Monday, April 30, 2012


To forgive is to forego the right of revenge or restitution for some damage done to you. 
The effect of forgiveness (or the lack of it) in homes, workplaces, churches and all human relationships is inestimable.  Everything good and productive stops when people won’t forgive!  Anger creates alienation and alliances against one another.  Reputations suffer; friendships and trust decay; hope is ruined.
This kind of destructive behavior isn’t particular to humans.  Deer have been found dead of starvation because they stubbornly, angrily locked horns and couldn’t disengage.  Anger kills!
Jesus said much in His teaching about heaven and how to be right with God; He said much more about being right with each other. 
Jesus thought living reconciled to God and people, was so vitally-important to life that he even put forgiving others and receiving others’ forgiveness above worship.  He warned his disciples (and us) to reconcile with others before going to church to praise God.
In the three short verses of our text are some very important things Jesus said about forgiving that can change our lives in every possible way:

Forgiveness: He said it’s everyone’s deepest need

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Matthew 5:23-24  (NRSV)
It’s a “no-brainer” to hear in church that we need to be forgiven by God; we have all sinned![1]  It also doesn’t take much to remind us that there are some unkind people out there that need our forgiveness for the awful things they’ve done to us. 
But the rub usually comes when someone tries to get us to see that we need their forgiveness.  The real brawl comes when they have the hubris to imply we need to apologize or ask for their forgiveness!  The truth be told, each one of us has “blind spots”, ways that we have offended others. 
And don’t forget that part concerning someone “having something against you”….it works the other way too; when you have something against someone else you’d better run from the altar to make it right.  Offender or offendee, everybody needs forgiveness. 
Two decades ago I had a staff member whose spouse passed-along a false rumor she’d heard about our family.  It deeply offended me.  I wasn’t angry; I was furious.  Our lives were turned upside down.  I lit into my staff member, my friend; families parted, estranged.
I thought I had worked through all the anger.  Then, this week, just as I was reading an old book on this passage to prepare this sermon, an old picture of that staff member fell out of the book.  All the feelings suddenly returned, and I knew immediately that I’d never really asked him for forgiveness for taking out my anger on him.  I made the call and now two old men are once again friends.
We all need to be forgiven, and we also need to extend forgiveness; Jesus said so!  He also said…

Forgiveness:  He said it’s everyone’s legacy

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.        Matthew 5:25  (NRSV)
Your legacy is what you leave behind.  And in relationships, both spiritually, and with family and your community, what legacy you leave depends on the forgiveness you’re willing to extend and receive.  The “judge” Jesus mentioned in our text is not some Superior or Supreme Court judge; He’s talking about the Father.
When you mention legacy and forgiveness in the same breath you have to think of Joseph.  Joseph was thrown into the pit, sold into slavery….by his brothers!  In the end he didn’t spew bitterness, he extended forgiveness. 
You have to think of Esau and Jacob, but particularly Esau.  When Jacob stole his brother’s blessing and birthright Esau swore he’d kill him.  Twenty years later he had the opportunity, but instead Esau welcomed his lying brother home with open arms.  The testimony of that was out of Jacob’s own lips:  …for truly seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.  (Genesis 33:10 NRSV)
Perhaps the best Old Testament example of all is the Prodigal son.  In one immature, poor decision he squandered his inheritance and good name.  When he came back he deserved to be ridiculed and rejected. If his brother had any say in the matter he would’ve also been hung!
But the father welcomed him back from the pigpen with open arms; he put a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet and a royal robe on his back.  Then he threw the biggest party the county had ever seen.  He was forgiven!

what will we do?

“Reconciliation” is what Paul called it; this is the ministry of the church.  Forgiveness is the work of this reconciliation.  Today the world is anything but reconciled in peace.  Anger, harshness and retaliation rule the day.  And, sadly, it is hardly any better in the church.  No wonder Jesus wept!
The world needs a message of reconciliation in this dark hour; they need to know how a Savior died to set us free from the darkness.  The best chance they have of seeing that is in how we treat one another!
What will we do with that? 
Will we continue in the dark? 
Will we continue our squabbles and anger and division? 
Or will we offer these hearts of ours to God and each other, with weeping, tears and repentance at the altar?
God is willing to mend our brokenness; what will we do?

[1] Romans 3:23, et al

Monday, April 23, 2012


1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.  2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  9“Pray then in this way:  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  10 Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us this day our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.  14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.  16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.             Matthew 6:1 - 18 (NRSV)
If you recall we are in a series in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ discourse on grace.  It’s all about life in the Kingdom of God, or how to be a follower of Jesus Christ (what we call being His disciple).  The subtitle for this series is “Embracing the Grace; the Seven Most Important Things I’ve Learned Over the Past Half-Century About Following Jesus.”
The basic principle of God’s Kingdom on earth is:  everybody at peace with everybody else; already now – but not yet.  By this we mean that Jesus brought God’s Kingdom to earth when he was born in Bethlehem, so the kingdom is already now in effect – or should be (in our hearts at the very least).  But it is not yet, as anyone who watches the evening news can see; the world is a dangerous and unhappy place.  The world is quite largely not at peace; not yet!
Jesus taught that the kingdom principle of being “blessed” (or happy, a contented sense that all is well), is available to those who will seek to follow Jesus Christ. 
Now this whole embracing of God’s grace is a progression.  Those who follow Jesus are the “poor in spirit”[1] which means they’re humble towards God.  Last week began with faith (or believing) in Jesus Christ, becoming humble to become happy.  Now the text takes us to prayer which deepens that faith and makes you a seasoned “mature” follower of Christ.
This is what Jesus meant in the mountain sermon when he told the disciples to be “perfect”.[2]  The word is telios (τέλειος) in Greek and it means to be mature or complete…functional…to do that for which you’re created.  My speech and use of language is not perfect, in the sense of flawless (by any means), but it is mature enough, serviceable enough to communicate.  That is what a mature or “telios” Christian is…far from sinless, not “holier than thou”; rather we are growing up into the measure of Christ[3] 
Prayer is much more than what’s offered at mealtime, or to begin church meetings or ball games; or to appeal to heaven to get that new car, house or job.  Did you hear about the grandparents who were visiting their grandchildren?  The grandpa went into the bedroom to have devotions and pray.  The curious 3-year-old grandson followed him and came out announcing to the rest of the family, "Papa's in there praying, and there isn't any food!"[4]
Now don’t misunderstand what I’m getting at – we’ve had our share of wonderful responses to our prayers.  We’ve had money show up when the cupboard was bare, just in the nick of time, and in totally unexpected ways and from totally un-explainable sources.  We’ve seen God’s hand move in overwhelming response to our needs in church and home.  Elizabeth and I prayed for nearly twenty years to see her Mom get saved, and we saw it happen!  But none of that is the heart of prayer; those miracles are  more a by-product of why God gave us prayer.

god’s plan and purpose for prayer

God’s plan and purpose for prayer is to help us develop an honest and deep relationship with God, so we’ll hear God’s voice, come close and be blessed by walking daily with God.  The very creation of humankind tells us this.  In Genesis(2:18) it is recorded that God said after making Adam,
 “It is not good that the man should be alone;
I will make him a helper as his partner.”
God was concerned about Adam being alone, but recall that Adam was made in God’s image.  God is self-sufficient, but chooses relationship with us; God craves for humans to choose fellowship with their Creator!  Prayer is the interface for that fellowship; it’s what deepens and matures our relationship with God. 
The Apostle Paul (in his letter to the Philippian church) showed us Paul’s inner desire to connect with God on the deepest level:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, Philippians 3:10 (NRSV)
 Now, I am a person of prayer…already now; but not yet…meaning that I too share this burning desire in my innermost parts to know Christ.  That part of the kingdom of God reigns in me, but it is far from complete.  I am not nearly as functional (mature, telios) as I want to be.
Over the course of a 15 year struggle early in life to find who I am in Christ, then a 32 year struggle in ministry to work out what that means as I lived and served as a pastor in the (often times difficult) circumstances of local parish work, God has responded to my prayers with kindness. 
·        God has sustained me and my household
·        God has given me relationships of friends, mentors and co-laborers that have blessed and enriched my life
·        God has sustained and prospered the congregations I served
·        God has protected the congregations and communities I served from my foolishness (and sometimes the other way around)
I very much appreciate C.S. Lewis’ contribution to my Christian formation.  In the story of the latter part of Lewis’ life (told in the movie “Shadowlands”) his beloved wife Joy is very ill with cancer.  During a brief period of recovery, Lewis’ friend, Harry (who is a clergyman) tells him God is answering his prayers.  Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) replies, “That’s not why I pray, Harry; I pray because I can’t help myself.  I pray because I’m helpless; I pray because the need flows out of me all the time…waking and sleeping.  It doesn’t change God; it changes me!” [5]
In all, prayer has been the one connecting thread in every aspect of my life which has kept me (at various times) from leaving the faith, destroying the most important relationships in my life, or just plain going insane!  Prayer, which keeps me close to God…also keeps me; it changes me!
So what I want to share with you this morning is the model of the kind of prayer that has changed me profoundly over the course of my life.  This “way” of praying is easily remembered by the short acronym “ACTS”.  The four letters stand for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.  Whether in private prayer or leading a public service, I offer my prayers this way.
I think this kind of praying is best illustrated in the prayers and life of the Old Testament reformer, Nehemiah.  In the 5th century B.C. the Persian Empire (a coalition of what we would now identify as Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia) still held a large number of God’s children in captivity.  But they were allowing many to return to Jerusalem. 
Nehemiah was one who returned and was instrumental in rebuilding the city and its strength.  He had been born in captivity, but was now a migrant to his homeland.  His heart had been there…now his prayers to God were uttered as he stood in the ashes of Jerusalem’s rubble; he was charged with the great task of rebuilding God’s city.  He prayed an A.C.T.S. prayer


Then I said, “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, Nehemiah 1.5 (TNLT)
To “adore” the Lord in prayer is to recognize Who He is, and respond accordingly.  Nehemiah recognizes the Lord as great and awesome, the almighty powerful God who is in control of all. 
To adore the Lord means to respond to Him as He has laid it down in the covenant with Israel…love Him and obey his commands.  Actually, this is just common sense when you recognize that He is God and we are not! 
Nehemiah started his prayer with adoration.  One of the reasons we don’t always see that in prayers is because our minds are so full of adoration for ourselves.  It is impossible to recognize the sovereignty of God when you are having someone else occupy that position.   
Who is on the throne of your life?  Is it you?  Or is it God?  If it is you, then you won’t adore God…you don’t even recognize who He is!  That’s why the next part of the model is so important for our prayers…after adoration is…


6listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel.  I confess that we have sinned against you.  Yes, even my own family and I have sinned!  7We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, laws, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.       Nehemiah 1.6-7 (TNLT)
Nehemiah’s confession isn’t popular today.  Today, if anything has gone wrong it is always the other guy’s fault.  Nobody accepts responsibility for anything anymore.  We have excuses, not confession.  Today…
*    If a CEO sells his company down the tubes, he leaves with 38 million in golden parachute separation funds. 
*    If a high-profile preacher lives a scandalous life of sexual sins, he thumbs his nose at his denomination and is back on the air in no time at all. 
*    If a president lies, he has merely “mis-spoken” himself and doesn’t skip a beat.
By contrast, Nehemiah, born a thousand miles from Jerusalem, having never been there, included he and his family in the national sin of Israel.  Wow…really?  Yes, really; Nehemiah is wise enough to know that, had he been there, he also would have sinned. 
He understood that he was no stronger than any of his fellow Israelites.  He was under the same commands of the Lord to live ethically and morally, and obediently to the law of God.  Nehemiah knew his own heart just like you and I know our hearts.  We need prayers of confession….regularly!
In our text Nehemiah says “we have sinned terribly”.  Literally, the word means “offended”.  He is admitting the actions of God’s children, including himself, are offensive to the God of Heaven. 
Ladies and gentlemen, that is what confession is all about.  It’s recognizing that our sins do, indeed, offend God.  In the cultural/political climate of our day, there are regulations against offending everyone BUT God!  Him we kick out of our schools, courts and council rooms.  God help us to confess our sins against the Holy One! 
If you want a model for being a servant prayer warrior, there is adoration, confession, and…


“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations. 9But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’  10“We are your servants, the people you rescued by your great power and might.                                                              Nehemiah 1.8-10 (TNLT)
Usually we associate “thanksgiving” with smiling to God for our blessings.  It is one thing to say “thanks” when someone gives us a gift we like.  It is quite another thing to say “bless you” (even to God) for hauling us out to the woodshed.  Yet, that is exactly what Nehemiah has in mind here.  Basically, he is rehearsing the fact that God said, “You sin, and I’ll get you!  I’ll hunt you down, and I’ll bring you back and we can do it all over again!”  Then Nehemiah says, “That was our rescue!  Thank you, Lord!”
In acknowledging God’s goodness over the chastisement, it is reasserting the nature of God to be faithful to His other promises of blessing and joy.  Some of the wording here reminds us of God’s promises in Deuteronomy.  God had told Israel He knew they would go astray.  God told Israel He was prepared to do whatever was necessary to bring them back under His wing:
26“Today I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you. If you disobey me, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed. 27For the LORD will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive. 28There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone, gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. 29From there you will search again for the LORD your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.      Deuteronomy 4: 26 - 29 (NLT)
How about that?  God was prepared to offer Israel forgiveness, based upon his loving covenant.  Do you know what that tells you and me about God?  It says, loudly and clearly, you CAN begin again.  If that isn’t something for which we can be thankful, I cannot imagine there is anything!
And so, our model is nearly complete…There is adoration to acknowledge God as deserving worship; there is confession to recognize our sinfulness and need of his forgiveness; and there is thanksgiving to realize He extends his love no matter how big we have sinned, if we will just repent and be ready to follow Him; and then Nehemiah moves to…


11O LORD, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”  In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.  Nehemiah 1.11 (TNLT)
            There is always a decisive moment in life when talking, or thinking becomes insufficient.  There is a moment in time when we must have the rubber meet the road; we must act on what we believe.  In our culture there is the expression which defines that: 
Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!
There is a time when praying ends and doing begins.  That was the nature of the man Nehemiah…and all servant/prayer warriors.  Nehemiah was committed in his prayer – then he got up off his knees and forged ahead.
When’s the last time you stepped out in faith?  When’s the last time God put it in your heart to involve yourself in such a way that you knew if He didn’t come through, you were toast?  My dear friends, THAT is what supplication is all about.  That’s what dependency on God in prayer is all about.

Personal disclaimer…

I am not as consistent as I want to be in all this, but God is faithful, driving me back again & again to God’s loving arms and sweet fellowship.
To share with you how exactly this works, I want to share some journal entries from about 6 years ago.  You know what a journal is – it’s those things you write down in private that you’re even kind of afraid to admit to yourself about yourself.  These are some of those thoughts I had about me during an average time of prayer:
·        January 31 – My lack of obedience is of the heart.  I don’t do all the awful things I have heard about, or known other preachers do as they fall; it’s just that my heart is growing cold.  Warm me Lord, I pray.
·        February 5 – What if this tomb opened – really…and I had to actually crawl out and start living?  For many, the idea of “rest” is not having to put-up with living!
·        February 16 – Lord, You awakened a dead man this morning.  I couldn’t even find my slippers but my heart was filled with praise for Your love.  That can only be You!
·        February 27 – In the poverty of my need of forgiveness I am standing over the well of hope – bucket-less; I am an extreme candidate for extreme grace.  I have not even an eye-dropper – it is all of God!
And so it is, in the day-to-day routine of wanting to know God and the power of Jesus’ resurrection, I go to God, I run from God, I despair He even knows my name sometimes – and He loves me and draws me close.
Honestly, it’s hard to do, this being authentic….taking a step closer towards God; it’s scary.  Ultimately we are ALL afraid of God!  If you’re not you have never considered the true God of the universe, creator of heaven and earth.  If you have never stood before Him with your knees knocking and that sinking feeling that you could be consumed at any moment…you’ve never really stood before Almighty JHWH.
Once more back to my friend, C. S. Lewis:
In his book The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis draws an analogy with the story of a young girl named Jill.  She's in the land of Narnia, and she's thirsty.  At once she sees a magnificent stream . . . and a fearsome lion (Aslan, who represents the Lord Jesus):
"If I run away, it'll be after me in a moment," thought Jill.  "And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth."  Anyway, she couldn't have moved if she had tried, and she couldn't take her eyes off it.  How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours.  And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first. . . .
"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I-could I-would you mind going away while I do?" said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl.  And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.  The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
"Will you promise not to-do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.  "Do you eat girls?" she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion.  It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry.  It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer.  "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then." 
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.  It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion-no one who had seen his stern face could do that-and her mind suddenly made itself up.
It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went straight to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand.  It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted.  You didn't need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once.  Before she tasted it she had been intending to make a dash away from the Lion the moment she had finished.  Now, she realized that this would be on the whole the most dangerous thing of all.[6]
That’s the bottom line in prayer – we’re always making a choice to run from God or to God, but, ultimately, despite our fear, our hearts and souls know that prayer that will carry us one step closer for a drink of living water! 
Isn’t that what you really want to do?

[1] Matthew 5:3
[2] Matthew 5:48
[3] Ephesians 4:15
[4] Norma G. Goodrich, Ruskin, Fla. Christian Reader, "Kids of the Kingdom."
[5] Shadowlands Ó1993 Savoy Pictures, Scene @ 1:29:50
[6] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (Collier Books), pp.16-18

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Blessed Believing

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:1 - 12 (NRSV)

This will be the last series of messages I will have the opportunity to share with you, so for these last 7 weeks I have chosen the Sermon on the Mount.  Contained in this most famous of Jesus’ discourses are seven of the most important patterns for living the Christian life.              
In beginning a new series it’s important to open the road map about where we are going.  So, over these next two months we will look at these vital areas of concern for living life in the Kingdom of God:
Believing in Jesus Christ
Forgiving others
Being spiritually and morally healthy
Persevering in the faith
All of these are contained in Matthew Chapters 5-7.  Of course there is a whole lot more than just these.  Entire libraries have been devoted to the Sermon on the Mount.  But these 7 issues form a pretty comprehensive framework for walking in the life of faith as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I approach preaching from THE Sermon with a great deal of personal caution…this is, after all, not MY sermon….it’s HIS!  These few chapters from Matthew (and the other Gospels) are the words the disciples had stuck in their minds.  Over the course of three years as they walked together and shared with the multitudes of people who followed – this body of teaching is what they remembered and wrote down after Jesus was crucified.  This is what Jesus wanted us to remember…and give attention to how the words impact our lives.
Before we begin exposition of THE Sermon, consider how humbly the preacher has to come to this passage.  I am about to give a sermon that proclaims THE Sermon.  I am about to “stand-in” for Jesus today (How’s that working for you, Russell?).
But lest we forget, this particular text is what Jesus wanted us to remember, and to live-into and pass-on to others.  It would be a catastrophe for any preacher to not preach this Sermon.
Now, if the Sermon is that important, how has the church throughout the last two millennia dealt with it?  What do we say about what the Sermon means, and what we’re to do with it?
There are many volumes of interpretive thought written over the centuries about Jesus’ sermon.  Here are a few:
In Medieval times the general consensus was that the ethical standard Jesus gave in his Sermon was simply a higher level of obedience that clergy and monastics had to observe.  The laity, I suppose, could be forgiven more.  They figured this was a private sermon to the apostles.
But that’s not what John Wesley thought.  Wesley pointed-out in his sermon  on this text that when the sermon was over the multitudes were astonished….  Multitudes!  This was no private sermon, it was for everyone.  It’s still that way!
Martin Luther held that the Sermon’s ethics were like the Ten Commandments (what Moses called “the law”).  “…the law, was to Paul,…God’s impossible moral demands [which] disclose the depths of our sinfulness; and drive us to our knees in repentance.”   They are like schoolbooks, teaching us what’s good and what’s not good.
Other modern day liberal views have seen this as Jesus’ ethical and moral encouragement to humans to “bring-in” the kingdom of God on this earth by civil policies.  This is what’s called the “Social Gospel”.
Another modern day scholar (Craig Blomberg) with whom I agree, suggests the Sermon is characteristic of an “already now/not yet” “inaugurated eschatology”.                                          
(Aren’t you glad you asked?)
In short, that means the kingdom ethic of everybody at peace with everybody else will never be fully-realized until the consummation of the kingdom at the return of Christ.  We’re bad people on this planet, and there will be bad stuff done until Jesus returns.
But, while that’s so, on the other hand, the Sermon’s ethic is still our goal and standard; we are to strive to live as Jesus taught, now, here in this life.  We are given strength to do this by His Spirit.  So, it (the Kingdom) is already now, but not yet!
Today’s text (particularly 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.) is instrumental and foundational to understanding this already now – not yet nature of the Sermon.
And we must not forget that these words of Jesus’ are a sermon…not just a list of clergy rules from the Book of Discipline, or a political manifesto – the sermon is an arrow to our hearts.
A sermon functions on many levels; a sermon:
is a word of healing to the human heart where needs live.
is a word of holiness requiring repentance of the sinner.
speaks words of strength to the timid.
speaks words of enlightenment to the tired, dull soul.
utters words of motivation to listless lazy servants
words of warning to the arrogant selfish child of God
words of hope to the discouraged and oppressed
words of challenge to the petulant
A friend and I were talking recently, and he said to me that Jesus’ Sermon was just “slam-full” of grace.  This is so true, because, just like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the New Testament Sermon of Jesus points to the incredibly overwhelming standard of holiness God requires of his creation.  The Sermon essentially reminds us every moment that we are unable to meet this standard.  The Sermon loudly proclaims that it is by grace alone that we are saved, not of [our] works, lest there be any boasting!  (Eph 2:8-9)
I mentioned to you a few weeks ago that I was going to preach this series as a legacy – I want to leave you with (what I consider) the most important things I have learned in the past 50+ years of following Jesus Christ.  If there is one thing that tops the list it is the whole concept of God’s grace as the answer to everything.
Of all the doctrines of the Christian faith, there is none which makes any sense without grace:
The grace of God is what gave us the cross.
The grace of God is what gives us a hope of heaven.
The grace of God forgives my sin.
The grace of God gave me my first breath, and it is only by the grace of God I’ll draw another.
All I do is by the unseen hand of God loving and guiding me.  Without his grace I am nothing.
When I retire as your pastor in two months, my fondest hope is that when someone asks you what your pastor preached on for the seven years he was here – that your answer will be framed by grace, and not anything of Russell.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT                                        
Here are two critically-important phrases for understanding how to live the Christian life, “blessed are” and “poor in spirit”.  Blessed simply means “to be happy”.  It is a condition of contentedness, a sense that all is well.
“Poor in spirit” has nothing to do with financial poverty…to be “poor” means humble.  The “in spirit” part of the phrase is “spiritually” or our attitude towards God.  To paraphrase it then is:
O how happy are those who have a humble attitude towards God.
Every word Jesus ever uttered is virtually useless to a person who is not humble towards God, ready to obey, serve and give.  It’s what the Sermon means; it’s how we will spend the next seven weeks.
As Jesus looked out over the crowd there on the hillside, he saw in the faces of, perhaps thousands, the one common, expectant hope of all individuals:  every one of them, no matter their station in life, wanted happiness.
They wanted that blessed state of knowing all was well.  It was just that they weren’t interested in having what Jesus said about being “blessed” as having humility towards God.  The sense of contentment they were hoping for centered in seeing the circumstances of their lives improve:
The affluent were craving some kind of fulfillment their money couldn’t buy; the poor were looking to get rich
The blind wondered why God hadn’t given them sight; the sighted were unhappy with all their eyes could see
The old longed for the days when young bones didn’t ache so much; the young were fighting the “system” they figured was designed and run by the old
Every age and arena of life has its dissatisfactions.  The preacher of Ecclesiastes had nailed it – all is vanity!
Is it any different today?  Some roles may have switched:
the old now fight the “system”.
the affluent begrudge social assistance to the single parent who can’t seem to stay afloat financially.
the activists of every race, color, creed or gender-specific movement cry out for a larger share of the power.
We are no different than the crowd that gathered to listen to Jesus on that hillside; they wanted a little share of the happiness he talked about.
Today we seem to push from day to day, event to event, seeking a better balance or just the right experience or new way to legislate fairness in government, in the hopes that, just around the corner, over the next hilltop, there will be The Emerald City in the Land of Oz, and just like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion we’ll live happily ever after.
Only it doesn’t work that way, does it?  With all our searching, striving, planning and diligence, the yellow-brick road just goes on and on; it’s the treadmill to nowhere.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explained that happiness does indeed exist.  He even when so far as to clearly show us where it is to be found; and how to get there.  Of course there’s no person beside Jesus who is better-qualified to draw the map.
Why is that so?  If you recall the children that surrounded Jesus, and the crowds that flocked to him, and the parties and weddings – Jesus always seemed to be in the center of things.  People don’t flock to people who want to talk about their operations and lumbago.  And you don’t read in Scripture of any times when Jesus did that kind of complaining.  His words were of vital concern to all; his words were of blessing, because he was an entirely blessed man.  This brings us to the main thrust of the Sermon – blessedness…happiness!  It really does exist!
There are two questions that will lead you to genuine happiness – that wonderful state of blessedness, contentment that all is well with your life and your soul.
Sit with Matthew 5:1-12 and run through those “blesseds” – ask yourself if this was the kind of man Jesus was – merciful, seeking the righteousness of God, pure in heart, reviled and persecuted by men.  If your answer is “yes he was” all the way through, proceed to question #2:
If you want to be blessed, then you must humble yourself before God…a servant of God who is poor in spirit.
A servant lives to please his master.  That is what Jesus meant when he talked about being poor in spirit – people who are willing to live for God’s rule in their heart and life.
If your answer here is also “yes, I do” then blessedness, genuine contentment is not far off…it will come as you surrender all you are to Him.
This is what we call believing in Jesus, and it is blessed believing!

Monday, April 9, 2012

How Good Is the Good News?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers reminding them about their faith in Christ:
·        How they came to faith in Christ
·        What that faith means
·        Why the life of faith is missional (requires commitment)
Now, there are many ways to say something.  Paul’s way was to state the conclusion, the heart of the matter first – then flesh out the details.  In his letter about the Gospel (or “Good News”), he said what to do about it first; then he told them why.  I would like to turn that around and talk first about How Good the Gospel Is, and save the heart for last.  It’s like eating all around the crust of the pie and leaving the good stuff for last.

how good is the good news?

the good news is vital

1 Corinthians 15:3 - 4 (NRSV)
3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
In these two verses are the heart of the Gospel (Good News); Christ died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day; all just like Scripture predicted.  Paul said this Good News he received and passed on to the Corinthian believers was of “first importance” or priority. 
The urgency of this is because, spiritually-speaking, everyone who was ever born is on life-support; we are without brain waves, sustained only by the prevenient grace of God.  We suffer under the penalty for sin, which is death – both spiritual and physical.  We are not vital (alive), we are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
Essentially that means that something needed to be done about our sin problem (from which all of us suffer Romans 3:21-23), so we could be forgiven of sin.  And since we couldn’t, God did!
Jesus died on the cross in our place, reconciling all of creation to God.  Jesus rose from the dead by the power of Almighty God to become the first among many to never die again[1].  And he did it so we could live as well.  This is the vitality of the Good News.

the Good news is verifiable

1 Corinthians 15:5 - 9 (NRSV)
5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.   8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  
In the cross and resurrection God did something so undeniably unique; nothing like that had ever happened before.  Because of this, and the incredible claims Christianity makes (that we can be forgiven, re-born and live eternally with Christ), the human mind needs much evidence to believe.  After all, no other religion makes a claim that its central figure was alive, died and is alive forevermore.[2]
The resurrection is the most verified miracle of Jesus’ in all scripture.  A court of law requires corroboration by at least a second witness.  Paul gives this evidence; the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to all the disciples, was to more than 500 witnesses.  This would even be enough to convince a court in California! 

The good news is universally-Personal

1 Corinthians 15:10 (NRSV)
10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.   
This Good News is full of grace.  It is grace that worked in Paul to become the great missionary apostle; it is also grace that worked through Paul to build the early church.  Everything about the grace of God is universal; it is a whosoever will may come[3] gift of God for all. 
The Good News is vital, verifiable, universally-personal, and…

The good news is missional

1 Corinthians 15:11 (NRSV)
11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.              
Paul was busy (as were all the other disciples) proclaiming the Good News – telling everyone that God loved them and all were welcome at the table.  This is missional-mindedness. 
Truly Wesleyan people have always been so from the start.  In the early days of the movement there was a frontier mindset in the people called “Methodist”.  Consider what one author wrote:
If asked ‘What business are we in?’ an early Methodist would have shot back a fast answer to that question.  They believed their mission was to ‘reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness over the land.’
The unstated [current day] mission that truly drives most churches is providing fellowship, comforting ritual, and care for insiders…
…I will often hear someone mumbling, ‘We don’t need to work to add more people until we can adequately take care of the ones we have.’  This statement, which cuts to the heart of the mainline church’s dilemma, arises from the belief that the mission of the church is taking care of our own.  I wish I could have been in the room the first time a Methodist church member verbalized such sentiment.  I would love to have seen the looks of shock on the faces of the others in the room.[4]
Well, that’s Paul’s “fleshing-out” of the Gospel.  When I began I offered that I would turn Paul’s method inside-out today.  Let us look at the heart of this matter…The Good News is vital, verifiable, universally-personal, missional, and also…

The good news is conditional

1 Corinthians 15:1 - 2(NRSV)
1Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 
While the invitation is certainly open to everyone – please note it is also conditioned on “whosoever will”.  That last word “will” indicates a volitional choice to conform one’s life to following Christ.  There is a difference between following Christ as a disciple, learning and doing – and just merely professing faith so you don’t go to Hell.
Notice Paul says that he wanted to “remind” the church family of the way salvation came to them, and what that entails if they were to truly follow Christ, and not end-up in the backslidden category of believed in vain.  He mentions 4 very important characteristics of genuine Christ-followers:

A.      good news proclaimed

The Gospel, or Good News is a gift.  It was proclaimed to Paul and he in turn proclaimed it at Corinth.  It is something that is outside of ourselves…it starts with God.  That is why to be saved there must be repentance – an acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves.

B.      good news received

Like any gift, the gift of eternal life must be received.  If I gave you a check for $500 today and you never took it to the bank to cash it in, just kept it in your wallet, you would never have that $500.  In the same way, God’s offer of salvation is like an un-cashed check until you receive it by acknowledging your need of Him.
Incidentally, don’t miss how much this little metaphor offers – an un-cashed check is only good for 90 days; at that point the bank considers it “stale-dated” and you won’t get a dime.  In God’s economy the Scripture declares that “now is the day of salvation.”[5]  Don’t trifle with God’s offer; don’t presume on his patience – when you know he’s speaking to your heart – you answer now!

C.      Good news governs

Paul reminded the Corinthian believers that they had received Christ, and were “standing-in” that faith.  They were allowing the Good News to govern their lives. 
Daily life is to be lived to please God, not ourselves.  Of course that is entirely contrary to the culture in which we live in 2012.  Everything about our society and general flow of life says “please yourself”.  Well, call me a cultural heretic…the culture is wrong!  God made us for relationship with him.  When we live life for ourselves we displease God, and we miss the greatest, most satisfying blessing we could have in this life or the next.
The conditional nature of the Good News is that it is proclaimed, received, governs the life of believers, and….

D.     Good news cannot be incidental

There are today myriads of Christian believers who are not sold-out followers of Jesus Christ.  They believe with every fiber of their being that Jesus died for them, and are thankful that their sins are forgiven.  And that is as far as they want it to go.
Ladies and gentlemen, I find no such Christianity in the Bible.  The early believers gave themselves to the cause of Christ. 
·        For some it meant they were torn in pieces by lions in the arena.
·        For some it meant their families thought they were insane and they were disowned.
·        For some it meant turning their backs on all their possessions to go proclaim that Good News to others.

How good is the good news? 

It’s the best news this old world has ever heard.
But the real question is:  How do we treat the Good News? 
·        Some of us would never be inconvenienced for Christ
·        Some of us would never miss a ball game or fishing outing to serve Christ.
·        Some of us would never put a nickel in the offering plate that others might hear of this Christ they profess to love.
Backsliding (professing faith in Christ, then refusing to follow him and live for him) has serious consequences.  This is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Galatian believers:
7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. Galatians 6:7 (NRSV)
For those who give their lives to Christ with everything, loving God with all their heart, mind, soul and spirit, the Good News is the absolute Great News.  For those who “play” at religion, mocking God with a half-hearted nod towards heaven, it is sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  May God have mercy on us all.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23, James 1:18, Revelation 14:4
[2] Luke 15:24, 32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Thessalonians 4, Revelation 2:8
[3] Matthew 11:28, 18:4, 32, 12:50, Mark 8:34, Luke 6:47, John 6:37
[4] Nixon, Paul, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church!, (Cleveland, The Pilgrim Press, 2006), 90, 91.
[5] 2 Corinthians 6:2b