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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

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“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

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“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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Sermon: Happy, The Meek

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“Happy: The Meek”
Matthew 5:5

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

 

I. Introduction

It’s probably no surprise to anyone here this morning that high stress situations have a tendency to bring out people’s character flaws. When we are over worked, tired, hungry, sick, anxious, afraid, or uncertain our emotions become a bit unhinged, don’t they? And if we aren’t careful, when we become stressed our biggest flaws have a tendency to put themselves on display for everyone to see. Many of us, when we are under enough pressure, will become impatient, aggressive, and inconsiderate of others.

This is one reason we are often told to be careful not to judge a book by its cover; not to evaluate a person based on a single encounter. We can never know, when we meet a person for the first time (or any time for that matter) what they might be going through at that particular moment that is affecting their emotions, their personality, and their responses to others. And at any moment, given the right circumstances, any one of us could be in a situation where we lose our cool in front of someone else.

I have to be honest and tell you that I have been guilty of this more times than I care to admit. I’ve been the one who acts out of normal character, when I have been under some sort of stress. I’ve been the one to snap at someone, when I feel like I’m being challenged. I’ve lost my mind, when I should have remained calm. And I’ve ceased to see the person in front of me, when I have allowed my emotions to get the best of me.

Let me give you a case in point. Please hear this as an example of what not to do. I’m not proud of this moment, and can only say that it was during one of the most difficult times in my life, when I wasn’t walking closely with the Lord. I was at basic training, under extreme stress, when I encountered a guy that I can only describe as a bully. And I really do despise bullies. Recruit Coleson was big. He was from a rough neighborhood. He was used to getting his own way by threat of force, and he was completely unwilling to work as a team. I was his squad leader and had to deal with his belligerent behavior on a daily basis. One particularly rough day as I was giving out cleaning assignments, Coleson mouthed off and loudly proclaimed that he wasn’t going to do what I asked. So, like any rational young man, who was under a ton of stress and standing in front of someone much bigger than himself, who was refusing to be a team player, I evaluated my situation and chose a course of action that seemed appropriate at the time, but that I later regretted. I got up in his face and told him in no uncertain terms that he would complete the assignment he had been given, or else. Let’s just say Coleson wasn’t used to having anyone step up on him like that, so he reacted physically. I can only describe what happened next as an embarrassing example of what happens when two people lose sight of the big picture and allow their character flaws to take center stage.

I remember four other recruits picking me up and dragging me off of recruit Coleson as I tried to end his belligerent behavior once and for all. I remember standing in front of a Drill Instructor, trying to explain what had just happened. And with a bit of time and perspective, I remember thinking in hindsight that the whole encounter could have gone so much better, if I had only chosen a different approach to dealing with recruit Coleson.

 

II. We must all choose how we will handle conflict

I would love to tell you that was the only time I’ve ever lost my cool, but I’d be lying. Though I can’t recall engaging in any physical confrontations since that event many years ago, there have been a number of times when I have responded poorly, even aggressively, in the face of conflict. And I doubt I’m alone in this. One of the biggest problems in situations like this one is that they may start off as small disputes that quickly escalate. Maybe one person starts off by saying something a little but snippy, and that cause another person to reply with sarcasm or anger. Then in the back and forth both people get more and more upset until one or both of them lose control.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever had one of those gut-check moments, where you realize that you completely overreacted to a person or situation, and then instantly regretted it? Have you ever been accused of acting like a bull in a china shop, running roughshod over other people or their feelings? I’m guessing most of us, at one time or another, have allowed character flaws to show when we meet with friction from other people.

The truth is that we have encouraged this sort of behavior as a culture. My guess is that all of us at one time or another have been told that the secret to success in this life begins with standing up for yourself. If we want to achieve the American Dream, we have to go out and make a name for ourselves, fight for what we want, and take no prisoners. Have any of you ever been told that? If you haven’t heard that one in particular, I’m sure you have heard one of its variations. Just stand up for yourself. Fight to make yourself heard. Take charge. Go get ‘em. Don’t take no for an answer. Git ‘er done!

But have you ever stopped to consider whether or not this is the way we are supposed to go about things as followers of Jesus? When I was a young man, I didn’t tale the time to ask myself that question very often. Even though I believed in Jesus and had asked him to become Lord of my life, I was still living as though he was a deposed King. I was the one in control of my everyday, and it showed in my interactions with other people.

But, if we are serious about our faith, then we don’t have to follow Jesus long before we realize that one of the big questions we must each answer is this: how would Jesus have us respond to other people when a situation gets tense, when our rights are trampled, when our pride is damaged, when our needs go unmet, and when we are confronted with hatred, mistrust, abuse, and contempt? Will we stand toe to toe with our enemies and fight fire with fire? Or will we choose another way?

 

III. Jesus offers a different way

As Jesus continued to teach the masses who had come to receive his healing touch and hear his message of hope about the coming Kingdom, the question of how to handle conflict must have been bubbling under the surface of people’s thoughts. You see, there can be no true happiness and peace as long as people are in conflict with one another. And people have been carrying out all sorts of evil against each other, since Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy. The conventional wisdom for how to handle a quarrel was to say “an eye for an eye”. If someone says or does something nasty to you, be sure to return the favor. In other words, seek retribution. Go on the attack. Don’t be the victim. Jesus knew that the people were seeking the secret to happiness in this life, and he knew that true happiness couldn’t coexist with conflict, so he cut to the heart of the matter by identifying the heart-attitude that leads out of conflict and into blessing. He said, “Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Happy are the meek. I’m sure by this point the crowd was already starting to get used to Jesus’ strange promises about happiness. I mean, he had already told them that happiness comes from poverty of spirit, which is a lack of pride and complete dependence upon God. And he had told them that happiness comes to the brokenhearted, because they receive God’s comfort, so that they can be a comfort to others. But now he was saying that happiness comes to those who are meek, for they will inherit the earth. How can this be? Surely history has proven that the meek get trampled and abused, while the strong and powerful rule the earth. How can Jesus make such an unfounded claim?

I believe Jesus’ answer makes more sense, when we define what meekness means. By its simplest definition, meekness means gentleness. The same root word is rendered both ways in the New Testament and conveys the same meaning wherever it is used. But it is much deeper than that word implies on its own. So let’s take a moment to reflect on what meekness is, and what it is not. First, let’s define what it isn’t.

  1. Meekness is not weakness. When you hear someone described as meek, what comes to your mind? Do you picture a quiet, timid, maybe physically small or insignificant person? This is what popped into my mind at first. But the Biblical example doesn’t follow this notion. Instead, the Bible describes meekness as an inner strength, by which people are able to withhold anger and wrath (Psalm 37:8). It is seen as the strength to control our emotions and the actions that flow out of them.
  2. Meekness is not apathy. Apathy is a complete lack of interest in something, and it often manifests as an unwillingness to get involved. Meekness is sometimes mistaken as apathy, because a meek person doesn’t often immediately respond in the face of conflict. But true meekness means caring enough to respond carefully and thoughtfully, even in the face of hostility, and even if it creates an appearance of indecisiveness.
  3. Meekness is not fear. Fear stems from uncertainty about the future and our place within it. Fear leads us to respond harshly to conflict, as we seek to protect ourselves. Fear turns our hearts inward, as we seek to save ourselves at all costs. Meekness, on the other hand, is the absence of fear. It is a quiet confidence that doesn’t seek self-preservation, because it trusts that God is in control and that he is near, as Paul said in Philippians 4:5.

So, what is meekness, if it isn’t weakness, apathy, or fear?

  1. First and foremost, meekness is self-control. Ephesians 4:2-3 says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Christians are called to become meek or gentle in their dealings with others in order to build and preserve unity with others. This means exercising self-control, and even “making allowance for each other’s faults because of our love. (NLT)”
  2. Meekness shows a deep concern for the other, to the point of sacrificing one’s own desires and rights for the other’s sake. When we allow the fruit of gentleness to take root in our hearts, we give up the right to lay down judgment or punish another person for wronging us. The meek offer forgiveness instead of condemnation and patience instead of retribution. In Psalm 37 David puts it like this: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” And Paul says it this way in Colossians 3:13: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
  3. Meekness or gentleness is also sign of God’s peace in your life. In Philippians 4:5 Paul tells the church that their gentleness should be evident to all and they shouldn’t be anxious, because the Lord is near. And in Colossians 3:15, he says again, following a call to meekness, that the peace of Christ should rule our hearts. As I said earlier, it is impossible to be truly happy when we have conflict in our lives. Meekness is a sign that we are at peace with God and other people.

So, where he world often views meekness as weakness, apathy, and fear, God has defined it as the opposite – self-control, a deep concern for others, and a sign of God’s peace. I’m beginning to see why Jesus might think that meekness can bestow happiness. But he goes further to define why this is true in Matthew 5:5 when he says the meek will inherit the earth. Have you ever wondered what he meant by that?

It all ties back to what we learned the first week of this series. Remember when I said that all the other Beatitudes only make sense in the light of the first one? Only when we are completely dependent upon God and empty of pride, can we become truly meek. Gentleness and arrogance are mutually exclusive. So only when we have poverty of spirit, can we ever hope to develop a meek character, exhibiting the spiritual fruit of gentleness in our lives. A person might occasionally show gentleness apart from God, but it will not be their true disposition. Only those who live in the power of the Holy Spirit can grow the fruits of the Spirit in their lives.

When Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth, he was commenting on the future that God has promised to his adopted daughters and sons. The meek, who can only become so through the Holy Spirit, will inherit the Kingdom of God and the New Creation as heirs of God and coheirs with Christ. How do we know this? Because meekness is a sign of adoption. When we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior and invite the Holy Spirit to take residence in our souls, the Bible promises us that God will make us new creatures. He takes our weakness and apathy and fear and gives us hearts filled with self-control, love for others, and a deep and abiding peace.

 

IV. Application

At its very core, meekness is self-denial. It is a total surrender of self to Jesus, for the sake of others, trusting that he will preserve us, even in the face of conflict, and help us to love others as he loves them. Do these words of Jesus ring a bell?

“Whoever would save his life, must lose it.” (Mark 8:35)

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)

Or, as the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

These are powerful words. Dangerous words! And they are at the heart of what it means to become meek. But, if this is so, then the question we must each ask ourselves this morning is this: do I exhibit meekness in my life? Do I have the spiritual fruit of gentleness? Am I willing to deny myself out of love for others?

Here are a few quick tests that we can use this morning to determine whether or not we have allowed God to produce meekness in our lives.

  • Do you respond with gentleness in the face of conflict?
  • Do you lovingly encourage your spouse, children, or significant other?
  • Do you favor gentle correction over harsh discipline?
  • Do you choose to remain silent, when your instinct is to defend your position?
  • Do you ever let someone else have their way, even when you disagree with them?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then maybe it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with Jesus. Maybe this is a sign that you haven’t fully surrendered your life to him. Maybe you’ve been holding onto something of your old life that Jesus wants to make new. Or maybe the problem is that you know about Jesus, but don’t really know him. We should never expect to grow the fruits of the Spirit until we receive the Spirit. And we will never receive the Spirit until we confess Jesus as Lord and trust in him alone for our salvation.

If you struggle as I do with what Jesus has said about the meek being the ones who inherit the kingdom, here are some simple steps we can all take this morning, to begin inviting God to help us in this area. And here’s the thing; they all begin with prayer.

  • We can ask God to transform both our actions and reactions.
  • We can submit our self-will and pride to Jesus.
  • We can ask God to give us his eyes, so that we might see people the way he sees them.
  • We can ask God to increase our faith, so that we remain steadfast and unshaken, even when we experience the stresses of life.

We all know that today is Mother’s Day. It is a wonderful time to honor all those who have been mothers to us. And it is also a time for reflection about what makes our mothers so great. One of the greatest characteristics I have seen in many mothers is their gentleness with children. Now this certainly isn’t limited to mothers or even women. But as I reflect on the incredible mother Sarah has been, and as I think about my own mom and grandma, I realize that one of the things that has made them such good moms is their meekness, their self-control, their concern for others, and the peacefulness they exhibit, even in stressful situations, though I’m sure every mom has had those moments where they don’t feel like they have it all together.

Meekness can be particularly difficult for men to embrace, because it is so often identified as weakness by the world. So, many of us have to look to the examples of our mothers and grandmothers in order to see what meekness looks like. But all of the greatest Christian men and women I have known have exhibited the patient gentleness that we are talking about today. They have been slow to anger and abounding in love, just like our Heavenly Father. They have been sensitive to the particular needs of children, and have often welcomed the opportunity to mentor those younger in the faith. They have been quick to forgive. They have been peacemakers. They have been honorable and virtuous, and have honored others and prayed for their virtue. They have been the solid rock upon which strong families are built, and they have been the very best witnesses to the good news of Jesus, because they so easily point past themselves to Him.

What do you suppose our families, our church, and our community would look like if we were each to embrace meekness, instead of overbearing, as our default mode? How would our lives change if we were to stop insisting on our own wants and needs, and began gently caring for the wants and needs of others?

I don’t believe that God has called Christians to become doormats, who invite the world to walk all over us. But I do believe he has called us to become disciples, who seek to walk in the way that leads to life and peace and prosperity, and we can’t ever fully embrace those promises, until we first embrace the gentleness of spirit that stems from complete dependence upon Jesus. Will you seek that freedom today?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray! Heavenly Father, when the world tells us we must be strong, you tell us that our strength lies in you. When the world tells us that we must be conquerors, you tell us that we are more than conquerors; we are your daughters and sons. When the world tells us that we must stand up for ourselves, you tell us that we must become meek for the sake of others. Lord Jesus, would you help us to become the humble people that you seek, who are so filled to overflowing with your love that we no longer seek to preserve our own lives, but instead offer them up to you as a living sacrifice? Would you teach us to become gentle and meek in our relationships, so that we become witnesses to the freedom and unity you offer us through faith? We ask all these things in Jesus name. Amen.

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Sermon: Happy, The Broken-Hearted

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“Happy: The Broken-Hearted”
Matthew 5:4

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

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I.Introduction

When I was a child, I didn’t really understand what it means to mourn for something that has been lost. Like many people my age and younger, I grew up in many ways protected from serious illness or death. I didn’t grow up on a farm or raise livestock, and I didn’t hunt, so I never learned firsthand what it is like to witness both the birth and the death of animals. I don’t come from a large family, and we have never lived close to our extended family, so I was largely unaware of any serious illnesses or deaths in the family. My great grandma lived until she was 105, so I was already in middle school by the time she passed away.

So I was completely unprepared for the emotional shock, when I discovered first-hand that death isn’t the only thing that causes us to mourn. The fear of death has just as much power. During my eighth-grade year, my dad became sick and was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. He quickly went from the strongest man I knew to lying in a hospital bed undergoing chemo and surgery, and I didn’t know if he was going to live. As the possibility of losing my father became real to me, it brought to the deepest level of sorrow I had ever experienced to that point in my young life. I don’t think my parents even know this, but during those early days I was so distraught, mourning the possibility of his death, that the only thing I found to distract myself from the emotional stress was physical pain. I can still remember sitting on the sidewalk pounding my fists into the ground until my knuckles bled and my fingers broke, trying desperately to hold it together; all the while praying over and over to God, “Please don’t let my Dad die.” Some of you have been there before. Some of you may be there even now. I was overwhelmed with my grief, and all I could do was mourn the impending loss I thought was coming.

I am so thankful to say that my father survived his battle with cancer. That often isn’t the final outcome. Today, my dad is as strong as he ever was, and I am grateful to have had all of these extra years with him. I consider them a tremendous gift, even on the days that we don’t see eye to eye. In fact, at the end of the month, he and my mom will be joining us at Union to preach, while I am away for a few days. You are going to love them.

But even though my dad survived, the sorrow I endured during his illness had taken a toll on my heart. The grief and pain had left scars that wouldn’t quite heal fully. And then life began to speed up a bit, as it has the habit of doing. And over the years I began to experience other losses of lesser or greater significance. Beloved family pets died. Grandparents passed away. And the losses began to add up and take a more significant toll on my heart. Each time the pain would disappear eventually, but the scars kept piling up. And from that moment on, I began to understand a little bit more what it means to be broken-hearted.

I experienced true heartache when my dad was sick, when my grandparents passed away, and even when my pets died. I thought these experiences would eventually make me stronger, able to cope more with the tragic realities of this life. In fact, by the time Sarah and I got married I thought I had everything pretty well handled. I didn’t think there was anything that could really shake me all that much. But I found out the grief I had experienced so far was nothing compared to the day we lost our first child to miscarriage.

I didn’t even know what to do. I was caught so completely off guard that I became numb. I didn’t know how to comfort Sarah, let alone myself, and so I sort of shut off the center of my brain that said something tragic has happened, and I closed off my heart to the grief I was beginning to feel. Sometimes, I think I really failed Sarah as a husband during the early days and weeks following the loss of that first child. I didn’t know how to grapple with my own feelings, so I completely shut them off and wasn’t able to give her the support she needed. But we eventually recovered and tried again. After the third miscarriage, no amount of posturing could cover up for the intense despair I felt, and that I know Sarah shared. We mourned for our lost children, and our hope was shattered. Even after Janna and Simon were born, there was a part of my heart that didn’t fully heal, at first, from the loss of our unborn children, even though I knew that they rest in the arms of Jesus and will live forever with him.

 

II. We have all had experiences that cause us to mourn

Friends, I didn’t share these moments from my life with you this morning, because I think I have endured so much. Many people have experienced much more pain in their lives than me. In fact, I see God’s blessings all around our family. I shared these stories, because I know that we all have similar experiences from our past and even our present. We have all mourned losses in our lives. Many of us have lost loved ones. Some of you are grieving today for a loss that you expect to come soon. In fact, losing a loved one is what most of us probably think about when we hear the word mourn. But I have come to discover that we grieve many different kinds of losses throughout our lives. And while some losses might seem trivial to us, compared to others, any personally significant loss we experience can break our hearts and lead us into mourning. Have you ever mourned any of the following?

  • Loss of a job you loved
  • Loss of a relationship (friendship or dating or marriage)
  • Loss of a home (we had to mourn a bit during our move from our home of 10 years)
  • Loss of a church family
  • Loss of youth
  • Loss of innocence (I went through a particularly rough time in my early 20s. I will never be able to reclaim the innocence I had before that time.)
  • Loss of health (We all go through this to some degree as we age. Some of us experience this earlier, due to illness)
  • Loss of optimism or hope.

 

If you have experience grief over any of these events in your life, and I’m sure all of us have, then you know what it means to mourn. Sorrow is part of the human condition, and people have been mournful of their losses and have built up scars on their broken hearts hearts, since Adam and Eve took that first bite of fruit and lost their innocence, their home, and their relationship with God.

 

III. Happy are those who mourn

Last week we read that people in Judea and the surrounding areas had begun flocking to Jesus, because they had witnessed his miracles and heard about his message of hope and the coming kingdom of God. Even though the people came asking Jesus to heal their sick and drive out demons, he knew that what they were truly seeking was happiness in this life. And knowing their hearts, Jesus spoke words of challenge and promise to them. He told them they would be happy when they became poor in spirit. Having poverty of spirit means becoming completely dependent upon God in all circumstance, and I mentioned last week that this first Beatitude is the foundation upon which all of the others rest. Only when we have become fully dependent upon God will we find the happiness that Jesus promises to us in Matthew 5:4.

When the crowds had gathered around him, Jesus knew that they were seeking happiness in this life. But he also knew that they had come to him weighed down with so many burdens. He knew that, like us, these people had experienced losses in their lives. They had all been driven to mourn their losses. And many of them, I’m sure, had developed scars on their hearts that wouldn’t fully heal. So Jesus continued to speak words of life in answer to their unasked questions about happiness. He said, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4)

 

  1. How does God turn our sorrow into happiness?

Happy are those who mourn. How does God turn our sorrow into happiness? How does he comfort us in our grief? He does this by giving us new hearts and by giving us himself.

It seems like every time I turn on the television I see an ad for cholesterol medication. I’m sure you’ve seen them. They always talk about fighting plaque and keeping arteries from hardening. As I understand it, when sharp material moves through our veins it can create tiny injuries. When those injuries heal, they form scars, and those scars lead to the hardening of the arteries. This is a particular problem for diabetics, who have excess sugar, which is sharp, moving through their systems. Now, that may be a simplistic understanding of what goes on in our bodies, but it may help us understand Biblical analogies of the heart. You see, the problem with our emotionally wounded hearts is that they become scarred, and over time our hearts become hardened. This begins with sin in our lives and continues when we are injured by all those losses that we experience as a result of sin in the world.

As part of the process of making us new creatures, God desires to give us a heart transplant. He wants to cleanse us from our sins, and then remove our damaged, stony hearts and give us new hearts that are resistant to future injuries. But before God can give us new hearts, we have to surrender our old hearts to him. Only when we face the truth of our broken condition and relinquish the pride that holds on to our wounds like war medals, can we embrace the gift of God’s grace through Jesus. When we surrender our hearts to him, through faith in Jesus, God promises to do an amazing thing.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 says, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” (NLT)

God promises to give us a complete heart transplant, so that we can truly experience the comfort he has to offer us. He transforms us, so that we can respond to him in faith and receive his grace in even greater measure. And once we have new hearts that can respond to him in faith, God gives us his greatest comfort by giving us his own presence. He does this, not only for our comfort, but also so that we might be a comfort to others in need.

Paul describes God’s comforting presence in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 when he says, “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” (2 Cor. 1:3-7, NLT)

God is able to turn our sorrow into joy, when we surrender our broken hearts to him and receive a new heart in its place. God makes those who mourn happy, by comforting them with his presence, when they turn to him in faith. Here is another way of saying what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:4: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (Matt. 5:4, MSG)

 

  1. Does God really understand? How do I know I can trust him with my sorrow?

This sounds good and all, but have you ever wondered if God really understands what you have been through or what you’re going through now? Jesus is asking us to take a pretty big leap of faith here. How do we know that we can trust him with our broken-hearts?

Paul reminds us that we can trust Jesus with our brokenness, because he has been where we are, he has walked in our shoes, and he has overcome the world. Hebrews 4:15-16 says, “This High Priest of ours (Jesus) understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testing we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (NLT)

We can trust Jesus with our lives and our broken hearts, because he gave his life to purchase new hearts and new lives for us. And the happiness Jesus offers us in our grief is more than just the absence of scars. God is not only able to give us relief in our hour of greatest need; he is also able to turn our grief into joy by helping us comfort others the way that he has comforted us. God blesses those who mourn by giving them new hearts, by comforting them with his presence, and by enabling them to comfort others in need, by the power of his Spirit living in them.

And when we are comforted, we find that we no longer need to fear death, because we know that Jesus conquered death on the cross. We no longer need to fear loss, because we have gained everything – a Father, a home, and a future – through our adoption as daughters and sons of God.

 

IV. Application

It wasn’t until I turned my sorrow about the losses in my life over to God, that I began to finally experience the peace that he promises us in Scripture. It wasn’t until I trusted him with my deepest wounds, that God was able to turn my grief into joy. It wasn’t until I surrendered my stony heart, with all of its bruises and scars, to Jesus, that he was able to give me a new heart that is capable of feeling, of receiving, of loving, and of hoping again.

Several years after our last miscarriage, and just after Simon was born, my Pawpaw died. He was a faithful man of God, a pastor, and a true disciple of Jesus. He was the greatest man I have ever known, next to my own dad. It was a sad and difficult time for us when he passed away. He was my last surviving grandpa and he had become Sarah’s grandpa as well. It was hard to say goodbye to him. But there was a huge difference between the sorrow I felt at his loss and all of those I had experienced before his death. You see, not only did I know for certain that Pawpaw passed from this life into paradise with Jesus, but I also understood for the first time that death has no power over me. I am free from fear of loss, because of Jesus’ steadfast love. I am free from bondage to sin, because of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I am free to live without fear, because the Holy Spirit lives in me.

Friends, we don’t have to allow the sorrow of this life to take over and steal our happiness. When we experience those tragic moments that lead us to become mournful in this life, we can surrender them to God, and he will be faithful to comfort us in our grief and point us toward the hope that we have in Jesus, both now and for eternity. But before that can happen, we have to let go of our broken hearts, surrender them to God, and allow him to heal the wounds and scars that we carry. Before God can extend his soothing touch to comfort us in our need, we must first acknowledge our need for him.

What if each of us here were to surrender all of our burdens to Jesus this morning? What if we were to put our faith into action and extend the comfort that Jesus offers each of us to those who are far away from him in our community? What would it look like to approach one another and the unsaved with our arms open wide in a gesture of loving kindness, because we understand their struggle, instead of close-fisted, as though we are looking for a fight? What if we were to decide today that we are willing to receive the comfort Jesus offers to those who mourn?

If you have come here today bearing scars on your heart from the losses in your life or the wounds of your past, you can leave this place with a new heart this morning. If you are experiencing sorrow over your present circumstances this morning, you can surrender that to Jesus as well, and he will come in and give you the only comfort that can satisfy your need. If you will surrender it all to Jesus right now, he will carry your burden and he will give you new life in him. If you need to surrender something to Jesus this morning, take a moment to pray in your seat, or come down to the altar as we sing this next song, and someone will pray with you to invite Jesus to come and comfort you and heal your broken heart. Would you come?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you haven’t left us to struggle with our grief on our own, but that you have promised us comfort if we will surrender everything to you. Would you please come and replace our hardened hearts with hearts that seek after you. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.

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Sermon: Happy, the Poor in Spirit

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“Happy: The Poor in Spirit”
Matthew 5:3

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

I. Introduction

What does it mean to be happy? What is the secret to finding happiness in this life? That may seem like a pretty philosophical question this morning, but it’s one that I have been pondering this week. And I’ve come to discover that you can ask a room full of people those two questions, and get a dozen or more different answers. I think a lot of us define happiness differently, depending on where we come from, what stage we are at in life, and what our dreams are.

For example, when I was a boy, happiness to me was getting lost in my imagination. I spent a considerable amount of time playing with action figures at home or going out in the woods to make believe. Some days I was climbing trees to find the kingdom of the trolls above the leaves. Other days I was taking part in a battle with the evil forces of the world.

As a youth, happiness to me was flying. More than anything else in this world, I wanted to be a pilot. I can still remember taking my first ride in a small Cessna 172 with a missionary friend when I was in middle school. I had my Sony Walkman and headphones with me, and had loaded up the soundtrack to Top Gun. When we took off, my heart was in my throat, and I can still remember the feeling of looking down at the earth as everything got smaller and smaller. It was amazing!

As a teenager, happiness was a bit more grounded. I pretty much only cared about three things: reading books or comic books, playing video games at the arcade, and girls. Pretty much all of my time was spent thinking about or pursuing one of these goals.

I went through a bit of an identity crisis in college, like many of us do. And when I didn’t really like who I saw myself to be, I thought I could find happiness by at least giving my life for a good cause. So, I dropped out of college twice to join the Marine Corps and serve my country.

As an adult with a family of my own, my definition of happiness has changed a lot from what it was before. Now, I might define happiness as a sense of peace and security for my family.

 

II. We are all looking for happiness

I’m sure you can probably identify what happiness has looked like to you at various points in your life, too. And whatever that looks like for you, I’m pretty sure we all share at least one thing in common. My guess is that every person here today is, in fact, looking for happiness. We all seek those feelings of peace and contentment and purpose and joy. Nobody here, when you woke up this morning, said to yourself, “Self, I sure hope I’m miserable today.” (If you did say that to yourself, then we might need to have a talk after the service.) No, we all have a desire within us to be happy. We seek out jobs that we are good at or that we enjoy or that pay a certain wage, because we want feel rewarded and happy at work. If we get married, we look for someone who makes us feel good about ourselves and who supports us and loves us, because we want to be happy in marriage. We surround ourselves with friends who enjoy the same things we do, because we want our friendships to increase our happiness. We try to raise our children in a safe environment, and we try to provide for their needs and desires, because we want our kids to be happy. We pursue hobbies like sports, hunting, crafting, quilting, video games, music, or whatever you find enjoyable, because they increase the quality of our lives by giving us moments of happiness. We pursue these things because somewhere along the path of life a promise has been made that these things will bring us the happiness we desire. Someone, somewhere has told us that all we need to be happy is a good job, a good home, a good family, a few good friends, and some good activities to occupy our time. We see these promises on billboards and television adds. We hear them from our parents. And we whisper them in our innermost thoughts. And because we want to believe the promise that true happiness is within our grasp if we just work hard enough, earn enough, save smart enough, play long enough, or surround ourselves with people who are good enough, we pursue all of these things with every bit of the energy we can muster.

And because we want to protect the promise, we tend to avoid those things that get in the way of what we perceive will make us happy, don’t we? We put off work that isn’t fulfilling, we avoid hard conversations with our spouses and children, we ignore the mounting credit card debt, we stop spending time with people who might need something from us or bring us down, and we look for ways to escape reality and spend more time on those hobbies that give us a momentary feeling of happiness.

When push comes to shove, I think we all can admit that we spend most of our waking hours in the pursuit of happiness in this life. And even though many of us find the source of true joy difficult to pinpoint, we are willing to go to extreme efforts in order to find it.

But sooner or later we all encounter something in life that shakes our confidence in the promise of happiness, don’t we? Maybe layoffs happen at work, and whether we are caught up in them or not it shakes our confidence. Maybe a friend stabs us in the back and destroys our trust. Maybe no matter how hard we work, we just can’t seem to keep our heads above water. Maybe a loved one gets sick or dies. Maybe our children leave home and don’t want to talk to us. Or maybe a marriage falls apart. Even if nothing like this has happened to you yet, and I’ll bet it has, there are questions we eventually need to ask ourselves about the things we spend our lives pursuing. What can we do when the things we think will make us happy fail to do so? What happens when they don’t live up to the hype? How should we respond when we no longer feel happy about our jobs, our hobbies, our friendships, our children, or our spouses? What do we do, when happiness seems like a pipe dream instead of a promise?

Our world offers a lot of answers to these questions. Does your job stink? Great, come work for us, and you’ll be better off. Is your life boring? Buy this new gadget or go on that vacation to find excitement. Do your friends bring you down? No problem, you can meet all kinds of people on this dating site, social media platform, or at this club. Need to escape the monotony of life for a bit? Try some of this drink or that drug and you’ll be high on life. Feel like you can’t get ahead? Come to Vegas or play the lottery and win big, then you’ll never have to work again. Tired of your difficult marriage that requires commitment before intimacy? Escape into a fantasy world without barriers through pornography, erotic stories, casual sex, or an affair. The world tells us that when the things that promised us happiness begin to fail, we can just look elsewhere for a temporary fix.

And let’s be honest. Some of the world’s suggestions about where we can find happiness might actually satisfy us for a while. We might get some temporary enjoyment from them. We might even experience what we would call true moments of happiness. If this weren’t true, why would anyone pursue these things? But ultimately, everything the world has to offer will fail us in some way. If we put all of our hopes in the things this world has to offer us, we will always wind up disappointed. You see, nothing in this world is made to last, so nothing in this world can bring us lasting happiness. What we need is something not of this world.

 

III. The secret of happiness

The same need for fulfillment, the same desire to find happiness in this life has been part of the human condition since Eden. You see, Adam and Eve were created to walk with God in the Garden of Eden and enjoy intimate fellowship with him. And when they disobeyed God, they not only lost a home, they also lost their connection to God. The relationship was damaged, because Adam and Eve believed they could find happiness in creation, rather than the Creator. And since that time, humanity has continued to experience that sense of loss. We know that God has created us to be happy. We feel it in our bones that we were made for more than what we are. So we fill the moments of our lives with the pursuit of things that we think will restore that sense of fulfillment that is missing.

When Jesus began his public ministry, after his baptism in Jordan river, people immediately began to see something that looked like it could bring some happiness to their dreary lives. Jesus was doing things they had never seen before. He was healing the sick, casting out demons, and easing people’s pain. And get this; instead of preaching a message of condemnation, Jesus was giving the people a message of hope and talking about the coming Kingdom of God. So, they hurried to bring their sick family and friends to Jesus in hopes that he would heal them. And they crowded around him, so they could hear his teaching.

Jesus knew the deepest desires of their hearts. He knew that when they came to him seeking healing and hope, what they were really looking for was true happiness; that sense of well-being and peace and prosperity.

He could have stood on that mountain and given them all the secrets of success according to the world’s standards. He could have been like the other Rabbis and told them that fulfillment could only be found in the Law. He could have simply refused to answer the question in their hearts. He could have disappointed them, like everything and everyone else had done. But Jesus had the answer that so many others had missed. He knew where true happiness can be found. And because he loved the people and had compassion on them he was willing to give it to them straight. Not tricks, no gimmicks, no empty promises. Even though they didn’t realize it themselves, Jesus knew that what the people really needed was the intimacy with God that was lost in the Fall. And so he told them very plainly what they needed to hear.

You will be happy, he said, when you are poor in spirit. Wait, what? Surely that was a slip of the tongue right? You will be happy when you are poor? I bet when people heard that they started mumbling. “I think you got that backwards, Jesus. I’m already poor. I think I’d be much happier if I was rich.” I mean when have you ever seen the words “poor” and “happy” or “blessed” in the same sentence before? Being poor stinks. Nobody wants to experience that feeling of going without something, and sooner or later the poor are always pushed to the edges of society where it becomes even more difficult to escape poverty. And what does it mean to be poor in spirit, anyway? I’m not sure what that means but it can’t be good. What could Jesus possibly mean? Have you ever found yourself asking God these sorts of questions? I’ll bet you have, and I’m sure the people who were gathered to hear Jesus preach were asking these very questions in their hearts.

Maybe it will help to say it a little differently. The New Living Translation of the Bible puts it this way: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Let’s read that again. “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

To be poor in spirit means having no confidence in our own talents, our own aptitudes, or our own efforts to fill the void in our lives and provide the happiness we seek. Being poor in spirit means arriving at a place where realize we just can’t make it on our own. Being poor in spirit means re-orienting our self-love toward God, so that he can transform it into his love for others. Being poor in spirit means making ourselves empty of all the things that have taken root in our hearts, so that we might be refilled with the Holy Spirit. Being poor in spirit means becoming humble before God, finally seeing him for who he is and what he has done for us in Christ, and recognizing that he is God and we are not. And no longer having any confidence in themselves, the poor in spirit seek the life that is hidden with Christ in God. When we die to self and find true poverty of spirit, it is then that God is able to bless us with the immeasurable joy that can only be found in him. And it is only then that we begin to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means dying to self, and turning to God as your only hope, through faith in his one and only Son, Jesus and trusting him to become Lord of your life. To be poor in spirit is to be desperate for God and his will for your life.

 

IV. Application

So how do we become poor in spirit? How do we find the happiness that Jesus promised to those who become so?

It begins with honest self-reflection. It requires us to recognize our own sin and our inability to please God or put right what Adam set wrong. The only way to overcome the pride in our lives and the endless drive to find our own versions of happiness is to realize that we are incapable of finding it on our own.

Second, it requires a willingness to surrender everything to God. Becoming poor in spirit requires us to confess our failed efforts to live successfully apart from God, and ask him to take control.

And this takes faith. Faith is a sure trust and confidence that God loves us and has our best interests at heart. If we don’t trust God and have confidence in him, then we will never be able to give him control of the things we most need to turn over to him; those longings that we keep secret and close to our hearts.

Finally, becoming poor in spirit requires us to become radically dependent upon God. I don’t mean just trusting him when you get in a bind, or maybe doing what he says when it seems to make sense or you can see a benefit. Radical dependence means trusting God to run your life completely, from this day forward, knowing that wherever you go, he is in the driver’s seat.

What would our world, our church, our families look like, if we were all to become radically dependent upon Jesus for fulfillment in this life? What if we were to stop trying to achieve happiness by the world’s standards, and instead started trusting in Jesus to give us a deep and abiding happiness that will last into eternity? What if we were to seek our blessings from our Father the King and his heavenly Kingdom, instead of trying to find them among the rubble of a broken kingdom on earth?

Only after we become poor in spirit, dependent upon God for all that we are, will we begin to experience true happiness in this life. And once we surrender everything to him and begin living as citizens of his kingdom, he will make us able to pursue the things of lasting value that only he can give us. We must embrace poverty, if we want to experience the true riches of the kingdom of God.

Over the next few weeks, we will be hearing more from Jesus about the things that bring true happiness. Every one of his statements confronts the lies of our culture. Every one of his promises challenges our assumptions. And every single blessing that Jesus pronounced over the people begins with this: Happy is the one, who is poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, you have given us so many blessings in this life. You bless us with life and love and purpose. You bless us with sunshine and rain, with clothes to wear and food to eat. And you blessed us beyond measure, when you sent your Son Jesus to live with us as a man, to die on a cross as payment for our sins, and to rise again in victory over sin and death. Father, would you send your Spirit now upon us, and teach us what it means to become poor in spirit, radically dependent upon you as our source of true happiness? And would you fill us up to overflowing with your love, so that our happiness might spill over to become a blessing to all those we meet. We ask this is Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Therefore Go

therefore-go

“Therefore Go”
Matthew 28:11-20

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

 

I. Introduction

At the beginning of Matthew 28, we encountered the two Mary’s as they made their way on Sunday morning to the tomb where Jesus had been buried on Friday. They were expecting to find the tomb sealed and spend a few grieving moments with their teacher, but what they found instead was a group of Roman guards scared stiff, the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance, and an angel, who calmed their fears, telling them not to be afraid, but to look and see for themselves that Jesus had risen, just like he told them he must do.

Once they had seen the empty tomb for themselves, he didn’t let them linger in their grief. Instead, the angel told the women to go and tell Jesus’ disciples what they had seen. They took off immediately to do what the angel commanded and ran right into Jesus himself, and when they recognized who it was they had found, they bowed down and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Go and tell my brothers.” And just like that, they were off again to spread the good news that Jesus is alive.

Did you hear what happened there? The women received two sets of instructions on that Easter morning, which they followed to the letter. Both Jesus and the angel, who might have given them any number of important orders that day, commanded them, as witnesses to the resurrection, to very simply “Go!” This morning, I’d like for us to spend a few minutes talking about what happened next.

 

II. Recognizing Jesus Leads to a Choice

Now, it is easy to gloss over this next section of Matthew 28, because it deals with minor Biblical characters, but doing so means we miss something important to the story. And frankly, I’m always curious about what happens to the characters we meet along the way. With everything going on surrounding the resurrection, have you ever stopped to ask yourself what happened to the Roman soldiers who had been guarding the tomb?

The empty tomb comes with an imperative for all those who witness its miracle; once we recognize that Jesus is the risen Lord, we each have to decide what to do with that knowledge. The guards were witnesses, just like the two Mary’s and, later, the disciples. And without their story, we might not realize that not everyone responds to Jesus in the same way. In fact, people always respond to the resurrection in one of two distinct ways, and they might not be as simple as you would think. The responses aren’t as clear-cut as belief and unbelief. But our reading this morning from the second half of Matthew 28 paints a picture of the two options available to us.

The Roman soldiers represent the first of two choices. These men had an unmistakable encounter with the angel, who frightened them so badly that the Bible says they became “like dead men”. Now remember, these men were part of the fiercest military of their time. They weren’t prone to experiencing fear, and admitting what had happened could have had serious consequences for them. They could have kept the incident quiet to save their reputations, but they chose instead to tell the chief priests what had occurred. They took a huge chance by sharing an extraordinary story with people who were not likely to believe them.

They started off so well, didn’t they? The soldiers immediately went and testified to what they had seen, just like the Mary’s did with the disciples. But when they met with opposition to their testimony, the first thing they did was bury their story, accepting a bribe for their silence. Their encounter with the truth of who Jesus is should have given them the confidence to proclaim what they had seen, even in the face of conflict. But the slightest pressure caused them to alter their course. By contrast, when the Mary’s met with skepticism from the disciples, they continued to believe what they knew to be true – that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Meeting with opposition didn’t alter their course, and their words were ultimately proven to be true when Jesus appeared the disciples.

I wonder if the difference is that the Mary’s knew Jesus, whereas the soldiers merely knew about him? The Mary’s had a relationship with Jesus, but the soldiers – even though they saw the angel and the empty tomb – had never met Jesus himself.

How often do we start off on the right foot, excited to tell people about what Jesus has done for us, but then come up short when we meet with a bit of resistance? How often do we remain silent, because we have accepted bribes offered by this world? How many of us fail to witness to the good news of Jesus, because we don’t really know him; instead we just know about him?

There is a second option available to us when we recognize Jesus as the risen Lord, and the disciples represent this choice.

The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t mention the encounter between the disciples and the women who visited the tomb and found Jesus alive, but you can read about it in the other gospels. What is important about that exchange is that the disciples didn’t initially accept the women’s testimony as true. In fact, they thought they had gone crazy in their grief. But because they had a relationship with Jesus and had seen him do miraculous things in the past, they were willing to take an uncertain step forward, even in their doubt. Jesus had instructed the women to tell his disciples to go ahead of him to Galilee, where they would see him for themselves. Even though they thought these women were out of their minds, they went to Galilee as Jesus instructed and waited with what I would guess was a mixture of hope and despair, until Jesus arrived and transformed their despair into joy.

The Bible says that when they saw Jesus, his disciples worshipped him. Now, we have to be careful not to rush past this. These men were God fearing Jews, who believed that only God is worthy of worship, and who would never bow to anyone but Yahweh. So, when they saw Jesus, who had been crucified and buried, standing before them, they recognized him for who he was – God incarnate.

But that doesn’t mean that every one of the disciples was instantly on the same page, does it? It appears that seeing Jesus isn’t enough for some people. Notice the Bible says that some doubted, even when they were face-to-face with Jesus. In fact, they were worshipping him, like we are doing today, and still they doubted. Knowledge of Jesus, even witnessing his miracles first-hand, is sometimes not enough to convince people to follow him.

But also notice that Jesus didn’t say to the disciples, “those of you who are without doubts go…” No, he commissioned all of them, every last one, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to raise up disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey his commands. You see, God is not threatened by our doubts; rather, he answers our doubts by giving us himself. When Thomas doubted, Jesus showed himself and invited Thomas to see his wrists and touch his side. In the face of doubters in Matthew 28, Jesus tells them that all authority has been given to him, and surely he will be with them to the end of the age. In both cases, Jesus remedied doubt with his very presence, and he still does so today. So, if you are a doubter this morning, whether you doubt that Jesus can really overcome your sin and make you new, or whether you doubt whether or not your faith is sufficient you are in good company. But you don’t have to worry; because you can turn to Jesus and he will supply you with the faith you need to take that next step in following him. God is not afraid of skeptics. In fact, he has a habit of uses them in mighty ways for his kingdom. Just look at the Apostle Paul, who murdered Christians in God’s name, but was forever changed, when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became a missionary and martyr, because of his faith. God is not afraid of skeptics, because he knows that every encounter with Jesus leads to an opportunity and a choice.

The choice is this: either believe and proclaim the good news that Jesus is the risen Lord, or reject him and bury the truth. We have to choose one or the other; there is no middle way. Either proclaim or keep silent. And the choice hinges on who or what is sitting on the King’s throne in our lives. The Soldiers were commanded to keep silent by the chief Priests and obeyed them; Jesus commanded the disciples to go and proclaim the good news, and we are here today because they listened and obeyed. Proclamation means Jesus is Lord. Silence means he isn’t. It is up to us to decide which king we will take orders from.

 

III. Found People Find People

The truth is that we all know what Jesus has commanded us to do, don’t we. We all know that Christ calls us to pick up our cross and follow him into the highways and byways of life, seeking out those who are far from him. I would be very surprised to find out that this is the first time someone here has heard that Jesus expects them to tell other people about him. Our problem is not knowledge. Our real problem is complacency. You see, the church has been caught up in cultural lie of late. We have been told that we just need to follow Jesus’ other commandments and come to church on Sundays, and the world will see our witness and flock to the church for healing and salvation. But it doesn’t look to me like people are rushing to our churches for answers to life’s questions and a sense of belonging. In fact, the world seems pretty content to find those things elsewhere.

The problem isn’t that the world doesn’t need Jesus; it does. The problem is that they need Jesus to meet them where they are, just like we needed him to meet us where we were when we were still lost in our sins. So, maybe we should consider carefully that the last instructions that Jesus gave to his disciples were not “sit and wait,” but rather “go and make”.

Friends, the empty tomb places an imperative on our lives. We must choose which voice we will listen to; the one that says bury the truth, or Jesus’ voice that says “therefore go.” There is no halfway gesture that will suffice. There is no middle way. You cannot be a fully devoted follower of Jesus and say no to becoming his witness. In fact, there is a word the Bible uses for those who try to find a middle path between knowing Jesus and doing what he says. Jesus calls these people “lukewarm”, and in Revelation 3 he warns a lukewarm church that their time is almost up. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” When the church is unwilling to give testimony to the good news of Jesus, he will find someone else who is willing. I don’t know about you, but at the end of my life I don’t want to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.” I want to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” But how can I be faithful, if I don’t obey his last command to go?

 

IV. Common Objections

So, if the scripture mandate is for disciples of Jesus to go and find the lost, then why do we struggle with it so much? Why do most of us find it so difficult to tell other people about Jesus and invite them to church? And it really is “most of us” that have a problem sharing. I’d like to take a moment to share some recent statistics about “unchurched” people in America and the church’s response to them.[1]

  • According to surveys, “Eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited.” –Dr. Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door
  • “A study including more than 15,000 adults revealed that about two-thirds are willing to receive information about a local church from a family member and 56 percent from a friend or neighbor. The message is clear that the unchurched are open to conversations about church.” – Philip Nation, LifeWay Research
  • A survey from LifeWay Research “showed that many would respond to an invitation from a friend or acquaintance (41 percent), their children (25 percent) or an adult family member (25 percent).” –Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research

Yet the same research found that:

  • 7 out of 10 unchurched people have never been invited to church in their whole lives.
  • “Only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church. Ninety-eighty percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.” –Dr Thom Rainer, The Unchurched Next Door

If we applied these statistics to a church of 200, that would mean only 4 people from the entire congregation will invite an unchurched person to church this year. Friends, these numbers are troubling, but we don’t have to be a statistic. We have an opportunity each and every day to be faithful servants of Jesus, instead, by simply telling people about what he has done in our lives and inviting them to church. We just have to get past the barriers that hold us back. And I find that the biggest obstacles we face can be summed up in a few common objections that I have heard when people are challenged to share their faith. Have you ever thought or spoken any of these?

  1. It’s someone else’s job. Maybe the pastor or full-time missionaries or the mission team. I think this objection is a product of our overly busy lives. We have convinced ourselves that only professional religious people have the time to share their faith. This is a trap that many well meaning Christians fall into, especially in our country, where we have the financial means to send support to “other people” who are engaging in evangelistic work. Just the other day I was listening to an advertisement for WBGL’s pledge drive in Terre Haute. They played a call from a listener who was so excited to be giving to the radio station, since she works full-time and doesn’t have the free time to go on a mission trip or engage in other outreach ministries. I’m sure her heart was in the right place, but she has bought into the lie that we are too busy for Jesus to send us. It’s someone else’s job.
  2. The second objection I have heard over and over is this. I can just be a good Christian, and people will eventually ask my why I am different. OK, let’s be really honest with each other and ourselves this morning. When is the last time someone approached you while you were minding your own business and said, “Wow! You are so different from other people. Tell me what you have that I don’t, so I can have it too”? If this has happened to you, then you are one of the few, because it isn’t common. It is important to become friends with non-Christians, so that we can show them the love of Jesus and earn the right to be heard, but it is a rare thing, indeed, for a non-Christian to simply observe something different in a Christian and ask what it is.
  3. Have you ever heard this next objection? I don’t want to impose my views on other people. As a sports fan and a voter, I find this one a little hard to swallow. Am I right? For those of you who don’t know, I am not an Indiana native. I moved to Indiana from Kentucky, with my wife, Sarah and our two kids last summer. And since our move, I have yet to meet a single Colts fan who didn’t lament the fact that I root for the Pittsburgh Steelers and try to convert me. In fact, our first week here, some friends from our church brought us a DVD about the history of the Colts organization in the hopes that we would give them a shot. And let’s get really honest here. It only takes the mention of a politician’s name in a crowded room to very quickly demonstrate that people are quite willing to impose their political views upon one another. If it isn’t a problem for us to share our views on other things that are important to us, why then do we find it so difficult to share our views on the most important subject in the entire universe?
  4. The next objection has a bit more weight behind it. I can’t talk about it at work. The fact is that most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else, and there are real restrictions in many workplaces against proselytizing. But more often than not, I think we find this an easy excuse. Employers have no control over what you say at lunch, so why not invite some coworkers to lunch and get to know them. Or spend some time with them outside of works hours. Build some friendships with people who don’t go to church, and look for opportunities to love them and to share what Jesus has done in your life. When we do these things, the workplace becomes a wonderful place for us to share our faith, because it puts us in regular contact with people we might not otherwise meet. And, at the end of the day, it is time for us to consider which is more important, our jobs or our witness. There may come a day when we have to make that choice, and we should prepare for that today.
  5. The fifth objection might be the most difficult to overcome. I don’t know what to say. I think most of us get stuck here, more than anywhere else. We simply don’t know how to share our faith and, rather than take a risk that we might make a mistake or be thought foolish, we simply say nothing. We are not the first people to be concerned about what we should say. In fact, thee disciples were worried about this too. Jesus knew this, and in Luke 21 he comforted them by telling them that, although some of them would be arrested and taken before governors and kings on account of him, they should not worry. He said, “But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” And Jesus can do the same for us today if we will trust in him to give us the words we need, at the appropriate time, to share our faith.

I have heard all of these objections, but I suspect one of the biggest reasons we find it difficult to share our faith is because our faith simply isn’t big enough, and we are afraid we will fail. I came across a quote this week that challenged me to consider how we should use the faith we have, no matter how small or weak: “Don’t let the size of your gift keep you from giving it away.” Think about the young boy with his loaves and fishes in John 6. This must have seemed like too small a gift to give in the face of such a tremendous need. Yet, when he surrendered his meager offering, Jesus was able to multiply it to feed thousands. What if we were to surrender whatever meager offering of faith we have to Jesus and ask him to multiply it? With even the smallest faith – the size of a mustard seed – God can move mountains. With the smallest faith, surrendered lovingly to him, Jesus can reach thousands with the good news of salvation and eternal life.

 

V. Application

Friends, we are all out of excuses, when it comes to obeying the Great Commission. Sharing your faith is as simple as telling someone over lunch what God is doing in your life. Sharing your faith is as easy as inviting a friend or acquaintance to church. Sharing your faith is as straightforward as offering grace, where condemnation is the norm. It’s as uncomplicated as being generous and unselfish. It’s as counter-cultural as loving the unlovable, being available instead of overcommitted, and being filled with hope in a world without it. Sharing your faith doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does have to become part of our DNA, if we would be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed everything, so that we might have a faith that saves us by grace.

The Great Commission is a mandate, not an option. If we are not actively seeking to do what Jesus commanded, then we are not truly the church. And what the world needs now, more than anything else, is for the true Church to be the Church.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you never stopped pursuing us, when we were caught in our sins. We thank you that you sent your Son, Jesus, to proclaim the good news of your kingdom, to die on the cross in our place, and to set us free to follow you in faith. Would you help us now to develop a vision for reaching the lost people in our community, who you so dearly love? Would you break our hearts for the broken-hearted all around us? And would you teach us how to share our faith openly and compel us to go into the world in the name of Jesus? For it is in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

[1] http://backtochurch.com/participate/resources/statistics

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Sermon: From Tombs to Temples

tombs-to-temples

“From Tombs to Temples”
Matthew 28:1-10

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

I. Introduction

Have you ever experienced something disappointing in your life? Have you ever felt defeated by some event or unrealized hope? Maybe you took a test that you spent hours preparing for, only to find out that you didn’t make the grade. Maybe you worked your tail off, but still didn’t get that promotion you were hoping for at work. Maybe you were part of a winning team, or a fan of one, that suddenly lost its title game. I can identify with that last one this morning. As many of you know, I’m a huge UK basketball fan. And after an unprecedented season, they lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four last night. I can tell you that, although many of you here are thrilled at that news, I experienced some real disappointment at the final buzzer.

That might seem like a trivial example for you. Maybe your disappointment comes from something more personally devastating, like the loss of a home, or a job, or your health, or a loved one. Whatever your story, it is probably safe to say that most of us here have experienced what it means to feel defeated in this life.

So I think we can all understand how the two Mary’s must have felt that morning when they approached the tomb where Jesus had been buried. Like the twelve, they had pinned all of their hopes on Jesus and the kingdom of God that he preached. And when he was taken from them so suddenly, the grief and sense of loss must have been difficult to bear. Jesus’ closest disciples were conspicuously absent this morning, too. They were hiding, afraid for their own lives after what had transpired. They were just trying to figure out what to do next, and this left the women outside the circle for the moment. They probably needed something, anything to hold onto in their despair. And so they returned to the tomb that morning to be close to Jesus, even in death.

I can only imagine what it must have been like when the ground began to shake. I have to wonder how they reacted when they saw the Roman guards unable to move in their fright. And the angel – every time the Bible mentions an angel appearing it evokes fear in those who see it. No wonder the guards couldn’t move. It’s no surprise, then, that his first words to the women were, “don’t be afraid.” Angels are always sent as messengers in the Bible, though, and this one was no exception. But the message he carried was the most profound that had ever been delivered. Jesus has risen; he isn’t here. The tomb is empty!

I can imagine all of the despair that the women carried in with them that morning disappearing in an instant. Was it too much to hope that the message was true? Maybe the angel sensed their hesitation, so he invited them to come and see for themselves where Jesus had lay. Then he sent them out to proclaim the good news of what they had seen with their own eyes. Overcome with joy, they rushed to tell the disciples the message they had received, and ran right into Jesus himself. And as they fell to his feet and worshipped him, he spoke the same words of comfort and hope they had just received from the angel: do not fear, go and tell the disciples what you have seen. Their despair now replaced with joy, the women went away at once to tell the disciples what they had seen.

 

II. Why do we celebrate the empty tomb?

Since that day two thousand years ago, people have continued to shake off their fear and have gone out into uncertain places to testify to the good news that Jesus Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty. But why do we still commemorate this event, so many years later? Why do we focus so intently on the resurrection? Why do we still talk about the empty tomb?

The Bible exists to tell us the story of humanity and our relationship to God. We learn from its pages that God created all things, and everything he created was good in his eyes. He made the heavens and the earth, every kind of plant, and every kind of creature. And he created mankind in his own image to rule the earth as stewards of creation. Because of his love for us, he gave the first man and woman freedom to chose whether or not they would return his love. And he gave them a single command as a way for them to exercise that free choice. Adam and Eve believed they could rule better on their own, and so they reached out for knowledge and power that they couldn’t possibly grasp, and their rebellion invited sin into the world, and an inclination toward choosing sin over God has been passed down from generation to generation. And we still see the effects of sin all around us. In fact, sin is so pervasive that the Bible says that every single one of us has sinned and fallen short of God’s measure of holiness. There is no part of our lives that has not been touched by sin in some way. We have become slaves to our selfish desires, and we continually choose things that are temporary and fleeting over things that are eternal. And when we do, we worship created things in the place of our Creator.

Left to our own devices, humanity would have spiraled out of control almost immediately, when Adam rejected God’s best for him. We would have become little more than beasts, the image of God completely destroyed in us. But God stepped in to halt our out-of-control plunge into darkness. Even as he punished Adam and Eve for their disobedience by casting them out of the garden and subjecting them to decay and death, he continued to sustain them by his grace.

But we still have a problem. Because the stain of sin covers each of us, we can do nothing to repair our relationship with God. Nothing we do, no matter how good it might seem, can ever return us to that state of righteousness that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall. And while God’s grace points us toward God, we still have the problem of guilt to deal with, because we are guilty of breaking God’s law.

But the Bible also tells us that God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son into the world as the man Jesus, who demonstrated for us what true holiness looks like, and who received the punishment for sin in our place on the cross, in order to remove our guilt and to purchase freedom for us from sin and death.

The Apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 3. “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

When God raised Jesus from the dead, it proved that he was who he said he was, and that he accomplished the work that he came to do. So, when we remember and celebrate the empty tomb today, we testify to the truth that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, and no other, and that it is freely offered to anyone who believes and trusts in him.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul instructs the church to remember this good news he had preached to them, and to which they had held firm. Of all the things he had taught them, this one thing was the most important. Without it, he said the Corinthians would have believed in vain. “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Paul went on to say that if Christ wasn’t really raised from the dead, then any faith we have is futile. But because he has been raised, we have the promise and hope of resurrection ourselves. When we receive the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus, we become children of God and heirs to all of his promises. And what he has promised us is eternal life with him in the new creation, where sin and death no longer have any presence or power.

 

III. Exchanging tombs for temples

The resurrection isn’t just good news for the future, though. There is so much more to salvation that waiting for eternity to come. The empty tomb has real and powerful consequences right now, for those receive Jesus as Lord by faith. When we turn our lives over to Jesus, he is able to make us new creatures, even in this life. He is able to take what is broken and dirty and make it whole and clean. He is able to take our sinful desires and transform them into holy desires. He is able to produce true righteousness in us, without which, we are told, we cannot see God. Now what does this mean?

In Jesus’ days there was a group of people who thought they were righteous because they belonged to Israel and obeyed the letter of the written Law. The Pharisees observed all of the right festivals, they avoided all of the things prohibited by the law, and they obeyed all the rules. But they had become so focused on the outward expression Law and its protection, that they had begun to demand more of people than God intended. They began to focus on the Law itself as life giving, and they had missed the heart of the Law in the process. They had mistaken the gift for the Giver.

And because of this, in Matthew 23:27 Jesus said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” The Pharisees had the appearance of doing all the right things necessary, in order to be declared righteous, but their hearts were corrupt, and so they had missed the true righteousness that can only come by faith.

God’s commandments have been established to help us maintain our relationship with him, but God does not just want people who will adhere to a set of rules. He wants people with transformed hearts. And this can only happen when we receive God’s gift of grace, through faith in Jesus.

The Bible says that when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead we will be saved. That salvation is for the future, yes, but it is also for the present. In the moment we receive Christ into our lives, and commit to following him wherever he leads us and to doing the things he tells us to do, he sends us his helper, the Holy Spirit, who lives with us and works to transform us into the holy people God desires for us to be. Those who are in Christ are a new creation, and Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that we become living temples for God. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” When we place our trust in Jesus and believe in him, he is able to take all of the junk in our lives and wash us clean.

Because Jesus overcame the tomb, he can transform our whitewashed tombs into temples for the Holy!

 

IV. Application

But transformation can only come when we have first received the freedom from sin and the fear of death that God offers us by faith in Jesus. This is a free gift from God, but it must be received in faith.

Maybe you are here this morning and you’ve just been trying to hold everything together on the surface, but deep down you feel trapped by your circumstances or the decisions you’ve made. Maybe things look like they are going great in your life to anyone who is looking, but you feel desperate on the inside. If this is you, God can give you freedom from the need to pretend that things are OK. He hasn’t promised us that everything will be perfect in this life, once we follow him. But he has promised that he will walk through life with us, and give us strength and peace for the journey. You don’t have to walk through this life alone. We were made to live in a relationship with God, and he is calling out to you this morning, begging you to return to him.

But maybe things are going pretty well for you right now. Maybe you aren’t really struggling with anything. Maybe life’s good. I’m willing to bet that plenty of you here today don’t feel like you are in need of rescue at the moment. God has given us so many good gifts in this life, and we should give him thanks and praise. But where will you be when trouble comes? Where does your hope rest? Are you counting on your current blessings to carry you through, or are you grounded in faith? Because sooner or later trouble finds all of us. We know this is true, don’t we? And when you try to weather the storms of life by leaning on earthly blessings, you’ll find that nothing can satisfy. Don’t make the error of mistaking God’s blessings for God himself. Everything in this life is temporary, but life with God is eternal. The Bible warns us to see God first and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to us. But Jesus must become a first priority in your life if you hope to persevere.

Maybe you are here this morning because your family begged you to come, or because you felt obligated, because it’s Easter, but you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, and you aren’t sure you need one. If this is you, I’m glad you’re here today. Maybe you’ve been in church your whole life, but you realize this morning that you haven’t ever taken that first step of faith, to trust in Jesus for your salvation today and in the future. Or maybe you came this morning, because you always come to church on Sunday. Maybe you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior years ago, but right now you feel the Spirit tugging on your heart, telling you that your priorities have gotten mixed up. Wherever you are on this journey of life, whatever your past looks like, and whatever your struggles at the moment, you can find freedom from your burdens today.

Because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we can have freedom from guilt and sin in this life. Because the tomb is empty, Jesus can take our whitewashed tombs and exchange them for temples. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we can experience new life right now in him. All we have to do is receive it by faith.

As we close this morning, I’d like to ask everyone to bow your heads and close your eyes for just a minute. I’d like you to take a moment to pray to God quietly in your heart. Maybe this is the first time you’ve ever prayed. Maybe you talk to God all the time. It doesn’t matter where you think you are spiritually, I want you to take a chance and pray this simple prayer right now.

Jesus, what do you want me to do with what I just heard? What is God speaking to your heart right now? Is he calling you to believe in Jesus for the first time? Is he telling you that everything will be all right if you’ll just trust him? Is he showing you something that you need to turn over to him, in order to set your priorities right? Whatever it is, don’t ignore it. The tomb is empty, Jesus is alive, and he offers each of us new life in him, if we’ll only believe.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you love us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross in our place. We thank you for the empty tomb, which proves that Jesus was who he said he was, and that we can trust him to complete the work he has begun in us. We thank you most of all for your gift of freedom from sin and death that is freely given to anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord. Thank you Jesus for who you are. We love you! And it’s in your name we pray. Amen.

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