels of disobedience.

In truth, we are all guilty of paying lip service to the demands of the gospel, at times. We do this when we declare on Sunday morning that we are followers of Jesus, but stop short of full commitment and obedience on Monday through Saturday, or when the path God is leading us down becomes uncomfortable or violates our personal preferences. We do this when we claim that Jesus is Lord in our lives, but then refuse to give him control over our decisions and actions. We do this when we put on the outward trappings of faithfulness, but don’t allow God to transform our hearts.

 

III. Actions speak louder than words

At the beginning of Matthew 21, we read about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and find out that he encountered a lot of people with a half-hearted commitment to following God. We learn from the Gospel of John that Jesus had been performing many public miracles, and the people were starting to believe that he could be the promised Messiah. This made the religious leaders nervous, because they couldn’t control Jesus and he was challenging their authority with the people. When he raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, before returning to Jerusalem, it sealed the deal for many of the people who had been watching him. He must be God’s chosen one, they thought. So, it is no surprise that the people welcomed him to the city like a king. But we find out later that the crowds were paying lip service to any commitment to Jesus, and they all deserted him, when he was arrested later in the week.

Next, Jesus went into the Temple courts and drove out the vendors and money changers who were taking advantage of people who had come there to offer sacrifices as the Law demanded. They had taken something central to the worship of holy God, and turned it into a means for gaining profit. After clearing the Temple, Jesus began to perform many miracles in the sight of all the people there. But the religious leaders were more concerned with the children shouting praise to his name than they were with the manifest presence of God’s power. It seems that, even in the Temple, people were claiming to follow God, without letting him transform their hearts.

Later that evening, Jesus and his disciples went to Bethany where they were staying for the night, and when they returned to Jerusalem the next morning, Jesus spotted a fig tree and went over to it to see if it had any fruit that he could eat. This is one of the few times when we see Jesus’ frustration with Israel bubble to the surface, and you can tell that he was still thinking about the events of the previous day. When he found that the fig tree was empty, he cursed it and caused its branches to wither. When asked about it he talked to the disciples about the power of faithful prayer to produce any result, but the deeper meaning behind this passage compares the fig tree to the religious leaders at the Temple. Neither bore fruit, so both were doomed to wither and die.

As if to drive the point home, when Jesus returned to the Temple to teach that day, he was confronted once again by the religious leaders, who had heard his words and witnessed his miracles over and over again. Though they claimed to be followers of God, devoted to his commandments, they could not see him clearly standing there before him. So, they questioned Jesus, asking him by what authority he was saying and doing all these things. But, instead of answering their questions directly, Jesus told them two interconnected parables.

 

Parable 1 – Actions speak louder than words [Read Matthew 21:28-32]

This first parable talks about what it means to pay lip service to our commitment to God. But before we talk about, there is something important we should note. Jesus wasn’t directing this story at people in general; it was intended for God’s people specifically. He talked about the relationship between a father and his sons, which is a relationship reserved for those who belong to God. This relationship belongs to all those who have been adopted as daughters and sons of God through faith in Jesus. So, although Jesus was directing this parable at the religious leaders of his day, it now properly applies to those of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior. In other words, his words are directed at the church. And that is important for us to understand going forward.

In the story, the farmer’s oldest son is at first disobedient. When his father said to go and work in the fields, he simply refused, choosing to follow his own desires. But before the day was out he had a change of heart, and chose to become obedient to his father’s commands. He went into the field and worked as he had been instructed. The first son represents those who were once living far apart from God’s kingdom, but who had allowed the good news to transform them into followers of Jesus. They rejected God at the beginning, choosing to live in sin, but when they encountered John the Baptist (and then Jesus) they received their words as true and began walking in obedience.

The second son in the story had all the appearance of an obedient son on the surface. When his father came to him and instructed him to work in the fields, he immediately committed to doing his father’s will. But he was only paying lip service to that commitment. Though he appeared to be obedient, he never actually did what his father commanded. This second son represented the chief priests and Pharisees, who had all the outward trappings of faithfulness, but whose hearts were hardened. They spoke often of doing God’s will, enforcing it on others and condemning those who strayed, but inside they were wasting away, because they had never developed a love for God or the people under their care. They had not repented of their own sins, even though they readily pointed out the sins of others. And while they claimed to be God’s willing servants, they weren’t truly following his will.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself which son you most resemble in this story? Have you wondered if you would be considered an obedient child in this scenario? The truth is that we all start out in the same place. The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of righteousness. In the beginning, we are all like the first son. Our father has told us what he expects of us, but we have rejected his word. So, if we all start out in the same place, what determines which son we become in the story?

If you are a follower of Jesus this morning, then at some point you have changed your mind. You have turned away from a life of disobedience and chosen to believe that God’s ways are higher than your ways. You have received his free gift of grace for yourself and are no longer bound by guilt and sin. You have entered into a relationship with God as his child, and you can now call him Father. What separates the first son in the story from the second isn’t belief. Both sons knew their father and heard his voice. The difference between them is that the first son ultimately followed his father’s instructions, while the second son did not. The difference was not in their belief; the difference was what that belief produced in them. The first son was faithful, but the second son was unfaithful.

Jesus went on to tell a second parable, which illustrated the consequences of becoming like the second son.

 

Parable 2 – The result of unfaithfulness [Read Matthew 21:33-44]

This parable was an indictment of the religious leaders of Israel, who had been given the blessing and responsibility of caring for the souls of his flock, but who had time and again abused and even killed God’s messengers. They had grown hungry for power and influence to the point that any expression of God’s wisdom and power that didn’t originate with them was seen as threatening. And the implications for this are brutal and clear, as Jesus used the parable to predict what these same leaders would soon do to him, the Landowner’s Son.

His warning to them at the end of the story was clear. If God’s people are unfaithful with what he has given them, and continue down the road of disobedience–if they continue to pay lip service to their faith–his kingdom will depart from them, and he will give it to someone else, who will produce the proper fruit.

 

IV. Application

What does this mean for us today? Friends, though Jesus directed these parables to the religious leaders of his day, we would do well to hear them as a warning to the church in our day. Through Jesus Christ, we are now the spiritual Israel, God’s chosen people, and we have been given the responsibility and privilege to produce fruit according to the riches of the gospel. But make no mistake, we are not simply invited to bear fruit, we are commanded to do so. Where we do not, we have ceased to be the obedient church, and have instead become like the second son, who proclaimed his commitment to the father’s will, without any intention of doing it.

Following Jesus is not a spectator sport. It is not enough to come to church on Sunday and learn about him. It is not enough even to believe what the Bible says about him. True faith, genuine belief, requires more of us than just knowing about Jesus; it requires a relationship with him that is founded upon a deep and abiding trust and confidence in him as our Lord and Savior. And that kind of faith doesn’t exist without the accompanying obedience to his commands. “If you love me,” Jesus said. “Then keep my commandments.” If we would become faithful sons and daughters of the King, Christ calls us to radical obedience to his commands to love God and love one another. We do this by actively obeying all of his instructions in scripture, and by confronting the wickedness of this present age with the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross to set people free from the guilt and bondage of sin, and was raised again in victory over death.

Like all of you, I have watched the church in America lose its witness to our culture. We have become far too adept at pointing out the sins of those who are living far apart from God and need him desperately, and far too hesitant to repent of our own sin. We have grown silent in the face of growing evil of every kind, when God has called us to proclaim his justice and mercy loudly on the streets. Frankly, I think the church became comfortable with its influence in our society at one time, and we have been struggling ever since to hold on to that power, through compromise.

This same compromise is present in our individual lives, as well, when we choose to follow the wisdom of the world and reject the clear and life-altering wisdom of scripture. We have allowed ourselves to become people who go to church, when Jesus Christ has called us to be the church. Obedience is an active pursuit, but we have too often become passive in our faith. And as a result, we are no longer bearing the proper fruit.

This hit home for me personally in the last week as God has convicted me of remaining silent for far too long about issues of extreme importance that we face as a church and as a nation. I have failed to talk publicly with you about the human rights atrocity we know as abortion. I haven’t talked about it, because, frankly, I get too emotional. I get physically ill, when I think about what our culture is doing to the most vulnerable in our society in the name of convenience and freedom of personal choice. News headlines this week have been particularly difficult to read and talk about, but God calls us to embody a faith that doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. We have been set free from sin and fear through Jesus Christ, and we are called now to proclaim the good news with confidence and power in the very face of evil of every kind. And this is just one of many areas where I have been silent, and the church has been silent with me.

I believe that God is calling the church in our country to repentance and belief, and that he will use the challenges of our time to strengthen the true church, and to prune her branches, so that we might begin to once again produce a fruitful harvest of saints in the church, who willingly lay down their lives for the sake of the world. But the only way this will ever happen is if we fall on our knees in prayer.

Last week we talked about praying like it matters. If you remember, we committed together to begin praying with more frequency, more focus, and more faith that God is powerful enough to answer our prayers and loves us enough to do so. If we want to become truly faithful in our obedience to God, I believe we have to begin with prayer. First and foremost, we should be praying for God to send his Spirit upon us as individuals and as a church, to convict us and to empower us for mission and ministry to our community.

But I don’t think it stops there. Friends, I believe it is time for each of us to take a more active role in following Jesus. Now, I’m not saying that we aren’t following him at all. I know that many of you are seeking daily to become more like him. I’m only suggesting that, if we are comfortable with our lives as they are, then we aren’t yet following him fully. He will always lead us out of our comfort zones and into places where we have no choice but to become completely dependent upon him. And only when we commit to following him into those unknown places will we ever receive the richest blessings that he wants to give us.

I believe that God has more planned for each one of us than we can possibly imagine. He wants to make us holy and loving and compassionate. He wants us to live lives that are so different from the world that people can’t help but want what we have. He wants us to produce a harvest of righteousness, both in our own lives and in the lives of those we meet, as we introduce them to Jesus, and invite them into the family. And it all starts when we invite Jesus to completely wreck our lives.

Are you ready to take the next step in your journey with Jesus? Are you ready to surrender that thing you have been holding onto so tightly? Are you ready to ask God to make you fully obedient to his word? Are you ready to see the unknown places that Jesus will lead you, if you let him? Are you ready to trust him fully and completely with your worries, your relationships, your finances, your health, or whatever it is that you have been afraid to let go of? If so, I want to invite you to pray this prayer with me.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have loved us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross for our disobedience. We confess that, even though you have offered us freedom from sin, we don’t always follow your commands. Father, we repent of our unfaithfulness as individuals and as a church, and we ask that you would send your Spirit on us now to cleanse us from any sin that remains in us, and make us holy as you are holy.

And Father, we are tired of treating our faith like a spectator sport. We are tired of paying lip service to our commitment to following you. So, we ask that you would transform our hearts this morning. Would you set them on fire with your love? Would you teach us how to become a people of prayer? Would you show us how to reach our community with the good news? And would you give us the courage and the strength to act in the face of great evil, to proclaim your kingdom come?

Thank you, Jesus, for your faithfulness. Thank you for your church. Thank you for all the saints who have believed you and proved it with their lives. Thank you, that you are making all things new. Thanks you for rescuing us. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for leading us. We love you, Jesus! And we commit our lives to you from this day forward. Amen.

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Sermon: Stories, Pray Like it Matters

stories

“Stories: Pray Like it Matters”
Luke 11:5-13

 

I. Introduction

Have you ever heard a really great story, one that you were still thinking about long after the telling? What is it that makes certain tales stand out to you? Is it the characters, the plot, action, romance, mystery?

My favorite stories tend to be the ones I read. More than any other medium, books have a way of really capturing my imagination. And while I have read many, many books over the years, I can still recall with vivid detail the small handful of books that tell my favorite stories. In my first weeks here in Brazil, I told the kids in the Children’s Sermon about my all-time favorite book, Ender’s Game. I found a copy of this book when I was a teenager in a used bookstore somewhere near Augusta Georgia. I liked the spaceship on the cover, so I thought I would give it a try. Within minutes, I was captivated. Ender’s Game is the story of a young boy, an unwanted child, who was born with the sole hope that he might have the necessary personality and abilities to lead a fleet of human soldiers in a war against an alien adversary that had attacked and nearly destroyed humanity a couple of generations before. Throughout the book we follow Ender as he overcomes obstacles placed in his path, learns to form lasting friendships with the most unlikely group of misfits, grows into the great warrior and commander he was born to be, and then wrestles with the implications of what he has done. Hollywood made a movie adaptation a couple of years ago, but the movie doesn’t do it justice at all; to get the real story, you have to read the book.

I can recite the details of all my favorite stories with excruciating accuracy, and I’m sure you can too. Even when the parts start to become a bit fuzzy for me, I find myself returning to them again and again to refresh my memory, both of the story and the feelings of being drawn into it. Over the years a pattern has emerged among my favorite books, and with each successive reading I find deeper layers to the story that I didn’t see on the first or even second reading. My favorites are typically filled with some action, but the characters tend to struggle with the weight of their actions. The characters are often young, unsuspecting, or seemingly weak at first glance, but through adversity develop a strong will and character that carries them over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I prefer main characters who are overwhelmingly good, loyal, and honest, and act accordingly, even though they may have character flaws, as well. I enjoy stories where the protagonist sacrifices willingly for those who can’t help themselves, who wrestle with the moral implications of their choices, and who stand bravely in the face of powerful adversaries, even when they know it will likely lead to their death.

Maybe this is why the narrative books of the Old Testament resonate with me so significantly. Books like Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, Judges, and the like are filled with flawed characters who stand up in the face of overwhelming challenges and overcome, through their faith in God. I find it easy to read myself into these stories, not as a conquering hero, but as the flawed underdog, who trusts God to transform my weakness into strength, when and where it really matters. And as I live out the story of my own life, I find encouragement, hope, and even guidance from the stories that have become part of me in the telling.

 

II. We All Tell Stories

The truth is, we all have stories to tell. Some of the people in this room could no doubt spin tales about their lives that would curl our hair with excitement or fear. Others of us may think our stories are bland or boring, as though the everyday challenges of life aren’t exhilarating enough. Some of you may be looking for a new story to tell, because the ones you have already aren’t satisfying.

Sometimes we use stories to tell about our past. Sometimes we tell them purely for fun. And sometimes, our stories appear to be one thing on the surface, but are meant to convey a deeper meaning. Though the way we tell them has changed over the centuries, people of all generations and all cultures have been bound in some way to the stories they have told and retold. Today, we get most of them through books, television, the movies, or games. In Biblical times, and for most of human history, stories were told to family and friends around a shared meal or an evening fire. This was particularly important for oral cultures, like those of the Old Testament, because it was in those times that storytellers passed down the history of their ancestors to the next generation. In fact, this is the way the Old Testament scriptures were passed down until the time when they were written on scrolls.

Like other Rabbis, Jesus told stories to his disciples pretty frequently to illustrate the lessons he was teaching. We call these stories parables, and while we are familiar with some of them, there are others that rarely turn up in a sermon or Bible study. Some of Jesus’ parables are very straight forward, while others have many layers of depth. All of them are important for helping us to understand how we can faithfully follow in the way that leads to eternal life. So, for the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at Jesus’ parables. Some will be familiar; others might not be. But with the telling of each of these parables, we are invited to insert ourselves into the story, asking which character we would be, and how we would respond if we were in their shoes.

 

III. Praying Like it Matters

Luke, chapter 11 begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. His initial response was to offer a short model prayer for them to follow. Today, we commonly call this the Lord’s Prayer, and churches around the world still recite it in their worship services each week. The Lord’s Prayer begins with a proclamation of God’s holiness and a desire to see his kingdom and will done on earth, as it is done in heaven. The prayer then asks God to provide for the everyday needs of the one who is praying. It asks God to forgive the sins of the penitent, as a parallel to the forgiveness we are each called to offer others. And finally, the prayer asks God for his protection against the temptation to fall into further sin. This is a wonderful pattern for us to follow in our own prayers. We could spend weeks studying these few verses; in fact many books have been written about them already. But the deeper meaning of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples is lost, if we are satisfied with just learning about the content of prayer and stop reading at verse 4. You see, there is more to come in verse 5 and beyond.

After giving his disciples a model for the substance of faithful prayer, Jesus then told them a parable, in order to better illustrate not what they should pray about, but how they should go about praying:

5 Then, teaching them more about prayer, he used this story: “Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, 6 ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ 7 And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ 8 But I tell you this—though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence.

9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11 “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? 12 Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! 13 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (NLT)

 

This parable illustrates four principles about prayer that I would like for us to briefly discuss this morning.

  1. First, we should be praying fervently (with a passionate intensity). In the passage we read this morning from Acts, chapter 12 we heard about the Apostle Peter, who was imprisoned by Agrippa for preaching the gospel. Agrippa had just recently put James, the brother of John, to death and when he saw how much the crowds loved it, he planned to put Peter on trial publicly, presumably so he could be found guilty and publicly executed as well. But things didn’t go as Agrippa planned, because, as we are told in verse 5, the church began praying fervently for Peter while he was in prison. They had gathered to pray passionately for Peter’s safety. This was of primary importance to the church. It really mattered to them.

We see this same fervency in Jesus’ parable. The one who knocks on his neighbor’s door does so, because he is passionate about showing his guests the proper hospitality. It is of primary importance, because it will affect his reputation. When I picture this in my mind, I see someone pounding on the door in a near panic, not just lightly tapping on it lazily. This person is desperate for the person on the other side of the door to answer and provide help.

The first principle of prayer is that we should be passionate. In other words, we should actually care about the things we lift up to God. If we don’t care, then why should we expect a response? How many times have you been asked to pray for something, and sort of half-heartedly said a quick prayer, then promptly forgot about it? Now contrast that with something really important to you. When you pray for something about which you are passionate, what does it look like? Do you just say a few words and then forget about it, or do you fall on your knees and cry out to God in desperation? This is how we should bring all of our requests to God; not as a bored list of things we would sort of like to see happen, but as sincere and passionate requests for God’s intervention in our lives and the lives of those we love.

  1. The second principle this parable teaches is that we should be praying shamelessly. We should care less about what people will think of us than we do about making our requests known to God. In Jesus’ parable, he used a word (αναιδειαν) in verse 8 to describe the behavior of the one knocking as “lacking respect, or self-respect; or carelessness about the opinion of others.” The man was neither concerned about the impropriety of waking up a neighbor in the middle of the night, nor was he concerned with what the other neighbors would think about him for doing so. He simply knew that he needed help, and would do anything to get it.

How often does our prayer life suffer, because we are simply too ashamed to tell God and others what we need? When was the last time you asked a friend to pray for you about a specific struggle in your life, and not one of the sanitized ones that we come up with, like “I am struggling with my devotional time”. And when was the last time you voiced your real concerns to God out loud, even though they might be embarrassing or hurtful? Why have we become so ashamed to ask God for what we need, as though he doesn’t already know everything about us? And why are we so ashamed to ask others to pray for us?

The funny thing is that this is a bigger problem with people who have been in church their whole lives, than it is with those new to the faith. I hear all the time from those who work with youth or new converts about the rawness of the requests they receive for prayer. People who are so desperate for God’s love and forgiveness that they don’t care who knows about their worst vices, if it means those people will pray for and with them. Jesus’ parable shows us that we should all approach God in prayer as those who are unashamed, just desperate for him to hear us.

  1. The third principle of prayer is that we should be praying persistently. In Daniel, chapter 10 we read about a time when the prophet Daniel had a troubling vision about the future. He began fasting and praying for understanding, but for three weeks he didn’t receive and answer. Then, at the end of that time an Angel appeared to him. The angel told Daniel that God had sent him to answer Daniel’s request the moment he had begun to pray, but that he had been delayed by spiritual warfare. But Daniel had persisted in his prayer until he received an answer, and the angel was able to overcome his adversary with the help of the Archangel Michael, and bring his long-awaited message.

There are countless stories of miracles occurring all over the world, when God’s people have dedicated themselves to prayer for a specific movement of God’s Spirit. And though we don’t fully understand spiritual warfare or why God responds to prayer as he does, we are called to be persistent, and not to give up.

Now, if you want a more contemporary example of what persistent prayer looks like, just watch any Mom with young children, who is trying to have a discussion with another adult. As soon as any Mom begins to have a conversation, it’s like a beacon turns on that attracts her children, like moths to a flame. They will show up out of nowhere with an urgent request for something; they need to go potty, they want a snack, somebody pushed them, they have a booboo, they can’t find their socks, their shoes, their shirt, their favorite toy. And they don’t just ask for what they need once, do they Moms? No, they start asking over and over and over and over [breathe] and over and over and over. We laugh about it, because it is true.

Now Moms, I need you to be honest with me. How many of you, when your child turns into the Questionator, do you simply say, “yes” to whatever they want, because you know they won’t stop asking otherwise?

Now, Jesus was not suggesting in his parable that God just says “yes” to our requests, because he doesn’t want to be annoyed. What he was saying is that we should be persistent in asking God about the things we need, because it demonstrates how passionate we are about them. And there is real power in giving ourselves completely to seeking God in prayer, not because persistent prayer is somehow magical, but because we are transformed through the process. Friends, prayer is less about getting things we desire than it is about inviting God to transform us through conversation with him. But for that transformation to take place, we must learn to persist in our prayers, even (and maybe especially) when it seems like they aren’t being answered. We shouldn’t give up, until God has clearly answered us, or until he has allowed us to see things from a different perspective.

We have the assurance that, when we persist in our prayer, we will receive an answer. In verses 9 and 10, Jesus said, “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

  1. Fourth, and finally, Jesus’ parable shows us that we should be praying confidently. He does this by first reminding the disciples that they are children of God, and that their heavenly Father loves them. No loving earthly father would give his child less than what was asked for, even though all earthly fathers are sinful. How much more then will our heavenly Father, who we have already proclaimed holy and good in our prayer, give us what it is that we truly need, when we ask him?

In other words, we must begin praying with the confidence that God can and will answer our prayers. How do I know that we aren’t already doing this? Because we still continually act surprised when God shows up and does what we ask in Jesus’ name. What would it look like, if we were to instead offer up our requests to God with the confidence of children asking our Father for help, and trusting him to provide it?

 

IV. Application

When I read this parable and consider the deeper meaning it conveys, I am left with one very distinct and powerful conviction. I just can’t shake it off, and I’m afraid that if we don’t do something to address it soon, we will lose significant ground in the battle for the souls of people living in our community.

My conviction is this: we simply don’t take prayer seriously enough as Christians. And I am the worst offender. Too often, I rush through my prayer time, because I have things to do. Too often, I withhold my real needs from those who would pray with me in faith, or leave them unvoiced to God, because of my shame. Too often, I say a prayer with little or no passion, because it just isn’t really all that important to me. Too often, I simply fail to pray with confidence that God is not only powerful enough to do all that we ask, but that he is loving enough to do so. And I suspect I am not alone in this.

It isn’t too late, though. I believe there are some simple things we can begin doing today, both as individuals and as a community, which will transform us into the prayerful people that God desires us to be. They all start with the same letter, so they will be easy to remember.

  1. The first is frequency. We don’t need to schedule more lengthy prayer times. We don’t need to develop more eloquent prayers. We just need to pray more often. There is no substitute for spending time in conversation with the God of the universe. He has granted us access to his throne, through Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, and we make light of that gift when we fail to use it.
  2. The second is focus. We are, perhaps, the most distracted culture in history. We are always on the go, always connected, and always busy. God calls us to sacrifice the tyranny of the urgent for the peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. When we surrender our business to him, as children of the King, he will give us the peace of mind and spirit that we need to focus on him and his kingdom in prayer.
  3. And finally, is faith. We must begin to pray with faith, or we sacrifice all of its power. Faithful prayer has two dimensions, though.

First, for our prayers to become effective, we must have faith in Jesus Christ alone as our savior. We must trust that his sacrifice for our sins was sufficient to purchase our forgiveness, and that his resurrection was sufficient to secure our freedom from sin and death. And we must receive God’s free gift of grace through faith. Only then are we counted among the children of the King, and only then are we able to call on God as our Father. And second, we must begin praying with faith that God is powerful enough to meet our needs and loving enough that he will.

In the last verse of this parable Jesus said that the one who asks will be given the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to receive God’s grace through faith in Jesus. He is the one who empowers us to resist temptation and obey God’s commands. And Romans 8 tells us that the Spirit helps us in our weakness and groans on our behalf, when we do not have the words to pray for what we need.

It seems to me, then, that if we truly desire to become the church that God desires us to be, we should begin by asking our heavenly Father to send us his Spirit. We should ask him passionately, without shame, persistently, and with the confidence that he will answer our prayer. And when the Spirit falls afresh upon us in answer to our prayers, may we act in His power to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a world that is desperate for him, and may we learn to live our lives one day at a time on our knees.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are a God who hears the prayers of your children, and who is powerful enough and loving enough to answer us in our need. Where we have failed to be the prayerful people you desire, we ask your forgiveness. When we pray without sincerity and faith, we ask for your presence to lead us into faithful obedience. Heavenly Father, we ask now, as your people gathered in the name of your Son Jesus, who gave his all as a sacrifice for our sin, that you would pour out your Holy Spirit upon us. Would you fill us with your indwelling presence and transform us into the prayerful people you desire, who pursue justice, who love mercy, and who walk humbly with You, all the days of our lives. We ask all of this now, believing you to answer our prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you forever. Amen.

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Sermon: Never Run Dry

never-run-dry

“Never Run Dry”
1 Kings 17:1-16

Now Elijah, who was from Tishbe in Gilead, told King Ahab, “As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!”

2 Then the Lord said to Elijah, 3 “Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook, near where it enters the Jordan River. 4 Drink from the brook and eat what the ravens bring you, for I have commanded them to bring you food.”

5 So Elijah did as the Lord told him and camped beside Kerith Brook, east of the Jordan. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat each morning and evening, and he drank from the brook. 7 But after a while the brook dried up, for there was no rainfall anywhere in the land.

8 Then the Lord said to Elijah, 9 “Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. I have instructed a widow there to feed you.”

10 So he went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the gates of the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks, and he asked her, “Would you please bring me a little water in a cup?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called to her, “Bring me a bite of bread, too.”

12 But she said, “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.”

13 But Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!”

15 So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her family continued to eat for many days. 16 There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah.

 

I. Introduction

In the chapters leading up to 1 Kings 17, we learn that the Israelites have been living in some very troubled times. Even though God had specifically warned King Solomon against idolatry, he allowed his heart to be swayed by his foreign wives, and had begun to worship their gods. He even constructed altars to some of these gods, so that his wives could make sacrifices to them, and this was detestable to God. Because of his idolatry, God promised him that Israel would become divided, with part of the kingdom taken away from his descendants. When Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, become king he committed further evil acts and began to harshly persecute his own people. This led to a revolt, as the northern tribes of Israel rebelled against the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and made Jeroboam their new king. God’s chosen people were divided in two (the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah) just as God had promised, and were never again rejoined.

But division was just the beginning of their problems, because both kingdoms were ruled by wicked men. Rehoboam continued to reign in the southern kingdom of Judah until his death, but before he died he led the people into even greater levels of idolatrous worship. Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, continued in his father’s footsteps and led the people to turn their backs on God. But because of King David’s faithfulness, God continued to allow his family to rule the southern kingdom. Finally, after Abijah died, his son Asa took over and changed things around. Asa followed God with a pure heart. He banished foreign idols and temple prostitutes and led the people to worship God. Even though he didn’t fully rid Judah of pagan idols in his lifetime, he enjoyed a long reign as king, and the Bible says that he remained faithful to the Lord throughout his life. This brought relative prosperity and peace to the southern kingdom.

The story of the northern kingdom is much more bleak. After the revolt, Jeroboam became king of Israel. But he was afraid that when the people went south to make sacrifices at the temple, they would pledge their loyalty to the kings from David’s line. Out of fear, he constructed golden idols at both the northern and southern edges of his territory and advised the people that it was too much trouble to make the pilgrimage south to the temple. He convinced them instead to worship and make sacrifices to the false gods he had built for them. Jeroboam appointed priests, who were not from the tribe of Levi, to oversee the pagan worship. And he committed the greatest evil when he began to worship and make sacrifices to the idols himself soon after. Following Jeroboam’s apostasy, God sent a prophet to tell him that another king would rise up and kill his entire family line as a consequence for his evil actions.

From this point on, the northern kingdom of Israel spiraled down hill. They had one terrible king after another. Jeroboam’s son Nadab became king after him, and continued to follow in his father’s footsteps. God’s prophecy was fulfilled when Baasha assassinated Nadab and then killed all of Jeroboam’s relatives. Then Baasha and all the kings who succeeded him in the northern kingdom of Israel continued to turn their backs on God, and we are told that each one became more evil than their predecessors.

 

II. Our Situation Hasn’t Changed

Two main observations jump out at me from the background of 1 Kings. First, anyone who thinks the Bible is boring must be reading a different version than I am. The whole story of scripture is one of intrigue, excitement, victory, defeat, and above all the love of God for his rebellious people. When I read the Bible as a Christian, I find myself right in the middle of the narrative, as another of God’s rebellious children, rescued by his magnificent grace, through Jesus Christ, and promised a return to the Father’s household and a glorious inheritance. Each one of us is invited to see ourselves as a vital part of the story of God and his people, and when we do the scriptures come alive for us, as they show us how great our need is for Jesus, and how good and powerful is our God. It makes me wonder why so many of us look at reading the Bible as a chore, instead of an adventure.

A second observation is that the story of 1 Kings seems awfully similar to the ones we read in our newspapers and watch on television today. We are constantly inundated with news of war and famine and evil of every kind, often perpetrated by wicked leaders against their own people. In our own country, any illusions we might have had that we are a Christian nation have been torn down, as we have witnessed increased violence in schools, extensive racism, the burning of churches, rampant hedonism, and legislation that opposes the teaching of scripture.

Even within the walls of our churches there is strong disagreement about what it means to live out the biblical commandments to love God and love others, and what a faithful witness to the good news of Jesus Christ really looks like. This leads to distrust and misunderstandings between and among denominations, clergy, and laity. So that, even in our places of worship, we often find tension with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I don’t know about all of you, but I come from a long line of worriers. So, when things start going all crazy in the news, in our country, and in the church, I could find it very easy to get worked up and start to worry about my family’s future and the future of the church. Do you ever find yourself wrestling with uncertainty about the future? Do you ever find yourself unsettled, because you just don’t know what to expect next? Do you sit on the edge of your seat, wondering what awful news or event is going to happen next?

I think most of us wrestle at some point with questions about the future. And many of us struggle to trust God fully, when things around us seem to be falling apart. How should we respond to a society that seems more and more opposed to God? How can we move forward confidently in our mission, when there is infighting in the church? What are we to do, when the world seems like it is completely out of control? What will become of us and our families?

 

III. God Provides for His People

The prophet Elijah knew a thing or two about what it means to live during uncertain times, in a culture that had turned its back on God. When he stepped onto the scene in 1 Kings, chapter 16, things had gotten just about as bad as they could get for Israel. They were really and truly falling apart. Ahab had ascended the throne in the northern kingdom, and the Bible tells us that he was more vile than all the evil kings who had come before him. The scripture describes his heart corruption in this way in verse 31: “And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal.” Now, probably most of you recognize the name Baal. This is one of the most despised of the false gods in the Old Testament, and the same idol the Israelites had turned to over and over again throughout their history. This time, it so angered God that he called up Elijah, and told him to go to king Ahab with a warning and a promise of misfortune.

Baal was a god of the harvest, and prayers to him were thought to bring rains to water the crops. So Elijah was instructed to tell Ahab that God would cause a long drought to occur, where neither rain nor dew would fall, to demonstrate how powerless Baal was, and how great God is.

As you can imagine, this sort of message didn’t sit well with the king or Elijah’s neighbors. So, after delivering his message, 1 Kings 17 says that God sent him into hiding. Now, I don’t want us to miss what is going on here. It would be so easy to just skip over verse 2 and get on with the story, but I think we need to stop and reflect on something before moving on.

Consider this: Elijah was in a hostile land, carrying a counter-cultural message that challenged the authority of the ruling powers and promised adversity to those around him, as a penalty for their sins. Does this sound familiar to anyone? It should, because the church has been delivering a similar message for two thousand years. Elijah’s life was in danger, because he was challenging the status quo and could easily have been killed for doing so. If God’s message to the prevailing culture was shocking enough that an Old Testament prophet had to go into hiding, should we be all that surprised when we meet with opposition to God’s message of repentance and belief in our culture today? Yet we are surprised and even frustrated, when the world rejects the good news, and acts in ways that are contrary to the truth revealed in scripture.

Maybe a better question to ask is this: why aren’t we encountering more serious opposition than we are? Is it because our culture is simply ignoring the message, or is it more likely because we are failing to deliver God’s message as he intended it, where it is most needed?

Elijah faithfully carried God’s message to Ahab, and then went into hiding. As a consequence, his future became very uncertain, very quickly. He was surrounded by the enemies of God, who were searching everywhere for him, and a long drought was about to destroy the land and its crops, leading to famine. Elijah was homeless, he didn’t have a job, there was no 401K to fall back on, and his future was looking pretty bleak. He could have given up in this situation. He could have simply called it quits and turned in his staff. But he chose instead to trust in God, for better or worse.

The rest of the story is pretty fascinating. Elijah did as God had commanded him, and went to hide beside a brook near the Jordan River, where he had a constant source of water. Then God commanded ravens to bring him food every morning and evening, so that all of Elijah’s needs were met. But we all know that, when there isn’t any rain for a lengthy period of time, rivers and brooks eventually dry up.

Now, I might have gotten a little bit annoyed if God had led me out into the wilderness to hide in an oasis, only to have that oasis dry up. In fact, I might be inclined to start worrying long before the last trickle of water stopped running. I might even be tempted to accuse God of putting me in a dire situation, only to later abandon me. But we don’t have any indication that Elijah experienced doubt or worry or anger when his situation changed. Instead, when the water dried up, he waited to hear from the Lord, and then he acted quickly to do what he was commanded. He set off to an unfamiliar town to find an unspecified widow, because God told him that she would feed him there. We know the rest of the story. Elijah found the widow, but she reported to him that she had only a little flour and oil left to make bread, then she and her son would starve, without any hope for help. Elijah asked her to trust God and make him some bread first, and when she did, God worked a miracle, so that her flour and oil never ran out, and she was able to feed herself, her son, and Elijah until the famine ended.

At any point throughout this long ordeal, Elijah could have decided that his circumstances were simply too much to bear. He could have looked for human solutions to his problems. Or he could have refused to go where God commanded him to go or do what God commanded him to do. But he chose, instead, to trust in the Lord to provide him with everything he needed and to direct his path. And all along the way, God proved to Elijah and to us that he is faithful and can be trusted.

 

IV. Application

So, what are we to take away from this story, friends? Why does it matter to us today, when we are so far removed in time and space from the northern kingdom of Israel and its problems? Though our circumstances have changed, we are still living in uncertain times, surrounded by culture that is hostile to the good news of Jesus Christ that calls all sinners to repentance and belief. And like Elijah, we are each invited to respond to our current situation in two ways.

The first invitation is to bear witness to the glory of God, his truth, and what he has done for us through Jesus, even in the face of adversity. Now, bearing witness doesn’t mean screaming in the faces of our neighbors, pointing our fingers, and condemning a world far away from God for not acting like Christians. It doesn’t mean causing unnecessary offense or acting offended. But it does mean loving our neighbors enough to share with them the good news that God offers forgiveness and freedom to anyone who receives his grace and places their trust in Jesus. It means loving others enough that we challenge the status quo, even when it results in persecution. It means allowing God to transform us by his Spirit, so that we become his image bearers to the world. Bearing witness means taking up our cross daily and losing our lives, so that we might truly live.

And the second invitation is to put our full trust and confidence in God alone to meet all of our needs, and then continue to trust him with our lives, even when things look bleak. When things get shaky around us, when our future seems uncertain, the temptation is to adopt a scarcity mentality. We want to protect and hold on to what we have out of fear that, at the end of the day, there won’t be enough for tomorrow. We try to control of every aspect of our lives, as though we can manage it all on our own. Even when we want to trust God, many of us find it difficult to surrender certain areas of our lives to him fully. Do you struggle to give God complete control over any of these areas? Your work? Your relationships? Your finances? Your family (Moms, this means your children)? If you are struggling with uncertainty, worry, or fear this morning over any of these things, then I have good news for you, because God offers you freedom from fear, when you surrender your control to him. Friends, we were not created to get by under our own power, and as Christians, we must learn to live in the power of God’s Spirit, cultivating a deep trust in God to carry us through times of famine and times of plenty alike.

But how do we do this? How do we answer the invitation to bear witness to the good news and trust God to supply all of our needs? What steps can we take to develop a deep and abiding confidence in God?

  1. It begins with a personal relationship with Jesus. Trust begins with relationship. It isn’t enough to know about Jesus, we have to really know him, if we ever hope to turn our burden’s over to him. You may have been attending church your whole life and tried to follow every command of scripture to the letter, but if you have never personally asked Jesus to take his rightful place as King in your life, then you’ll never experience the peace he has to offer. A person cannot bear witness to something he or she has not seen personally, and a person cannot trust someone he or she does not know. But the Bible promises us that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, he will save you from your sin and receive you into his family as a daughter or son, who knows and is known by God, and who can trust your heavenly Father to provide everything you need in this life and the next.
  2. Second, we must become people who hunger and thirst for the Word. In Psalm 119 David said, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, Lord, according to your laws.” The Word of God, in whom we put our hope, is Jesus Christ, and the written word of scripture points us to him. Remember how we said it isn’t possible to trust someone we don’t know? Once we have received God’s forgiveness, through faith, we come to know Jesus more intimately by reading and meditating on God’s word. I was saddened to read the results of a recent Pew research study, which found that only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week, and 1 in 5 said they never read the Bible at all. How can we ever hope to develop confidence in God, if we never listen to what he has to say? We must do better than this, if we hope to give a faithful witness and develop a deep trust in Him.
  3. Third, we must ask God to give us a kingdom perspective. We have talked about this quite a bit recently, so let me just touch on it briefly. When we pray and ask God to show us things from his perspective, we have an opportunity to evaluate our circumstances differently. Through God’s eyes we can see people and situations for what they are, and gain confidence that God’s promises are true, and that we will receive eternal blessings that far outweigh our momentary suffering, if we will just continue to trust in him.
  4. Finally, we must surrender control our everyday circumstances, and let God occupy the throne in our lives. There is no way around this. Half-hearted measures simply won’t do. If we want to develop the deep and abiding faith in God that will help us to respond to our present circumstances with a faithful witness and trust him fully to supply our needs, we must give him control of everything in our lives. And we must learn to live in the power of the Spirit, who alone can transform our hearts into fully devoted followers of Jesus. There is freedom in surrender, but he will not force us to make that choice.

What do you think our families would look like if we were each to begin living as though our every need could only be supplied by God? What if we were to become truly dependent upon him, like a child depends on his or her parents? What about our church, our city, or our country? What if we began to listen for and trust God completely in every situation, instead of trusting in our own knowledge and abilities to carry us through?

We are living in a broken world. This fact has become more obvious lately, but it has always been true. And there has only ever been one solution for our brokenness. When we turn to God and trust him fully to provide everything we need, I believe he will always answer that prayer by giving us of himself. So that, whatever challenges we face today or in the future, we will never need to fear what tomorrow brings, because God is with us.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die for us on a cross, so that we might be set free from the guilt of sin and its power over us. We thank you that, through Christ’s resurrection, you have purchased for us freedom from the fear of death, so that we can stand firmly in the face of any opposition and proclaim with confidence the good news of salvation. Father, would you please send your Spirit upon us gathered here? Help us to surrender our lives more fully to you. Transform our hearts, so that we might become radically depend upon you for everything we have and everything we are. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Rooted

rooted

“Rooted”
Jeremiah 17:5-8

5 This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
7 “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
8 They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”

 

I. Introduction

We have a friend in Kentucky who used to work for an organization that does environmental training. He often traveled to schools to teach children about conservation and good stewardship of God’s creation. A couple of years ago, he was involved in a project to plant new trees and he called us up asking if we would like a sapling he had left-over, to put in a big open space in our back yard. Thinking this would look great in a few years, we invited him to bring it over and we purchased some mulch and other things we would need to get the tree started off well. We took care to plant the little red maple sapling deep enough, we watered it, and we surrounded its base with mulch. We even gave the tree a name. We called it Bob, after a family joke about how we keep naming pets Bob, when we can’t think of anything else.

Now, we gave Bob the tree a great start that should have ended up in a beautiful tree a few years down the road. Unfortunately, after that initial effort to plant the tree, we really never gave Bob much of a further thought, until we noticed it wasn’t growing. We didn’t water it, even though the summer was hot and dry. We didn’t give it any plant food, even though we were unsure of our soil quality in that part of the yard. We didn’t consider sheltering it from the elements, or checking the mulch, or tying it to a post for support. We may have been careful as we planted the tree, but we did not cultivate habits to tend for its ongoing care, and as a result, Bob the tree never put down strong roots.

As the cooler weather of fall rolled in, I remember Sarah walking out with me to look at our little red maple. It looked exactly the same as when we had planted it. It had not grown and it had never developed healthy leaves. We sort of sadly joked that we should rename Bob the tree something more fitting, like Bob the twig. As if to drive this point home, a few days later we went outside to find our kids playing with the neighbor children. They had gathered a bunch of slender sticks that had fallen from our healthy trees in during a recent storm, and they stuck these sticks in the ground all over the yard. Then one of the kids said, “Look! We planted more Bobs!”

 

II. Sometimes We Have Shallow Roots

I sometimes wonder how many of us, if we were to take an honest look at our own spiritual lives, would find that we have more in common with a twig than we do with a towering maple. How many of us got a great start as disciples of Jesus, but failed to put down good roots that give us the strength to withstand a drought or heavy winds? Have you ever felt like your growth in grace has been stunted? Do you find yourself struggling to endure the deserts and storms of life?

Most of us start of pretty well in our journey of faith, once we meet Jesus and invite him to become Lord of our lives. Maybe we got a healthy dose of fertilizer from our family and friends to encourage us along the way. Perhaps at the beginning we started feasting on scriptural food and got some great nourishment for our souls. Maybe we came to church to receive a weekly dose of living water to keep our leaves green and petals flowering. We might even have begun to participate in activities that help us to begin bearing spiritual fruit. But even though Christians start off growing rapidly, many times, when that initial rush wears off, we start to fall back into our old habits of living. We try to maintain control over our spiritual growth as though we ourselves are the Gardener, and we stop caring for ourselves with those practices that act like fertilizer and water to our souls. We fail to allow ourselves to be firmly planted by God, where he wants us, permitting him to establish deep roots in our lives that anchor us to him. And when something in life unexpectedly shakes us, we find that our roots are shallow and weak, and they can’t hold us up fully. When that happens we start to come undone and we risk losing our grip on the fertile ground of our faith.

Have you ever felt trapped by your circumstances? Have you ever wondered if God really hears your prayers for help? Or have you simply stopped praying? Have you ever asked yourself, how did I get to this point in the first place? Or wondered what am I to do now? Do you find yourself consumed with worry or fear or anger? These may be signs that your roots don’t run as deep as you thought. And they should make each of us pause to ask how we can develop stronger roots that will not fail us when times get tough.

 

III. How to Become Rooted

We read in the Old Testament that Israel was a nation that lived through seasons of famine and seasons of plenty. They enjoyed moments of peace, but spent most of their existence at war, buffeted on all sides by hostile nations. When they were faithful to God’s commands they prospered, but when they took their eyes off of him they suffered. Since calling them out of captivity in Egypt, God had promised them that he would bless them, if they would worship and follow him alone. But he also warned them that they would be cursed if they turned to worship idols and disobeyed his commands.

God periodically sent his prophets into the mix to remind Israel of these promises and to call them back to purity and the right worship of God. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spoke as a mouthpiece of God, urging the people back to faithfulness. And in the passage this morning from chapter 17 he spoke both curses and blessings over God’s people. His words still stand for us today as a warning and a promise of hope. They offer an answer to our question: how can we be sure that our roots are strong? But they begin by telling us why our roots are sometimes so weak. Let’s take a few moments this morning to step through this passage, and hear what promises God makes to us today.

Verse 5 begins very bluntly by telling us that God’s people are cursed when we turn away from the Lord and put trust in human strength, instead. This warning reaches all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when Adam turned away from God and placed his trust in his own ability to rule over creation. He wanted to be “like God” in knowledge and power, forgetting that he was already made in God’s image to live completely dependent upon God’s knowledge and strength.

This desire for independence from God, trusting in our own strength, has plagued humanity ever since the Fall. And we see it manifest over and over again in Israel’s history. When Moses led the people out of captivity in Egypt and into the wilderness, they complained that they were better off when they were slaves, because they knew where their next meal would come from. When Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive the Law, the people became scared and constructed their own gods out of gold, because they couldn’t see the One True God, and they believed their false gods could help them. When the Israelites sent spies into the Promised Land, who returned to tell tales of giants, the people turned away from God, not trusting in his strength. And this pattern went on and on and on. And though God proved his faithfulness and power in every situation they faced, still Israel continued to look to the strength of people and ignore the strength of God.

I wonder if we in the church are much different than Israel was? It is easy to give praise to God and trust him when things are going well. But what about when our lives start to fall apart? Do we run to God with open arms, like a child running to his father for protection, or do we hide from him, like Adam and Eve in the garden? Have you ever wondered why people turn to destructive habits when things are already going badly, instead of asking for help? Are we any different, when we wait until we hit rock bottom to fall on our knees and ask the God of universe for his aid?

I have heard many times over this advice given to people in times of distress: just follow your heart. But Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is deceitful above all things. When we follow our hearts, distorted by sin, we will only find further heartache. But when we seek God first, and ask him to replace our hearts of stone with new hearts of flesh we are able to see our situations clearly for what they are and learn to trust in God alone for our deliverance.

Scripture, history, and our own experience testify to the fact that when we trust in ourselves we will ultimate fail. No matter how much they love us, when we trust in other people we will eventually be let down. But God never fails and he always comes through for us, when we trust him to do so. But here’s the kicker: you cannot trust fully in God and trust in the flesh at the same time. When you place faith in one, you must turn away from the other.

Verse 6 goes on to tell us that the result of misplaced trust is that we put up dwelling places in the wilderness, in parched lands. In other words, when we turn away from God and begin relying on our own abilities, we are settling for a life that cannot satisfy. Jeremiah describes the person who chooses to trust in their own strength as a bush in the wastelands, surrounded by salted earth. Now, anyone who has ever grown crops can tell you that you cannot grow anything good in land that has been salted. In fact, throughout history, one of the penalties conquering kings would level against their enemies was to salt the land, to ensure that no one could return to live there again. The only things that can survive in such a place are scraggly weeds that hang on, but just by a thread. They struggle to maintain life, and they cease to flourish. And even when the blessing of rain comes, they aren’t able to receive it properly, because their roots are weak.

When we begin to trust in our own strength to make it through life, we become like these scraggly bushes and weeds. We may technically survive, but we never really flourish, and we lose the ability to recognize true prosperity (by God’s standards) when it comes to us. It’s as though we are always living in a desert. This is the warning Jeremiah gave to Israel. Continue to trust in yourselves and your own abilities, and you will become like a ragged bush in the wilderness.

But there is good news, as well. Jeremiah told Israel if they would turn back to God and place their hope and trust in him, God would turn their curses into blessings.

In verse 7, Jeremiah said the one who trusts completely in God is blessed. Again, one cannot trust God and the flesh at the same time; they are mutually exclusive. So this necessarily means that the ones who trust in God cease to trust in themselves. In other words, they have no backup plan. If they are going to succeed in life and weather its storms, it will have to be because God has given them what they need to do so. There is no other option, no fallback position, and no Plan B. To borrow a term from the game of poker, those who choose to fully trust in God have gone “all in”. They have held nothing in reserve for a later play.

This can be a scary thought for most of us today, right? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good about leaving all the details of my life up to someone else. I like to have some control. But God calls us to relinquish our control and trust that he is willing and able to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. This is the true essence of faith. And it is absolutely necessary if we would become people who thrive, instead of people who just sort of get by in life.

Jeremiah promises in verse 8 that when we turn to God and place our confidence in him, we become like a tree planted by water that sends out deep roots and thrives, even in adversity. When take care to ensure that we are firmly established in our faith, trusting God alone for all we have and all we are, and engaging in those practices that nourish our souls, we not only recognize and receive God’s blessings when he sends them, but we weather the droughts and storms of life with confidence and peace, knowing that God is still in control.

But God must truly be in control, if we hope to flourish. The word for planted here is in the passive tense, which means that the tree – that would be you and I – is on the receiving end of the action. We cannot plant ourselves; instead, we require a planter. We cannot achieve for ourselves the righteousness that God requires of those who would enter the kingdom of heaven. For that we need Jesus. And all the spiritual disciplines in the world will not give us what we need to succeed in life, if we do not trust in God to apply them to our hearts and minds through the transforming power of his Spirit. Like Bob the tree, we are not equipped to survive on our own. We need constant nourishment and care if we hope to grow and thrive.

 

IV. Application

Friends, it all boils down to this: when we trust God completely with our lives, the Bible tells us we will be nourished regularly by the living water of Jesus, our roots will grow deep and strong in faith, we will have no reason to fear hard times, because all times with God are filled with the plenty of his presence, and we will not fail to bear fruit, even in the toughest times of spiritual “drought”, because his Spirit lives within us. The only questions that remain are these: do you desire to grow deep spiritual roots in your life, and if so, what does it take?

The desire must be your own, but the work belongs to God. All we have to do is surrender to him. There are three things we must receive in order to begin trusting God to establish strong roots in us today.

First, we must receive God’s free gift of grace offered to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. God’s grace is something we cannot earn; we are recipients of God’s gift, just like the tree that is willingly planted. This does not mean we don’t have responsibilities. Once God has planted us, we are expected to bear fruit (Ephesians 2:1-10), but even this is only possible when the Spirit lives within us. Friends, we can never grow strong spiritual roots that will help us weather the droughts and storms of life, until we have first received God’s gracious pardon for our sins and new birth into his family.

Second, we must receive and embrace our new identity as God’s children. Just as a gardener cares for his or her garden, our heavenly Father carefully tends to his children. When we receive and embrace our new identities in Christ, as children of the King, we begin to see how much he values us and trust that he will take care of our needs.

Finally, we must rely upon God for everything we have, everything we are, and everything we will ever be. Nothing less than complete dependence upon God will do. Half measures will not get us where we need to go, and self-reliance will always lead to failure and disappointment.

 

V. Seeing the Possibilities

Several years ago we had another tree in our back yard that had stopped flowering. It had been there for more than a decade, but that summer was very hot and we had a drought. In fact, our whole yard sort of died, and took several seasons to fully recovery. That tree never did flower again. So we cut it down to make room for a shed and left just a small stump. When it came time to move here last summer, I decided it was time to remove the stump, to make the yard nicer for the next family to move in. I didn’t have a chain saw handy, so I set out with an axe, a shovel, and a pry bar. It was hot and sunny that day, and after working steadily to cut through the roots for almost an hour I still couldn’t get the stump to move. With the last bit of energy I could muster I jammed the pry bar against the stump and put my full weight on it. I poured everything I had into this one effort and finally hear the taproot pop – and then I nearly had a stroke. Sarah came rushing out into the yard a few minutes later looking for me, because she couldn’t see me through the window anymore and got worried. I was laying completely exhausted in the yard. I couldn’t move. It had taken everything in me to pull out this one small stump.

You see, before we cut it down, this tree had been nourished for years by good soil and plenty of rain. In that time, it had put down deep and strong roots. So, when the drought came the year we cut it down, the root system had already been fully established as an anchor that was not easily broken. I wonder sometimes if I gave up on that tree too soon. Would it have eventually flowered again if I had taken time to care for it properly? What about us? How often do we give up on God too soon when we hit a snag in life, and turn to our own abilities to sustain us during the droughts and storms, instead of trusting him to establish the strong roots we need to persevere? What would our families and our church look like if each one of us were to decide instead to become firmly rooted in our faith, by trusting fully in Jesus Christ?

Let me leave you with a final question to consider this morning, as we turn to God in prayer. Have you allowed God to plant you in the fertile soil of faith, or are you just working and working to dig yourself a hole to lie in? One path leads to blessings, while the other leads to a curse. Which path will you choose this morning?

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not left us to wander through the difficulties of life on our own, but that you have promised to always be with us. We confess that we have not always rested in your presence, and as a result, our roots have gotten weak. We ask that you would come now and renew us. Would you strengthen us, and guide us to a place of total dependence on you for all that we have and all that we are? Help us to become more grounded in our faith, more reliant on your word, and more desperate for your presence in our lives. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

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The Good Fight

fight-the-good-fight
I’ve been working outside my office today. Sometimes a change of location helps with my creativity and gives me perspective.

I like to pick public places to work, when I do this, because I do some of my best work when I am alone in a crowd. The background noise of conversations and activity make a nice soundtrack for writing.

Every now and then one of those background conversations will break through my concentration and catch my ear with astounding clarity. When this happens, I’ll sometimes stop and listen for a moment before I get back to whatever I was doing. It is amazing what you can hear, when you take time to really listen.

After several years of working in public places I have come to discover that your average person can be as funny as a late night commedian or as cruel as a schoolyard bully. Some people speak with great cleverness, while others say some of the stupidest things I have ever heard. People can sound as though they are filled with joy or deeply depressed. You will find the full range of emotions, intelligence, and conversation topics in almost any public venue, at any time, if you just open your ears to listen.

This morning I was sitting near some older gentlemen, and overheard a bit of their conversation. They were discussing World War II, and the sacrifices made by America’s soldier. One man commented on the storming of Normandy Beach, where so many young men died within minutes (or seconds) of hitting the shore. He said that if he had been in that situation, he would have probably layed down and played dead, hoping they would leave him alone. And then he went on to say that we just don’t have people of the same quality today as we did then – those who would give their lives so selflessly to win the war.

I couldn’t disagree more.

 

Soldiers in the Trenches

First, I disagree with this man at a surface level. I have served with and know many selfless and dedicated military personel, who sacrifice much in order to serve our country and fight battles around the globe. We dishonor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice when we label them with a weak character. I am thankful for those who serve in our armed forces, even while I pray for a day when we no longer need machines of war and can live at peace.

But my biggest disagreement with the gentlemen talking near me this morning lies at a deeper, spiritual level. You see, our world is filled with soldiers in the trenches, fighting a spiritual war against the forces of darkness. They battle against temptation and despair, knowing that they have been freed from sin and promised hope for the future, through Jesus Christ. And we have daily evidence of the heroic sacrifices made by those who are fighting the good fight of faith.

The Apostle Paul gave encouragement to his disciple Timothy, as he was fighting in these same trenches. “Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. And I charge you before God, who gives life to all, and before Christ Jesus, who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate, that you obey this command without wavering. Then no one can find fault with you from now until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. (1 Tim. 6:11-13; NLT)”

Christians everywhere are called to take up this fight and carry on until the final shots have been fired by the enemy of our souls, and he has accepted defeat.

 

The Battle We Face

Make no mistake; the war has already been won. But we are still faced with the lingering skirmishes, the death throes of the enemy, who wants to lead as many people away from the Kingdom as possible, before his power to corrupt is completely cut off.

The battle we face is against this unseen enemy. “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12; NLT)”

Our battlefield is not in primarily in the physical world, but the spiritual. And our beachhead must be conquered, not with weapons of war, but with prayer. We are called to persevere in the face of tremendous opposing forces, fighting to the death in the power of God’s Spirit, so that we might enter enternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Finishing the Race

The quality of soldiers in this spiritual war is beyond equal today. As a pastor, I am privileged to walk alongside a multitude of saints, who have devoted everything to God in pursuit of the prize he offers to us in Jesus. I watch them fight battles on a daily basis, sometimes giving up ground for a little while, but always rallying to retake what has been lost. I fight beside them with prayer and petitions to God for protection and victory. I feel their defeats, I care for their wounds, and I offer them hope by fixing my eyes on the King who leads us on to victory.

And sometimes I stand with the saints through their final conflict and offer them a salute as they claim victory, through Jesus Christ, and enter into eternal rest in his Heavenly Kingdom.

It is a strange privilege and wondrous burden to walk with Christians at the end of life. My chest swells as I witness God’s good work completed in his beloved child. And yet, my heart aches at the loss of another brother or sister in the faith, a champion whose victory cry will echo to eternity, but still an echo, too ephemeral to be grasped onto.

As I walk with the saints through the skirmishes of life, I am reminded that I too must continue to fight the good fight. I take courage from those who have gone before me, and I ask God to give me the strength to bear truthful witness to those who come after me. In all things, I resign myself to God, knowing that he has already won the war for my soul. I belong to him, and nothing can ever shake my confidence in Jesus Christ, who shall remain my Lord and Savior until I meet with him in glory.

On that day, I will rejoice and join the Apostle Paul and all the saints in claiming the victory over sin and death that Jesus purchased for me on the cross:

“As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. 8 And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8; NLT)”

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Sermon: Happy, The Persecuted

happy

“Happy: The Persecuted”
Matthew 5:10-12

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

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

I. Introduction

Over the last several weeks we have taken a closer look at what we call the beatitudes; Jesus’ words to the crowds who followed him about true happiness and where it can be found in this life. These crowds expected to find happiness through the miracles they had seen Jesus perform, and so they brought their sick to him for healing. They expected happiness to follow their liberation from Roman oppression, so they came to hear the plans from this Rabbi, who was preaching about a new kingdom. But Jesus dug beneath the surface to confront their assumptions and transform their hearts. And he told them that the road to happiness leads in a different direction than what they expected.

Happiness belongs to the poor in spirit, because in their humility and desperation for God, they will receive the gift of God’s grace and his kingdom. Happiness belongs to those who mourn, because they will find comfort in God. The meek will be happy, because they have been filled by the Spirit and adopted as daughters and sons of God, heirs to the kingdom and new creation. Happiness will follow after those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled by the bread of life and living water of Christ. The merciful will be blessed because they have learned to forgive others in the way they have been forgiven by God. The pure in heart will be happy, because they will see God everywhere in this life and the next. Peacemakers will be happy, because they are at peace with God, and have learned to pass on to others what they have received. And finally, Jesus said that those who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed.

I don’t know about you, but I find this last statement more personally challenging than all those that preceded it. I’ve been challenged by them all, for sure, but with each of the other beatitudes I find that I have an active role to play. I am called to surrender, to be gentle, to pursue God, to forgive, to make peace, etcetera. In all of these I must learn to rely totally on God, but there is still a sense in which I feel some responsibility for, at the very least, inviting God to have his way in my life. But when it comes to the subject of persecution, I feel totally powerless. Persecution is something that happens to us, not something we actively pursue. I have no part in controlling it. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of situations where I have no control.

 

II. We often fear persecution and respond accordingly

I think most of us, when we really think about it, are probably somewhat fearful of persecution, and understandably so. Our news feeds have lately been filled with reports of ISIS and other terrorists, who take special interest in targeting Christians. In the last few months, in various places around the world, Christians have had their possessions taken or destroyed, they have been driven from their homes, they have had their churches burned or bombed, they have been beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. And all of this has happened for no other reason than because they claim Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. A recent watch list released by Open Doors USA lists the top 50 countries where persecution continues against Christians today. This list details significant ongoing problems in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, China, and Southeast Asia.[1] Violence against Christians is prevalent around the globe, and the problems are getting worse. One research study estimates that up to 70 million Christians have been martyred for their faith, since the time of Jesus, with more than half of those deaths occurring in the last century alone.[2] Statisticians disagree about the accuracy of these numbers, but one thing they all seem to agree on is this: Christians are still the most persecuted religious group in the world today. And in many countries it is illegal or unsafe to proclaim Jesus as Lord and share the good news of the gospel with others.

We face a very different kind of struggle as Christians in the United States and most of Europe. We do not often risk our lives or possessions, when we follow Jesus. Most of us will never encounter more than ridicule, misunderstanding, or anger, because of our faith. And even though our society has become less friendly to Christian beliefs in recent years, we should be slow to label such things as civil action or changing laws as persecution, except where they are intended to harm or harass Christians specifically. Especially when well meaning Christians so often bring problems on themselves by meeting the world with an air of self-righteousness or entitlement, rather than love. I know I have been guilty of this, even if nobody else here has.

Now, please hear me when I say that I believe we have rights afforded to us by our society, and we should defend those rights, so long as they are consistent with our scriptural witness. But true persecution of the type we see elsewhere is a rare thing in our country.

Maybe our unfamiliarity with real mistreatment on account of our faith is to blame for the fear we sometimes feel. And let’s make no mistake about it; fear is what causes Christians in our country to lash out at those who are living far away from God, when they follow the ways of the world. It’s what causes us to “fight back” with petitions and legislation and boycotts, when we feel slighted by those in our society who do not understand us and our beliefs. We fear change, we fear becoming marginalized, we fear our loss of control, and we fear being mistreated for what we believe. In fact, whether we recognize it or not, fear often forms the basis of our views about persecution and our responses to it. There is no shame in being afraid of things we don’t understand. But as followers of Jesus we have been offered freedom from fear, if we will confess it to God and trust him for our strength. One of the consistent messages of scripture that is repeated over and over again is this: do not be afraid, for the Lord is with his people. So why do we fear what others might say or do to us, because we claim Jesus as Lord?

 

III. Blessed are the persecuted

The crowds who sat at Jesus’ feet on the mountainside were no strangers to persecution. They remembered the stories that had been passed down to them from their ancestors in the books of the Law and Prophets. Israel had been at war with countries and kings who worshipped false gods for most of its existence. They had been thrown out of their homes and driven into captivity more than once, and even now they were living under the rule of Caesar and Rome as a conquered people. They knew what it was like to have their rights stripped away from them, to be marginalized, and to be forgotten. And in their desperation to find true happiness in this life they had come to Jesus the miracle-working rabbi to find hope.

Jesus knew that, in order to find all of the blessings he had promised to them so far, they would have to overcome their present situation. They would have to learn how to embrace all of these radical claims to happiness, even in the midst of their less-than-ideal circumstances. And so he first gave them a new way to understand persecution, and then he reminded them about how God had called them to respond as his people. These same lessons apply to us, as the church, today.

 

1. How should we understand persecution, as Christians?

First, Jesus made clear in Matthew 5:9 that not all persecution is the same. Those who are blessed are the ones who are persecuted because of righteousness. In other words, they have been mistreated because of their faithfulness to God’s commands. This is an important distinction. You see, sometimes we invite mistreatment upon ourselves for other reasons, and these do not carry a blessing. Let’s be honest, Christians are often at the receiving end of abuse from the world, because we have been quick to abuse others first.

For example, how often have you heard Christians respond with harsh criticism or contempt or an air of self-righteousness to unbelievers who are stuck in their sin? How often have we ignored the needy among us and complained about our needs? How often have we tried to legislate morality by using the courts to advance our views? And how often have these things stirred up distrust, misunderstandings, and even hatred from those who don’t know Jesus, and aren’t yet free from the grip of sin in their lives? When we seek to follow all the commands of God, especially the greatest commandments of loving God and loving others, we may still meet with persecution, but it will be because of our righteousness, instead of our lack thereof.

Second, we should expect to be persecuted. In John 15:18-21 Jesus said, “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me. (NLT)”

In Matthew 5:12 Jesus echoed this when he said that the prophets were also persecuted for their righteous pursuit of God. So, if we are living as faithful followers of Jesus, we should expect persecution in this life. And if we aren’t encountering any resistance from the world, then it might be a sign that we nee d to more carefully examine our lives, to see if we are, in fact, following where he is leading us.

The third thing we should understand about persecution is that it is always temporary. In verse 12 Jesus said “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.” No matter what resistance we encounter in this life it will come to an end. And we have a promised future beyond our wildest dreams. Remember that we are citizens of another kingdom, and we must have a kingdom perspective about such things. From this viewpoint we can see that our lives now are just a small piece of what God has planned for us. And, although there will be suffering in this life, we will be rewarded for our perseverance both in this life and in the life to come.

Matthew 5:10 repeats what was said in verse 3 about the reward for faithfulness: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. These verses act as bookends to the section, and they show that all of these traits lead to the same end. The one who exhibits them will find happiness in the kingdom.

If we take this kingdom view of persecution, how then should we respond when we are persecuted for our faithfulness?

2. How should we respond?

I said earlier that the most challenging part of Matthew 5:10 for me is the sense I have that things are completely out of my control, when it comes to persecution. It is true that we cannot chose the time, place, or form of persecution. But we can choose how we will respond to it.

The crowd who gathered around Jesus might have expected him to give them some radical new approach to dealing with their predicament. I mean, everything he had said to this point was pretty “out there” and it only seemed likely that his solution would be too. So, it probably came as a surprise to some that his advice was to continue doing what God had called them to do all along. He went on in Matthew 5:13, saying, “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 underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built 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 others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (NLT)”

Israel had always been a people called to be salt and light among the nations of the earth. God had formed them into a holy nation and blessed them so that they would be a witness and a blessing to the rest of the world. They were to be set apart as an example of the transformation that God works in the hearts of those who love him. Jesus was reminding them of their charge, saying that their persecution will come precisely because of their faithfulness, so the best response they can give in the face of persecution is to remain faithful.

In other words, our response to persecution should be to maintain our witness. If we are misunderstood because we seek justice and love mercy in a world filled with people who are out for themselves, then we should continue to love others sacrificially as a witness to the God of justice and mercy. If we are hated because we look and act differently than the world, then the best thing we can do is to continue to look and act differently as an example of the holiness God demands from his people. Whatever challenges we face, we should continue to embrace all of the characteristics that Jesus spoke about in Matthew 5 as a testimony to the new life we have in Christ. If we do that; if we continue to live faithfully in the midst of persecution, God will use our witness to point our persecutors toward himself. This is the reason we still hear stories about those who have martyred Christians coming to faith themselves, when they see that faith in Jesus is real and powerful to the end. The greatest witness we can ever give to the good news of Jesus Christ is to remain faithful in the midst of persecution.

 

IV. Application

This isn’t an easy task, though, is it? As I reflected this week on my own willingness to take this different view of persecution that Jesus offers to us, it occurred to me that I simply can’t do what I must, unless Christ does it in me. I can’t be the witness – the salt and light – that God has called me to be, unless Jesus lives in me and I abide in him. I can’t endure the hardships and persecution that will come my way, unless the Spirit is sitting in the driver’s seat of my life. I can’t stand up under the pressure and accusations of the enemy of our souls, unless I know who I am to my heavenly Father. I’m too fragile on my own; too likely to give up when the going gets too tough, to throw in the towel when it looks like I’m losing the fight. But I am not alone, and neither are you. Our God will give us victory in this life and the next, if we will place our trust in him.

The surest way to build the trust and confidence we need to face the challenges of this life as followers of Jesus is to ask God to show us who we are to him, and embrace the new identity he has given to us in Christ. Only when we know who we are, will we know how to act in the face of great struggles. Children have no trouble asking their parents to give them an identity, do they? They have no problem whatsoever looking to their parents and asking if they are strong, or courageous, or intelligent, or funny, or beautiful, or loved. We can learn a lot from our children. Have you asked God to tell you lately what you mean to him? Have you asked God to remind you who you are now, in Christ? Let’s all take a moment to do that right now. Heavenly Father, would you speak to our hearts in these next few minutes and show us who we are in your eyes? Help us to claim our new identity in Jesus this morning. Amen. I have dared to ask God who I am to him this week, and here is what he has revealed to me. If you confess Jesus as Lord this morning, then I believe this is your identity too. Hear this promise about yourself.

I am no longer my own. I am a child of the Living God; beloved of my Father and slave of Jesus Christ. I have been set free by his grace, cleansed by his blood, and sealed by his promise. I have been filled with God’s Spirit, born from above, and baptized into the body of Christ. No one can ever take my place in my Father’s kingdom. No one can ever steal my inheritance. No one can ruin my joy or destroy my peace, so long as I abide in Jesus. No one can ever separate me from the love of God. I cannot be shaken. I cannot be bought. I cannot be led astray. I cannot be defeated by the powers of darkness, because Jesus Christ lives in me. No one will ever overcome my God. Because I am not my own, I will not fear what the world can take from me, and I will not grow weary of seeking after Jesus and his righteousness. I will trust the Lord all of my days. And if I should be called upon to suffer for my faith, I will trust him until I breathe my last breath, because I know that he is faithful. I will run the race; I will give my all, so that I might receive the prize of eternal life with him, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.

What has God revealed to your heart today? Has he assured you that you are his precious child, bought at a great price? Has he promised to be with you through all the challenges you face? Has he confirmed his promise that you will live with him in paradise? Or, has God pulled back the veil to show you an area of fear in your life? Has he convicted you of some unrepentant sin that is holding you back from being his faithful witness? Or has he indicated there is something you still need to surrender fully to his control?

What if we all began to take a different view of persecution, not as a battle to be fought, but rather as a mantle to be carried for the sake of the world? What if we were to stop fighting against our cross, and learned to carry it instead? What if we truly embraced and lived out the way that leads to eternal life, even when it means passing through death to get there? What if we were to become witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ, even though it sometimes leads to misunderstanding, and distrust, and hatred?

I suspect the fear of persecution accounts for why so few Christians share their faith with the lost, even in their own families. If you remember, recent statistics show that only 2% of all Christians in America invite someone to church in a given year. We are so afraid of what people will think or say or do if we tell them about Jesus.

Let’s decide today to stop worrying about persecution, and start living lives that are faithful to the gospel. When we do, persecution will eventually come. But when it does, we will be blessed as we are confirmed in our faithfulness, and we will be a blessing through our witness to the transforming presence of God in our midst.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, as we watch the persecution of your Church unfold around the world, we ask for your continued presence and mercy. Would you deliver our brothers and sisters who are enduring tremendous hardship because of their faith? Would you protect their lives and give them strength to persevere? And Father, would you forgive those of us who live in places that aren’t hostile to the faith for forgetting those who suffer? Please help us to support them in their time of need. And Father, when our time comes, would you also give us the courage to face the opposition and the strength to persevere in our faith. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Benediction

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world… So if you are suffering in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you.” (1 Peter 4:12-13, 19, NLT)

[1] https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/

[2]http://www.christiantoday.com/article/70.million.christians.martyred.faith.since.jesus.walked.earth/38403.htm

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Sermon: Happy, The Peacemakers

happy

“Happy: The Peacemakers”
Matthew 5:9

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (NIV)”

I. Introduction

I find it interesting how often God uses the everyday experiences of our lives to help us understand what he is trying to teach us from the Bible. This week, in particular, has been one of those that God is using to teach me some hard lessons. As I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:9 and preparing the message for today, I have felt the bitter taste of irony building in my mouth. You see, the Holy Spirit has led me to come in here and share about the peace that God gives to his children, and what it means to pass on what we have received, becoming peacemakers ourselves. But this past week, I have been anything but peaceful in my heart.

This story really starts two weeks ago, and I hope you’ll bear with me for a few minutes as I share what’s been going on. As many of you know, I was gone over Memorial Day weekend to spend a couple of days with a good friend who was visiting Cincinnati. I missed being here with you all, but I needed the break and some rest. I had a great time, while I was there. But when I returned home on Monday, I checked my email to begin my work for the week and found a message waiting for me from my PhD program supervisor. He is a wonderful Christian scholar that I greatly respect, so when he makes requests of me I always do my best to fulfill them. But the request he made last week was a pretty big one, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

To make a long story shorter, my supervisor told me he was traveling and would have a very small window this week to read and comment on the next chapter of my thesis. It was imperative that I get it to him before then, because he needs to report on my progress to the University. There was only one slight problem with that request, and I’m sure you can guess what it was. I hadn’t finished writing it yet. In fact, I still had about half of it to go. But with the few days I took away, Sunday looming on the horizon, and all my weekly work yet to do, I knew there was little hope of getting it finished in time.

To say that I was unsettled would be an understatement. In all honesty, some fear and panic began to set in almost immediately, and as the days slipped away from me without finding free time to complete my writing, the peace that I normally have in my inner soul began to waver. Some of you saw me looking a little more frazzled than usual that week. Evan and Jasmine Moore practically had to dig me out of a pile of research books, on Friday, just so we could talk about the kids’ baptisms. But, even though I knew I was pushing it and the stress was getting to me, I kept pounding away at the work, hoping to make a dent without letting anything important fall to the wayside.

I spent most of Saturday and Sunday afternoons trying to write, but by this past Monday morning I had hit a wall. Writer’s block set in, and I couldn’t seem to get the cursor to move forward even a line per hour. I was having trouble holding the research materials together in my mind, and making sense of what I had found. And, as the pressure kept building, my inner peace kept eroding until I had a small meltdown. Some of you saw my posts on Facebook about the trials of thesis writing, and we even joked about it a bit, but what I didn’t reveal was the sense of utter hopelessness that I felt at that moment. I was a failure in my own eyes. I was a fraud. I had no business starting this PhD in the first place. I would never get it done in time. I should just give up.

These are the lies that the enemy of my soul screamed at me, and which I took to heart, as the peace of Christ shattered inside me. This is the inner monologue that was playing on repeat as I stared at my computer for hours, not knowing what to do next. Why is it that we so often wait until we hit rock bottom to cry out for help from the God of the universe? I mean, sure, I had prayed many times over those previous days, asking for clarity and wisdom and the ability to focus. But it wasn’t until I was desperate that I really surrendered it all and asked him to take over, when I should have asked him to take the driver’s seat on the first day. Psalm 46:1 says that “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.” Praise God, because his word is true. Once I confessed my fear and pride to God and asked for his help, he sent it swiftly.

That next day, Tuesday, I wrote from early in the morning until I couldn’t keep my eyes open that night. And I started again early the next morning. God came through for me in that time of need, as he always does, and I was able to send in my chapter just in time for Sarah, the kids, and I to pack up and leave town for an overnight trip to Kentucky for some appointments we had there, and to meet our new niece for the first time. It was a huge relief, and I felt as though a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders…until we returned home late Thursday night, and it hit me that I still had a week’s worth of work to do, and some visits and calls to make, before today, when I would preach about God’s peace and his desire for us to become peacemakers. Can you taste the irony as I did?

 

II. We all desire peace in our lives

I know that was a long story, but I didn’t share it to garner any sympathy. I share it because I know we have all been there at one time or another. We have all had those moments in our lives where the pressure just continued to build, or the work continued to pile up, until it robbed us of our joy and peace.

If you are anything like me, when your peace gets shaken you start to look everywhere for distractions. There is a reason I was posting silly comments about thesis writing to Facebook, when I was at my lowest point. I just wanted to escape. But friends, I’m here to tell you this morning that you will never find peace on social media. You’ll never find it in the news. In fact, peace is often hard to come by in our own homes, in our workplaces, in our government, in our world… and, sometimes, even in our churches. Have you ever found yourself holding your hands up to your ears, closing your eyes, and saying, “All I want is a little peace!” If you have, then you know what I mean.

The truth is that we all desire to live peaceful lives, but we often find that to be an elusive goal. This was true for the people living in Jesus’ day, as well. Their world was filled with turmoil. And when Jesus spoke to the crowd in Matthew 5:9 and told them that peacemakers are the ones who receive happiness in this life, he did so knowing that it is impossible for people to become peacemakers, until they have first received peace. You see, we cannot pass on to others what we haven’t first received for ourselves. Let’s restate that in the positive. We can only pass on to others what we have first received.

 

III. Blessed are the peacemakers

In Romans 4, Paul described Abraham’s faith in God’s promises, and told the church that the same faith is what makes us righteous. The content of this faith is that “[Jesus] was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God (v. 25).“ In chapter 5, verse 1, Paul went on to say, “Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.” The only way we can ever truly expect to have peace in our lives is if we are at peace with God, and this can only come when we confess our sins to him, believe in our hearts that Jesus is God’s Son and that God raised him from the dead, and submit our lives completely to him. When we have done that; when we have received God’s free gift of grace, only then will we receive the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding, and only then will we be able to pass on to others what we ourselves have received, becoming peacemakers.

Let’s talk for just a moment about what it means to be a peacemaker. James 3:13, 17-18 can help us understand this better. “If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom… the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” (NLT)

Let’s break this passage down a bit.

i. The first thing this passage tells us is that peacemaking is an action verb. Peace doesn’t just happen; it is made by those who intentionally seek it out. James says those who are peacemakers – the ones who are wise and understand God’s ways – “prove it”. But this is more than just working to resolve conflict. True peacemaking seeks to identify the root of discord and build bridges to help people cross the gap. If you have ever tried to mediate an argument, though, you know that true piece is hard to achieve. Simply separating the people involved won’t solve the underlying problem. If you have children, you know this is true. Kids can have a fight that continues all day long, if the only thing you do to address it is separate them for a while. True peacemaking is sometimes slow and difficult work. It requires humility, and patience, and above all a deep love for others and a desire to see their lives transformed by grace.

2. Second, peacemaking stems from purity of the heart. Last week we learned that heart purity is love of God and a sure trust in him, and it is marked by the fruits of righteousness in our lives. Peacemaking naturally flows out of these things, so where there is an absence of love, faith, and fruit we should expect an absence of peace. But where these things exist, they should always be marked by efforts to bring God’s peace to those around us. Many of us deal with some sort of worry or anxiety at times. We worry about our kids, our health, our jobs, you name it. But Jesus has commanded us not to worry. In Matthew 6 he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When we allow ourselves to become consumed by worry and anxiety, we trade the peace Christ offers us today for an uncertain tomorrow.

3. Third, peacemaking requires humility and self-sacrifice. James says the wisdom of God that leads to peace is loving, gentle, and willing to yield to others. Have you ever tried to get two people to stop arguing by yelling over top of them? If you have kids and you didn’t say yes, we might need to talk about your habit of lying, after the service. Does that approach work? No, of course not. If your voice is loud enough, you might be able to get everyone else to be quiet for a moment, but it won’t solve the problem. The reason is because you cannot force peace on someone else. You can only invite them to share it. And in order for true and lasting peace to exist, we have to be willing to approach the situation focused more on what we can give, than what we will get. We must be willing to give something up in order to build bridges with people. I have often heard it said that we can’t let someone we disagree with walk all over us. I am so thankful Jesus didn’t agree with that statement. Instead, he chose the way of humility and self-sacrifice, in order to bring peace between us and God.

4. Fourth, peacemaking produces righteousness, both in our own lives and in the lives of others. When we seek to pass on the good news of reconciliation that we have received to others, we become co-laborers with Christ and participate in the great calling of all Christians to bear witness to his death and resurrection with our good deeds. We know already that what concerns God most is not our outward appearance or actions. He doesn’t care if it looks like we have it all together. What God wants is for us to allow him to change our hearts. When we do that, we will naturally become obedient to his commands. When we engage in the ministry of reconciliation (peacemaking), we invite God to come into our lives and turn our weakness into strength. And he uses that strength and peace, in the midst of life’s trouble, as a witness for himself. Paul describes this in 2 Corinthains 4, when he says, “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.”

When we share the gospel with others, we sow seeds of grace that produce righteousness in the lives of others, as well. We become like a light in the darkness, making it possible for those who are far away from God to catch a glimpse of what he offers them in Christ. Paul goes on to say, “If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” When we pass on the peace that we have received through Jesus, we participate in this process of revealing the greatness of God to the world. This is a wonderful gift and a great responsibility. But it isn’t optional. We are all called to become peacemakers, ministers of reconciliation in a world that longs for peace.

 

IV. Application

Even when we belong to Jesus, our peace can be shaken, if we allow ourselves to become distracted by the cares of this world, or when we attempt to do things all on our own. If we want to experience the full and complete peace that Jesus offers to us, we have to learn to submit everything to him, and allow him to take control of our lives. Sometime over the course of the last fourteen days, I tried to wrestle control of my life back away from God. I stopped inviting him to sit on the throne in my life, and started putting that old pretender king named pride in his place. And it wasn’t until I confessed this to God that he was able to restore my peace and help me through a difficult situation. This isn’t because God isn’t powerful enough to take control on his own; it is because he loves us too much to force us to surrender to him.

When our own peace is shaken, we find it much more difficult to become the peacemakers God desires us to be. In fact, that’s often one of the first signs of a problem. So, as you reflect on your life this morning, is God revealing an area to you, where you need to make or receive peace?

Do you need to make peace with someone who you have wronged, or who has wronged you in some way? Maybe you need to ask forgiveness or ask God to help you forgive. Do you need to make peace with your past? If something you have done or that has been done to you is robbing you of peace, maybe it’s time to ask God to redeem your memories and show you who you are to him today. Are you experiencing anxiety or worry or uncertainty? God doesn’t want us to live as slaves to those emotions. He has offered us freedom from these when we turn them over to him. Maybe you need to make peace with God by confessing your sin to him. Sin steals our peace by giving the enemy of our souls a foothold for accusing us before God. But when we confess our sins, it breaks that foothold and restores our peace with God. Or maybe God has put someone on your heart that you need to share the gospel message with, so that they can experience the peace with God that comes through faith. We each have an opportunity to pass on what we have received, but it requires us to step out in faith, to be active peacemakers.

Whatever your situation, if you are struggling with either finding peace or offering it to others this morning, I want to invite you to join with me and surrender to Jesus this morning? God desires to bless his children with peace in their lives, so that we can pass it on to others in need. All we need to do is receive his gift.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have failed to be your obedient church, working to spread your peace to those in need. Would you please come now and take your rightful place in our lives. Would you help us surrender every part of ourselves to you? And, would you grant us the peace that passes all understanding, so that we might become peacemakers, your true children, for the sake of the world? We ask all this in Jesus name. Amen.

 

VI. Our Response – The Sacrament of Holy Communion

When we celebrate the sacrament of Communion we place all of those things, which separate us from one another on the altar, and ask God to give us his grace. We become one body through our shared experience with God. It is not uncommon for congregations to “pass the peace” before celebrating Communion together, as an act of intentional peacemaking. So, as we prepare our hearts for Communion this morning and ask the folks in children’s church to rejoin us, I would like to invite the worship team forward, and ask everyone else to stand up and take a brief moment to pass the peace to one another with a handshake or a hug, and the words, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Let’s take a moment to do that now.

 

Benediction

Hear this benediction from Romans 12: “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection,[a] and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” (NLT)

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Sermon: Happy, The Pure in Heart

happy

“Happy: The Pure in Heart”
Matthew 5:8

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

I. Introduction

Have you ever set out to do something with the best of intentions, only to fail miserably somewhere along the way? Maybe you didn’t plan for an important contingency, maybe you didn’t plan at all, or maybe your plans were just faulty, and the end result was less than you had hoped. I have done this on a number of occasions. In fact, I recall one of the first meals that I made for Sarah after we got married as one of those ill-conceived, but well-intended events. We had just returned from our honeymoon, moved into our new apartment, and started transitioning into our new routines. Sarah was in her last year of college and had transferred to the university where I was working as a software developer. So, in addition to all of the normal adjustments that come with a marriage, she was also getting used to a new school and town.

I thought I would surprise her by making a nice dinner one evening to show her how much I love and support her. I had it all planned out. I set the table with our new dishes, busted out our new cookware, and started hunting for an awesome recipe. Sarah used to be a bit pickier in her food choices, so I decided to stick with chicken as a safe bet. I found a recipe that looked amazing, bought all the ingredients, and got to work. By the time Sarah got home from class, everything was cooking and almost ready to go. I was so proud of myself when I plated the main dish and sides and we sat down to eat. I had prepared baked chicken breasts with a honey walnut glaze, and I couldn’t wait to dig in.

That’s when my plans got derailed. You see, I had great intentions that night. I wanted to prepare a delicious meal for my hard-working wife. But in my hurry to put those good intentions into action, I forgot the most important part of the meal. I didn’t ask Sarah if she liked the ingredients. As it turns out, at that time in our young lives Sarah did not like the taste of either honey or walnuts. In fact, she really, really disliked those flavors. So, while my intentions were good, they were misdirected. I had mistakenly assumed that what I would find pleasing would also please Sarah, and I had acted more out of my own desires than out of a desire to find what would most delight her. Fortunately, we moved beyond that not-so-tasty meal, and I learned to cook things for Sarah that she preferred and that would make her happy, and she learned to do the same for me.

 

II. Misguided intentions

That first meal as a married couple was a pretty minor disaster in the grand scheme of things. There have been many more instances over the last fourteen years, when my intentions didn’t result in my end goal. And my guess is that I am not alone in this. At times, we all pursue things with misguided – maybe even selfish – intentions. Sometimes, the consequences are fairly minor. In the case of that first meal as a married couple, Sarah found something else to eat, while I grumbled a bit and learned my lesson. Other minor situations might involve our children, who often have good intentions, but encounter difficulty with the follow-through on their plans. We should always praise such attempts by our children or other loved ones to please us.

But not all situations are quite so innocent. At other times, the consequences for our misguided intentions can be truly catastrophic. This is particularly true when it comes to our spiritual growth. You may have heard the phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” While we often say this jokingly, there is some real truth behind it. The veracity of that claim rests on the fact that good is so often the enemy of great. How many times have you or I settled for something good in our lives, when we could have had something truly great if we had just set our eyes on a different goal? God does not want his people chasing after goals we think are good; he wants our commitment to pursuing Him as our ultimate goal, so that he can give us truly great things in return. And our intentions are so easily misdirected. They can’t be trusted in a fallen world. Maybe that is why Jesus didn’t praise the good intentions of the crowds following him in Matthew 5:8, and, instead, called them and us to embrace purity of heart.

 

III. Blessed are the pure in heart

The Bible has a lot to say about purity, and I think it is helpful for us to make a distinction between the heart purity Jesus was talking about and righteousness according to the Law, or what we might call “right actions”. Jesus made this distinction himself in Matthew 15:1-11.

‘Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”

Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? 4 For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents. And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’”

Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. “Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.” (NLT)‘

When Jesus spoke to the crowds about the blessings that come from purity of heart in Matthew 5:8 he was making the same distinction. His concern was not that the people should pursue specific behaviors. But this isn’t because Jesus didn’t find those behaviors important; rather, it was because he knew that purity of heart will always produce obedience to God’s commands. On the other hand, it is possible to do and say all the “right” things and still be wasting away on the inside, where it counts the most. The sort of purity that leads to true happiness must begin with the orientation of our hearts. And this is more than simply acting with good intentions; it is a heart that humbly seeks after God and submits daily to God’s designs for us. But what does that look like?

There are at least three characteristics scripture points to that will help us to recognize what Jesus meant when he described the blessed as pure of heart.

Purity of heart is first and foremost manifest as love of God. In Deuteronomy 6:5-6 God issued a command to Israel that would ensure their prosperity. “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. (NLT)” When challenged by the Pharisees to identify the greatest commandment of the Law in Matthew 22, Jesus echoed these verses saying, “’You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”(NLT). The pure heart is one that is committed to this singular focus of loving God, not just when we feel like it or when it is convenient, but all the time and with every ounce of our being. Only the pure heart can make this kind of commitment. A divided heart can never seek God fully in this way. And, as Jesus was careful to point out this sort of all-consuming love of God naturally leads to the love of others.

Purity of heart is also identified in scripture as full trust in God. In Hebrews 10:19-23 Paul encouraged the church to persevere in their faith saying, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (NIV)”

Do you hear the connection there between heart purity and faith? Paul said the heart that has been cleansed from sin should result in a full assurance of faith and sincerity. Not only that, but this is the foundation upon which the faithful can hold “unswervingly” to the hope we have in Christ. A pure heart hopes in the Lord, because it has trusts in God’s faithfulness. A polluted heart, on the other hand, cannot hope, because the guilty conscience remains, and condemnation along with it.

Finally, purity of heart is marked by the presence of the fruit of righteousness in our lives. In Luke 6:43-45 Jesus said, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (NLT)”

The pure in heart will always be known by the fruit they produce. They are filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits of the Spirit. And they will also exhibit the fruits of righteousness, because a pure heart will always lead to holy living and obedience to God’s commands.

In Matthew 5:8, Jesus said the pure in heart – those who love God with a singular purpose, those who trust him completely, and those who can be recognized by the fruit their lives produce – are happy, because they are the ones who will see God. What does this mean? I believe it simply means this: the pure in heart are those who have surrendered self in order to seek after God. And, as Jesus promised, those who seek God will find him (Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10). God will give us the desires of our hearts, when our desire is for Him. A pure heart seeks only after God and proclaims, “not my will, but yours be done”.

When our hearts are pure, we never again have to worry about misguided intentions, because our desires echo God’s desires for us, his ways become our ways, and his goals become our goals. But, the only way we can gain a pure heart is to receive it by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. Purity of heart requires a full commitment to surrender everything to Jesus, and trust in the Spirit to give us His strength for each day. God has offered this gift to all who will receive it, and you can have it today.

 

III. Application

Many of you have already received this gift of grace for yourselves, and maybe you remember the hunger and thirst you had for God in the beginning, but somehow, over time, you’ve lost some of your passion for him. Maybe your relationship with Jesus isn’t as strong as it once was. Or, maybe you sense that your heart is no longer as pure as God desires. Maybe you have lost focus.

The world we live in is filled with distractions, isn’t it? There are so many things vying for our attention at every hour of the day. It is so much easier now than it once was to become completely wrapped up in things of secondary importance. Let me encourage you to diligently guard your heart, so that you don’t trample on the grace God has given you and once again contaminate what God has made pure. When we choose to pursue other things in the place of God, when our desires become misdirected, or when our focus gets divided, we run the risk of losing that purity of heart that results in holy lives that please God.

So, how do we avoid the traps that lead to a distracted and corrupted heart? How do we guard ourselves, once we have received God’s gift of grace? What can we do today to ensure that we remain on the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life?

My friend and mentor J. D. Walt served for many years as the Dean of the Chapel and Vice president of Community Life at Asbury Theological Seminary, where I was privileged to attend. I saw him, day in and day out, weather storms and incredible pressure generated by his commitment to minister to students and their families in the stresses of higher education. In the midst of these storms and pressures, he prepared for and led numerous weekly worship services where he offered Christ to people who were in desperate need for the daily sustaining grace of God. The temptation to take short cuts in his own spiritual life must have been incredible. One day, as I sat talking with him in his office, J. D. seemed particularly weary, and I asked him, “How do you do it? How do you deal with all of the pressure and problems and controversy that comes your way every day?” Do you know what his answer was? He didn’t blow of my question with false humility and say he wasn’t really dealing with all that much, he didn’t cite the latest leadership principles as the key to his perseverance, and he didn’t quote some part of scripture as though the Word of God alone in a vacuum was self-explanatory. But his answer to me was scriptural. He said, “Isaac, I take the stairs to and from my office every day.”

Now, if you are like me, that answer doesn’t make much sense on the surface. But then he went on to explain how taking the stairs has helped him to weather the storms and pressures (and temptations) of this world. He said, “As I place my foot on each step to and from my office, I repeat this one simple prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” He was referencing Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus told his disciples a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood up and prayed to God, “I thank you that I am not a sinner like this tax collector.” And proceeded to list his good deeds to God as evidence of his righteousness. Meanwhile, the tax collector stood at a distance, beating his chest in his grief over his own sin, too ashamed to even look to heaven, and he begged, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Friends, this is the biblical picture of a pure heart that seeks after God alone for salvation and mercy and the grace to live a transformed life that casts off sin and embraces the way of the cross.

Jesus went on to say that this man, not the Pharisee, who had all the appearance of righteousness, was the one who went home justified on that day. This should stand as both a warning and a breath of fresh air for us today. If we would ask God to give us pure hearts and guard them from distraction, we must embrace the way of humility. Only when we recognize our own disease, will we be able to receive the cure with thanksgiving. Only when we empty ourselves of spiritual pride, will be given the power of God’s Spirit. Only when we confess our hunger and thirst, will Jesus offer us the bread and water of life. And only when we rely completely upon Jesus for everything that we are or will ever be, can we ever experience the purity of heart that leads us to see God in every situation we encounter in this life, and forever in the life to come.

 

IV. Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not hidden your face from us, but have promised us that we will see you, when our hearts are pure. Lord Jesus, we have heard your words to us, and we know they can produce something new in our souls when we allow those words to take root in our hearts. Would you send your Spirit now among us? Would you give us your grace to surrender all of our own desires and good intentions to you, so that you can gives us pure hearts that seek only after you and your desires for us? Heavenly Father, we ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Our Response – The Sacrament of Baptism

There is no event in the lives of Christians, which symbolizes purity more so than baptism. Among other things, baptism is a symbol of the pure heart that God gives to those who place their faith in Jesus Christ. It announces the washing away of our sins, by God’s mercy and grace. It is a visible signpost of the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives before, during, and after we confess Jesus as Lord.

 

Baptism[1]

There are many misconceptions or uncertainties about baptism in our churches today. This is particularly true when we baptize infants and children, the mentally disabled, or anyone who is unable or not yet ready to answer the questions of the baptismal ritual for themselves. So I would like to take just a few moments for us, as a covenant fellowship of Christians seeking to live as the body of Christ, to review some of the core beliefs of our tradition about this sacrament.

1. Baptism does not save us. Salvation is by grace alone, received through faith in Jesus Christ. There is nothing you or I can ever do, no ritual or action so great, that we can earn our justification before God.

Faith is both a gift of God and a human response to God. It is the ability and willingness to say “yes” to the divine offer of salvation. Faith is our awareness of our utter dependence upon God, the surrender of our selfish wills, the trusting reliance upon divine mercy. Our personal response of faith requires conversion in which we turn away from sin and turn instead to God. It entails a decision to commit our lives to the Lordship of Christ, an acceptance of the forgiveness of our sins, the death of our old selves, an entering into a new life of the Spirit — being born again (John 3:3-5, 2 Corinthians 5:17). All persons do not experience this spiritual rebirth in the same way. For some, there is a singular, radical moment of conversion. For others, conversion may be experienced as the dawning and growing realization that one has been constantly loved by God and has a personal reliance upon Christ.

2. Baptism is a Sacrament and Means of Grace. Sacraments are effective means of God’s presence mediated through the created world. God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is the supreme instance of this kind of divine action. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, viewed the sacraments as crucial means of grace and affirmed the Anglican teaching that “a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”’ Combining words, actions, and physical elements, sacraments are sign-acts which both express and convey God’s grace and love. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments that were instituted or commanded by Christ in the Gospels. The ritual action of a sacrament does not merely point to God’s presence in the world, but also participates in it and becomes a vehicle for conveying that reality. God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but it must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives. The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.

3. Baptism is not the same as dedication. We affirm and practice both baptism and dedication in the United Methodist Church, but we need to make an important distinction between the two. Dedication is a human act offering the gift of a life to God for God to accept. A sacrament, on the other hand, is a divine act where God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept. In other words, the core difference between dedication and baptism is the subject performing the action. In a dedication, we are offering a gift of ourselves to God for his use, according to his will. In baptism, God is the one who offers the gift of himself to us as a means of grace. Baptism is not primarily an act of obedience, as we sometimes make it out to be; rather, it is an act of God’s self-giving love on our behalf and for our benefit.

4. Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the overwhelming majority of the Church throughout the Christian centuries. While the New Testament contains no explicit mandate, there is ample evidence for the baptism of infants in Scripture (Acts 2:38-41, 16:15,33) and in early Christian doctrine and practice. Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save ourselves, dependent upon the grace of our loving God. The faithful covenant community of the Church serves as a means of grace for those whose lives are impacted by its ministry. Through the Church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of handicapping conditions or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to fully comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism.

The difference between the baptism of adults and that of infants is that the Christian faith is consciously being professed by an adult who is baptized. A baptized infant comes to profess her or his faith later in life, after having been nurtured and taught by parents or other responsible adults and the community of faith. Infant baptism is the prevailing practice in situations where children are born to believing parents and brought up in Christian homes and communities of faith. Adult baptism is the norm when the Church is in a missionary situation, reaching out to persons in a culture, which is indifferent or hostile to the faith.

[1] The following points are taken from the UMC document, “By Water and the Spirit” with some minor edits and additional comments added for clarity.

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Sermon: Happy, The Merciful

happy

“Happy: The Merciful”
Matthew 5:7; 18:21-25

“Happy are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

 

I. Introduction

For those of us who remember it, the 1980s was a strange and wonderful decade. It featured the best and the worst that our culture had to offer. If you like music, you know that some of the greatest bands in history got their start or became popular in the 80’s. Groups like Guns ‘N Roses, Queen, and U2. Unfortunately, the decade also gave us groups like Wham, Flock of Seagulls, and Bananarama. People in the 80’s generally lost all fashion sense, and went crazy with their hairstyles, but they showed some pretty great intelligence by inventing incredible new technology that we are still building on today. We fought the ideological Cold War in the 80’s, but had relative peace with our neighbors. And, with some occasional exceptions, people were sill generally filled with hope for the future, and what it would bring.

One of the things I liked most about the 80’s, though, was the fascination people had with martial arts movies. You see, as a child, my exposure to most of the world outside Eastern Kentucky was limited to the big screen. And it seemed like every time you turned around, another karate movie had hit the shelves, and I was one of those kids who loved them. While most of them were way too violent for me to watch in a theater, they eventually made their way to the small screen, edited for language and content, where I would watch them over and over. I now realize that most of those movies were terrible. They often had no plot, poor acting, and terrible special effects, but I loved the fight scenes. You remember a couple of weeks ago when I told you my biggest dream, as a boy, was to become a pilot? Well, that was true, but only because I knew my first choice wasn’t really possible. You see, there was a legitimate chance that I could become a pilot and fly planes someday. In fact, my older brother did exactly that. It was a realistic dream. But I had another dream job that was entirely unrealistic, and I spent a significant portion of my time as a kid daydreaming about it. If I could have been anything in the world, if there really was no limit to what I could do, as a young boy I would have chosen to become a ninja.

During the hay day of all those cheesy 80’s martial arts movies, someone came up with the idea of making the main character in one of these films a normal kid, who dealt with normal problems, but solved them with Karate. It was an instant hit. And even though a lot of people make fun of it today, when the Karate Kid first appeared on the scene, it captured the hearts and minds of young kids like me immediately. In fact, I watched that movie so many times I can still quote parts of it today. And I’ll never forget one of the lessons I learned from it: the bad guys are easy to spot, because they always prey on the weak, and they have no mercy. In fact, in true 80’s fashion, they didn’t leave it up to the audience to figure out just what the bad guys were about; instead they spelled it out for us in detail.

Everybody who has seen this movie knows that the Cobra Kai dojo is filled with bad guys. They are the bullies that the main character, Daniel, has to confront and overcome. They are filled with hatred and malice. But even though it was abundantly clear who the bad guys were and what traits can be used to identify them, when I look around me today I kind of get the feeling that society has learned its lessons about mercy from the bad guys in the Karate Kid, instead of the good guys. We learned from them that people who show mercy are weak, while the strong don’t give anyone a break. If we want to come out on top, we should demonstrate courage, not compassion, and might, not mercy. And we learned these lessons so well, that cutthroat, merciless business practices are still the norm in many organizations in our country today.

 

II. Where have the merciful gone?

Now, Mr. Myagi was the true hero in the Karate Kid, precisely because he was so powerful, and yet remained humble and merciful. He represented strength that didn’t seek to conquer others, he defended the weak, and he showed compassion for those who were suffering. But we seem to have forgotten that lesson, somewhere along the way. Our kids don’t have a lot of heroes like that to look up to today, do they? We are living in the age of the anti-hero, where it can be pretty difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys in the movies. The days are gone when good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black; where the hero actually struggled with the moral weight of his or her decisions, instead of acting impulsively, in spite of the moral ramifications or collateral damage. Often, the only thing that separates the good and the wicked in our stories these days is their final goal, because their methods for achieving those goals are identical. And we wind up with heroes that are more darkness than light.

Sadly, what we see in Hollywood movies is too often reflected in our daily lives as well. There are so few real heroes anymore. Some days it seems like the only examples for our kids are bad and less bad; those whose purposes are clearly self-serving, and those whose motives might be better, but whose actions are just as deplorable. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what happened to us as a nation, that these are the types of champions we look up to? How did we become so pessimistic? When did we decide that heroes can’t really be good anymore? What ever happened to the strong moral characters who became heroes because they put others first and sacrificed everything for the common good? What ever happened to the hero that looks for the spark of humanity in his or her archenemy until the bitter end, still hoping beyond hope that they can really change? What ever happened to the type of heroes who showed mercy?

I don’t know if we’ve just been desensitized by our entertainment, or whether the dark realities of the world have finally just worn us down. But as our culture reflects what we see in the movies, or vice versa, is it any wonder that we see less and less evidence of mercy in our daily lives? Is it any wonder that works of mercy, which were once consider a key component of the Christian faith, are so hard to find among churchgoers?

 

III. Blessed are the merciful

Or maybe this isn’t new to society at all. Mercy wasn’t abundant in Jesus’ day either. He lived in a culture that had been conquered by one enemy after another for centuries. Rome was just the latest in a long string of oppressors. And for the average Israelite living in Roman occupied lands, compassion wasn’t easy to come by. It wasn’t just the Romans who treated others with contempt, though. Even the religious leaders of Israel had forgotten the heart of the law that was intended to produce God’s love for others among the faithful. And so we read in the New Testament about people living on the margins of society – beggars, the blind, lepers, the lame, and the poor – who were being neglected by those who were supposed to care for them in their need.

It’s should come as no surprise then, that people came from all over to witness the miracles and hear the words of this Rabbi, Jesus, who was showing compassion to those in need and preaching words of hope and the forgiveness of God to all who would hear him. Jesus knew the people had a deep longing to find happiness in this life, and he knew this can only come when we are completely dependent upon God, so he said, “Happiness belongs to the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God.” He knew that many were looking for comfort in the midst of incredible loss, so he said, “Happy are the mourners, for they will be comforted.” Jesus knew that the people were subjected every day to the injustice and oppression of those who were stronger than they were, and he reminded them that, “The meek are happy, because they will inherit the earth.” And as he looked over the crowds with compassion, remembering that His Father had sent him to show the mercy of God to those who were desperate for it, he sealed his mission with a promise. “Happy are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) But what does mercy look like? What does it mean?

1. First, mercy is forgiveness or compassion shown to someone that it is within our power to punish or harm.

In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus told his disciples a parable about an unmerciful servant. Let’s quickly read that passage.

At the beginning of this story, Peter wanted to know how long he has to put up with someone who had wronged him? How long did he have to take the high road, before he could finally seek retribution against those who had wronged him? He was looking for a set of rules that he could follow to ensure that he was justified in punishing those who had wronged him. But Jesus reminded him that he was no longer a citizen of this world. As someone who belongs to the kingdom of Heaven, the rules have changed. Where before, punishment for wrongdoing was the right response, now the people of God were to offer compassion and forgiveness, without limit, to those who wrong them.

The reason for this is clear. Despite our continued wickedness and offenses toward God, we have received this very same kind of mercy, and it should cause us to act with great compassion toward others. If God is able to forgive our sins, we should be able to forgive the sins others commit against us. On the other hand, when we, who have been forgiven our sins, refuse to forgive others we show contempt toward God and ungratefulness for his mercy. Judgment belongs to God alone, and we know that he will bring about justice in the end, so we are called to be merciful in the present, trusting him for the power to forgive those who wrong us in this life. This is the first type of mercy.

2. Mercy is also an act performed to relieve suffering, and is motivated by compassion.

On two occasions later in Matthew (chapters 9 & 12) we read of Jesus admonishing the teachers of the law, because they do not understand the words of God spoken through the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6). In both of these scenarios, the Pharisees had condemned Jesus and his followers for breaking the outward observance of the Law. But they were more concerned with the appearance of holiness than actual righteousness. And Jesus pointed out to them that holiness and love are one in the same. Though outward observance was important to a point, it was the motivation that mattered most. God is interested in our heart transformation, not adherence to a set of rules.

Mercy compels the one who is filled with God’s love to relieve the suffering of others. And so, Jesus’ compassion toward a man who suffered physically with a crippled hand was more important than keeping the Sabbath. And eating with sinners and tax collectors, who were suffering spiritually, was more important than keeping up the appearances of being clean and separate from their sin.

Mercy is redemptive action directed toward another and driven by a deep compassion for them. That sounds like an admirable thing, right? But why did Jesus tack on to the end of Matthew 5:7 that the merciful will be shown mercy? And how does this achieve happiness? Doesn’t that sound like we have to earn God’s mercy toward us with our good deeds? In order to understand what he meant, I think we need to read it in a slightly different way. What if we read it like this? Blessed are the merciful, because they have been shown mercy?

Only those who have experienced the love of God can truly love others as he loves. Only those who have experienced the forgiveness of God can forgive as he does. Only those who have put the sin nature to death through surrender and repentance can be buried with Christ. Only those who have met the risen Lord can rise again to new life in him. Only those who run in the power of the Holy Spirit can complete the race marked out for them. If we can’t do any of the things that we have seen Jesus do without him, then why on earth would we believe we have the power to be merciful unless we have first received his mercy.

We can only pass on what we have received from God. So, when Jesus told the crowd that the merciful are happy, because they will be shown mercy, I believe he meant that they will be shown mercy in greater measure then they could ever imagine, so that they can pass it on to others, offering compassion and forgiveness where it is most needed, and driving back the darkness with the light of life that can only be found in Him.

 

III. Application

Friends, we have an opportunity and an obligation each day to pass on to others the mercy that we have received from God. The Christian faith isn’t a set of optional lifestyle changes. If we want to call ourselves followers of Jesus, we need to embrace the transformation that God wants to work in our hearts, and that leads to outward change as well – not sometimes, but always. But God invites us to participate in this process. We won’t just magically become merciful people if we come to church often enough. So, what can we do today, to begin showing God’s mercy to others?

First, we need to become a people of prayer. Not people who pray, but people who are steeped in prayer. Prayer should be come a second language to us, a way of living, not a scheduled conversation. When we spend time with God, listening to his desires for us and surrendering ours to him, he is able to transform our hearts and minds to give us his perspective about things. He makes us able to see people as he sees them, and that will drive us to compassion for the lost and broken and needy all around us. Friends, if you aren’t heart-broken for the people of Brazil, Indiana, then you aren’t spending enough time seeking God in prayer. We cannot pass on what we haven’t received, and we receive God’s mercy and wisdom and direction, when we go to him regularly in humble prayer.

Second, if we want to receive the blessing of God’s abundant mercy, we need to be actively engaged in ministry to the poor and marginalized. That means doing more than sending money. It means becoming personally invested in helping those who are struggling in life. There are so many options for getting involved in our community. You could volunteer at the food pantry, help at one of the homeless ministries in Terre Haute, visit the prison or nursing homes, the options to get involved are nearly endless, because there is endless need. The purpose of our One Thing mission focus each month is to begin connecting us with ministries in our own area and the people they serve. That begins with and always includes financial support, but when we stop there we are selling God’s mercy short. When was the last time you were moved with compassion for someone who was hurting, and did something to alleviate their distress?

One of the things that early Methodists were known for was their ministry to prisoners and the poor. Now, we are known for the controversies we cause and the arguments we have with one another. I pray for a day when we are known as Christians, because of our love and compassion again.

The third step toward becoming the merciful people God expects us to be is learning to forgive. This will be the toughest part for some of us. For many people, it is far easier to dive into meeting the physical and spiritual needs of others, than it is to truly forgive those who have wronged them. But God has called us to pass on to others the forgiveness he has gives us. That requires us to become fully dependent on him. It means surrendering our right to justice or retribution in this life, knowing that God will bring about justice for all of us in the end.

Maybe you have been so badly hurt that you just can’t imagine forgiving the person who hurt you. But take heart, and look at Jesus. He endured the misery and shame of cross for you, and he forgave all of us who put him there. He can help you to forgive those who have hurt you, if you’ll surrender the pain to him.

Or maybe you think you have already forgiven someone for hurting you, but the memory is still fresh. Have you ever said this, or heard someone else say it? “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget!” Friends, God calls us to embrace a short memory when we forgive someone else. As long as we hold on to the right to remember their wrongs, we will never truly forgive those who have hurt us. So, maybe the next act of mercy you need to perform this morning is to forgive someone who has sinned against you, and to remember their sins no more.

Finally, you can begin passing on God’s mercy by actively sharing your faith with other people. A few weeks ago we talked about Jesus’ final command to his disciples to go into the world, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them all of the commands he has given us. We know that this isn’t an optional lifestyle change. If we have truly met Jesus and invited him to become Lord – if he really is the one who occupies the throne of our lives – then we must take his last command seriously. If we really care about relieving people’s suffering, we can’t just stop when once have met their physical needs; we also need to see to their spiritual suffering. And we can only do that by introducing people to Jesus. People are dying every day apart from a saving faith in Jesus Christ. But let’s be honest, I don’t see a whole lot of people who are torn up about it. In fact, those people who go out on the streets to proclaim the good news, those people who witness to their coworkers at work about what Jesus has done for them, we think they are radical, don’t we? But they aren’t radical, they are faithful, and they have allowed God to fill them with his mercy for the lost. Where is our urgency? Where is our compassion for the lost? Why are we so quick to judge the sins of our society, but not reach out to sinners who can’t help being what they are? Friends, why are we not more merciful?

Social Justice has become a big catch phrase the last few years as both churches and secular organizations work to combat the evil and darkness of our world. As Christians, we should work to bring justice to the marginalized in our society, for sure. But God has called us to a much greater work in the world. If God had been out for social justice, for fairness, we would have all been condemned for our crimes against the crown. That would have been just. But our Heavenly Father, in his great mercy, has not given us justice – he has given us forgiveness and freedom in himself, where punishment was deserved. And I believe he has called us to display this same mercy to all those we encounter, in the name of Jesus. That means working tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of the poor, of prisoners, of widows and orphans and the marginalized, and it also means reaching out with the love of God to combat the spiritual darkness that leads to brokenness in the first place.

We have no hope of doing so if we haven’t first received God’s mercy for ourselves. It is impossible to give what we do not have. So let me ask you this morning, have you received God’s mercy for yourself? Have you accepted his gift of grace upon grace in your life? If so, then I urge you not to cheapen that gift by holding it in. Instead, pass on the mercy you have received, and you will find happiness that cannot be taken from you in this life, or the next.

 

IV. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we stand in awe of your mercy toward us. While we were still trapped in our sins, you sent Jesus to die in our place on a cross. You didn’t seek justice for our wickedness, but have offered us compassion and grace in the place of punishment. All it requires of us is that we receive your gift through faith in Jesus. Would you teach us to pass on what we have received, so that we might be known as Christians because of our love? We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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