The Magi | Matthew 2:1-12

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

I’m currently reading a well written biography on the life and work of Leonardo DaVinci. DaVinci, as many of you know, was a 15th century Italian painter. His most famous painting is the Mona Lisa.

By all accounts, Leonardo was a creative genius. He had one problem though. He lacked the discipline needed to complete his paintings. One of his more famous incomplete works is a piece called “The Adoration of the Magi”. (Keep picture up for a bit)

The Adoration of the Magi - by Leonardo Da Vinci

There’s a lot going on in this picture. DaVinci’s initial concept had twice the amount of characters. But he had to scale that down for practical reasons.

What I most appreciate about this painting is the flow. If you look closely, the work revolves clockwise around the Christ Child. The Magi are in the inner ring. One is getting a good look. The other is in awe. And the one on the left side is bowing in adoration. Together, with quiet Joseph in the background, they form a clockwise moving circle around Mary and Jesus. And as you move out from the the centre, you notice that the flow continues. The whole complex scene revolves around Jesus. Even Mary is part of that clockwise flow. Do you see how her head is tilted.

I appreciate DaVinci’s creative design, because I think it helps to capture the essence of this story. The presence of the magi in Matthew 2 is a clue that God is up to something big in Christ. The nations are coming. Those who seek truth are coming. This Hebrew boy won’t simply be a local Messiah. The world is coming to him and the world will revolve around him.

This was foretold in Isaiah 60.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you….

Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

Of all the characters in the Christmas story, the wise men are definitely the strangest. We’ve grown accustomed to them in our nativity sets and pageants. But, in reality, they are three strange dudes who shouldn’t be there.

We call them the wise men. But that’s not their true identity. These men are magicians. Oriental scientists. Sorcerers. They probably mixed potions for a living, or wrote the horoscope section of their local newspaper. And they definitely spent their evenings staring up at the stars. They believed that there was a relationship between the movement of the stars and the meaning of life on earth.

You can just imagine Mary and Joseph standing wide-eyed and speechless in the doorway of their Bethlehem home. What were they to do? Let these strange men into their home?

From an Israelite perspective, these Magi had three strikes against them.

First of all, they were gentiles. Unclean people.

Secondly, they were idolators. They foolishly looked to the creation for power and direction, instead of looking to the creator. A big no-no in Old Testament law.

And thirdly, they came from enemy territory. From the East. From Babylon. Israelites didn’t like Babylonians. Years earlier, the Babylonians had levelled their temple and carted them off as slaves.

What were Joseph and Mary to do?

The Hebrew Scriptures told them that they were supposed to be hospitable to foreigners. But the Hebrew Scriptures also told them to have nothing to do with those who practice the dark arts.

What would you do? I mean, imagine if three witches from Toronto showed up at Eli’s baptism service today. “We saw a star. We’d like to see your baby? Can we hold him?”

We’d probably lock the doors and start praying for spiritual protection.

But the Magi didn’t come to cast spells. They came to worship.

How did they get to Bethlehem?

Well, it all started with a star. Something new. A bright light arising.

The stars were the Magi’s speciality. So clearly they saw something extraordinary, or else they wouldn’t have set out on their long journey.

But I’m curious to know how they made the connection. How did they make the move from a new star to a new King in Israel. I wonder if maybe they had a copy of the Old Testament laying around in their library of religious scrolls. I wonder if they read Numbers chapter 24: “A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.”

We don’t get a window in the Magicians discernment process. But we do know that it started with a star.

Its amazing, I think, that God used something familiar to the them, in order to reveal himself to the them. God graciously enters the Magi’s frame of reference. He’s using the stars to get them to think beyond the stars.

I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that the starts lead these men to Jerusalem. Psalm 19 says: “The Heavens declare the glory of God. The Skies proclaim the work of his hand.”

God reveals himself through creation. This is why human beings are fundamentally and unshakeably religious creatures. We can’t help but search for things to extol. We can’t help but wonder what the stars have to do with us. The Magi won’t be the last people to  be led to God via the stars.

The Canadian scientist Hugh Ross went on a similar journey. He built his first telescope at age 16. And even though he wasn’t raised in a religious home, he was quickly converted to the reality that the universe has a creator. From there he was lead to the scriptures. And from the scriptures he was lead to Christ.

Scientist/theologian, Alistair McGrath went on a similar journey as well. It was his study of material reality, mixed with his reading of C.S. Lewis, that lead him to believe that his atheism rested on shaky foundations. Eventually, he found in Jesus, a logic that held the world together.

The stars led the the Magi to Jerusalem. But they didn’t find Jesus in Jerusalem. In order to make the move to Bethlehem, they needed a little help from the Hebrew scriptures.

Once in Jerusalem, they went right to the Palace. A logical place to begin when looking for a new King. “Where is the child who is born king of the Jews?” They asked.

King Herod was disturbed by this question. Unlike the Magi, he wasn’t to thrilled at the prospect of there being a new King.

So, for unholy reasons, Herod summoned the Bible scholars and teachers of Israel.

“Where is the Messiah to be born?” He asked.

“In Bethlehem, in Judea” they said. That is what is written in the book of Micah.

With this information in hand, Herod returned to the Magi and shares it with them. But he does this secretively, because he doesn’t want others in Jerusalem to hear of the Magi’s quest. He’d like to keep this story under wraps. He’d like to dispose of this new born King. More on Herod’s reaction to Jesus next week.

So the star led the Magi to Jerusalem, but the scriptures, as interpreted by the community of faith, are needed to complete the journey. As with  Hugh Ross and Alistair McGrath, the stars took the Magi to the scriptures. And the scriptures took the Magi to Christ.

From general revelation to special revelation. From Stars to scripture. Here in Matthew 2, we have a mini but complete theology of revelation.

But the penultimate form of revelation is the Christ Child himself.

When the Magi arrive in Bethlehem, they don’t thank their lucky stars or worship the scripture that led them to Bethlehem. Instead, they bow down and worship the boy himself. And then, in gratitude, they offer him the best that their culture has produced. Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

What is it that they saw in Jesus? We don’t know.

Maybe, like DaVinci they saw the one around whom the world revolved?

Maybe they picked up a copy of the scroll of Isaiah in Jerusalem, and on their way to Bethlehem they read chapter 9:

“The people walking in darkness; have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

Or maybe, since they were seekers of truth, they found in Christ, the light that illuminated life itself. The logos. Wisdom incarnate.

We don’t know what they saw in Mary’s child, but we know that they found what they were looking for. And they worshipped.

Last week we learned that God is at work in the world, and that he invites ordinary people to join him in his mission. People like Quiet Joseph and Faithful Mary.

This story, the story of the Magi, reminds us that God is also at work drawing men and women into a joy-filled, worshipful, relationship with himself. 

God meets these astrologers in the stars. He invites these strange men on a journey of discovery. He brings them in contact with the word and the faith community that holds the word. And finally he draws them to his son. The idolators become worshippers of the one true God. The foolish men, become wise men.

The same story repeats itself again and again through history.

I was listening to an interview on YouTube  the other day. My colleague, Pastor Paul VK, was interviewing a young man on his youtube channel.

Pastor Paul has become kind of famous over the last year. His videos on Psychologist Jordan Peterson have gone viral. Not a few youtube watchers have come to re-evaluate their faith based on Paul’s commentary of Peterson’s work.

This particular man’s spiritual journey began when he started to use psychedelic drugs. On a few of his trips, he had significant spiritual experiences. They were so significant that he came to believe in God

And then, while in University, he started watching Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the book of Genesis. Then he started watching Paul VK’s commentary on Jordan Peterson’s lectures.

And now, he’s enrolled in membership classes in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It all started with an acid trip. From Peyote to Peterson, to Paul, to Jesus.

For the record, I don’t think psychedelics are necessary a good first step towards a relationship with Jesus. But for this person, God met him where he was. Just as God met the Magi where they were.

God works in mysterious ways. He overcomes barriers to bring people together.  He breaks down walls in order to unite us with Christ and each other. In Matthew’s gospel, the first people to worship Jesus are enemies of Israel, Idolators from the east.

What I appreciate the most about the Magi, is that they had the curiosity and the courage to actually set out on the journey.

There were probably other Magicians in Babylon at that time. They probably saw the star too. But they didn’t pack their camels. Who knows why? Maybe life got in the way.

But these three Magi were hungry for the truth. Hungry enough to do something about their hunger. Hungry enough to ask to seek and to knock. Hungry enough to leave their home and set out on a journey. Hungry enough to submit themselves to the Hebrew scriptures, and to trust that they could lead them to the King.

I know that many of you hear today are committed Christians. You took the journey to Bethlehem a long time ago.

But others of you here, perhaps, are in a time of searching. You’re scoping out the heavens. You’re searching for ultimate truth in science or philosophy or love. I encourage you, don’t give up the search. Keep reading, keep asking, keeping seeking, and keep knocking.

The truth is worth it.

I’m thankful that your journey has led you into the walls of this Christian Community. I hope that we can point you the way to Bethlehem.

And for those of you here today who have already found Jesus, I have two encouragements for you. Firstly, I invite you to continue to make your way to Bethlehem in order to worship and offer your gifts.

Too often our vision of Christ gets blurry, and our devotion to him gets watered down by the cares and concerns of life. Isn’t it interesting the no one from Jerusalem joined with the Magi on the last leg of their trip to Bethlehem. Jesus came to his own, but his own did not recognize him.

Advent is a time to have our vision clarified. We need to focus not just on the word, but on the one that the word illuminates. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The one through whom all things were created. The one around whom the world revolves. May your love for him and your curiosity about him be rekindled this Christmas.

That’s the first encouragement. And the second is…. How can you be a friend to those who are searching. If three witches from Toronto were to show up at your door, how would you engage them?

The truth is that the Spirit is drawing men and women to Jesus. He uses creation. He uses the word. He meets people where they are. He uses you. Ask questions. Share your own story.

Who knows? God may use your friendship and steady presence to be a signpost along the road that leads that person to Christ in Bethlehem.

Amen.

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Quiet Joseph | Matthew 1:18-25

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

Who is your favourite Christmas Character?

Or maybe I should put the question differently. When you were a child, what character did you want to be in the Christmas pageant?

Mary is definitely the star of the show. She gets a song; a special visit by an angel. And then she gets to be pregnant with the baby Jesus. Most girls want to play Mary.

The magi are cool too. They come from a far away place. They get to carry gold, and frankincense and myrrh. For the boys, a wise man is about as good of a role as you can get in the Christmas story.

Being a shepherd isn’t too bad either. You get to wear long flow-y robes. And you get a nice view of all the cute little Angels.

But what about Joseph. Did anyone want to play Joseph?

Its usually the kid with the least amount of acting skills that ends up landing Joseph’s role. “All you have to do is walk over there and sit. Can you handle that?”

Joseph doesn’t get any lines in the play. Him main job is to sit beside the lowing cattle and the baaing sheep.

Church art is filled with pictures of Mary and the Baby Jesus. But Joseph rarely makes an appearance. He’s doesn’t seem to like family pictures. When the camera comes out, he heads to his workshop or hides somewhere in the background.

Who is this quiet man? And what is his roll in the birth of Christ?

Joseph gets a fair amount of stage time in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, but he still doesn’t land any lines. He’s a thinker, a dreamer, a doer, but not a talker. But he doesn’t need to talk to be effective. Joseph’s speech is to quietly do the will of God.

I wonder what it was like for him to hear the news? Did he say anything to Mary when Mary told him that she was pregnant? Or did he quietly head back to his workshop to mourn and to think?

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man. We’ve been learning about that word, “righteous”, this fall. A righteous man is someone who is conscientious of his responsibilities. His desire is to live uprightly and with integrity, in his relationship with God, himself, his neighbour, and the world.

This is Joseph’s aim. I’m sure, as he tinkered away in his shop, he was mulling over this question in his mind “what is the righteous thing to do in this situation?”

Marriage was a three step process in Joseph’s day. First there was the engagement period. This was often arranged by parents or a professional matchmaker while the children were still young.

Next came the betrothal period, a period that lasted about one year. The couple lived apart during this stage, but they were preparing to live together. Legally, they were essentially married. The only way to break things off at this stage required a certificate of divorce.

Finally, there was the wedding day.

Mary and Joseph were in the Betrothal stage. They weren’t quite married, but they were as good as married. All that was left for them to do was to consummate the marriage, and start their life together.

But that’s when Mary told Joseph the life changing news.

Joseph may have only been a simple carpenter, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew how babies were made. What’s a righteous man to do?

Well, under Mosaic law, Joseph had a few options at his disposal. He had a loud option, and a quiet option.

The loud option involved taking Mary before the elders, and having her charged with committing adultery. Under Mosaic law, she could be stoned to death for breaking God’s law and breaking her betrothal.

The benefit of this was that it was a public act that made things clear. Joseph would be totally vindicated. His name cleared. The shame and guilt would all fall on Mary.

The quiet option was his second choice. This involved writing up a certificate of divorce. Mosaic law also said that a man could divorce his wife if he found out something indecent about her. Only two witnesses needed to be present to make this official. Word would eventually get out. People would talk. But at least Mary would be spared the public shaming and stoning.

Being a righteous man, Joseph chose the quiet option.

Frederick Dale Bruner says this about Joseph’s actions and righteousness in general:

“By giving Mary a letter of divorce “quietly,” unguilty Joseph was prepared to take social shame on himself without complaint, and such decisions are forms of Christian righteousness. Righteousness is not only the determination to be personally impeccable [sin-less], but often the determination, if necessary at one’s own expense, to bear the guilt of others.” (Bruner, pg, 25)

So, given the circumstances, Joseph chose the righteous path. At least that is what he thought. But the Lord had other plans for Joseph.

That night, as Joseph slept, he had a dream about his situation. In his dream, a divine Messenger came to him. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” the messenger said, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

The law told Joseph to divorce. The messenger told Joseph to marry. This won’t be the last time that God rejigs the law in the light of Christ. But it is the first time. A new thing is happening in the world.

And Joseph is discerning enough to see it.

We don’t know if he woke up the next morning with an ethical headache. All we know is that he went and did just as the Angel had commanded him. He took Mary as his wife, and he named Mary’s baby, Jesus.

Its helpful to note, I think, that Joseph is the one of the only Christmas characters that doesn’t talk back. When the Messenger tells Mary that she will give birth to a child, Mary says: “How can this be? I’m a virgin.”

And when a Messenger tells Zecharaiah that he and his wife Elizabeth are going to have a baby boy named John, Zecharaiah says: “How can this be? I’m an old man and my wife is well along in years?”

But quiet Joseph doesn’t question the messenger or the message. He hears and he obeys.

It should also be mentioned that these acts of obedience would have cost Joseph a lot. I imagine that he, like most of us, had a vision for what he wanted his life to look like. I imagine that he was busy planning out his life. Marriage, family, a five year plan for his business, buying property and building a house.

But God’s new thing upended Joseph’s plans. He was now the laughing stock of his community. He was foolish enough to marry a woman pregnant with someone else’s baby. And what’s more, in order to protect his adopted son from a bloodthirsty king, he’d have to flee to Egypt. That wasn’t part of the 5 year plan. And then, upon returning to Israel, he’d have to settle in an off the beaten path town, in order protect his family.

But quiet Joseph shows no sign of resentment or disappointment. He simply submits himself to the amazing new thing that God is doing in the world. He is a servant of the righteous one. His speech is to do the will of God.

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

And this, God’s selection of Joseph and Mary, I find to be one of the greatest aspects of the Christmas story. God partners with ordinary people to do his amazing thing.

Mary was just a young woman. But God chose her and invited her to participate in the drama of salvation. And Mary responded with faith. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Joseph was just an ordinary labourer. But God chose him to be the protector of the Christ child. And Joseph, at a great cost to himself, responded with obedience.

Its such a delicate beginning, isn’t it. The hope of the nations, cooing in the hands of a teenage mother. The prince of peace, being protected by a poor peasant.

Together, they make the long, dangerous journey to Egypt. Together, they make the long dangerous journey back home. The Word of life in an infant sling. His parents worrying about their next meal.

God’s grace initiates the birth of the Messiah. But simple faith and humble obedience are essential to the plan.

You know, in the Roman Catholic Tradition, Joseph is considered to be the Patron Saint of Families and the Church. He’s referred to as the protector of the Church. And if you consider Jesus the seed of the Church, you can see why Joseph is considered the protector. He carries the light, and protects it from evil that wants to snuff it out.

This is why there’s a Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in nearly every city on the planet. In addition, many hospitals are named after Joseph as well. He’s a refuge.

Reformed Christians don’t give saint status to Bible characters or other famous people in Church history. And for good reason. For at the end of the day, Jesus is the only name by which people can be saved. And at the end of the day, even Joseph, Jesus’ adopted dad, will bend the knee to the boy child he named in Bethlehem.

And yet, on this the second Sunday of advent, I think it is fitting for us to thank God for Joseph and to wonder how we might be called to participate in the ongoing drama that is Christmas.

The truth is that God is still at work in the world. The truth is that he still chooses to partner with humble humans to do his work.

And just as the Christ Child was entrusted to the hands of a carpenter, so the Christ story is entrusted to the Spirit empowered Church.

We carry the light. The treasure rests in jars of clay.

Its not our obedience that brings people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Its Jesus who does that through his Spirit. But God is pleased to partner with us in the ministry that brings good news of great joy.

I’m thankful for the quietly faithful people who shared this story with me. My mom and dad. Ralph Koops. Brad Knetsch. Rebecca DeYoung.

A few years ago, I was talking to a fellow Gardner over at Agnes Street gardens. She asked what I did and I told her that I was a pastor at the Church down the street. “The Christian Reformed Church?” She said. “Ya” I responded.

“Oh, do you know so and so?” She asked. I can’t actually remember the name the woman said, but do I remember recognizing the name.

“Ya” I said. “Actually, that person died just a few years ago.” 

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the woman said. “That woman really encouraged me. We barely knew each other. But one day, when I was going through a tough time, she called me and really encouraged me to trust in the Lord. That phone call had a big impact on my life.”

I wonder… what might quiet obedience look like for you this Christmas? Maybe that means quietly enduring shame, so that the light of Christ may be seen all the more clearly. Maybe that means moving out on a scary journey, so that the light of Christ might be seen in a scary place. Maybe that means dropping your own vision for life, and finding your roll in the mission of God. Maybe that means cultivating a deeper relationship with God, so that you are able to hear the voice of the good shepherd.

And of course, if Joseph were here this morning, he probably wouldn’t appreciate all the attention he’s been getting. He’d probably prefer it if we put him back in his spot, next to the lowing cattle and baaing sheep.

Don’t look at me, he’d say. Look at the baby in the manger. You know what that  name means, right? It means “the Lord Saves”. The messenger told me to name Mary’s baby would save God’s people from their sins.

Behold the child who takes away the sins of the whole world.

See the one who bears your guilt and shame.

Set your eyes on the prince of peace, the bearer of God’s shalom.

He’s worthy of your life, your strength your all. There is no better way to live your life, than in service to him. 

Amen.

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The Persecuted Ones | Matthew 5:10-12

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Last week, during my Christianity Explored Class, the class and I spent sometime reflecting on the importance of Christ’s resurrection.

The resurrection, of course, is the central claim of the Christian faith. There is no Christianity if Christ did not rise from the dead.

Now to say that someone who has died, is now alive again, is a big claim to make.

For me, the most compelling piece of evidence for Jesus’ actual physical resurrection is found in the witness of the early disciples. 

No one abandoned ship. They all shared the same story. They received no financial gain or special honour for doing this. In fact, they were persecuted for it. But even in the face of persecution, they continued to bear witness to what they had seen, heard, and touched.

With the right incentives in place, most people are willing to promote a lie. But, when push comes to shove, literally, most people drop the lie. Its just not worth the suffering.

But in the case of the disciples, they all carried on with the ministry of Jesus.

I’m sure, in those early days of being insulted, ridiculed, and imprisoned, the disciples thought back to what Jesus told them on the hillside in Galilee.

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

This is the only beatitude that is a double beatitude. Jesus repeats himself. In the first expression, Jesus’ blessing is general. He’s speaking to “Those people”. His audience is the abstract, “they who belong to the Kingdom of God”. But in the second expression, Jesus switches the pronouns. Now he’s talking directly to the disciples. Blessed are you, when people insult and persecute you.

Darrel Johnson wonders why Jesus repeats this beatitude. He asks:“Is it because it is the one He [Jesus] knows we would rather not hear? Or is it because this is the one Jesus Himself felt the most? (Darrell Johnson, pg 129)

Whatever the case, the message comes through loud and clear. Life with Christ in the Kingdom of God, is not a stroll down easy street. You will be belittled, labelled, ostracized, and in some cases, physically attacked.

Blessed are the suffering ones. Congratulations to those who get fed to the lions. Three cheers for religious refugees. Yours is the Kingdom of God.

Before diving into why this is the case, a note about suffering and persecution. Not all suffering is beatitude suffering. Not all persecution is blessed.

Sometimes we suffer in life for being sinful, or foolish. If you show up for work late a few days in a row, and the boss fires you. That’s not beatitude suffering. That’s called being a poor employee.

And if you lose your best friend, because you shared one of their personal stories widely, that’s not blessed persecution. That’s what you get for being a bad friend.

We’re not supposed to rejoice in this kind of suffering. Instead, we should repent, recommit ourselves to God’s ways, or wise up.

Other times, we suffer or are persecuted, and it just feels so random. A cancer diagnosis. This is suffering, but not beatitude suffering. Back pain. Chronic headaches. A really destructive and incompetent co-worker. A child who is bullied because they are tall, or short, or they have trouble reading. This isn’t blessed suffering.

Sometimes the suffering we experience in life is at the hands of someone else’s sin or foolishness. Maybe you were abused as a child. Or suffered a brain injury, having been hit by a drunk driver.

This kind of persecution and suffering is not the kind that Jesus tells us to rejoice in. Instead, we can lament the brokenness of the world, and pursue Justice, when that is appropriate.

Jesus is really talking about a specific kind of suffering in this beatitude. The kind that comes to us because of our association with him. The kind that comes because we are pursuing the things that matter to him.

Jesus told us this would happen. He said: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…. They will treat you this way, because of my name…” John 15:20-21

It didn’t take long for the persecution to begin. Days after Pentecost, Peter and John were imprisoned for sharing about the resurrection. Not long after that, Steven, was stoned because of his faith and witness.

Many of the apostles were martyred. So was the Apostle Paul. The recipients of Peter’s letters in Asia Minor were persecuted Christians. Its likely that they had been uprooted from their homes and property in Rome, and scattered eastward against their will, because of their faith.

And on and on it goes. There has never been a time when Christians were’t being persecuted for bearing the name of Christ. In fact, the 20th century was among the worst centuries for Christians.

Its estimated that on average, 454,000 Christians died every year in the 20th century. They died because of their faith. (Darrel Johnson, pg.131)

The World Evangelical Alliance estimates that some 200 million Christians in 60 countries face persecution or our denied basic rights, because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.

The seriousness and prevalence of this kind of persecution was witnessed by the world a few years ago, when 21 coptic Christians were martyred for their faith on a beach in Lebanon.

We can be thankful that this kind of persecution does not happen in Canada. But, even here, in Canada, we are experiencing what appears to be the slow erosion of our religious rights and freedoms. We’ll see where things are 20 years from now.

And even if we don’t experience hard persecution in your life, perhaps you have been insulted because of your faith. Its not exactly easy, to wear your faith on your sleeve these days.

What is it about Jesus?

I think at the heart of it, is that the Kingdom that Jesus brings is different from the Kingdom of this world. The world says, “I am my own.” Jesus says, “You are not your own.” The world says that “the path to wholeness is through individual expression and through actualizing your potential.”  Jesus says that “the path to wholeness involves picking up your cross and following me.” This is an offensive message that people would rather not entertain.

In addition, God’s Kingdom confronts the power structures that have learned to benefit off the brokenness of the world. In ancient Ephesus, Paul’s ministry began to threaten the local economy. The local economy was built around maintaining the worship of Artemis, or Diana. The salesmen and craftsmen who sold religious paraphernalia began to take a financial hit as the gospel took hold. People weren’t buying up their goods anymore. So they protested Paul’s presence in the city.

Its not like Paul was intentionally trying to subvert the economy. He was simply preaching Christ. But that had an impact on the economy. An impact that was threatening to some.

One of the reasons that the Chinese government is trying to keep a tight lid on the Church in China, is because they worry about the control they’ll lose if a large percentage of the people come to submit themselves to a power they consider to be greater than the state.

Jesus, and those who belong to Jesus, don’t fit into the world as it is. We fit better into the world that God is making. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

The other kind of suffering that Jesus is blessing in the beatitudes, is the suffering that comes because of our commitment to Christ’s Kingdom and its righteousness.

We’ve already learned about righteousness in this sermon series. Righteousness is all about right-relatedness. Its about integrity, wholeness, and justice, in these four fundamental relationships. When Humanity fell in the garden of Eden, our capacity for living righteously was seriously impaired. And nearly all of the mess that exists in the world is a result of these relationships being broken or strained.

But Jesus came to heal these relationships. He came to restore our relationship with God, ourselves, each other and the earth.

Sometimes pursuing righteousness will earn us honour in the eyes of the world. For instance, no one is going to persecute you if you serve the homeless dinner on Christmas day—except maybe your mother in law, who’s mad because you didn’t go to her house.

Thankfully, many avenues of righteousness seeking are applauded and encouraged.

But, occasionally, in our pursuit of righteousness, we run up against resistance.

Paul and Silas experienced this first hand. While preaching in Philippi, they encountered a slave girl who was possessed with a spirit. She was a psychic, essentially, a fortuneteller. And she made her owners a lot of money.

This woman followed Paul and Silas around for days. Finally, Paul prayed for the girl to be released of her oppression. “In the name of Jesus, I command you to come out of her.” The spirit departed the girl immediately.

This was a great freedom for the girl. But it was a great pain in the neck for those who owned the girl. She was a cash cow. They were invested in this girl’s spiritual oppression.

A lot of people are highly invested in the old order of things.

In 2006, a Christian lawyer in Honduras took on up a high profile and dangerous case. He was fighting for the rights of security guards, who worked for a big and corrupt company. That were being exploited and unfairly treated.

Dionisio, the lawyer’s name, worked for AJS—Association for a More Just Society. As the court case progressed, the pressure against AJS mounted. They received death threats. Knowing the risks, Dionisio continued the fight.

He was shot and killed in his car, one morning, on his way to court.

This mural hangs on the wall at AJS’s office in Honduras. Dionisio leaves behind a wife and son.

Underneath the mural you can find these words from 1st John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Now one can see why enduring persecution for Christ’s sake is an honourable thing. But do we really need to rejoice and be glad in it? What is so blessed about persecution?

Well, for one, for the persecuted ones, heaven will be heavenly. There is a rewards banquet coming in which the persecuted ones will receive their moment of glory. The goal of our witness, of course, should never be about building up rewards in heaven. If that’s your aim, you’ve missed the point. But it is true that the greater the suffering on earth, the greater the joy in heaven. The victory is all the sweeter, if you’ve lost blood in the battle.

Secondly, the persecuted ones join a great crowd of witnesses. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, Deborah, Elijah, John the Baptist, Mary, Jesus. These are the prophets. They were all persecuted or insulted for their role in bearing witness to the Kingdom of God. And when you are persecuted for your faith and witness, you get to be counted among them. I remember reading Corrie Ten Boom. Her and her sister were stripped naked prior to being put into the concentration camp. Then they remembered that Christ had been stripped naked too. In a strange, but real way, that realization lifted them up.   

And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, persecution for your faith and witness is a sign that you’re on the right track. Its confirmation that Jesus is at work in your life. And the you are part of the righteous new order that God is establishing. So while its painful, and uncomfortable, you can have the inner assurance that God’s kingdom is alive and well in you.

None of this will happen, of course, if you choose to keep your faith to yourself. You will never be persecuted for living a quiet, safe life. But if you take up the call to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be an artist of peace. Then beware. You will be treated as he was treated.

But there is no better place to be than following after our suffering saviour.

For as Christ has shown, the valley of death is not the end. But the beginning of new life in the Kingdom of God. And though our lives may be a series of good Fridays, Easter morning is on the horizon.

Take heart, Jesus said. In this world you will have trouble. But I have overcome the world.

Amen. 

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The Pure in Heart | Matthew 5:8

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Jesus says: Blessed, congratulations, in sync are the pure in heart, they will see God.

You know, the heart is an amazing muscle in our body. It beats in our chest 60 to 100 times per minute. It operates without our instruction. And its main function is utterly essential. Without that steady beat. We die.

Its amazing really. I mean, my heart has been beating in my chest, 60 beats a minute, for almost 35 years. Imagine doing 60 curls per minute, for 35 years. Your arm muscles wouldn’t last a single hour.

Because the heart is so essential to good health, doctors encourage us take good care of our hearts. Usually this involves eating well and getting a lot of exercise.

Now when Jesus blesses the pure in heart, he’s not, of course, talking about the muscle that beats in our chest. He’s talking about the centre of our being, that part of us that is as important to our living, as the heart is to our body.

The heart is a metaphor for that mysterious, interior place. Some people refer to it as the soul, or consciousness. Whatever it is, it is the throne room of our lives. That interior place is the control room that directs our thinking, acting, longing and loving.

No doctor can listen in to the operations of this heart. It is open only to you and to God. But like our physical heart, this place can either be healthy or unhealthy. Pure or corrupted.

The scriptures have a lot of say about this internal control room.

In proverbs 4:23 we read: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well-spring of life.

Jeremiah notes that the human heart is complex and corrupted: The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Jesus says that our hearts pursue what our hearts desire.“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

The Heidelberg Catechism paints a bleak picture of the heart. It says that our hearts are naturally disposed to hate God and neighbour. That when push comes to shove, deep down, all of us are truly selfish, unable to love with a pure heart.

Those of you who pay attention to your inner life know that its a diluted place. And every now and then, if we’re healthy, we find ourselves praying with the Psalmist:

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love… Wash me of all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…. Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:1-2 and 10

From a biblical perspective, the path to purity of heart begins in poverty of spirit. The first step towards a pure heart is to acknowledge your broken heart. The second step is to open yourself up to God, and invite him to come in and make you new.

Think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a team of heart specialists. The Father hooks you up to the I.V., and opens you up. The son lays down his life beside you. He donates his pure blood, tor replace your corrupted blood. And the Holy Spirit operates on your heart, reviving its beat, while cleaning out your veins and arteries.

No one becomes pure in heart without an encounter with the Great physician. The good news of the gospel is that God revives us in our inner being. The promise was made in Ezekiel 36:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26

Christians believe that this promise is fulfilled whenever a man or woman professes their faith in Jesus Christ, and receives the Holy Spirit.

And yet… while purity of heart is a gift, we do participate in the health of our inner being, just as we participate in the health of our physical bodies.

Purity is a gift, and a calling.

The Greek word for purity is Katharos. From this word we get the English word catharsis which means, “a release” or, “a cleansing”.

Katharos means =

  • Clean, Pure,
  • Single, Simple, Undivided,

Now it seems to me, based on this definition, that there’s a moral element to purity, as well as an integrity aspect.

On the moral side, the pure in heart are those who have a clean interior life.

This means that when a pure heart in heart man, sees an attractive person walking down the street, this man may notices their beauty, but he doesn’t go down the rabbit hole of objectifying that person in their mind.

And when a pure in heart woman shares a story with her co-workers, she resists the temptation to adjust the details, so as to make herself look better.

And of course, the pure in heart don’t simply resist that which is evil, they cling to what is good.

The good Samaritan had a clean interior life. He saw a neighbour in need and he acted mercifully towards him, no questions asked.

Perhaps the best description of the pure in heart is found in Romans 12. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is especially good:

Love from the centre of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

 … Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down… Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. Romans 12:9-21

Have you ever met someone like this? So pure of heart.

The moral aspect of purity is summed up in the great commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself. The pure in heart make this their life mission.

There’s also an integrity aspect to purity. And by integrity I mean being undivided in one’s interior life. Being the same in public as you are in private.

I remember in high school, I attended the profession of faith of one of my good friends. Since this friend lived an hour away, I stayed over night at another friends house near his church. We had a party that night. Drugs and alcohol were present and consumed. And the one professing their faith the next day was consuming both.

I remember thinking… something is not right with this picture. Tomorrow your going to declare your love for the Lord and your desire to live for him. And tonight, your breaking both God’s law and the law of the land.

This story has a happy ending. The hung-over professor of faith is now a CRC pastor. And I’m happy to report that he has more integrity now, than he did when he was 17.

But at that time, he, and most of us in that room, had little integrity. We were not pure in our inner life. We were one thing with each other, and another with our parents.

Its not that the pure in heart need to be perfect. But if they’re on the right track, they are growing in their capacity to be the same person on Saturday night as they are on Sunday morning.

Ken Shuman once paraphrased the beatitudes. His paraphrase of the 6th beatitude highlights the integrity aspect of purity.

Happy, satisfied, and fully alive are those who are utterly sincere and completely genuine – those who are undivided within and are without lies and deception – those whose secret self and public self, are one self- for they will see God.

You know, Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple, was obsessed with making products that were as beautiful on the inside as they were on the outside. This would drive his engineers crazy. “Who cares what it looks like on the inside,” they’d say. What matters is that it gets the job done.

But Jobs was insistent. He wanted his computers to be as aesthetically pleasing on the inside as they were on the outside. He wanted the whole machine to be beautiful—even the parts that no one could see.

The pure in heart share something of Job’s single minded focus.

While Jobs may have perfected the computer, it was Jesus who perfected the art of living with a pure heart. His will was united with his Father’s will: “I only do what I see my Father doing,” he said.

There was no guile in Jesus. No deception. No ulterior motives. He was the same with his disciples as he was in front of the crowds. And in the end, he willingly gave up his life. And he did so motivated by Love. Love for God, and Love for neighbour.

I think its important to remember, in this conversation, that our inner life is formable and malleable. Just like the food you eat impacts your physical life, so the stuff you expose yourself to impacts your interior life. The movies you watch, the social media you consume, the friends you make. All of it has an impact.

On Friday night, Brittney and I called it quits on a show we had been watching for a few weeks. It was sad because we liked some of the characters. But the vulgarity kept ramping up. Finally, we turned it off.

I used to be able to watch just about anything, and feel fine afterwards. But now I see that I probably just built up a tolerance. My hunch is that most of us have built up a tolerance to things that aren’t good. Is that a tolerance you want to have? Do you want cataracts on your soul?

Guard your heart, says the book of proverbs. Set up your life up in such a way that your inner life is well protected and well directed.

Prioritizing worship, and solitude time with God is so important for the health of your inner being. These things are to you inner being, what exercise and healthy eating is to your physical heart. The great physician recommends it. 

Blessed are the pure in heart. For they will see God.

See. They will see God. I think this means that the pure in heart will receive their greatest treasure. They will become united to the one they love with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.

Paul says: “Now we see through a mirror darkly, then we shall see face to face.”

The great theologians refer to this face to face seeing as the beatific vision. Like a mountain range is lit up by the morning sun, the pure in heart will experience God in all his glory.

Jesus says “See” but this isn’t really about sight. This is an experience that confers blessing. The idea here is that the pure in heart will experience God in all his fullness. And in experiencing God in all his fulness, they themselves become full.

Of course, the ultimate moment of experiencing God won’t happen until the pure in heart are with God in the New Jerusalem.

But even now, we get foretastes.

I mean, maybe its happened to you in Church. Someone passes you the communion tray. And all of sudden you have this rich sense that what is being passed to you in not just a shiny plate filled with less than satisfying little chunks of white bread. In the moment, it feels like you are receiving sustenance from the very hand of God. And your sense of being alive is heightened. 

Or maybe your at home, by yourself, listening to your favourite worship album. You’ve listed to it 100 times. But this time, is different. This time, you are transported through the music into what feels like the very throne room of God. The music becomes a means of communion with God.

These are moments of seeing. Moments when the world is transfigured in front of you, and catch a glimpse of the fullness of God. Our lives are defined by such moments..

You can’t manufacture these experiences. They are gifts of grace. But one thing is for sure. If your mind is in the gutter and your  heart is fixated on the things of this world, you’ll won’t experience the blessedness of communion with the creator.

Only those who make God their treasure will see God in this way. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Amen

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The Peacemakers | Matthew 5:9

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Jesus blesses the peace-makers. They are the ones who will be called “children of God”.

I love, and I’m challenged by the fact that Jesus blesses the “Peace-Makers” as opposed to “peace-lovers”, or “peace-seekers”, or even “peace-keepers”. 

Of course, Jesus’ disciples will also be peace-loving, peace-seeking, and peace-keeping, kind of people. But peace-making is a step above those other good things.

There’s a difference, you know, between being an art-lover and an art-maker. The art lover strolls through the gallery, admiring the colours and the shapes. The art maker labours in the studio, piecing together the colours and the shapes.

Peace-makers are creators. They do more than long and pray for peace. They make peace.

Context is important for understanding all the beatitudes. But its definitely important for understanding this beatitude.

Recall that prior to preaching the sermon on the mount, Jesus was preaching his way around the sea of Galilee. His main message: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”

What did Jesus mean with this announcement? Essentially he was announcing that the reign of God was fast approaching. The old order was passing away, and God’s new thing was on the rise.

This is a little hard to understand, but there’s a simplicity to it, I think. 

Here’s an example that might help. Some of you lived through World War Two. And during that time, you lived under the reign of the Nazis. But then one day, you heard rumours that the Canadian Soldiers were approaching. The good news started to circulate in your village. You got ready. And then, one day they came! And you experienced the sweet taste of liberation.

This is Jesus’ message. Liberation day is at hand, he’s saying. The Kingdom of God is moving in. Believe it, and get ready for it.

So, prior to preaching the Beatitudes, Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is at hand. But what kind of Kingdom is God’s Kingdom? What is God’s platform? What is God’s agenda?

In a word, its peace. Shalom. 

We hear rumours and catch glimpses of this Kingdom in the Old Testament. For instance, in Isaiah 11, we read:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. [The result] The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them… Isaiah 11:1-9

So, a day is coming, says Isaiah, where one from the line of Jesse, will sit on King David’s throne. He will rule righteously, and the result will be peace like we’ve never seen before. The New Testament writers identity Jesus as that coming King.

Isaiah 2 contains a similar picture:

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains… and the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come let us go up the mountain of the Lord… He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”

He [the Lord] will judge between the nations and settle disputes… They [the people] will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah 2:1-4

Swords into plowshares. Weapons of war into weapons of well-being. That’s a picture of peace. All because God’s mountain was raised up, and because the nations came to the learn from him art of peacemaking.

Now there’s a connection between Isaiah 2, and the sermon on the mount. Recall that  Jesus is preaching the sermon on the mount, from a mount. He’s up on a hill. And the nations are coming to listen. And there, Jesus instructs the people in the ways of peace.

The sermon on the mount, is God’s peace-making manifesto. 

Peace. in English, we tend to think of peace in two ways. Firstly, we think of it as the absence of war. And secondly, we think of it as an inner, tranquil, disposition. (I’m at peace, we say.)

The biblical concept includes these two dimensions, but it’s much richer.

Frederick Dale Bruner says: We can almost translate the keyword “peacemakers” with the word “wholemakers.” Peace in Scripture is a situation of comprehensive welfare…. [Shalom] means communal well-being in every direction and in every relation.” Frederick Dale Bruner, pg 179.

So back to my little, happy, stick figure, diagram. Shalom is a state of total peace. Shalom is when all these relationships are rightly related and harmonious.

Now, Peacemaking, from a biblical perspective, is God’s work, primarily.

We couldn’t have peace like a river attending our soul, for instance, if it were not for Christ’s, once and for all, sacrifice on the cross. Its only through Jesus, Paul says, that we come to have peace with God.

And we couldn’t have peace with one another in the body of Christ, if Jesus had not torn down the walls of hostility. Jews and gentiles, slave and free, male and female—these groups didn’t associate with each other in the Roman world. But they did in the community of Jesus. This is God’s work.

And its also true that we won’t experience the fullness of Shalom until Jesus returns. In this broken and bleeding world, wholeness will always remain illusive. Nation will continue to take up sword again nation. People will pollute the earth. Relationships with others and our own-selves will fall apart. For Christians, true, lasting peace will only be established when the true King returns.

So God is the primary peacemaker. And yet, we have a roll to play too. We are called to live into the agenda of our King.

So what does this look like for you to turn swords into plowshares? How do we live into this calling. Here are four practical applications.

1: Well, I think it starts with keeping the Vision Alive and clear. That picture that Isaiah gives us, of the lion lying down with the lamb. That is our destiny. This is what life looks like when God’s will is done and his Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

Life with God is not life in the clouds—eating cream cheese. His vision is wholeness. A renewed heaven and earth. We need to keep this vision clear, so that we can be peace-lovers and peace-seekers. Desiring it, comes before making it.

Peacemaking starts in the imaginative vision laid out in Isaiah and the Psalms. Don’t allow God’s vision to become clouded over with the distractions of life. Make God’s will your treasure, and you will become a peace-maker. 

2: Alignment. Take stock of your own life and relationships. What doesn’t fit the vision? Where is there dissonance? Or Discontinuity.

I remember in High School I would occasionally play a video game called “Grand Theft Auto”. The basic idea of the game was to steal cars, and then race away through the busy streets of some city. Pedestrians were often run over in the process. We’d laugh about it.

This past summer, a man played a real life version of grand theft auto in Toronto. Bodies went flying. Its no laughing matter.

Now, I can’t even watch someone else play a game like that. Maybe its time for you to  put away grand theft auto, some other gratuitously violent game. Is Mario Kart still around? Play Mario Kart instead.

And what relationships might need attention in your life. Peacemaking is not just for governments, you know? How are your relationships with your spouse, your kids, your family, your friends, people within the Church. 

Is there any un-forgiveness in you? Are you nursing a grudge?

Forgiveness is heartbreaking, heavy lifting work. But it is the strongest weapon we have in war against war.

Jesus says, Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. I think we could use some re-alignment in that area.

I watched a Ted Talk the other day. It was given by Ozlem Cekic, a female muslim politician in Denmark. She receives hate mail everyday. She used to just delete it. But now she responds and asks for a coffee break. She has had hundreds of coffee dates with people send her nasty emails. Wow… she may not be a Christian, but she is a peacemaker.

Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Crucial Conversations, Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High.

One of the helpful things I’ve learned from this book, is that avoiding hard conversation is not a good peacemaking strategy. Avoidance produces a temporary peace, but that peace is skin deep.

Its better to have the crucial conversation now, even if that conversation happens to temporarily rock the peace of the group.

But in order to do that, everyone needs to grow their capacity for dialogue.

But think about it. If we could grow our capacity for dialogue—if I could model and teach my children how to have a hard conversation, and stay connected—that’s going to make a difference in our broken and disconnected world.

Alignment. What doesn’t fit the vision that you need to repent of? And what skill or tools do you need to acquire in order to peace-make in your own life.

3: Evangelism.

Why might this be essential? Well, as Christians we believe that no peace is full or complete until the peace that passes understanding takes root.

The root cause of violence in this broken world is not ruthless dictators or weapon hoarding governments. The root cause is the human heart, living in rebellion against the living God.

I know that Christians have not always been model peace-makers in our mission to share the gospel. We have much evil to confess.

But we shouldn’t stop sharing. 

A few years ago, an indigenous Navajo woman addressed the CRC synod in Grand Rapids. She was raised in a former CRC residential school down in Rehoboth, New Mexico. In her talk, she mentioned the things about her experience that were not good.

But then she continued to talk about the way that God had impacted her life through the people at Rehoboth Christian School. She named them all. These people are not my oppressors, she said, they are my brothers and sisters. They introduced me to Jesus.

There’s a priceless treasure in the story we tell. My Peace I give to you, Christ said to his disciples. Its a peace that the world doesn’t understand. This is the peace that comes from knowing that we belong, in life and in death, to our faithful saviour Jesus Christ.

And what’s more, our evangelistic efforts help the peacemaking efforts by making more peacemakers.

I mean, think about William Wilberforce—the leader of the abolitionist movement in England.

Wilberforce didn’t care much for God. He was interested in building a name for himself. But then, through conversations with his friend, Isaac Milner, and a priest named John Newton, Wilberforce’s experienced the peace of Christ.

He thought about becoming a priest, leaving politics behind. But Newton encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics. Wilberforce did. And instead of building up his own name, he spent the rest of his career fighting the slave trade. That was his way of making peace.

None of that would have happened, if Isaac Milner would have kept his faith to himself.

So, 1) keep the vision clear, 2) align your life with the vision, 3) share your Faith, and finally, 4) How could you be a peacemaker in all the other areas of your life?

Work, Financial Stewardship, Creation Care.

The offering song we sung today, was called “Day by Day”. Did you see how it dignified all kinds of different jobs. Painter, you are teaching us to see. Labourer, you lift a heavy burden for the week. Nurse, yours are the healing hands that touch the poor and broken.

You can nudge this world towards shalom, you know, just by doing your job to the glory of God.

Similarly, you can nudge this world towards shalom, by donating your money and time to organizations that fight poverty and corruption. And in the world, you can tread lightly. Make it your goal to eliminate waste in your house. Limit your pollution. Ride your bike. Compost your food scraps.

I mean. These things. There so small. But we don’t need to focus on the results. The point is to live a peace-making life. To pursue wholeness.

Peace-making is not just for the people in power. Its not just for those who serve our country in uniform. All who belong to the prince of peace, are called to create in the studio of peace.

Amen.

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The Merciful | Matthew 5

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

There’s an Old Testament verse that Jesus quotes a few times in Matthew. Its a verse from Hosea.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6.

Hosea 6 is a heartbreaking chapter within a heartbreaking book. In Hosea, God is portrayed as a lover. He’s passionate about his people. He’s in love with Israel, his bride. But that love is not reciprocated. Israel is an unfaithful spouse.

Sure, she goes through the motions of the relationship. She offers sacrifices at the right time. But the hugs and kisses are empty. Israel’s heart belongs to another.

I desire mercy, says the Lord, not sacrifice. Acknowledge my presence, don’t just humour me with sacrifices.

The  Hebrew word for mercy in Hosea 6 is “Hesed.”

Hesed is an important word in the Old Testament. It means, “Loving Kindness, Steadfast Love, Loyalty, Faithfulness, Mercy.

Most often, this word is used to describe God’s character.

For instance, in Exodus 34, when the Lord reveals himself to Moses, the Lord says: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love [Hesed] and faithfulness.” Exodus 34:6

And in Psalm 89, the Psalmist declares: “I will sing of the mercies [Hesed] of the Lord forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love [Hesed] stands firm forever…”

The basic gist of hesed is that God can always be counted on to act faithfully towards his own. He’s predisposed to be merciful. Israel has his heart.

Of course, God did have boundaries too. And at certain points in the covenant relationship, God applied those boundaries.

In the wilderness, for instance, God let a whole generation of people die. They did not see the promised land, because of their rebellion. And once in the promised land, God allowed the surrounding nations to attack Israel, whenever Israel succumbed to idolatry.

God never did forget the covenant he made to his people, however. Israel still has his heart. And always, at the slightest sign of repentance, he was quick to show mercy.

And when the time was right, God revealed to Israel and the world, the fullness of his mercy of love. More on that later.

But back to Jesus’ use of Hosea 6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The first time Jesus quoted this passage, he was eating a meal with Matthew, and Matthew’s tax collector buddies.

Tax collectors were despised in Jesus day. They were traitors. They took money from the Jews and gave it to the Romans.

Jesus saw Matthew sitting at his tax collector booth and he said, “Matthew, come follow me”. Matthew dropped his coins and followed Jesus.

Then Matthew brought Jesus to his house and he prepared a meal for Jesus. When the Pharisees saw Jesus breaking bread with traitors, they said to the disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

Jesus overheard the conversation and responded with this “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

In other words “you Pharisees are sure good at keeping the law. You’ve got the motions down to a science. But if you were close to the Lord, you’d know that God desires mercy and not sacrifice.”

The second time Jesus quotes Hosea, the Pharisees are at it again. This time, they are critiquing Jesus because Jesus allowed his disciples to pick heads of grain on the Sabbath.

Jesus answers the Pharisees critique with a few stories. And in his response he quotes from Hosea:“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:70)

Later that same day, Jesus came across a man with a shrivelled hand. Looking for a way to trap him, the Pharisees asked, “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

To this Jesus said: If one of your sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, you’d lift it out, right? Well how much more important is a person?

In other words, there is no law that restricts when mercy can be shown. Mercy’s a higher law.

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

In the previous beatitude, we learned that God’s people are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These people are desperate for rightness to be restored in these four relationships. This is their burning passion.

And this is so important, right. Beatitude people long for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But the gap between being passionate for righteousness, and being a jerk about it is really not that big.

When I was in college, I was passionate about Social Justice. I spent half a year living in Central America, and there I had front row seats to poverty in all its ugliness. I came back to North America a changed person. 

I dropped my old friends. They didn’t care about Justice. And I started hanging out with those who thought like me. And together, we looked down our noses and felt morally superior to everyone who didn’t think like us or care like us.

I would snap at my parents every now and again too. Because they weren’t measuring up to my standards of righteousness. Thankfully, my parents showed me mercy.

In so many ways, my 21 year old heart was hungering and thirsting for the right things. But I had become a Pharisee.

That’s not True Righteousness. True righteousness expresses itself in love for neighbour. True righteousness, while not ignoring the passion that things be made right, extends mercy.

Mercy.

To be merciful is to extend love, kindness, or compassion to a neighbour, especially to a neighbour that is in need.

Darell Johnson says that there is a negative and a positive side to mercy. (Keep slide up till next slide.)

On the negative side, mercy = not giving someone what they deserve.

If someone is guilty, their plea, in court, is that the judge will extend them mercy. “I know I’ve done wrong,” they say, “but please do not punish me to the full extent of the law. Be merciful.”

In scripture, God’s mercifulness is revealed in the fact that he does not treat us according to what our sins deserve. Instead, the just judge of the universe, extends mercy.

The scriptures are clear. The wages of human sin and rebellion is death and God-abandonment. But the gospel is that in Christ, God came into the world to absorb the punishment we deserved. The apostle Paul puts it like this: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He took what we deserved, so that we could be spared.

On the negative side, mercy is about not giving someone what they deserve. On the positive side, mercy = giving someone what they don’t deserve.

We see this aspect of mercy dramatically portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son.

This son blew it, and he knew it. When he asked for his inheritance, he was, in essence, wishing that his Father would drop dead. He wanted his Father’s money, but he didn’t want his Father.

So, when he returned from the far country, having squandered his inheritance, he didn’t know what to expect. His Father had every right to kill his rebellious son. Certainly a harsh punishment would have been appropriate.

But what does the Father do? Filled with compassion, he runs out to meet his wayward son. He hugs and kisses him. He puts a new robe on his back and a ring on his finger. And he throws his son the biggest party imaginable.

The son deserved death for his prideful rebellion. But instead, he received a banquet, and was restored to full sonship within his Father’s house.

That’s mercy.

Once again, God models this aspect of mercy best. In Jesus, not only are we spared the judgement that we deserved, but we are given a welcome that we don’t deserve. In Christ, we become children of God, and are given a prominent seat at the Lord’s Table.

So there’s a positive and a negative expression of mercy. But there’s also the simple, merciful act, of showing kindness and acting compassionately towards someone in need.

The parable of the good Samaritan is a good example of this.

A man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, said Jesus. Along the way, he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead along the side of the road.

Not long after, a priest happened to walk on by. But he moved to the other side of the road and ignored the man. After that, a Levite came along and he did the same thing.

But then, a Samaritan came. When he saw the roughed up man, he had compassion on him.

The Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds. Then he put the man on his donkey and carried him to the nearest inn. Then the Samaritan man paid for the man’s room and told the innkeeper to take care of the man. “When I return,” he said, “I’ll pay for everything.”

That’s mercy.

Showing this kind of mercy is easy to talk about, but its harder in real life. 

What if the man on the side of the road deserved the beating? What if he was a gambling addict who was roughed up because he couldn’t pay down his debts. How close do you want to get like someone like that. Would you give them a month’s wages, and your time, to nurse them back to health?

And there’s a risk too eh? To showing mercy. It might not be received the way you want it to be received. The man on the side of the road might curse you out. Or he might order expensive champagne and ordeurves, and charge it to your credit card.

When VCRC put together a refugee committee, we knew that there would be risks involved. What if the family we received was a radical muslim family. What if they had big financial debts and issues that would dog them and cripple us.

Mercy is risky. But beatitude people are willing to take the risk.

Jesus took the risk, didn’t he. Out of the overflow of the Father’s great mercy, and love, Jesus came to help. But he was misunderstood. Not received with gratitude. And made an outcast. And finally, he was stripped naked and nailed to a cross.

But he did all this willingly, so that his persecutors might become his brothers and sisters. There is no greater display of mercy.

At the heart of this beatitude is the reality that those who have received the mercy, begin to show mercy.

Its only as you come to discover the radical mercy God has shown you, that you can become someone who is capable of showing radical mercy.

Cruel and Ruthless people have not tasted and seen the Mercy of God. Un-merciful people will not be part of the Kingdom of God.

Of course, boundaries are still important. Its not merciful to give a drug addict a 50 dollar bill, for instance. Mercy can be shown to him/her in other, more wise ways.

And in addition to this, sometimes the merciful thing to do is to set up boundaries. If a brother or sister is on a path away from God or righteousness, for instance, the merciful thing to do is to point that out in a loving way. Sometimes, in the moment, that act of love won’t be received well. But one day, that friend may look back and say: “Thank you for taking the risk. I don’t know where I would have been if you hadn’t called me out.”

Gracious correction is an act of mercy.

Its true to say that merciful people are the salt of the earth.  Like salt stops bacteria from growing in food, so the merciful remove toxins from human community. Blessed are they, says Jesus.

I wonder…. What might it look like for you to be merciful this week?

All of us have people in our life that seemingly deserve to be shunned, or punished, or ignored. Maybe there’s someone you need to forgive, that doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

Or, is there anyone in your life who currently stands in need of kindness or compassionate action?

I’d like to finish this sermon, by inviting you to join me in a contemplative prayer exercise. I’d like you to close your eyes.

Holy Spirit, we invite you to be our counsellor in these quiet moments of reflection. Open us up to the Father, and the Son, to ourselves, and to each other.

Son, daughter, you are my beloved? I knit you together in your mother’s womb. Soo good, I said over you.

Daugther, Son, For you, I came into the world. For you I lived and showed mercy. For you I suffered the darkness of calvary, and cried at the last, “it is finished.”

There is now no condemnation that you need fear.

And even now, risen and ascended, I am watching over you, interceding for you.

Mercy, upon Mercy. It will never stop. This is who I am.

Son, Daughter, will you share what you have received? With whom?

What brother or sister do you need to forgive this week? Imagine them. Remember that I made them and came into the world for them too. Release them. Forgive them.

What family member needs your patient kindness. Imagine them. What kind of mercy do they need this week?

What co-worker or neighbour is in need of kindness or compassion this week? Imagine them. How could you show them mercy this week?

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

………………

My hunch is that some of you received clear instruction or a clear picture of what being merciful may look like for you this week.

I encourage you to be courageous and to take the risk. Risk mercy. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Hungering for Righteousness | Matthew 5

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

There is a logic to the order of the beatitudes that is beginning to become clear.

The first two beatitudes are introspective. When the gospel takes hold of us, we realize that we are like paupers in the relation to the Kingdom of God. And we see ourselves as being in need of amazing grace.

And who we are, and what the world has become makes us sad and causes us to mourn. Once you’ve caught a vision of God’s Kingdom and its Righteousness, its hard not to cry. Our lives fall short of the glory of God, this world falls short of God’s vision for it.

The third beatitude is all about coming under the leadership of a new master. The meek are aware that they should not be leading their own life. Having been captivated by God and his kingdom, they receive with gratitude the gentle and light yoke of Christ.    

Basically, what we find in the first three beatitudes, is what the Apostles would call “repentance and faith”.

When Peter preached on the Pentecost morning, those who heard were cut to the heart. They saw their poverty. They mourned over their sin. “What must we do to be saved?” They asked. 

“Repent, believe, and be baptized” Peter said. In other words. Acknowledge the poverty of your old life, turn away from it, and come under the leadership of Jesus, the risen and ascended King.

And on that day in Jerusalem, many who were poor in spirit received the Kingdom, the mourners were comforted in the waters of baptism, and a few thousand people left their pride behind and came under the leadership of Jesus Christ.

Now what? What’s next? What’s a person who has been transformed by Jesus do? Go back to your old life? How now shall we live?

Well, in Acts, we read that, after Pentecost, the believers came together in a radical new way. They still went to work, but their work was engaged with new focus. They returned to their families, but family life would never be the same. Having entered Jesus Kingdom through faith, they now devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to prayer, to breaking bread with each other. And they held things in common. Whenever there was need, that need was met.

In other words, those who had been transformed by God’s Kingdom, began to actively seek first God’s Kingdom and its righteousness.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Do you see the logical progression here?

The Kingdom of God breaks us down and then builds us back up again. When Jesus gets ahold of your life, he not only brings you into a saving relationship with the Father, but he gives you new hungers and thirsts.

Righteousness.

Righteousness is one of those we find over and over again in the scriptures. It’s everywhere.  And it is a recurring theme in the sermon on the mount, too.

Dikaiosune is the greek word.

Dikaiosune means

  • state of him who is as he ought to be… the condition acceptable to God
  • integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting

To be Dikaiosune involves so much more than avoiding sin. A righteous man is just and true. A righteous woman knows the difference between the good path and bad path, and actively is choosing the good path. 

A little while later in the sermon on the mount, Jesus will say that our righteousness must exceed that of the Religious Leaders. What he means here, I think, is that true righteousness must be more than skin deep. Its one thing to refrain from murdering your neighbour. That’s not so hard. But its a whole other things to refrain from hating your neighbour. And its even harder to love your neighbour, if that neighbour happens to be acting like an enemy.

A truly righteous person is not only refraining from murder, but is hungering and thirsting for hate to be eradicated from their heart.

God is described as Righteous. His righteousness endures forever, says the Psalmist. What this means is that God can always be counted on to act in a right and faithful way towards his people and creation. God can’t be bribed or bought out. He’s impartial. He sees. He judges what is wrong, and actively seeks to make things right again.

Dikaiosune.

Righteousness is a relational term. Its not fundamentally about living up to some abstract standard. Its about rightness in relationships.

Think about the 10 commandments. They were never meant to be an abstract judicial code. Rather, they were given to protect and facilitate Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” I am yours. You are mine. Therefore, have no other lovers before me or beside me.

To break God’s law, its personal. Its hurts the relationship.

To be human, you see, is to be embedded within a complex web of relationships. And righteousness is about doing right by those relationships.

When you came into this world, you were received by your mother. She welcomed you into your family. This is ground zero. Your first relational web. But you were also born into a particular country in a particular city. So, not only do you have relationships with your family, but you also have relationships with your fellow citizens, and neighbours.

And when you go to school or get a job, your relational network grows.

And now, since our world is totally interconnected, you are literally in relationship with people all over the world. The shirt you are wearing was probably made in Bangledesh or Vietnam. Someone over there, pieced your shirt together. How were they paid? How were they treated?

And of course, all of us are in relationship with the earth. We breathe oxygen that is produced by plants. We are dependent on the food that grows. That steak on your plate, it used to be a part of a living, breathing cow. By eating that steak, you are now in a relationship with that cow. You are also now in a relationship with everything that that cow ate, with the farmers who grew the cow’s food, and with the butcher who butchered the cow, and with the grocer, who sold you the steak.

And since the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, that means that all of us are in relationship with the Lord of life too. We’re renters in his creation. He knit us together in our mother’s womb.

What does it look like to live righteously in all these spheres of life.

Here’s a diagram that I hope will simplify things this morning.

These are our primary relationships: We are in relationship with God, with neighbour, with self, and with the world.

In the beginning, all these relationships were in-tact and good. God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. The earth produced nothing but good food. And Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame. The world was a rightly related place.

But the Fall threw a wrench into these relationships. After biting the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid from God and each other. They were ashamed at their nakedness. And then they blamed each other and the serpent for what had happened.

The impact of the fall is felt everywhere in our lives.

Our relationship with the world has been impacted. I mean, you don’t have to be a climatologist to know that this world is groaning under the tyranny of man’s domination. There are continent sized islands of plastic floating around in the pacific ocean. But so long as people need to be elected and the money keeps rolling in, nothing is going to change.

And our relationships with others. Read through the comments section on twitter sometime. Or go and attend a strata council meeting where some tough financial decisions need to be made. You feel relational brokenness at work. There is unforgiveness and jealousy within our marriages and families. Its hard for things to be right in our relationships with neighbours. No wonder loneliness is a growing problem.

And what about the relationship we have with ourselves. We are quite a medicated society. We hurt our bodies with drugs and alcohol. We cover ourselves with Tattoos. We change our voice, our opinions, our identity, to try to fit in with the crowd. We feel so ashamed at who we’ve become that don’t risk the authenticity needed for genuine relationship. 

And what about our relationship with God. Well it seems that humans are inclined to either try to use God for their own ends, or try to discard him on the rubble pile of history.

What is to be done about all these strained relationships? And more to the point for today… How should one who belongs to Christ and Christ’s Kingdom respond to this unrighteous situation?

Well… Jesus says: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In sync are those who long for these little red lines to be erased..

These are God’s kind of people. They get the mission of Jesus, and the Kingdom of God.

We sing a song at Christmas that beautifully describes Christ’s mission. In verse 3 of Joy to the world, we sing: No more let sin, and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make, his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the course is found, far as… far as… the curse is found.

In other words, Jesus mission is to restore righteousness in all these relationships. His passion is to eradicate all those red lines

All throughout his ministry, Jesus hungered and thirsted for things to be made right.  Broken people were healed in his presence. The ashamed were forgiven and restored to community. His passion for righteousness caused him to endure the cross, so that we the unrighteous, could become rightly related to God once again. And through his broken body and poured out blood, he formed a new kind of community. People groups that used to be separate, at war with each other, became brothers and sisters in his name.

And one of the surest signs we have that someone is in a right relationship with God, and part of Christ’s Kingdom, is if that person shares something of God’s passion for righteousness.

I mean…. If you never experience hunger pains for things to be made right, then you are far from the Lord. If all you hunger for is nicer things, warm vacations, personal security, the weekend, then you are far from the Lord. Because your hungers and thirsts reveal you god. And if you never hunger and thirst for righteousness, then the Lord God is not your god.

One of the reasons that I think Cannabis should probably be avoided by Christians—and I’m talking about recreational use here, not medicinal—is because while getting high will make you hungry and thirsty, chances are it will not make you hungry and thirsty for righteousness. People get high for all kinds of reasons, and I know its complex. But one of the main reasons to get high, is to check out for a few hours. To forget about the problems of the world.

But God’s people don’t desire to check out. His people are the people who cry, pray, and ache for things to be made right.

The other day, I attended a classis meeting on the mainland. I met someone there who works for A Rocha in Telkwa. A Rocha is a Christian organization that does environmental advocacy and creation care. This woman was wearing a Tee-Shirt. On it in big print, were the words, “I Love My Watershed.”

I talked to this woman for 5 minutes, and you can tell that she cares deeply for the Buckley River and God’s creation. She was asked to be on a committee, by classis, and she had to think about it for a bit, because she wanted to make sure that joining the committee would compliment her passion for the environment and not interfere with it.

This woman desperately desires righteousness in our relationship with the earth. She is on the right path.

In 1999, a man named Gary Haugen started an organization named International Justice Mission. Gary was on the ground in Rwanda after the genocide. That experience, among many experiences, had a profound impact on him.

For just about 20 years, International Justice Mission has worked tirelessly to liberate girls from the sex industry, and fight corruption in many countries. Gary Haugen has given his life to fight for righteousness in this area. He is on the right path.

In 1989 a pastor named Tim Keller was called to start a church in Mid Town New York City. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he had a hunger to help urban New Yorkers make sense of God.

Redeemer Presbyterian now has over 5000 members. But that’s not what gets Keller excited. What gets him excited is that his church has started a church planting organization that is dedicated to bringing the gospel to urban centres all over the world. In the past 15 years, City to City, has helped to launch 495 Churches in 74 global and growing cities.

Keller’s ache is for people know God and be in a life giving relationship with him. He is on the right path.

These are just a few people. And they are the successful ones. But the point of this beatitude is not success. The point is the hunger and the thirst.

Blessed are those who ache for the world to be whole. Righteous. They are in sync with the reign of God.

I wonder. What causes you to ache? What primary relationship, when broken, causes you to cry? Pay attention to your hungers and thirsts. I believe that God has given them to you. And I believe he is inviting you to spend your life working to restore righteousness to some area of the world.

Only those who ache for the new day, will be satisfied when it comes. And it will come. When Jesus returns, they will fill up at the table of the Lord, and drink deeply from the river of life. They will feast. And weep and hunger no more.

Amen.

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