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11-06- Righteousness in Practice

          How do we spend our time?  What is it in life that consistently, daily, occupies our minds and hearts?  The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics asked such questions in a 2021 survey of Americans.  In that survey, the statistics of an average Americans were also compared against the average for those who actually participate in a particular activity.  For example, when it comes something like sleeping, the average American sleeps 8 hours out of every 24 hours.  The participation rate in sleeping is 100%.  Everyone in America sleeps at some point, even if it is less than the average of 8 hours.  Let’s look at another example, when it comes to working, the average American works about 3½ hours per day.  But not every American works.  In fact, only 43% of all Americans participate in work.  We all participate in sleep but only 43% participate in work.  Now, of those Americans who do work, the average workday is not surprisingly 8 hours long.

          Let’s consider how time Americans spend on religious and spiritual activities per day.  The statistics there suggest that the average American spend 0.11 hours per day on religious activities.  That is about 6½ minutes per day.  But only 8% of all Americans participate in religious or spiritual activities every day.  Eight percent (8%) of Americans have a daily practice of participating in the continuation or development their religious or spiritual life.  A great many more people attend a weekly church service and then do not participate in any religious or spiritual development after the service concludes.

          Here is the good news.  Since you are here or you are listening online to this sermon, you on this day can become part of the 8%.  It does not matter if you have not been in church for a long time or not.  The past is the past.  Today you are part of the 8%.  The hope for each of us is that tomorrow and each subsequent day, we will remain part of the 8% who daily participate in our faith journey by praying, reading the Bible, reading devotions, listening to Christian music, playing Christian music, singing Christian music, reaching out in the name of Christ, writing cards of encouragement, and the list goes on.  Faith is a daily exercise.  Faith has never been about convenience or occasion.  A few minutes ago, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and we said, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We are praying for and seeking God’s provision daily. We did not pray, “Give us this day our weekly bread.”  Faith is daily.

          Faith is a continual step by step lifestyle.  And through that daily faith journey we are fortunate people who get to enjoy and experience the presence of God daily.  We know that faith is a daily exercise and that we are fortunate people through Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount.  We have been studying these words for a few weeks now.  The core of the message from Jesus’ sermon was coming to understand what it means to live a life based upon living daily through the righteousness of God.  Jesus said when we empty ourselves and make ourselves hungry and thirsty for righteousness, God will fill us.  Here is the thing though.  We know our bodies hunger and thirst for food and water.  And so we eat and drink to satisfy that physical hunger and thirst. Then, some time later we are hungry and thirst again for food and water.  The same is true for living in the righteousness of God.  When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, God fills us but as we live out our life, we are depleted.  We need to be refreshed and refilled by God on continuous basis.  While we are saved once we need a constant refreshment of righteousness.

          Because we need to be continually refilled, Jesus said we need to do some very specific practical things.  Jesus began with praying.

          Matthew recorded Jesus’ words on prayer beginning this way.  5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).  Jesus told his listeners to pray for their needs but to do so in a private, non-showy way, and with sincerity, simplicity, and brevity. Jesus was telling his listeners make your petition direct to God and ask him for what you need the most.  In righteousness, express to God what you need from him.

          Jesus was challenging listeners to avoid appearing like the pagans or those who are insincere in their prayers.  Insincerity and rote repetition in prayer had been a problem in Israel and it remains one today in our own Christian circles.  In the book of Isaiah, we would read a critique of the Hebrew prayer life and religious practices centuries before Jesus.  God said to Isaiah, 1“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.  Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).  That is not a good opening line for Isaiah’s listeners to hear God express.  God was upset and wanted all of Israel to know it. But what was God upset about? God, through Isaiah said, “2 For day after day they [Israel] seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.  They [Israel] ask me [God] for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them” (Isaiah 58:2).  God was expressing here that the prayers life of Israel was formal but insincere.  There were the motions of prayer and the appearance of wanting God but in their hearts, they had no real desire for God, on God’s terms, to come near.  Jesus said don’t be like the hypocrites who act formally in public like they want God but do not live as though they want God. Instead, Jesus was saying, in desiring righteousness, seek God privately with sincerity, simplicity, and brevity and seek him like you really want him.

          To show his listeners how to speak to God, Jesus gave an example, a model of how we should pray.  9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘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 today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’” (Matthew 5:9-13).

          The prayer Jesus offered was sincere, simple, and brief.  It was interesting that Jesus began with the word, “Our,” and not the word, “My.”  If I prayed, “My Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” that might be just fine, but it suggests that I am on my own with God.  But when I pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” whether I say it with other people or I say it alone, the word “Our” reminds me that I am not alone.  I am part of the body of believers.  And that together, we can all enjoy the presence of God.  That is one of the great things about being part of the 8%.  We are reminded daily that we are not alone and that together we can enjoy the presence of God.

          Beginning with the words, “Our Father in heaven,” Jesus encouraged his listeners to acknowledge God is over all things and that God’s name, everything God stood for, is holy and set apart.  God is hallowed, meaning God is incorruptible and unblemished.  Secondly, the prayer sincerely asks that God to draw near, so near, that all the kingdoms of earth would be conformed to the likeness of the kingdom on heaven in which God’s word is absolute.  But until that happens, we give thanks for God’s daily provision for our life.  Until the day all earthly life and heavenly life is indistinguishable, we pray that God refreshes us in righteousness by forgiving, by treating others, as God has treated us, with forgiveness and mercy.  Until we are no longer tempted by sin, we pray that God keeps us from sin and shows us the way out of sin so that we are never found to be corrupted.

The Lord’s Prayer is a model of prayer.  We can use the exact words Jesus used or we could say similar words if we wanted to do so.  But whatever we do, we want our words of prayer to reflect sincerity, simplicity, and brevity and a genuine desire to be in the presence of God.  This is the idea of prayer.

          Coupled closely with the words of prayer is the act of fasting.  Fasting is the voluntary abstinence of food for a period to be humble before God and to seek God’s presence.  Fasting, like prayer, had been a problem in Israel.  From Isaiah Chapter 58 again, we see the fasting scene in Israel played out from God’s perspective.

          Isaiah began with God’s view of the voice of Israel, 3 ‘Why have we [the Israelites] fasted,’ they say, ‘and you [God] have not seen it?  Why have we [the Israelites] humbled ourselves, and you [God] have not noticed?’” (Isaiah 58:3a).  The Israelites were complaining, “God we fasted as an expression of our religious practices but you, God, don’t seem to notice.  God, if you are not going to notice, why should we fast?”

          God offered his response to Israel’s lament this way.  “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. [They were hangry].  You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4).  The Jews were forgoing food and saying, “God, why haven’t you done what we wanted?”  But the truth was the day of fast was not spent with God, it was spent at work. The day of fast was not spent being refreshed in righteousness, it was spent in fist fights and bitter words.

          God said, ““Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).  Fasting was supposed to break down the formation of barriers, refill people with God’s righteousness, develop a sense of joy in being in the presence of God, and to help people become more merciful, like God, not more warlike.

          Apparently, fasting among Jesus’ disciples and the crowd behind them had become problematic, rote, and insincere.  Jesus said to them, “16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 5:16-18).  Fasting, like prayer, Jesus said must be a positive experience done to improve the relationship between the individual and God. It was not to be done for theatrical purposes or notice and the applause of others.  The fast, the voluntary creation of hunger, was to serve as a reminder to be filled with the righteousness of God.

          In two different and related ways, prayer and fasting, Jesus had addressed to his disciples and the crowd behind them that a continuous filling and renewal of God’s righteousness was available and necessary.  But the behaviors to have such renewal must be genuine and sincere.

          What can we learn from Jesus words here?  Today, we are part of the 8% of Americans who are enjoying the presence of God daily. We are active and alive in worship, song, and hearing the word the God.  We are acknowledging that God is over all things and that we desire his forgiveness, and we desire the grace to forgive others.  We are part of the body of believers.  All these things make for a wonderful day.  All of these things make us want to come back next Sunday and do it again.

          But…what about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?  Jesus was saying, “Do not give up these days as well to enjoy the presence of God.  Do not give up these days to be refilled and refreshed in and with the righteousness of God. Pray.  Fast.  Read the Bible.  Engage in Bible study with someone or some group.  Worship.  Work through a devotional.  Journal about how you are experiencing God.  Serve in and through the body of Christ to others who are struggling.  Sing songs of praise to God.  Meditate on God’s Word.  Be fed daily by the presence of God.

          Everyone here is on the right road and the right path to be part of that 8% who enjoy the presence of God daily.  We all have a perfect track record for this week.  Let’s keep it up.  Amen and Amen.

10-23-Righteousness Expressed by Mercy

          We began our series on the Sermon on the Mount a few weeks ago with the postscript to Jesus’ sermon provided by our gospel writer, Matthew, who said, “28 When Jesus had finished saying these things [finished the Sermon on the Mount], the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he [Jesus] taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).  Jesus amazed and astonished the disciples and the crowd.  Jesus’ words carried such power that people’s minds and hearts were being changed.  The hardness and the self-serving nature with which they were born and developed through living an unforgiving world was changing.  Jesus was breaking their hearts not with sorrow, as happens in grief. Instead, Jesus was breaking the hardness and indifference surrounding their hearts so that the love of God could be felt and experienced.  Jesus is still breaking the crust surrounding hearts and mending the brokenhearted.  It is a beautiful thing to witness the hardness surrounding a heart being broken and a broken heart being mended.  That is the delicate power of the amazing and astounding Savior and Lord who is here among us today.

          Jesus amazed and astounded his listeners because they heard of the possibility and promise of being in God’s presence in the now and for eternity.  You know, too often in life people narrow each others possibilities. Too often ask one another, “Do you want this, or do you want that?”  Life choices are presented as an either/or option, “this or that.”  Jesus was offering the “and both” option.  I like “and both” options in life.  Jesus was asking his listeners, “Do you want to have God’s presence both now and for eternity?”  For those listening, Jesus’ words of possibility and promise were startling.  Many of Jesus’ listeners thought God would only bless people in the present, in mortal life.  When life was over, many believed that there was just a shadowy eternal existence separated from God.  That was their either-or view, God now and then never after death.  Today, I suspect many people think they live in a shadowy existence without God and hope that there is a better life after death with God. That is today’s either-or view, a reversal of the view in Jesus’ day.  Jesus said both views are missing the true joy of having God now and for eternity. That was and is astounding news.

          Jesus had begun his sermon of possibility and promise with the list of blessings, expressing the fortune that awaited those who walked the path he had come to walk.  Of that path, Jesus said the fortunate people, the blessed people, would have both blessing now and the future.  We might read that list of blessing this way, “The fortunate people will have the kingdom of heaven (future), they will be comforted (now), they will inherit the earth (future), they will be filled (now), they will be shown mercy (now and future), they will see God (future), they will be called children of God (now), and theirs is the kingdom of heaven (future).  I am sure there are other ways to construct the list, but the point is Jesus was talking about God in the present and for eternity, the “and both” option.

          Having set in the minds of his listeners a view of God now and the future, Jesus wanted his listeners to see that they could live their lives in the now very different.  And Jesus began to explain that difference beginning again with something the people knew. Jesus said, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’” (Matthew 5:38).  Jesus was quoting the Mosaic Law that established rules for compensation for damages incurred in life.  The Law was established primarily to prevent excessive retaliation from occurring.  If someone knocked out your tooth, you had the right for compensation equal to but no more than your own loss.  For the loss of your tooth, you could demand something of as valuable as a tooth such as a tooth.  You could not demand someone lose an eye or hand or their life because they caused you to lose a tooth.  The law was there to limit excessive retaliation.

          Now in on this hillside, Jesus was sharing with his listeners a new life with the righteousness of God within them now and forever.  Jesus said, “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ [That is the known] 39 But I tell you, [This is the unknown] do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, [instead of slapping their right cheek] turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, [instead of countersuing or arguing over a trifle of life] hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, [instead of complaining about it and threatening to get even] go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:38-41).  These words from Jesus were intended to show how God treated them.  God treated them with tenderness and in  a hope of breaking the hardness of hearts.  For in the economy of God, the wages of sin is death.  Sin is a slap in the face to God.  So under the Mosaic principle of an eye for an eye, God was entitled, had the right to the wages of sin and take life for sin.  But righteousness expressed through mercy was being displayed by God, not assertion of rights or retaliation.  Jesus wanted his followers to treat others the way God treated them.

          In a very small way, I saw the essence of this standard of turning the other cheek played out in of all places at the end of a long line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Now going to the DMV never seems to bring out the best in people.  On this day, I arrived to get in that long line at the same time as two other gentlemen. I think each of us had equal claim as to who was there first and should be next to enter the end of that long line. I dropped out of the competition very quickly and decided to take the last position.  The pending competition was just not worth it to me.  The other two gentlemen were not going to budge for the apparently coveted next to join the line position, and soon words started between them as to who was entitled to that next spot.  Tempers flared, swear words exchanged, and for a moment I thought fists were going fly.  After a moment, one of the two men, we will call him Bruce, pushed his way ahead of the other man, we will call him John.  Bruce was adamant he was going to be ahead of John no matter what.  John was angry but seemed to accept that Bruce was going ahead of him.  A few minutes later, I looked down at the floor and noticed that Bruce had dropped his license.  I thought for a moment, I wonder how Bruce is going to react when he finally gets to the clerk at the DMV window and discovers he does not have his license.  I quietly picked up Bruce’s license from the floor.  What to do? I cannot say why, but I felt I should not return Bruce’s license to him.  Instead, I got John’s attention and gave Bruce’s license to John.  It was a risky move.  John looked at the license for a moment and chuckled.  Then John tapped Bruce on the shoulder and handed Bruce the license and said, “Here, you dropped your license.”  Bruce looked at the license for a moment and then must have realized that John, instead of retaliating against Bruce, extended kindness to him.  Bruce thanked John and then offered John to go ahead of him.  It is a beautiful thing to see a hardened heart break, even just a little bit at the DMV.

          Jesus’ words meant that with God in your life now and forever, with His righteousness, with God’s own example, hurt and harm can be met with generosity and grace.  For actions expressing mercy from righteousness, lead to the conviction of the other’s unrighteousness and sets the conditions for reconciliation.  “Do not resist the evil person by exercising your right to retaliation, instead, allow the Holy Spirit of God working through you to overwhelm them with grace and break the hardening around their heart as well.  Be an instrument of God’s blessing.”  In short, show the grace you have received from God by extending mercy and grace to others.

          Jesus had given his listeners some very specific examples of withholding their rights to retaliation and giving grace.  Jesus then went a step further and said, “43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

          I can well imagine Jesus’ listeners began to murmur among themselves.  “Did he just say love our enemies?  Does he seriously want us to love the Romans, the tax collectors, and the pagans?”  There is ample historical evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ audience hated the Romans for conquering their lands.  The Jews hated other Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans.  The Jews hated the pagans and their disgusting habits. But it was hard to argue with Jesus’ words.  God did, indeed, causes the sun to rise on the good people and on those who were evil. God did, indeed, allow the rain to fall upon the crops of the good people and upon the crops of the evil. God was gracious toward all. Jesus had said, “9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Now Jesus said again, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44b-45a).

          These are some of Jesus’ most challenging words.  To withhold retaliation from someone who slapped you is one thing.  You could walk away holding your anger within and hatred from such encounters.  But now Jesus wanted his followers to proactively respond to their enemies with love and prayers made on their behalf.  Jesus was pointing out that God had not given up on those who were his enemies. God provided for their needs as an expression of his desire for a right relationship with them.  God has not given up because he is perfect.  Jesus said do not be “half perfect” by loving only those who love you back.  Follow God’s example and be righteous towards all.

          As I said, these are some of Jesus’ most challenging words.  Love your enemies and pray for them.  Let’s think about Jesus’ words this way for a moment beginning with prayer. What does it mean to pray?  What is prayer?  A prayer is a request we make to God, sometimes on our own behalf and other times on behalf of someone else.  Although it may seem as though there is great variation in our prayers, the foundation of every prayer we make is for peace.  When we pray for someone’s health we are asking for the restoration of peace within their body.  When we pray for someone who is depressed, we are asking for the restoration of peace within their mind.  When we pray for someone experiencing a difficult family situation, we are asking for peace with family relationships.  When we pray to God, we are giving our concern for that person to God and asking God to give that person peace in the manner and timing of God’s will. To lift someone up in prayer and ask God to grant them peace, in whatever form our prayer is offered, causes us to think differently about that person.  We are beginning to express concern, care, and compassion for that person, all of which are necessary for us to come to love them.  Love your enemies and pray for them.  It is life changing for you and your enemy when we begin to pray for their peace because it cracks the hardness surrounding our own heart.

          Before we close on Jesus’ thoughts today, I want to briefly add Jesus’ words that follow these but are found in Chapter 6 of Matthew.  I think they belong with the subject of expressing righteousness through mercy. Jesus said, “1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  As we discussed last week, righteousness shapes our motives. Here, Jesus was cautioning his listeners not to express mercy to those who had slapped you and those who are your enemies and then crow about it.  “Look at me and what I did.  That man right there slapped me on the right cheek, and I offered the left and God convicted him in his heart.  And then there was this guy who was such a miserable person toward me.  I prayed for him, and God gave him peace because I asked.” To brag to others Jesus said, would reveal personal motives for the praise of other people and the blessings God had promised would disappear because the applause of others was what was sought and received.

          So what do we do with Jesus challenging words, words that caused his listeners to be astounded.  I think there are three things for us to consider.

          First, everything Jesus said begins with a hardened heart that has been broken.  Righteousness from God cracks the hardness that can, will, and does surround our hearts.  When that hardness is cracked, we are then able to feel the movement of our personal relationship with God.  We need to let God crack the hardness that surrounds our own hearts.  I can assure you it is a beautiful thing to behold.

          Second, Jesus called us to let the Holy Spirit be the instrument through which He can crack the hardness of others.  When people can see God’s love working through you, someone they can see, hear, and feel, God’s love becomes real and becomes an experience they can hold onto. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to flow through us the more perfected our relationship and understanding of God becomes.  The more we allow God to shine through us, the more we come to realize how much grace God has extended to us.  When we realize that, more of the hardness surrounding our own heart is broken and removed.

          Third, Jesus called us to be light on the hill and let our light shine before others and Jesus then said be careful not to crow about what you have done.  There is no conflict in those commands.  We are to let the light of God shine through us to another person, but we are not then to brag about what we have done to our friends and family. Shine and let God have the glory.

          It is a beautiful thing to witness the hardness surrounding a heart being broken.  Let us then go forward enabled by the Holy Spirit to be an instrument of God that allows others to feel the love and peace God is offering as freely to all as He does the rain.  Amen and Amen.

10-16-Rughteousness & Faithfulness

          A church worship service, like the one we are experiencing, is a phenomenon, a remarkable thing.  Once a week, across the land, millions of people come together, and they assemble in buildings that none of them personally own, even though many of them have keys to those buildings.  Once inside, they greet as friend those they know and those who they never have met.  The people gather in a room that is set aside for a specific use, often that room is used only once a week.  Once together, someone begins to lead the group with announcements about what has happened, is happening, and will be happening.  Not too many people listen to that part of the service.  Then the group rises and prays in one voice to God.  You would never see that sort of thing in a local shopping mall.  After the prayer, musicians start playing the instruments and the people begin to sing. In some places, the words being sung a quite old, like seraphim and cherubim.  Those words only get said one time.  In other places the words sung by the group are everyday words, like love, soul, and praise.  Those words are repeated in the song, seemingly without end.  Then after singing, someone gives a sermon, a message, or a homily. Sometimes those speaking do so for 10 minutes, and others go for an hour or more.  Sometimes the speaker’s words leave the people feeling encouraged, or challenged, or deflated, perhaps on occasion terrified, and sometimes the people are left bored.  After the speaker goes silent, the people sing a couple more songs and then leave to resume their normal activities of life until the next Sunday when the people gather again to repeat the phenomenon.

          Why do the people participate in this phenomenon? What are the people’s motives in participating?  Perhaps you have not thought about this question before or for a while.  I thought I might share my answer to these questions.

When I was a kid in the Catholic Church, my family participated in the phenomenon, frankly, because we were afraid not to do so.  We feared being sent to hell for not at least attending.  Fear of going to hell was the same reason we ate fish on Fridays.  Our motives were self-serving based on fear. 

In my late 20’s, my motives for going participating in the phenomenon we call a church service changed.  I participated not out of fear.  I participated, again frankly, because I was asked to attend by the woman I was dating. That woman later became my wife. Once church with her, my motives for participating soon changed again.  At church, I came to realize that something, someone, was missing in my life, namely Jesus Christ.  I did not know in any real way who Jesus was and what he had done for me. I was someone who knew him not.  As I got to know Christ, I gave my life back to him, and my motives for church changed again.  I continued to attend because I wanted to remain close to Christ and to his living body in this world, the church.  For in this fellowship with Christ and his followers, there is closeness to God, there is opportunity to reform my behaviors to become more like Christ, there is an opportunity to serve others, and an opportunity to be encouraged in times of trouble.  I guess my motives still sound self-serving, so I suspect God has some more refining to do with me.

Our motives in life matter because motives reveal much about our inner life, our thinking, and our heart.  I have given my testimony as to the changing motives I have experienced in life for participating in the phenomenon of weekly church services.  There are other motives that play heavily in our life. Consider for a moment our motives for sinning.  Say what? When we sin, we comfort ourselves with the motives that caused us to sin.  Motives console us.  We justify ourselves by conditions that preceded the sin.  Consider a childhood example.  “It is not my fault!  He hit me first!  I was just defending myself when I hit him in the nose!”  The child was saying, “I would not have sinned had he not hit me first.” We are comforted with our motives for sinning, in that example, someone else’s prior behavior caused me to sin.  We learned that sort of answer from the Bible. Consider when God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?” (Genesis 3:11).  Adam answered, ““The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12).  Adam was saying, “If you had not given me that woman and had she not given me that fruit, I would not have sinned.”  We always seek motives for sin.

Our motives, whether for positive activities in life or negative behaviors, are important to us even if we do not think about our motivations. Our Scripture reading today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about having our motives shaped by righteousness.

          Jesus began teaching his disciples and the crowd behind them about motives again by citing something that the people knew.  Jesus said, “27 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” (Matthew 5:27).  That is number 7 on God’s top 10 list of commandments.  The command is very straightforward.  Sexual relations are to remain between a married couple.  The people Jesus was speaking to understood that.  That was the known part of the discussion.  Jesus then said, “28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).  You can almost sense a little stirring in the audience and a bit of body shifting going on as people began to think about the implications of Jesus’ words.

Jesus’ point was that righteousness expressed in marriage is to be motivated by a faithfulness.  To be faithful to a spouse is a very human way to see, experience, and model the faithfulness between God and his people.  In the Old Testament, adultery was often used to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. There is some hint in Jesus’ words about faithfulness coming from righteousness found in the first of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shall have no other God’s before Me.”  In the New Testament, Jesus is often described as the bridegroom and the church his bride.  So to look at other women and dream about sexual relationships with them, is a break in the motivation of human faithfulness and a break in the model of faithfulness to God, and it is in some ways a form of idolatry.  Faithfulness then comes from righteousness in which the person is motivated by a pure heart.  Jesus had just told his audience, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity in heart, purity in motives guided by righteousness is the avenue to God.

You can almost hear the wheels turning in the minds of his disciples as they thought about this situation of faithfulness to their spouse while perhaps in the company of other women who they found attractive.  As those wheels turned, Jesus added these words, “31 Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).  Jesus’ words meant, “Guys, if you do find yourself attracted to woman other than your wife, do not think you can divorce your wife and be free to pursue a new wife and therefore be innocent of lust!  For if you did that, your motives would not only be an expression of unfaithfulness, but your motives would be the cause of many to sin by being wrapped up in adulterous relationships.”

Faithfulness is a motive fueled by righteousness.  Faithfulness in marriage is an expression of our human capacity to maintain a faithful spiritual relationship with God.  This thought is presented to the church this way, “11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).  Our motives matter.

Jesus then continued to express the matter of motives more broadly and applicable to everyone whether single or married. Jesus again started with what the people knew so that he could share with them what they did not know but needed to know.  “33 Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ [That is the known.]  34 But I say to you, [This is the unknown.]  do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).

The issue Jesus was taking on was righteousness in our motivations for speaking and giving testimony.  Here too, there are some hints about commandment 9 of 10, “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ and commandment 3 of 10, “Thou shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.”  Let’s look at this just a bit.

First, Jesus said that people were not to take an oath by those things that are of God.  Do not swear by heaven for that is God’s dwelling place.  Do not swear by earth for that is God’s creation.  Do not swear by Jerusalem for that is God’s city.  Oaths based upon God and what is his are all ways of taking the Lord’s name in vain, using God’s name in a useless and non-worshipful manner.  Then Jesus added, and don’t also do something ridiculous by swearing upon your own head because you are not your own creation.  You cannot, on your own, change the color of even one hair, but God can.  So do not swear upon your head as though you have some power like that of God.  Jesus’ point was do not use the Lord’s name in vain to prove that you are not being false witness.  Righteousness will never demand that you break one commandment to prove you are keeping another.

In my prior occupation with the federal government, I interviewed hundreds of people for various reasons.  Sometimes it was to collect information.  Other times it was to confront someone who had been suspected of engaging in unauthorized or illegal activities.  When I interviewed the latter group, those who it was believed had been engaged in wrongdoing, I always knew we were getting closer to the truth when the individual I was interviewing spontaneously took an oath in the interview. Let me give you an example.  When asked directly about the alleged wrongdoing, the person would say, “I swear to you, on my mother’s grave, or on my children’s life, or as God is my witness, that I did not do it.”  Almost without exception, we would later determine that the behavior being denied under that spontaneous oath did, in fact, happen. Why was there such a correlation between the use of an oath and the commission of a lie?  Because an oath is perceived as a bit of sacredness.  Using the sacredness of your children or God to encapsulates a lie causing the hearer to not want break what is sacred to examine the words within.  Jesus was saying righteousness, not some made up or spontaneous oaths, must shape our motives for our testimony.

Secondly, Jesus said, “Let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” Well, what does that mean?  Think of it this way.  Why might we take an oath?  We might take an oath when we go to court where a court officer may ask, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”  And as a witness, we would be expected to answer, “I do.”  The idea behind an oath is that from the moment someone takes an oath, until they have completed their testimony, their words will be and must be the truth.  The implication is that prior to taking the oath or after giving testimony, telling the truth is optional.  There is a hope that we and others would tell the truth but there is no requirement to tell the truth and no penalty for lying.

Jesus was saying in righteousness, with a purity of heart, you must always speak the truth by saying “Yes” for “Yes” and “No” for “No.”  If you always tell the truth, then there is no reason or cause for you to take an oath.

Lying, with its many motives, is a widespread concern in our country. Studies have shown that nearly 96% of American adults admitted to lying about something either as a kid or as an adult. I think the remaining 4% lied in the survey!  In one survey, 40% of those surveyed admitted to having lied within the past 24 hours.

I teach a ten-week class in Christian Ethics.  One of those weeks we look at the Christian life and lying.  There are some Christian writers who argue that as a Christian is permitted if one of three things is true.  The lie is for a good cause.  Or the lie arose out of necessity.  Or the lie was “medicinal,” meaning the lie is necessary to correct a larger problem.  Do you see how motives can lead us to do what we think is noble even if we must break a commandment or two to be so noble.

The ancient theologian, Augustine, had a very different view about lying. Augustine said, “God is the Father of the Truth, and His Son communicated the Word of Truth.  Lying, regardless of the motivation, stands opposed to the truth.” Therefore, Augustine said, “to lie is to abandon God.”

I think Augustine was on the right track.  God is Truth and so to is His Son.  Jesus said simply, let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.”  Just tell the truth.  Lying makes for a bad witness to unbelievers.

Jesus confronted his audience with a known commandment of God, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” which is the seventh of the ten commandments.  From that opening, Jesus revealed to his audience and to us that at is core, adultery involved deception, lying, and unfaithfulness not just toward the spouse but toward God.  Righteousness whether for married or single people requires that there be no mixed allegiances.  We must be faithful to God for He is faithful to us.  We must not be adulterous in our relationships with others for those relationships model the intimate faithful relationship God desires with each person.  We must not be deceptive or lying in our words or make others believe our words are true by stating them with an oath. Instead, we must be faithful and true in our words, always.  We must let righteousness shape our motives so that we are pure.  We must not break one commandment to prove our faithfulness to another one.

Jesus came as the truth, and the life, and the way.  Jesus came to forgive my sin and not to endorse my motives for sinning.  Jesus came as the righteousness of God that I am be filled with Him and be righteous as He is righteous with pure motives in my heart.  Let us be pure of heart and motives following Jesus’ words and example. Amen and Amen.

10-09-Righteousness in Real Life

          I want to begin by thanking you for being here and continuing with the challenging words we have been experiencing in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  This is our third week examining the confrontational nature of Jesus’ sermon but with are coming to see that Jesus’ confronts not with accusation but with awe because Jesus reveals the nature of God and the way we were meant to be.

          As we continue today with Gospel of Matthew, we find that the editors of our Bibles have inserted a title to the opening of Jesus’ sermon calling it “The Beatitudes.”  I do not like titles in the Bible.  In general, I think they inhibit our understanding of what was said because we are more apt and able to remember the title of book or passage than we can remember its content.  The title, “The Beatitudes,” was never clear to me anyways because as a kid whenever I heard the phrase, “The Beatitudes,” I thought the person was saying, “The Be Attitudes,” as though one should “be” this way and not that way.  The English word, “Beatitudes,” comes from the Latin word “beatitudos,” because in the Latin Bible each of Jesus sayings begins with the Latin word, “beati,” which became in English “blessed.”  Now the Latin word, ‘beati,” was a translation from the original Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew which was, “markarious” (ma’ car e os).  Markarious was not a religious word, but was a word used to convey a fortunate person.  So, in the opening words to Jesus Sermon on the Mount, we might read them as, “Fortunate people are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Fortunate people are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Fortunate people are those who are meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3-5, paraphrased).

          In Jesus’ eyes, we are fortunate when we have emptied ourselves of pridefulness and then filled ourselves or allowed ourselves to be filled with the righteousness of God.  Last week, Jesus shocked his audience and said that “20 I tell you that unless your righteousness (unless that Godly filling) surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

          Righteousness, that state of being restored by God to the way we ought to be, to the way we were created by God, is at the heart of Jesus’ sermon. For when we have been filled with righteousness from God, then we are truly fortunate people.

          Having set that there is a relationship between righteousness and being fortunate in God’s eyes, Jesus turned his attention toward teaching how righteousness plays itself out in real life, with real people, and real circumstances. We need that sort of teaching from Jesus because, as has been said by others, we don’t want to be so heavenly focused that we are no earthly good.  Fortunate people must live out their earthly lives in the human community.

          With that notion in mind, Jesus moved his sermon forward with these words found in Matthew, Chapter 5, “You have heard it said…”  Jesus used this expression much in the same way we might say, “I know you have heard this before…”  In using such expressions, the speaker is acknowledging what the listener already knows and has been taught in the past.  Jesus began this part of his sermon with acknowledging what was known to his audience about the prescriptive nature of the Law and the commandments. Jesus did so because Jesus wanted to take his audience from what they knew to what they did not know, which was how is the righteousness of God lived out in real life situations.

          Jesus said, “21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ [That is the known] 22 But [here comes the unknown] I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).  Jesus was saying, “I know you have been taught that you shall not murder, that is number six of the top ten list of commandments, ‘Thou shall not murder.’” You know that Jesus said then came my favorite theological word, “but.”  This is an important word because that word signals the unknown thing that must be known is coming.  “22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [Stupid! Idiot! Dummy! Moron!] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22).  Jesus was not abolishing the law but instead was enlightening his audience and us that righteousness in the kingdom of heaven demands that we neither murder a person’s body not their reputation.  Righteousness lived out means that we do not choose to be angry toward another person, because anger is a choice, and we do not choose to have contempt for another person.  There are two ways we should consider Jesus’ teaching here. 

First, I think is the most obvious.  We shall not kill outright, that’s murder of the body, nor are we to kill someone softly, that is murder of their reputation or spirit.  To kill outright is to take someone’s life.  As Jesus said, “You have heard that said to people long ago.”  To kill softly is to abuse another person. When we abuse another person, we kill them, only we do it softly, often without injury to their body itself. Abuse can be done physical, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, and spiritually.  If you have been abused or if you have a friend or family member who has been abused, you know what it means to be killed softly.  The body may not have died but permanent damage to the spirit has been done.  And so, Jesus was saying any form of abuse violates the righteousness underpinning the commandment not to kill and such behavior must not be found in the life of a righteous person.

Secondly, I think Jesus meant his words to also mean that if you are a fortunate person because you have the righteousness of God in your life you must remember that you are not better than anyone else.  You are fortunate because you are better off with your relationship with God but you not better than anyone.  Meaning, fortunate people are not to kill others by elevating themselves.  Jesus would express this sentiment in a parable, a story.  Jesus said, “10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14).  The Pharisee, acting as though he was better than others, took righteousness into his own hands, elevated himself, to slay others with his words.  The Pharisees was killing others softly by elevating himself.

          Those who are humble enough to accept the righteousness of God are fortunate people indeed, but they must not kill either outright as the commandment states or softly as Jesus teaches.

          Jesus then said to the fortunate people that they must not act simply in a neutral way of not taking life, outright, softly, or by elevating themselves but fortunate people must act in an affirmative way of reconciling and healing. 

In the next bit from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  The first affirmative step is that those who are fortunate must act affirmative to reconcile all differences with brothers and sisters, meaning others who are equally fortunate.  So important is the need for believers to be reconciled with one another that Jesus said, “If you are in church and the thought comes to you that you have done something to offend another believer and that person is not there with you in that moment, leave church and make things right.  You can come to church again, but you may not be able to reconcile with that person again.”

          As I read these words, I was reminded of a story of a man shipwrecked on a deserted island.  As time passed, he concluded that he needed to build himself shelters against the elements.  After many days and weeks on this island, the man spotted a ship on the horizon.  Excited by the prospect of rescue the man lit a signal fire to call attention to himself. Soon a small boat came from the larger ship with a rescue crew.  Those from the rescue boat came ashore and the man was elated to be saved.  As the man set about to gather his things, he pointed out to the leader of the rescue party the hut he had built for himself and the church he had built in which he worshipped God.  The leader of the rescue party said they were fine structures but asked the shipwrecked man about a third building the man had obviously built but had not mentioned.  The shipwrecked man looked over at the third structure said, “Oh that.  That is the church I used to attend.”

          We must use care in not acting like that shipwrecked man and abandon as though disposable the relationships we have with other fortunate people.  We must be affirmative in our relationships with our brothers and sisters who are also trying to walk this narrow road of righteousness.

          I suspect Jesus’ audience was in shock in considering just what it meant to walk with God, but they probably came to understand Jesus’ points.  That might have been until Jesus confronted them with these words, “25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court” (Matthew 5:25).  So, to be righteous, we must not kill others outright or softly and we must reconcile with our brothers and sisters but we must also pursue an adversary to make things right.  What Jesus asked must have seemed demanding to his audience, but as we who see the whole life of Jesus can understand, in these confrontational words of Jesus, Jesus was describing his very essence.

          The Apostle Paul must have thought considerably about what Jesus unfolded here because Paul had two important observations. First, Paul said briefly, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8b).  While we were still an adversary of God, Christ pursued us, even unto death, to make things right for us with God.  That is righteousness that causes me to be in awe.  Now, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not ask us to die for our adversary, as he did.  Jesus just asked us to be righteous enough that we would make things right with our adversary, and keep on living.  Do we do that?

          Second, and more extensively, Paul said this, “16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this [good fortune] is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:16-18a). We pause for a moment to see that God through Jesus lived out the righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount and reconciled us to God as a first order of business.  Our reconciliation with God, becoming fortunate people, makes us new and able to see people from other than a worldly point of view. 

Paul then hits us with the second step, “And [God] gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he [Jesus] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:18b-20a).  Paul said Jesus’ gave us, his new creation, his fortunate people, the message of reconciliation and sent us out as his personal representatives to live out that message.  Paul made an important observation for us here.  To reconcile with a brother or a sister is not an act of personal will done in the flesh.  It is, instead, a spiritual act done through and for Christ.  To pursue an adversary then is not an act of personal will done in the flesh, it too is a spiritual act done through and for Christ.  That is what it means to be an ambassador of Christ. We act through and for Christ.

Paul finished this thought with an exhortation. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. [That is step one.] 21 God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” [That is step two.] (2 Corinthians 5:20b-21).  If we did not see directly from Jesus, we should see from Paul, that our good fortune, our markarious, beatitudos, or blessed state comes from being reconciled by God so that we can live out in the real world the righteousness of God.

How do we come to summarize all that Jesus has confronted us with today starting from the simple acknowledgement of what his audience and we have heard said before, “Thou shall not murder.”  Jesus audience knew that, and we know that.  But what followed from Jesus’ lips amazed his audience and should amaze us.  Jesus was revealing that his public ministry would be one not of anger or contempt for the heart of another person but instead would be one of reconciliation and pursuit of even his adversaries.  Jesus was going to demonstrate to his audience and us how to express a righteousness that surpassed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus was going to demonstrate how he would be salt and light in the world.  Jesus was taking his audience and us from the known to what had been unknown. Jesus’ intent was to make his followers the most fortunate people who ever existed and then charge them with the same ministry of reconciliation that he lived out in the real world.

We must be both heavenly focused and earthly good. We can do that when we are first reconciled to God by accepting Christ.  In that reconciled state, we will be filled with the righteousness of God.  Having been filled, we then can carry out the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us by God.  Now that is a fortunate person indeed.  Amen and Amen.

10-02 - Confronted by Righteousness

          For those who were here last week, I commend you for your dedication to being confronted two weeks in a row.  For those who were not here last week, we have begun to experience Jesus confronting his audience in and through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus confronted people not with accusations but with the possibility and promise of being blessed by God.  When Jesus was finished with his sermon, the gospel writer, Matthew, said the disciples and crowd were in awe of what Jesus said.  Matthew’s observation is important because we are drawn to imitate whoever captivates us with awe. 

          Last week, Jesus confronted his audience telling them that it was the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek, in a word, the humble of the world, God would bless not the wealthy, healthy, and those steeped in religious traditions and ceremony.  Those who were humbled and had a thirst and hunger for God would be filled with God’s righteousness.  In their filling with righteousness, the blessed would bless others with mercy, purity, and peace.  Humility, mercy, purity, and peace are the very essence of Jesus. 

Today, we will see that Jesus was just getting warmed up in confronting his audience then and now.  He was going to hold his audience in awe again.  And I want to begin having us look at what Jesus said about the law, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and righteousness itself. The law, as Jesus used the term, was the collection of commandments of God.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the religious elite.  These were the people the crowd admired because of their knowledge of the Scriptures and their faithfulness in observing all the various religious traditions of the day.  Finally, there is the matter of righteousness.

What is righteousness?  Think of righteousness this way.  Righteousness is being in the state as you ought to be.  There is a correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting about you.  You are authentic to the way you are supposed to be, and you have integrity because the way you think, speak, and act are congruent.  You do not think one way, speak a different way, and act, perhaps differently than you speak or think.  In righteousness, you are as you ought to be.  But there is always a but.  But who determines how you ought to be?  As Jesus used the term righteous, he, of course, was referring to God’s view of how you ought to be.  God made humanity right.  We were free, fearless, unashamed, content, happy to be in fellowship with God, and happy in fellowship with our spouse.  We were in the state as we ought to be because we were right with God.

With that introduction, let’s look at what Jesus said.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus began assuring his audience that Law, the commands and promises of God, were not being replaced but fulfilled.  God’s plan was firm, and, in fact, Jesus was revealing that a major part of God’s plan now had been set in motion.  What was the part of God’s plan that had been set in motion?  It was to redeem people from where they were to where they ought to be.

This is a key point for us to understand.  God is never going to meet us where we pretend to be.  God is never going to meet us where we would like to be.  God is only and always going to meet us where we are.  It is a freeing thought that I don’t have to pretend to be some sort of holy saint before God makes himself known to me.  I can be me, just as I am.  I don’t have to wait until I achieve some measure of standing in the church or community or age before God makes himself known to me.  I can be me, just as I am in this moment.  The people were in awe because Jesus was saying in their words that God’s plan to make things as they ought to be was unfolding before their eyes.  What anticipation and excitement there must have been in the crowd at that moment.

But then Jesus unleashed the shocking and confronting news.  Jesus said, “20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  There were two shocking thoughts here. 

The first shocking thought, I suspect, was that Jesus audience said to themselves, “What does Jesus mean?  I must be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law?  That must have sounded impossible.”  The Pharisees were known for being careful in meeting the Law handed down by Moses, so much so that the Pharisees created more rules and practices to avoid even getting close to breaking the law.  The teachers of the law were experts on the Scriptures knowing every word of the Scripture forwards and backwards.  The standard Jesus seemed to set out was impossible.  His audience must have thought, “How can I outperform the Pharisees and teachers of the law in keeping the law?”

The second shock came a moment later as Jesus’ audience thought, “Wait a minute, for me to enter the kingdom, my righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  If that is true, then that means the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law isn’t good enough to enter the kingdom either!  The Pharisees and teachers would have to exceed their own standard of righteousness which they cannot.”  Jesus had confronted his audience telling them that admiring the standards and practices of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was misplaced.  Jesus did not want the audience to be better at being a Pharisee than the Pharisees themselves.  God was not interested in religious traditions and ceremony of a nation or group or individual person.  Instead, God was interested in the person, in their heart and willingness to have their hunger and thirst to being the person they ought to be met through their personal relationship with God himself.

God had spoken many times in the past about religious behavior and righteousness.  In the book of Amos, a prophet, God said, “21 I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.  22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.  Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  23 Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).

Jesus’ audience must have been stunned and in awe. Righteousness that leads to entry to the kingdom of heaven was not about burnt offerings, religious festivals and obligations, and outward practices.  Jesus really meant it when he said that God blesses the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek.  Those who thirst and hunger for God himself not some religious practices are filled. What does such a blessed person receive from God.  Theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3b), comfort (5:4b), the inheritance of the earth (5:5b), mercy (5:7b), the vision of God (5:8b), and adoption by God (5:9b).

Righteousness, the way one ought to be with God was not to be found in temple or other religious practices.  And it is still not to be found in church or religious practices. We should, therefore, enjoy how we worship God together with our songs and traditions, but we should hold onto those practices with an open hand.  We should recognize those practices are but an aid to us in pushing back against the distractions of the world and getting our minds and hearts focused upon God. But we need to see that our own traditions by themselves accomplish nothing in our redemption in becoming who we ought to be with God.

The Apostle Paul helps us by explaining that point this way.  “8 For it is by grace you have been saved (made righteous, made into who you ought to be), [it is] through faith—and this [salvation, redemption, righteousness] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works [sacrifices, traditions, songs, festivals, charity, good works], so that no one can boast [that they earned their salvation, redemption, or righteousness]” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  God blesses us with salvation, redemption, and righteousness when we are humble and meek enough to accept the gift of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus said to his audience was very confrontational and very much held people in awe.  The road to redemption in God had been opened in a way that the people had not considered.

Now one of the questions that Jesus’ audience might have had was, “If the enduring visible model of righteousness is not to be found in the behaviors of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, what does that model look like?”  Jesus had given a few examples of how we ought to look when we are as we ought to be.  Jesus gave two tangible illustrations of righteousness.

First, Jesus said, “13 “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a).  Jesus’ audience would have understood the significance of being salt. Salt changes whatever it touches. Salt was used to preserve food. Salt was valuable, even used in Jesus day as currency.  Salt was necessary to sustain life.  Salt could not be faked.  When you are as you ought to be, then you are like salt.  Noticeable from the world around you and you draw people toward you because of your qualities.

Second, Jesus said, “14 “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14a).  Jesus’ audience would have understood the significance of being light.  The people of Jesus’ time had light to see almost exclusively by the sun.  That meant half of each day was spent in almost total darkness.  To strike a light, a lamp, then was a stark and noticeable signal of life.  And so Jesus equated the righteous, those who had been restored to the way they ought to be, as a light, a city of a hill, a symbol of life.  They were unmistakable, un-fakable, capturing the attention of even the most casual of observers.

In both illustrations, Jesus was pointing to righteous people as salt and light, not to some religious practices they did.  And that is what we must take away from this week’s confrontation by Jesus.

We are made as we ought to be when we willingly empty ourselves of pride and submit ourselves to be fed and watered with the righteousness of God.  Jesus came to be that righteousness in all ways and to be that salt and light for us. Jesus gave his righteousness to us through his death on the cross, giving us a gift of salvation, redemption through him.

In a few moments, we will be taking a bit of bread and a sip of juice from a cup.  These simple elements are yet another confrontation from Jesus to his disciples who now include you and me.  Jesus said that bit of bread is body, and he beckons us to eat of his body. Of the juice, Jesus said is his blood, and he beckons us to drink of his blood.  To eat of a body and drink of the blood is a stark and confrontational thought. But that confrontation is turned to awe when we come to realize that the bread and juice are symbols of Jesus’ body and blood reflecting Jesus’ commitment to fill our hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).  Come now, let us be confronted and held in awe of Christ as we take of the bread and cup as reminders that following Jesus satisfies our hunger and thirst to be filled with righteousness.  Let’s take these symbols so that we can be reminded that through Jesus we have received the gift of salvation and that we are being restored into who we ought to be. Amen and Amen.

09-25 - Confronted by God's Blessings

          Suppose for a moment that someone said to you, “I would like you to come to a meeting so that you can be confronted.”  I suspect many of us would either say, “No, but thanks for asking,” or we would ask many questions about being confronted and then say, “No thanks.”  Who wants to be confronted.  And we say that because we see being confronted or confrontation only in a negative way.  However, it is only by confrontation that we learn, that we change, that we become inspired, and that we come to be in awe.

          Are you skeptical about this notion of confrontation?  Allow me to give a trivial example.  My wife had a cousin who planned and prepared the family meals.  Due to a crazy work schedule, my wife’s cousin set the meals for each week to be identical, week after week.  Think of it as Monday was goulash, Tuesday ham steak, Wednesday was chicken, Thursday was spaghetti, Friday was fish sticks, and so forth.  Week after week the menu never varied.  You knew the day of the week by what you were eating. Then one day, one of the kids from that family, Billy, went out to dinner with us at a local restaurant. Someone suggested, let’s have an appetizer.  How about some calamari, squid?  As you might expect, calamari was not one of the weekly offerings at Billy’s house. When the calamari came to the table, Billy was confronted.  Should he try the calamari or not?  With much encouragement, Billy tried a bite of calamari and discovered new tastes and textures and was excited by what he had learned declaring calamari, “Awesome.”

          I have given you a trivial example for us to think about confrontation a little differently.  And with that, I would like us to begin looking at the more substantive confrontation that Jesus presented and still presents through his first extended sermon that we call the Sermon on the Mount found in chapters 5 through 7 of the Gospel of Matthew.  It will take us several weeks to lean into the sermon and there is great risk in doing so.  The first risk of course is that we have all heard sermons based on the Sermon on the Mount and therefore, there is a risk that we will hear Jesus words as though someone was reading a math book, dry and unexciting, or as though we were eating the 37th weekly meal of goulash so far this year.  But there is always a but.  But if we allow ourselves to be confronted by Jesus and to experience the confrontation Jesus presented to his audience, then we might find ourselves in awe of Jesus and be changed by him. 

That leads us to our second risk.  We might change because we are in awe of Jesus.  A confrontation that leads us to be in awe is a treasured experience.  When we are in awe of something or someone, we want to hold onto that sense of wonder. We something confronts us with awe, we want to capture that moment.  We take photographs of that thing or buy paintings of that thing to capture that moment. When we are in awe of someone, we see the possibility and the promise of something greater than we are and so we imitate who we are in awe of.

Jesus’ sermon on the mount confronted people and caused them to be held in awe.  We know people were in awe because Matthew put a postscript at the end of Jesus’ sermon. Matthew wrote, “28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).  The people were amazed and astonished by what Jesus said.  Jesus had confronted his disciples and the crowd of people behind the disciples, and all were in awe.  The teachers of the law taught about God as though they were reading from a math book, with a sense of total detachment, once again reciting the rules and regulations of religion.  They taught with the same delight one would have with the 37th weekly plate of goulash.  But Jesus taught with the authority of God, raising in the minds and hearts of the people a sense of the possible and promise of something greater than they ever had experienced before.  Jesus taught that kingdom of God was near and that they could be part of it.  Jesus had confronted his listeners and they were in awe.

So, we know how the sermon ended, “the crowds were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he taught as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:28b, 29a).  How then did the sermon begin?  How did Jesus confront his listeners?  Jesus began the sermon this way.  “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” (Matthew 5:3-5).  Jesus offered no introduction, no opening story, no whitism, or comment at all.  With the tension of the disciples and crowd all fixed upon him waiting to see what he would say, Jesus began to confront those listening with words of blessings of God. But these blessings sounded so strange. And we are going to discover the list of blessings is not random but sequential, each building upon the next.

Blessing were the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek, Jesus said.  These are words the disciples and the crowd did not expect.  Jesus’ words confronted the mindset of the Jesus’ listeners, who believed that only people like the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were prominent in the religious life of the nation were subject to God’s blessings. Jesus’ words confronted the belief that only people who were wealthy had been blessed by God or those who had no grief in their lives were considered blessed by God.  Jesus confronted the idea that people who were strong in mind and body were those who inherited.  We might be tempted to think for a moment that Jesus’ audience were silly and simpleminded ancient people lacking our sophistication.  But, there is always a but.  But if we were to ask ourselves or people on the street about what we most admire in other people today, we would likely get a list something like we admire people who are independent, competitive, wealthy, good looking, hardworking, trustworthy, etc.  I do not believe many, if any, people would put on today’s list of admirable traits being poor in spirit, being mournful, and being meek.  Yet Jesus said being poor in spirit, mournful, and meek were the exact traits that God desires and blesses.  And so, Jesus confronts our understand of who lives a blessed life.  Jesus was confronting his audience and now us to consider that God chooses to bless those who can let God be God, who will let God be their God. 

In the first three blessings, Jesus used statements of internal spiritual posture of a person, not a nation.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Blessed are the people who recognize that they cannot reform themselves.  Blessed are those people who know that they need God’s need grace.  Blessed are those who place humility is at the center of their life with God.

Jesus then said, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  God blesses those people recognize that sin separates them from God and that they sorrow at their own sin.  God offers a way out of sin to the repentant and into his presence and that is a blessing.

Jesus concluded the first three blessings this way, “Blessed are the meek.”  Meekness is not the absence of assertiveness or being a doormat.   Being meek is the absence of self-assertion.  Meekness is the opposite of self-ambition and envy.  Meekness is a willing to be in awe of God and receive from God.

          Being poor in spirit, mournful, and meek are not words of blessing to or from the world.  Being poor in spirit, mournful over sin, and meek are all deficient words.  But they are deficit words that lead to being blessed by God.  These words all reflect an emptying of oneself and making oneself ready to be filled.

          These words were astonishing because Jesus was saying that God blesses people, anyone who would come to him.  Blessings from God was not about your nation, tribe, social class, health, or wealth. Blessings from God was about your personal willingness to come to God in a spirit able to receive from him.  What an amazing thought that the God of all would care about each person, one at a time, to come and bless them.

          But how would this all work?  How would coming before God and being blessed by God change one’s life?  Jesus answered those questions in the next blessing.

          Jesus said, “6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).  With the right spiritual posture, emptied of self and ready to receive, there is a readiness a hunger and thirst.  For those who seek that hunger and thirst to be satisfied by righteousness, a right living with God, then there is a filling, an indwelling of God’s righteousness.  This indwelling is the very essence of God, given as God’s Holy Spirit.  The blessings Jesus was talking about are sequential.

When satisfaction for spiritual hunger and thirst is sought from God, then those seeking can be filled with the righteousness of God.  Jesus was setting the highest goal in life was righteousness before God.  The highest goal of life was not the most scrupulous observance of religious practices or traditions, instead it was righteousness with God, a personal standing with God himself.

          If we were to again survey American’s today and asked the question, “What is your highest goal in life?” we might expect to get answers such as “be happy, be financially secure, or to enjoy my family.”  I suspect very few, if any, people would say “My goal in life is to be righteous before God.”  But that is exactly the point of the opening to Jesus’ sermon.  And so, Jesus confronts our patterns of thinking, our goals, and aims in life and points out that we are satisfied when we pursue righteousness before God as our life’s desire.

          We often say or have said to us, “Choose wisely.  Choices had consequences.”  This is usually said as a warning, making consequences a negative term like confrontation is generally a negative term.  Jesus was confronting his audience with the idea that goals have consequences. Emptying yourself and seeking the righteousness of God means the consequence in one’s life will be to be blessed by God and in those blessings a change in action overtakes the person.

          Jesus addressed the change that overtakes someone blessed by God in righteousness in the next sequence of blessings.  Jesus said, “7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown 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” (Matthew 5:7-9).  Being merciful, pure in heart, and peacemaker are not only internal to the person, but these qualities are also expressed outwardly toward and with others.

                    Jesus was telling his disciples, if you are right before God and you activate your faith and standing with God, you will be changed. You will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  You will extend mercy.  You will act compassionately toward others who are in extreme need expecting nothing in return from them.  You will act with a pure heart, with pure motives.  With God, you will be free to encourage, help, free others to join in a relationship with God.  You will have a most consequential goal in life of being a peacemaker.  You will be calling people to be at peace with God and with one another.  Goals have consequences and with God, those consequences are blessings of mercy, purity, and peace.

          Jesus confronted his audience like they had never been confronted.  Jesus confronted his disciples and the crowd seated behind the disciples to consider that they could have a personal relationship with God and be blessed by God.  They would be blessed as they emptied themselves, as they were satisfied by the righteousness of God, and as they practiced their faith with mercy, purity, and peace.

          As we said in the beginning, the people were amazed at what Jesus said because he taught as one who had authority.  The authority with which Jesus taught was not found in style of speech he used.  What Matthew was hinting at here was that the people were in awe because they were beginning to experience that Jesus was not just telling his disciples and others how to live, Jesus was telling others about his own nature and thus the nature of God.

The Apostle Paul would later write, “5b Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).  Jesus’ attitude was one of humility and meekness, ready to receive from God, even though he was God.  Jesus sought to be filled and satisfied by God.  Jesus once said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).  Jesus was righteous.  Jesus displayed mercy, purity of motives, and peacemaking as he healed, comforted, and freed all who would ask for God’s grace.  Matthew was hinting here at the end of the sermon that people had an inner feeling of amazement not just in what Jesus said but that Jesus somehow was the embodiment of what he said.  Because of that, the people were confronted to examine the righteousness of their life and to be amazed at Jesus and experience not just the possible but the promised opportunity of something greater and more satisfying in life.  There was the real prospect of imitating Jesus Christ.

Those possibilities and promise are for you and me as well.  God is ready to bless you and satisfy you.  God is read for you to bless you with righteousness and for you to become a blessing of mercy, purity, and peace for others.  But you and I must be willing to be confronted by the blessing of God. We must be empty to receive.  We must be hungry and thirsty for righteousness. We must be willing to bear fruit. 

Jesus has given us much to think about this week.  I would like you to come to church next Sunday so that we can be confronted again and held in awe of Christ.  For whatever we hold in awe, we will imitate.  Amen and Amen.

09-04 - Happy Labor Day

          This is Labor Day weekend.  Labor Day became as a federal holiday starting in 1894 and was intended to be a day of recognizing the contribution of millions of laborers across the United States.  While Labor Day still carries the distinction of celebrating workers, the day has also come to serve some other purposes as well.  Fashion conscious people say today is the last day of the year to wear white and seersucker.  Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer.  And, Labor Day, has been commercialized.  Aside from the Christmas season, Labor Day is the biggest shopping day of the year.

          Sometimes we forget that Jesus was a worker, laborer, a carpenter.  Like every carpenter, Jesus’ hands would have become callused and rough from working with wood and stone.  Jesus would have had cuts on his hands from splinters, jagged edged materials, and from tools.  Jesus created things such as places to live, furniture upon which to sit, or tools to accomplish other tasks.  These skills, Jesus learned from his earthly father, Joseph, who was also a carpenter. Jesus labored alongside Joseph and would have come home at night tired and worn from the day’s work.

          In Jesus’ day, there were no paid holidays, personal days, sick days, or vacation days.  Daily work was needed for daily subsistence.  The only exception, of course, was that Jews did not work on the Sabbath.  Jesus understood and participated in the labor markets until he had reached the age of about 30 years old.  We know this from the Gospel of Luke which says, “23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry” (Luke 3:23). Thirty was age that Jewish men were considered spiritually and morally mature enough to become rabbis and to teach.

          Very early in his ministry, from his transition from laborer to rabbi, Jesus returned to Nazareth where he had been raised.  While in Nazareth, “16b And on the Sabbath day he [Jesus] went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  He [Jesus] stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he [Jesus] found the place where it is written:  18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  20 Then he [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He [Jesus] began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:16b-21).

          Jesus had shared with his hometown friends and extended family that he had laid down the tools of his earthly father Joseph and instead his labors from that moment forward were to be done as the Messiah of God, in obedience to Jesus’ heavenly father.  For generation after generation, the people of Israel prayed that this prophesy, the coming of the Messiah, would be fulfilled.  Jesus’ words were thus a shocking announcement and one that should have been cause for a joyous response.  Jesus said this prophesy was being fulfilled by and through the person of Jesus, and that Jesus was blessing the people of Nazareth to hear the news.

          Luke wrote of the reaction to Jesus’ announcement by the townsfolk.  “22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22).  Luke’s description here sounds like the people were polite and attentive to what Jesus had to say but there is no indication the people have believed Jesus’ words.  In fact, rather than belief in Jesus there was disbelief.  Luke continued, the people said to one another, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ (Luke 4:22b).  The people were saying, “Isn’t this the kid from down the street!  Messiah, indeed!”  The Nazarenes had rejected Jesus and his announcement.

          But Jesus did not need the acceptance of the Nazarenes to be who he was, the Messiah. Jesus acknowledged the reaction of his neighbors observing that, “24 No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).  Then Jesus reminded his neighbors that in the past when the people rejected God, God reached out beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to reveal his purpose.  Jesus was suggested that the Nazarenes’ rejection of him would only lead to the good news, the healing the sick, and the proclaiming freedom to be extended and displayed to the Gentiles.  The labors of God’s Messiah would not be thwarted by unbelief.

          Luke wrote, “28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard [Jesus remind them of Israel’s previous hardhearted response to God] this. 29 They [The people] got up, drove him [Jesus] out of the town, and took him [Jesus] to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him [Jesus] off the cliff. 30 But he [Jesus] walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30).  Jesus’ neighbors moved polite unbelief to a hate filled and murderous rage.  Anyone who dare point out their disobedience to God would be killed.  This is still the way of the world.  Polite unbelief by others today can turn vicious when that unbelief is pointed out as disobedience to God.  Despite the rage of the Nazarenes, they had no power over Jesus.  Instead, Jesus walked through the crowd because no one could take Jesus’ life without Jesus first laying down his life.  The time for Jesus to lay down his life had not yet come. There was still much labor for Jesus to do.

          The labor of Jesus was to proclaim the good news, proclaim freedom, give sight, and set the oppressed free.  Jesus left the Nazareth hillside to continue his labors.

          Jesus next arrived at the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus began proclaiming the word of God and people crowded around him.  So large had the crowd become that Jesus got into the boat of a man named Simon and asked Simon to put out a little from shore. “Then he [Jesus] sat down and taught the people from the boat.  4 When he [Jesus] had finished speaking, he [Jesus] said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’  5 Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets’” (Luke 5:3b-5). In response to obedience to Jesus, Simon and his partners, James and John, and Simon’s brother Andrew caught so many fish that their nets began to break, and their boats began to sink.  The men were shocked and fearful believing that in Jesus the fishermen were in the presence of God’s holiness.    “Jesus then said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.’ 11 So they [Simon, Andrew, James, and John] pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him [Jesus]” (Luke 5:10b-11).

          The contrast between the scene in Nazareth and the scene along the Sea of Galilee could not have been more different.  In the solemness and learnedness of the synagogue Jesus taught the word of God, he proclaimed the good news, and was thoroughly rejected by an entire town, first politely, and then with a seething murderous hatred.  Then, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus taught the word of God, he proclaimed the good news, and four men of hard labor acted in obedience to Jesus and believed they experienced holiness in the presence of Jesus. So committed were these four men to what Jesus stood for that the men willingly gave up their livelihood to follow Jesus.  Jesus was rejected by many who were driven by hatred and anger and followed by few who saw in Jesus’ a holiness that breaks the power of hatred, anger, and gnashing of teeth.  This contrast tells us that the labor of Christ is hard work, rejected by many and accepted by few.

          Jesus would say, “13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13).  The many in Nazareth rejected Jesus.  The few along the shore of Galilee found it.

          Jesus and the four fishermen then left the shores of Galilee and entered one of the local towns. “12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he [the leper] saw Jesus, he [the leper] fell with his face to the ground and begged him [Jesus], ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean’” (Luke 4:12).  Luke offered no explanation for the leper’s behavior toward Jesus in expressing his faith in Jesus to heal the leprosy.  Somehow the leper must have seen, heard, or experienced something of the holiness of Jesus and saw the holiness of Jesus as able to break through the leprosy and societal chains that had banished this man from the community.

          In response to this leper’s belief in Jesus, “13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man [the leper]. ‘I am willing,’ he [Jesus] said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him [the man]” (Luke 5:13). Jesus, God’s Messiah, was laboring in his mission of freeing the prisoners, not in some massive sweeping action over all the lands of Israel but intimately, but by one person at a time. Jesus was personally freeing each man or woman from their unique set of shackles.

          A bit later, Jesus was teaching, proclaiming the good news.  The religiously gifted people of Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting among the crowd listening to Jesus. People from all over the region were bringing their sick to be healed by Jesus.  “18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.  20 When Jesus saw their [the men carrying the paralyzed man] faith, he said [to the paralyzed man], ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’ 21 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, ‘Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Luke 5:18-21).  Anger, bitterness, bigotry, and envy were rising into the throats of the religious men. The politeness of these men to listen to Jesus was being replaced with that Nazarene spirit.  “The very idea.  Forgive sins?  Who does this man think he is?” the religious leaders thought.  The rage was growing within them and that rage was blinding them from seeing the holiness of Jesus.

          “22 Jesus knew what they [religious men] were thinking and asked, ‘Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he [Jesus] said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ home.” 25 Immediately he [the man who had been paralyzed] stood up in front of them [Jesus and the religious men], took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (Luke 5:22-25).

          The labor of God’s Messiah would not be thwarted by blindness, prejudices, envy, and bitterness of anyone, including the religious people of the day.  The labor of God’s Messiah was being offered to free the oppressed and Jesus did that for this paralyzed man in two ways.  First, in response to an expression of faith and to demonstrate the holiness of God, Jesus forgave the paralyzed man’s sins giving him the freedom of salvation.  This was the greatest blessing Jesus could have given this man.  Second, to demonstrate the authority to free the oppressed and to display the holiness of God, Jesus healed the man of his paralysis.

          The pattern of Jesus’ ministry would continue for another three years.  Proclaiming the good news, freeing the prisoners, giving sight to the blind, forgiving sins, and freeing the oppressed.  A few people followed Jesus while many others seethed in anger, jealousy, and hatred conspiring to find the right time to kill Jesus.  Attempts were made to take Jesus’ life, but none were successful until Jesus chose to lay down his life in obedience to God.

          As God’s Messiah’s work was coming to an end, Jesus had one more labor of love to perform.  Jesus would go to the cross for the sins of all humanity.  Jesus was creating an intimate and personal connection on the cross with everyone who would come to believe in him, including you and me. 

Jesus had you and me personally in mind when he went to the cross because he took your sin and my sin upon himself when he went to the cross. Because Jesus labored to take our sins, we are forgiven and released from the bondage of sin.  By faith in Jesus and his labor of love upon the cross, we are freed from our own religious and spiritual leprosy and paralysis.

Jesus would say, “28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29 NKJV). Jesus ended the need for us to labor in the hopes of being good enough to please God.  We are not on our own, but we are made right with God through Jesus.  Thank you Jesus.  Amen and Amen.