Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Problem with Passion - Matthew 5: 26-30

In six statements in Matthew 5, Jesus challenges the morality of his time in favor of a life of surrender to God. These challenges are about big issues—violence, sex, relationships, truthfulness, submission, and vengeance. These statements provoke deep feelings, but  to live God’s way we must rise above feelings and follow what is right.

Rising above our feelings is going to make us unhappy. Self-control isn’t fun! But self-control is freedom. The greatest tyrant you will ever overcome are your own appetites. Is an addict free? An addict is a prisoner of his or her own desires. Only when we learn to overcome our desires can we be really free.

What do you really want out of life? Would you like to be able to run a hundred-yard dash? Would you like to be thin again?  Would you like a college degree? Without self-discipline, these are just idle dreams. Our inability to say “no” to our temporary appetites keeps us from being what we want.  Without discipline, we aren’t free to be better. 
To enter the kingdom of God, we must surrender ourselves to God. But we can’t surrender what we do not own. Without saying “no” to our appetites, we cannot say “yes” to God.

Paul says in Romans 12:1, “I beseech you brethren by the mercies of God that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God.”  We can’t give our bodies to God if we don’t own them. Otherwise, our “living sacrifice” just keeps crawling off the altar!  Unless we learn to resist our urges we surrender to the kingdom of flesh, not the kingdom of God. 
In this passage, Jesus talks about one of the hardest appetites to master —sexuality. Since the 1960’s, the Sexual Revolution has dominated our culture when it comes to the way we view sex. This revolution can be summarized in three statements that most of our culture believes without question:

1.  Sex is an irresistible urge
2.  Sexual behavior is dictated by nature, not choice.
3.  Sexuality is amoral, since it cannot be helped.  

These three ideas have been around forever, but they have been affirmed and amplified through the persistent and one-sided voices of the media and entertainment and society at large. Most people growing, Christian or not, believe them today, and even accept them as “common sense.” They cannot imagine how anyone could not believe them.
The effect of this has been devastating to us. The vast majority of young people today have sex before marriage. The divorce rate among first time married people is around 40 to 50 percent. It is much higher for those who have been married before. Pornography, with its objectification and exploitation of, is the most popular side of the internet, and has a huge hidden effect on modern opinions.

It’s a huge problem for the church. The children of the church are being forced to choose between “common sense” of our day and the teachings of the church. Most choose the culture over God. Ultimately, they abandon the church and religion.

It’s also a huge problems for individuals. Most of the cases of poverty that don’t involve drugs or mental illness come from unwanted pregnancies with deadbeat dads. Many strong, brave women find themselves raising children fathered by men who accept no responsibility for the results of their sexual behavior. Forty-one percent of all children in the US are born out of wedlock. I am convinced that if the world practiced Biblical chastity, poverty in America would decrease by at least sixty percent.

 “So you have heard” Jesus would say, “But I say to you” something entirely different.
The teaching of Jesus on sex goes like this:

1.  Sex is a good and powerful urge, but a irresistible one, beginning in the mind and ending in the body
2. Sexual behavior is a matter of choice.
3.  Sexuality is a key to learning self-control in all areas of life, inside and outside of relationships., and is of great importance. 

The Sexual Revolution was right about one thing—sex is a powerful, universal urge in almost all of us. Anyone over twelve or thirteen knows this. It is a God-given appetite, meant as a way to express affection and procreate the species. 

Without sexual appetites, none of us would be here! Not only is it powerful, it is also good. Sex is a gift, not a burden.
In this, it is no different from any other appetite inside of us—food, intellectual stimulation, the desire for other people. 

But just like any other appetites, it must be governed, and it can be governed. Sex may be powerful, but it doesn’t have to be our god. Generations of faithful Catholic priests, nuns and monks have shown us that it is possible to have happy, fulfilling lives without sex.  Most generations of our ancestors found it possible to live without sex until marriage. For thousands of years, people have known that we have a choice in sexual behavior. And even though there have always been people who were promiscuous. It’s mostly our modern culture that fails to recognize the possibility and the value of sexual self-control. 

But the sexual urge was no less powerful to the ancients as it is today. But unlike us, they didn’t teach that is was irresistible.

One way the ancients tried to deal with was to restrict sexual behavior but ignore sexual temptation (we do the same thing, by the way).  Keep it in the mind, but not in the body.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did this with a literal reading of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Ignoring whatever else the Bible said about not having any other rulers but God, and the many places where the Bible condemned looking at other women, they focused on this one restriction. As long as you didn’t actually commit the act with someone else while you were actually married, or with someone who was also married, then there were no restrictions. Prostitutes and concubines were really not adultery to them, as long as you owned them. This was a gross exploitation of women’s bodies, but as long as they didn’t do it with someone else’s wife, it was ok to them. They were constantly finding ways around the narrow confines of monogamy. 

But sex is about the heart, not just the body. The heart follows the body, and the body follows the heart. Sexual behavior originates inside our minds. If we don’t find a way to control our minds, then our bodies will follow into adultery. If you spend your time ogling other women, you are committing mental adultery.  

This isn’t really about sex, though. It’s about obedience to God. The same thing can be said for all the appetites that would control us. If we let our minds fantasize about things, our fantasies will control us. We may have been taught to avoid pornography and Playboy, but we feast on fantasies of food, and see nothing wrong with a Dunkin Donuts commercial, which stimulates our appetite for unhealthy food, or in the Lexus commercials which stimulate our greed. If Jesus were speaking these words today, I think he would say whoever looks on material goods or gluttonous food with lust in his or her heart also commits spiritual adultery from God.   

 “Lust” is an interesting word in Greek.  It’s epithumia. Thumia is a feeling or passion. The English word“enthusiasm” comes from it. Epi means an overwhelming uncontrollable passion. Any uncontrollable passion or desire is lust, whether it be for food, money or women. Thumias are usually for good things. Sexual desire is why we get married and start families. But when we recon our thumias to be epithumias, then they control us. Keeping thumias from becoming epithumias is what self-control is all about. Thumias drives us to do what God wants.  Epithumias drive us away from God.

God wants our ultimate passion to be for Him.  The promotion of passion for Him in our minds is a decision we make. We can stimulate a passion for God or we can stimulate a passion for sex. We deny our passion for sex, food, and money when we refuse to fantasize them. The passion is there, but we refuse to dwell on it. Luther said that we can’t keep birds from flying overhead, but we can keep them from nesting in our hair. We can’t keep thoughts out of mind, but we do have a choice whether or not to dwell on them. We can say to ourselves that sexual thoughts are good, but just not now. We save them for the proper time within marriage, at the proper time and place.

If you don’t want your thumias to become epithumias, don’t feed them. You control what your mind dwells upon. The choice of thoughts are up to you.  

To keep our passions in their place, God encourages spiritual exercises to develop self-control. The practice of chastity—sexual restraint-- prevents us from being mastered by sexual desire. The practice of fasting prevents our being mastered by food. Sabbaths prevent our mastery by work. Tithing prevents our mastery by greed. The goal of these disciplines is to put God first in every area of our life. 

How important is this?  Jesus tells us in verses 29-30. 

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Jesus doesn’t really want us to mutilate ourselves. He is demonstrating the comparative value of God over everything else. It’s better to lose a body part than offend God. If you have to give up satisfying your sexual appetite or your favorite food to keep pure—then do it. It’s a good trade.

Jesus really doesn’t want us to maim ourselves. What He wants is for us to come to Him and seek his help in resisting sin. Losing a body part won’t help us be more holy, but seeking His help will bring us success. Jesus has the power to help us put our appetites in proper balance.

Cutting off your hand to get self-control just doesn’t really work. If our hearts aren’t changed, we won’t change. Until we change our ways, our lives will not improve. 

The power of the Gospel is that God can change our hearts so that we can master our bodies and our thoughts. When Christ comes into our lives He gives us the power to resist temptation. Don’t believe the lies of the world that says we must give in to lust. We will never be free or our desires, but we can be free enough to say “no” by the power of Christ.   

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Problem With Anger Matthew 5: 21-28

In our study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we have entered the section which is called the “Six antitheses.”  This is the part where Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say.” These six statements are meant to shock his listeners into seeing the huge difference between the way the rest of the world lives and people who live within His kingdom. What He is giving us here are six straight shots of pure Kingdom, without any watering down or compromise. They aren’t laws, but examples of what a society looks like where people are living fully under the leadership of God. 

Let’s get something straight—kingdom living isn’t the way you’ve seen church done in the past, nor is it what people call “moral” living. It isn’t being polite or civil. It’s not being a good person the way you learned it on your mother’s knee. It isn’t being a good American, Southerner, or Presbyterian. It’s being the way God wants us to be. Jesus’ community of birth was soaked in teaching about “good” morality, and Jesus makes it clear that all human morality is a compromise with immorality. Its sugar-coated godliness, designed to be livable and palatable to people who really don’t want to live in the kingdom of God. But here, Jesus gives it to them straight. 

God’s kingdom is wherever God rules. The Kingdom of God is the community of people who put God first in all things, who’s ultimate concern is God and only God. When we get together and all seek to imitate Jesus, we are living in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus uses six examples of what’s different between the way the world does things and the way the Kingdom of God does things. The first example is how we handle anger. 

We make two mistakes regarding anger. The first is that we try to deny it exists. 

We’ve all seen the results of uncontrolled anger—protests, name-calling, war, riots, physical and emotional abuse. Anger has often been called contagious, and so it is. Anger can become like lust or anxiety—it can grow to be a problem in itself. But thinking anger is the cause of all our problems is like thinking that rising steam is why a pressure cooker explodes. Without the heat, there would be no steam. Without a cause, there would be no anger. If you don’t vent the steam, then the pot can blow. If you deny your anger exists, and you think there is something wrong with venting it, then you can explode, too. When public expressions of anger are never allowed, we just create more and deadlier forms of frustration. We create impossible situations where victims are condemned for not being “Christian” enough to take abuse. The Jesus who chased the moneychangers out of the temple is the same Jesus who people quote when they say we shouldn’t be angry.  

Anger isn’t necessarily bad. We know this because God gets angry. Look at Nahum 1: 2,”The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” Look at Romans 1: 18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

I once did a Bible study on the anger of Jesus.  He sounds angry on every page of the Gospel. In fact, even in this passage where Jesus is condemning anger, He sounds angry! How can we say that Jesus does not want us to be anger, if He Himself was angry? To condemn all anger is to make Jesus a sinner.

But even so, Jesus condemns abusive anger.  This is anger that makes things worse, not better.
Jesus points out three kinds of anger in verse.

1.  The first is misplaced anger. “Whoever is angry with his brother is liable to judgment.”  Misplaced anger is being angry about something at the wrong person or about the wrong things. Some versions read, “Angry without cause,” but this is not what the best manuscripts say. The word here means “to get worked up over something.” It isn’t just feeling anger, but it’s letting that anger become divorced from the behavior or object you are angry about. Good anger is always directed at some behavior or condition that needs fixing. Misdirected anger is directed to a whole person. Good anger, like good fear, causes us to take some action that will be of ultimate and mutual benefit to ourselves and others. Bad anger, or wrath, is destructive to ourselves and to others.

Suppose I get angry at something in my work. I can’t say anything about it at work for fear of losing my job, so it stays inside, like a ball of fire in my gut.  I come home, yell at the kids, snarl at my wife, and kick the dog. This isn’t anger now, its wrath. Innocent people get caught in the explosion. 

Wrath is misplaced anger. But we can have wrath even towards people with whom we are justifiably angry. If someone accidently steps on my foot, I might flare up and say, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” That might be justified. If I lost control and hit them in the mouth or shot them, then that would be a disproportionate response.

Wrath is what happens when we treat anger as something divorced from the situation. We seek to destroy the person, not rectify the wrong. True Christian anger seeks peace, not war; it wants change in behavior not elimination of enemies. Christians want to save their enemies not kill them.  Wrath makes permanent enemies, who must be eliminated. Anger seeks real reconciliation.

2.  Second, there is abusive anger. “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council.”  Abuse is a major problem in our world, especially towards women and children. Some estimates estimate that the rate of abuse of women and children sexually and physically may be one in three. Most of us were bullied in elementary school and high school, and many employees are bullied on the job.

Abuse is a failure to recognize that the people we are hurting are actually good people. It is what happens when innocent people are treated as inanimate objects of wrath, because they provide an outlet for our anger. People are just outlets for anger.

Abuse takes many forms. There is physical abuse, mental abuse, and spiritual abuse. Physical abuse is beating, threatening, and pushing. Mental abuse are mind games, insulting. Spiritual abuse is where we confuse other people with the Devil, and act as if it is our duty before God to make them miserable, or to control them. 

Abuse is done by all sides. People in the kingdom don’t agree on every issue, but we must be united in the way we treat violence, name-calling, bullying, and all forms of abuse.

3. Third, there is distain. As bad as anger is, there is something worse, and that is distain. Jesus says, “Whoever calls his brother ‘moron’ is in danger of the fires or hell.” Distain isn’t an emotion. It’s a way of looking at others as unimportant and unnecessary. A moron is a mental person who doesn’t deserve to be heard—a subhuman. It’s regarding the feelings opinions and actions of others as unworthy of our attention. 

Disdainful people are not usually angry. They don’t think badly of others—they just don’t think of them at all. People who get angry at you are at least showing you some attention. Disdainful people regard others as beneath their attention. 

Distain often happens by accident. We are so busy following our own plans that we fail to see those who are left out. 
Several years ago my sister was in a traffic accident--almost killed. A man in an SUV ran a stop sign and smashed into her car. He was probably not a bad person. He was in a hurry and was talking on his cell phone at the time. He never wanted to harm my sister. In his self-absorbed state, he disregarded all other cars that were on the road. He wasn’t paying attention to others.

We all do it, and we do it constantly. We need to ask God for the presence of mind to see other people.
Disdain causes anger in those we ignore. The only cure for this is to recognize the thoughts, feelings and humanity of those with whom we may disagree.

In the second part of this passage, Jesus shows us how to deal with anger. 

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and then remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

First, be reconciled. Jesus doesn’t tell us to wait until our brother comes to us. If you think you have done something that has offended someone, go to them. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Don’t even ask the question whether they were justified in being offended. Just go and be reconciled. Don’t say, “I have done nothing to apologize for.” Jesus said nothing about apology here. He says be reconciled.  Agree to disagree. Our love for one another is more important than the differences that hold us apart. 

Some things are more important than being right and wrong. There are more important issues than money, more important than pride, more important than theological differences, and that is love in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Kingdom of God is not made up of people who are in perfect harmony or agreement. It’s made up of people with strong opinions who sometimes get angry. But they are people who regard the Love of Christ to be more important than our differences.  We love Jesus, so we love each other, and we can’t stand to be out of each other’s fellowship.
What is it like to be in a family? Families are places where we sometime argue, get on each other’s nerves, have differences of opinion and sometimes even yell at each other!  But families come back together, because the thought of being apart hurts worse than the thought of separation. 

The body of Christ is the same. We don’t always agree, we aren’t always perfect, we do have all kinds of personality quirks and irritating habits. But in the end we would rather be together than to be separate. We love each other, because we love Jesus more. In the end, Jesus is what matters.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Feeling Easter - Romans 6: 1-5

Easter is the most important day on the Christian calendar. It’s celebrated more than Christmas. But in our time Easter has become as much a secular holiday as a Christian one. We see bunnies, eggs, and flowers everywhere we look, which have nothing to do with Jesus’ resurrection. Only in church on Easter morning do we encounter the central mystery of the Resurrection. 

What can I say about Easter that you don’t already know? You’ve known about the cross, the grave and the empty tomb since you were a child in Bible school. There’s probably not a person alive in our town who could not tell the story of Easter, whether they believe it or not. Yet for many even in our churches the story is so old that it doesn’t seem to reach our hearts. We know the facts, they just don’t make us thrill any more.   

 Faith comes at us through three channels--our understanding, our actions, and our feelings. We know the story in our heads, we celebrate it by going to church, but the feelings are not there like they used to be. It’s like an old married couple—the love is still there, but the thrill is gone. After two thousand years, Christians still believe. But our hearts are sometimes cold to the message of Easter. It’s like watching movie we’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s still a good movie, but it just holds no surprises. We don’t follow it when we hear it.

For many believers, though the thrill has gone out of holy week. We no longer tremble at the sight of the crucifixion, nor do we deeply rejoice at the empty tomb.

Why did we lose our joy at the story of the Resurrection?  For the same reasons we don’t feel Easter Sunday, there are people here who are struggling with the aftermath of death, divorce, and discouragement. You’ve been through the wringer this year, and now you are just too tired to experience the thrill of Easter. We get to the place where there is no more energy left to celebrate Easter or anything else for that matter.

So our problem today is this--how we renew our wonder at the cross and the empty tomb? How do we reclaim that joy we once had at Easter?

It seems to me that there are two ways. One way is to let it take a trip back into the past. If we had a gifted storyteller, they could tell a story in a way that might get our attention again. Maybe they could throw in some fresh details, or tell it in some unique way. They could paint word pictures that would transport us in time back to that ancient day to relive these great events one more time. But I’m not an actor or master storyteller. I could never tell the story well enough to do it justice.

The other way of doing it is to try to relate the story to lives in the present. Maybe if we can think about how their feelings relate to ours, then we can recapture the feeling of Easter.   

Sometimes, I meet people who have given up on God, because of some personal tragedy. They will say, “I thought God was supposed to be good, but look what He let happen to me (or my friend). How could a good God let this happen? ” A sudden death, divorce or life collapse caused an emotional reaction that caused them to question even the existence of God.

When someone asks this, I want to answer--did you just think of that? How about when World War II happened? How about the holocaust? How about the black plague? They knew about these things, but there were not real to them. When tragedy hits near to home, we feel it and we are moved. We feel the suffering of the world only when it happens close to home.

The same is true of the resurrection. We don’t feel Easter, because we don’t see Easter as something that is happening to us. We think of it as far away in a different time and a different country.  But things happen close to us that provoke the same emotions.    

 For example, there was a man I knew years ago who was engaged to a woman. A few days before their wedding, she was  killed in a car crash with a drunk driver.

Imagine the emotional roller coaster that man endured. She was the love of his life. She had agreed to marry him. She was going to make his life happy.  Then in an instant, she was taken away. Maybe you or someone close to you have experienced something similar.  

Now imagine the disciples on Good Friday. They had all found Jesus—actually Jesus found them. Everything they had seen, heard and experienced for the last three years told them that He was their Messiah king. For three years they followed Him, waiting for the day that He would be crowned as king in Jerusalem. They imagined themselves as ruling with Him, being part of His cabinet of advisors. In three short years, they had come to believe in a fantastic future for themselves. They were going to be the King’s cabinet of advisors. More than that, they had come to love the man Jesus. His leadership and love was everything to them. They were loyal to him to the death, or at least they thought they were.

But now on Good Friday Jesus had just died a horrible, public death as a criminal. They themselves were hunted men. They had gone from the top of the world to the bottom.

It wasn’t just the pain of losing a loved one, though. It was much, much more. They had lost their futures. They had lost their personal self-esteem. They had believed in Jesus and they had been proven fools. More than that they had lost their God. Not only were their hearts shattered, but their faith was shattered as well.

 When we experience loss, our faith helps us through. But if our faith is shattered, what can help us then? Jesus was their all in all. How could they ever recover from this loss.

Now let’s go back to the man who lost his fiancĂ© in a car accident. What would it be like if, about three days later, his fiancĂ© returned to him, well, whole and happy? What if right in the middle of the funeral preparations, she suddenly rose from the dead?

That’s Easter. Easter is the sudden revival of all our dead hopes and dreams. It is the beginning of a new life which we never thought possible.   

Easter is a historical event that includes us. We are included in this event in a way that isn’t true for any other event in human history. Paul says it well in Romans 6. We are buried with Christ in his death. Our sinful nature and old habits are put to death on the cross. Our sins are buried in His burial. Our baptism symbolizes that. In the resurrection, we ourselves are resurrected. Easter symbolizes that.

Easter isn’t just a calendar date but a current reality.  It is a real today, because death is a real today. Death is still with us, and so is sin, addiction, disappointment, depression, anxiety, fear, and the Devil. They are still around, and they still drag us down into physical and spiritual death—as dead as Jesus on Good Friday.

Have you ever watched a loved one die? Have you ever walked beside a person struggling to break free of a crippling addiction? Have you ever felt that your life was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing you could do about it? If you have, then you have felt Good Friday. The death of Jesus was the utter destruction of hope. 

It’s a terrible thing to lose all hope, yet many people have lost all. Some lose hope, because of things that happen to them through no fault of their own. Others lose hope, because of things they have done to themselves. Jesus died through no fault of their own.

In the story of Easter, there are two people who lost hope, because of the things they had done. These two people were Peter and Judas. Judas, when he realized that he had betrayed the Lord committed suicide. Many who lose hope still commit suicide, either quickly with pills or a bullet, or slowly with drugs, alcohol or overeating. It is a realization of their self-made spiritual death without a hope of forgiveness or resurrection. Judas gave up hope and didn’t live to see Easter.

But Peter denied Jesus and gave up hope, too, but unlike Judas, Peter saw Easter. What a difference! If Good Friday is the taking away of hope, then Easter Sunday is its return. Sin is real, death is real, and our depression is also real. But Easter is coming, and that makes all the difference. The irreversible has been reversed. The irreconcilable has been reconciled. God can take us wherever we are and bring us new life.

Suppose you woke up tomorrow, and you were suddenly twenty-two years old again! All the irresistible effects of aging, had suddenly been reversed and you had a whole new life ahead of you.  What a joy it would be to know that you had your entire life ahead of you! 

That’s the effects of Easter on the world. The reversal of time, the reversal of aging, and the reversal of death itself! After death we can come back. If that is true for death, then it is also true for all lesser things like addiction, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, homelessness, failure and despair! There’s nothing on hell, or on earth that cannot be reversed by the power of Christ and His resurrection. His death restores everything.

If we look at the rest of Jesus’ life, see that Easter is not just a one-time miracle, but the continual repetition of a theme. Look at the story of the paralyzed man lowered down through the roof to Jesus’ presence. His legs were dead, but they were made alive. Look at the story of Mary Magdalene, a prostitute and demon possessed woman. Her soul was dead, but it was made alive. Look at the Gadarene demoniac, Jairus’ daughter, the centurion’ servant, blind Bartimaus, little Zacchaeus, Lazarus, and so many others. Each one was dead in their own way. Yet in Jesus they were made alive. Each of the miracles of the Bible was a foreshadowing of God’s power shown in perfection in Christ’s own resurrection.  

The story of Christ’s resurrection is really the story of our resurrection. No matter who we are and what we have been through this year, we can look back and know that Hope is just around the corner.

In your life it may be Good Friday, but remember this—Easter is coming. Easter has come, and because of that, we will all be resurrected into new life, new joy, and a new hope.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why Palm Sunday? Luke 19: 12-19

Why Palm Sunday so important to us?  To understand,  we have to go back to a familiar theme running through the whole New Testament—the Kingdom of God.

The phrase “Kingdom of God” is used 62 times in the New Testament, mostly in the Gospels and Acts. While the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven,” which is a euphemism for the same thing, is used 31 times. Before Christmas, the phrase “The Kingdom of God” isn’t used at all. In Matthew 3:2 and 4:17 and in Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand” or is just about to dawn. 

So, what is the kingdom of God? It’s wherever God rules, where He has authority. 

A kingdom is a whole country, a culture, and a way of life. In a kingdom, a king had absolute power.  If you had a good king and wise king, like Solomon or David, you had a peaceful country full of happy people. lf you had a bad king, like Nero or Caligula, then the country was cursed and you had chaos. In a kingdom, everything depended on who was king. 
In the kingdom of God, God reigns supreme, bringing peace and prosperity. But unlike earthly kings, He doesn’t impose His will upon us. Instead, He becomes our king by asking for our voluntary submission. We choose to be part of the Kingdom.  He gives us the choice to voluntarily submit to Him, so that we can honestly love Him. His Lordship in our lives is not by conquest but by invitation.

When we join the Kingdom of God, we join a group of people who have already submitted to Him.  They become our primary family then, and our primary home group. This community becomes our new culture, and along with it a new way of life.  Joining the Kingdom is to adopt the lifestyle of a new community where Jesus is Lord and King of us all.
Earthly kings impose their will upon the people by force or politics. Alexander the Great, for example became lord over Israel in 325 BC by defeating the armies of Israel. Pompey the Great became lord over the same people in 60 BC by taking sides in a local civil war. He came in on the pretense of making peace, but when he got there, he annexed Israel into the Roman Empire. That was how kings took charge in their day and in ours.

Jesus is king, but he neither uses politics or warfare. He does it through invitation and love. He could have taken over by force, but he chose not to do it. On the Mountain of Temptation, the Devil suggested a quick do quickly, by taking over or by some great public display of power. Jesus always had the ability to call down angels and fire on His enemies. That’s what earthly kings would do! But that was not Jesus’ way. He didn’t want slaves—He wanted friends. He sought to rule the world by peace, not war.

Muslims have a belief called Jihad—holy war.  Though most Muslims think of this as friendly persuasion, they have the example of Mohammed, who rode into Mecca as a military general, and forced the submission of its people. Even today, Muslim groups are bent on world conquest by force, if necessary. But the whole idea of this is antithetical to Jesus. A kingdom of peace cannot begin in warfare. All efforts through the ages by Christians to use Jesus as an excuse for military or political conquest are doomed to fail, because if we win it by force, it won’t be the Kingdom. Jesus demands people’s hearts, not mere obedience. 

So Jesus went around, preaching the Kingdom of God and demonstrating its benefits. He told people what it would be like to live in the Kingdom.  It’s a place where people love their neighbors as themselves. It is to live in a state where you don’t have to need anything from anybody, because your Heavenly Father provides everything. In the Kingdom, you don’t have to worry, because God supplies all your needs. It is a place where the people imitate Jesus. It’s like having a Jesus on every corner, and although these little Jesuses are not perfect copies, they are getting better at it all the time. In the Kingdom, God is not your enemy, He is your friend and all of His creation is on your side as well. It’s a place where the rich serve the poor, where the strong serve the weak, where enemies learn to love each other. It’s a place where God Himself can heal our diseases and even raise the dead!

But the door to all this is to accept His rule over us. We must choose to enter the Kingdom.

For three years, Jesus traveled through Palestine, making the case for the Kingdom of God to the Jews of His day. But they still didn’t understand. Sure, they thought He was a good teacher, and that He did great miracles, but they didn’t get the idea of submitting to the Kingdom.  They saw Jesus as just one more teacher, telling people how to be righteous. They kept waiting for him to become another Alexander the Great or Pompey the Great. When was He going to organize an army?  They thought of Him as a teacher, but not as a king.

Jesus understood this. In order to see Him as king, they needed a symbolic act that helped them understand that He wasn’t just coming to be a teacher. He was coming to rule. 

So Jesus did something they could understand.  Jesus held a parade.

When we think about a parade today, we think of a community event usually held on the Fourth of July or Christmas. But in Jesus’ day, parades were much more common and significant. The pagans didn’t go to the temple for weekly worship—worship came to them in the form of parades. Priests took the temple idols up and down the streets, accompanied by music and dancers. They threw out gifts of bread and money to the people, like people throw out candy from parades today. In return, the bystanders threw flowers at their gods, and put palm branches on the road as offerings. This was supposed to bring them good luck, and the favor of the Gods. This was how the pagan gods were worshipped.

Kings and generals had similar parades.  Romans called them triumphs. It started outside the gates when all the local dignitaries went out to meet the conquering hero. Then accompanied the king through the gates. You knew this guy was important when everyone important was riding with him! The conquering king was treated like a god.

What the king rode coming into town made a big difference. If the king rode a horse or a chariot, he was coming in power. Horses were war animals. If a king rode in on a horse, it meant he was ready to fight.

But if the king wanted to convey a message of peace, he rode a mule or a donkey. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Marcus Aurelius all normally rode donkeys when they were not preparing for war. If a king rode a donkey, he was coming in peace.

When Jesus came into town on Palm Sunday, He rode a donkey. The people of Israel understood the symbolism. They responded by seeing him as a conquering hero, and responded as anyone of their day would do. 

What was He doing?  He was making an invitation, similar to the invitations that secular kings made in every city they entered. He was offering to them a chance to join Him in the Kingdom.

In any parade, there are always two crowds, not one. The first crowd is the people in the parade—the marching bands, baton twirlers, and the people on the floats. They come behind the Grand Marshal, who is the leader. The other crowd are the bystanders, who sit in lawn chairs watching, and being showered with presents. All they do is cheer and eat cotton candy.  In Jesus’ day, they received money and put down palm branches. When Jesus rode into town, they shouted “Hosannah” which means “Lord save us!” 

Jesus’ triumphal entry automatically divided Israel into two crowds. One crowd was just there, cheering him on and asking for handouts, and his followers, who were walking behind him.

Don’t be fooled by the shouting crowds. They were not there to follow Jesus, but to get something out of Jesus. They would have responded in the same way to any conquering hero, or maybe even to a pagan idol. The average person is always this way.  They will join any crowd, praise any demagogue who offers them a free meal.  Then, the next day, they will praise his enemy just as enthusiastically.  

Do you know that you can make an idol out of Jesus? You can praise the Lord but not obey Him. Modern Christmas and Easter are good examples. The stores are full of eggs and bunnies. You can even see empty crosses everywhere. But it means nothing, unless we are willing to follow. The world praises, but won’t join the Kingdom. On Palm Sunday they laid down their coats and palm branches, but they did not know Him. This crowd was not the crowd that counted.

The other crowd was much more important. They were the ones who walked behind Jesus—the disciples and the early followers. They were like the dignitaries at a Roman triumph who by walking with the king were pledging their allegiance to Him. They made the effort to get behind Him and followed where He went. 

It’s good to worship Jesus in church and on Easter. It’s good, but it’s not enough. We have follow Him as well.
Which crowd are you in? Jesus offers us a place in the Kingdom, but it is only for those who will go where He goes.
Imagine a parade where those in the back don’t know where it is going. Only the grand marshal knows. Those early disciple had no idea that their following Jesus would lead them to their individual crosses. But they were willing to go anyway.

The Kingdom of God is for those who follow Him. Anyone can follow but no one can experience it without following. We can’t just wait and watch, and expect to reap the benefits. We can’t be a spectator,  we have to participate to know the joy of life with Jesus. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Law and the Prophets - Matthew 5: 17-20

The Pharisees have a bad reputation that is mostly undeserved. Their name has become a synonym for hypocrite and legalist. The Pharisees only wanted to please God in everything they did. A Pharisee was “a separated one,” as do words such as “Puritan’ or “Fundamentalist” mean—two other words with bad reputations.  Like the Pharisees, they just wanted to please God above everything.

The Pharisees believed that the way to please God was by keeping His Laws. They took law-keeping farther than most, though. For example, some of them believed you shouldn’t walk more than a sixth of a mile from home on the Sabbath. Others believed that walking with a pebble in your shoe on the Sabbath was sinful, since you were carrying a burden. One Pharisee writer wrote satirically that there were seven kinds of Pharisees, including the “shoulder” Pharisees, who wore their good deeds on their shoulders, the “score-keeping” Pharisee who kept a record of everyone’s sins, and the “bloody-headed Pharisees” who had scars on the foreheads from running into walls while avoiding looking at women. The lengths that some of them went to keep the Law were amazing!

The same is true of Christians today who have the same way of thinking as the Pharisees. Some Christians will not enter movie theaters, play cards, dance, makeup, or wear beards, for fear of offending God. As a boy, I remember old people who would not drink Coke because the bottles reminded them of beer bottles. We’ve all heard of the Amish, who refuse to use modern appliances. And let’s not even talk about what the castrati of Russia did to stay pure!

Pharisees were the largest Jewish group in Jesus’ day, so he was always interacting with them. Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus dealt with issues regarding these Pharisees. Jesus had to explain His position to them. If He agreed with them, the crowd would reject Him, because they didn’t trust the Pharisees. But He couldn’t just reject them either because they were actually right about the importance of the Bible, even if they were wrong about how they applied it.

So Jesus started with agreeing with them.  “Don’t think I have come to destroy the Bible,” He said. “I came to fulfill it. The Word of God is important. Not one dot of an I or line of a T will disappear until it is all fulfilled.” The Pharisees were right about the Bible. It is infallible, inerrant, and important. But then he said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

How would Jesus say it today? Think of the strictest, most devout and most restricted religious devotee you know, and insert them here in place of Pharisees. “Unless you out-Puritan the Puritans”,  “Unless you are more God-honoring than a Trappist monk”,  “Unless you are more devout than the Amish”---that is exactly what Jesus is saying.

The problem with the Pharisees and with those like them is not that they’re too righteous, but that they aren’t righteous enough. They try to be righteous, but they miss the point. They have confused obedience with inner change. They go through the motions, but don’t know why they do it.  They have  made a virtue out of ignorance, telling others not to ask questions, but to blindly follow their interpretations.

I have heard many sermons on morality and obedience, the evils of alcohol, homosexuality, pornography, or abortion. These are vital, important issues and we must speak out against them. But most of the sermons I have heard on these subject could have just as easily been preached by a Pharisee, a Muslim, or even a moral unbeliever. Is it really a Christian sermon if there is nothing of Christ in it, but only a lecture on human behavior?  Without real devotion, there is no life in the Spirit.  The Pharisees missed the point--not because they were bad people, but because they never understood God themselves. 

Imagine thinking Moby Dick was just about catching whales! Imagine thinking Hamlet was just about some Old Danish king! It’s not just what the Bible says on the surface, but the truth underlying the Word—the rightful place of God in our lives. The Pharisees read the Bible as a rule book and missed its purpose. The Bible is about a relationship with God. If you leave out the story, the rules don’t make sense. The Law come out of the stories--the story doesn’t come from the Law.

 “The Law”--that is, the set of rules that were kept and embellished by the Pharisees--came mostly from four books in the Bible—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If you only pay attention to these four out of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, you will naturally miss the point. The Bible is about worship, not Law. Worship is a term that expresses our whole relationship to God—a relationship of love and dependency upon Him. We exist to honor, praise and serve Him. The Laws were instructions on how we worship. Without that relationship, keeping the Law doesn’t mean a thing. 

Think of it like a child’s relationship to her parents. Family relationships are based on love. We have kids so we can love them. Out of love, we make rules for our kids-- “Go to bed”  “Say please and thank you”  “Don’t play in the street.”  These laws are temporary.  Not every parent on the block will have the same rules for their children, but that’s all right. When we get older, if we’ve taught them right, we don’t need these rules. 

As we get older, the love relationship with our children doesn’t change, but the law relationship does. Our kids can go in the street, since they already learned not to. They can go to bed when we want. The love relationship with our parents outlives the law relationship. One day, in the far future when our parents are very, very old, we may even be the ones making rules for them!  Even so, the love stays. The law is temporary, but the love is forever.

No ritual or law we observe in service to God is permanent. When we go to heaven, there will not even be the Ten Commandments. There will be no need to tell people not to worship other Gods, because God will be the only God there. We don’t have to be told to honor our parents, because we will honor everyone, especially our real Father. There will be no stealing, killing, adultery, or bearing false witness. Who’s going to be jealous in heaven, when we will be able to experience every delight all the time?

The Pharisees mistook the Law of God for God.  They were Law-worshippers, not God-worshippers.  Our righteousness must be greater than theirs, because it is based on a love relationship, not a law relationship. We are free to keep the Old Testament laws or not keep some of them, because our righteousness is based not in our scrupulous law-keeping, but on our understanding the Law’s original purpose. 

At first, God gave Adam and Eve two commandments. The first was a positive one—to keep and tend His garden, which is the world. The second was a negative one—not to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. These commands gave them a way to show their love and devotion to Him. Love exists without action, but its expression and practice that requires we do something to prove it. When someone you love is in need, you want to do something to show your love to them. When we love God, we want to show it in some way. Keeping His commandments shows our love.

Adam and Eve’s real sin was not just that they ate the forbidden fruit. It went deeper than that—they fell out of love with God. The sin might have been repaired, if only they were willing to repair the relationship. Instead, they hid themselves, breaking the relationship out of fear and shame. From that time on, humans feared God more than they loved Him, and their approach to Him was fear-based, not love-based. 

Eons later, God created a special people to love Him—the Hebrews. Their purpose was to reestablish devotion towards God, and to call the rest of the world to love Him. In order to maintain that love, God gave them special laws and rituals, to maintain that love through the generations. God created a whole culture by decree, based on the love of Him. It included dietary laws, forms of dress, special days, etc., so they could express what it meant to worship Him. These traditions provided a necessary structure to maintain this love-based community. Like a family needs a house to live together, a community needs rituals and structure to keep it together.

But just as a house is not a family and a set of rules is not a religion. The laws were made as an aid to worship, but they are not worship. They weren’t bad, they just weren’t complete.

Here’s the  Pharisee’s problem. They confused the house with the family. Jesus didn’t come to change the house, but to heal the family. There wasn’t anything wrong with the way they worshipped, it was the object of their worship.  When we focus on the details of the Law, It becomes like an OCD obsession. We wind up keeping the Law for its own sake, not for God’s sake. We take the Bible and make it an idol, not a tool. We maintain the house, but there’s no one at home.

Have you ever heard of the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” I think there are two kinds of people in the world, those who only see the forest, and those who only see the trees. One sees only the big picture, while the other sees the details. The Pharisees were “tree” people. They became so obsessed with the details of theology and morality that they forgot to love God and others. 

 The Old Testament law contains many detailed descriptions about how to keep the Sabbath, what to eat, etc., but is also includes Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If the details get in the way of the love, then we must set aside the details long enough to get the big picture.

Most of us would consider ourselves religious, but that doesn’t make us right. Just doing religious things don’t make us God’s. In order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—that place where God is really our master—we must enter through the love of Jesus. We must first love Him, with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. He must be above all things to us. When we put Jesus, first, it is never an issue as whether or not we will obey. If it is within our power, as much as we can we will obey. God’s grace does the rest, giving us the strength to obey.

Jesus can give us what the Law never could, which is the power to be good. He made us good through the Cross.