When You Pray | Matthew 6:5-15

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Everyone likes a good show. Theatre. Movies. Television. A good story line draws us in.  And a good actor has a way of commanding our attention.

Brittney and I are currently re-watching “the Office” on Netflicks. Steve Carrell absolutely nails his role in that show. His portrayal of Michael Scott, the narcissistic boss, is brilliant and hilarious. Brittney and I laugh our heads off. That man deserves a standing ovation.

But what is good on T.V. is not so praiseworthy in real life. Its one thing to play an actor in a show; its another thing to act your way through life.

A hypocrite is someone who acts. Their life has become theatre. They present one way in public, but backstage they are a different person.

In these passages, Jesus is warning us about the dangers of hypocrisy, specifically with respect to our religious devotion. “Be careful,” Jesus says. “Be careful.” Remember your primary audience is God, not your peers. Remember the purpose of your devotional  is to draw closer to your Father in heaven, not attain status within the body of Christ.

Its easy to put on a performance in front of our peers. But our act doesn’t  fool God. God sees the heart.

Because prayer is so central to the life of faith, its an easy target for abuse. Spiritual people pray. So if you want to look like a spiritual person and win the approval of other spiritual persons, all you have to do is talk about your prayer life, say “I’ll pray for you”. Or, you just have to pray at the right times and places, with the right amount of emotional intensity, using the approved buzz words.

“Be careful,” says Jesus. Don’t go down that path.    

Two things are to be avoided when it comes to prayer. First, Jesus warns us to avoid the show. And second he tells us to avoid babbling on and on.

The religious leaders of Jesus day were guilty of showcasing their faith through prayer. They loved to pray on the street corners, and in the synagogues. Many of them in public, not because they loved conversing with God, but because that was a way to secure prestige in their circles.

Now, the Rabbis of Israel insisted that Jewish people shouldn’t pray loudly in public. They were taught to pray quietly to not disturb others. But even a prayer prayed quietly in public, is still a public display of devotion.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praying in public. Its good that we pray together here. Jesus wouldn’t object to you praying before a meal if you’re out at a restaurant.

The question to ask is… what is motivating you? Where is your heart?

Are you praying to connect with God. Or praying to be seen as one who prays?

One way to get at the orientation of your heart is to examine the discrepancies that exist between your private prayers and your public prayers. If you only ever pray in public and never in private, then chances are that you are more concerned with looking good, than actually being a good.

Or how about this… Do you pray any differently when you guests over for dinner? I have noticed that my pre-meal prayers are longer when I have an audience, and shorter when its just me and my family. What’s that about Salverda? What’s going on in my heart?

Showing off with prayer may win you the applause of your peers, but it doesn’t impress your Father in heaven.

Dallas Willard has a pithy way of describing what happens to us when our prayers become theatre. The Ego swells, he says. But the heart shrivels. 

The second thing to avoid in prayer is endless babble.

Babble. You know what prayer babble sounds like, right? Its a lot of religious sounding banter, with little substance. Its a bunch of Christian words hitting the fan and being spewed all about. And the louder the person prayer prays, and the more times they pray it, there better the chances that God will hear it.

1st century pagans practiced this kind of prayer in their religious life. They believed that the way to get the attention of the gods was to keep at it. Keep talking. Keep making bargains with the heavens. They believed that they could twist the arms of their gods through excessive words and sacrifices.

We see this type of prayer displayed dramatically in the showdown that takes place between God and Baal on Mount Carmel in 1st Kings 18. 

The priests of Baal spent hours calling upon the name of Baal. And when Baal doesn’t answer them, they up the ante. They start cutting themselves. They pray louder.

And Elijah just mocks them. Maybe your god is on vacation. Maybe he’s deep in thought. Shout louder!

They do, but still Baal doesn’t come to their aid. In contrast to the prayers of Baal, Elijah prays a simple short prayer. “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he prays. “Let it be known today that you are God. Display your power so that these people will turn back towards you.”

More words, prayed with emotional intensity, doesn’t equal more attention from our Father in Heaven. In fact, those who ramble on in prayer sometimes even treat God like he’s a pagan god. Our Father in heaven doesn’t need to be pestered into action. And we don’t need to work ourselves into a hot and holy mess in order to get his attention. He listens when we call on his name. He knows our request before we even ask.

On the surface, this little detail about God knowning seems make render prayer unnecessary.

Why say things to God when God already knows?

I suppose this could be a hindrance to a robust prayer life. But it could also encourage it. I mean, isn’t it true that we talk most freely with the people that know us best. Your best friend probably knows what you’re going to say before you say it. But still, you share. Still, you talk. Their knowing you doesn’t diminish the conversation. It enhances it.

What this means is that we don’t have to brief God about what’s going on in our life. Instead of getting God up to date, we can focus on pouring out our hearts and making our petitions known.

So, if praying for show, and babbling on are both no no’s when it comes to prayer, what’s the right way to pray.

Well says Jesus… when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:6

The word “room” here is a technical term. The literal translation is “supply room”. Most farms in 1st century Palestine had a supply room. Tools were kept in this room, food supplies. It was a storage closet of sorts. And, since valuable stuff was stored there, it was probably the only room in the house equipped with a lock.

So, it was a quiet place to go. A place you could go and lock the door. Nobody would see you. Nobody would hear you. Just you and God and household supplies.

Jesus words are radical. Israel’s prayer life was always directed towards Jerusalem. Always revolving around the Holy of Holies where God’s presence was thought to reside.

But Jesus says, go to your utility closet and lock the door.

What matters is no longer proximity to the temple, what matters is that your spirit makes contact with the living God, who is Spirit.

Not all of prayers need to be prayed in this secret place. There’s still a place for communal prayer. And a good prayer meeting.

But our gathered prayers need to be rooted in our supply closet prayer life.

I wonder… Where do you go to commune with your Father in Heaven? What is your ritual for connecting. One on one. No distractions.

I have started to schedule prayer mornings, or prayer afternoons into my monthly calendar. This is time set aside for me to connect with God. I journal out my prayers. I ask God questions. I wait. Then I write some more.

Jesus regularly went on prayer retreats. Over and over again in the scriptures we read about him going away to a quiet place to pray.

There’s something about these secret times and places that delights God. He rewards those who seek his face in secret. He shines his face upon those who seek his face in secret

When people seek the applause of others through prayer, their egos swell, and their hearts shrivel. But when people seek the face of God in prayer, their hearts swell, and their egos shrivel.

So, a secret, solitary prayer life is a key piece to a life of Spiritual vitality. 

But when we are communing with God in that secret place, how shall we pray. We know we shouldn’t babble on like the pagans. But how shall we pray?

Pray like this: says Jesus. And please speak this aloud with me:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Matthew 6:9-13

The first thing that struck me about these famous prayer words is their simplicity. There’s no religious babble here. No arm twisting God into action. Just simple requests rooted in simple trust. We want to see God’s fame increase and his Kingdom be manifested on earth. And as we pray for that, we ask God to give us what we need to participate in that mission. Sustenance, forgiveness, protection. 

The second thing that struck me about these famous words is the way that they take us out of the spotlight. Not only is there no babble in this prayer, but this prayer de-centres us. It crucifies the me that wants attention.

We so often use prayer to gain the applause of our Christian peers, but this prayer teaches us to pray that God would be applauded. We spend so much of our lives seeking first our own Kingdom, but this prayer calls us to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will would be done.

The Lord’s prayer dethrones us. It transports us out of our tiny, self-centred lives, and reorients us to God’s mission in the world

But it dethrones us without kicking us out. In fact, it invites us in, to be participants in God’s mission.

Our Father in Heaven. Our Father.

Its no small thing to be able to speak of God using possessive pronouns. To claim God as our own.

The pagans of Jesus day couldn’t do that with their gods. Apollo and Diana weren’t there’s. Appolos and Diana didn’t care about them or belong to them. There was no covenant relationship there.

But Jesus invites us to call his Father, our Father. To approach him, knowing that we belong to him and that he belongs to us.

The whole of the gospel is present in this possessive pronoun.

We who were once far away, estranged from God, have been brought near. The orphans have been adopted. God’s house is now our house. God’s table our table. God’s mission our mission.

How is this so? It is so because God, in Christ, has made it so. Its so because Jesus died to tear down the walls that separate us from God and the walls that separate us from each other. He rose again, the cornerstone of the new house God is building on earth

And with and in him, we can call God our Father.

You don’t have to be good with words. You don’t have to plead with God in order to gain God’s attention.

Rather, you can shut the door to your room, and speak simply to the one who created and redeemed your soul. What an amazing privilege.

Amen.

Heidelberg Catechism. Q and A, 120.

Q. Why did Christ command us to call God “our Father”?

A. To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer what should be basic to our prayer—a childlike reverence and trust that through Christ God has become our Father, and that just as our parents do not refuse us the things of this life, even less will God our Father refuse to give us what we ask in faith.

Advertisements
Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Being Seen | Matthew 6:1-4;16-18

This past week, Elder Terry Huberts and I attended a classis meeting on the mainland. (For those that don’t know, our Church is connected with other CRC churches in B.C.. And twice a year, representatives from each church gather for a meeting. That meeting is called a classis meeting. And that group is our classis.)

It was a fairly uneventful meeting this year. But we did share a neat moment together. On Wednesday, we took some time to honour our clerk.

Andy DeRuiter served us as clerk for 10 years. But on Wednesday, he retired from his post. A few pastors stood up and thanked him. And classis gave him a gift.

It was a special moment. We laughed together. We reminisced. And after the final thank you was said, we all gave Andy a standing applause.

I love special moments like that. It always strikes me that we are walking out onto holy ground when we are taking time to honour people in that way.

To be seen, and to be honoured, it touches something deep in us. Our existence calls out for affirmation. Kids clammer for the attention of their parents. “Watch me, Daddy” the say. “Watch me run. Watch me swim”

We eventually stop clamouring for our Father’s attention. But do we ever really stop desiring it? I mean, how many adults are racing their way through life, unconsciously hoping to secure the love of their father?

The drive to be noticed by our parents and peers is not all bad. We are, after all, notable creatures. The scriptures say that God has crowned us with glory and honour. Every human deserves to be treated as such.

But, while that natural need for approval is creational, it has also been skewed by the reality of sin in the world.

We learn early that it feels good to be praised and it feels bad to be belittled. And, motivated by fear, we spend much the rest of our lives trying to secure praise, and avoid belittlement.

In a word, the fall has made us insecure. Its made us desperate for the approval of others.

In his book, “The Righteous Mind” Jonathan Haidt argues that once humans have secured their most basic needs, they begin to strive for status. Once we’ve secured food, clothing, and shelter, our next major concern is to work our way up the ladder.

And we tend to compete for status in the realms that are important to us, with the people that we compare ourselves to.

As a pastor, I compete for status with other pastors. When one of you tells me that my preaching is way better than the last preacher… man, that feels good. Give me some more of that status juice. But when I talk with another pastor at a pastor’s conference, and he tells me that his church has doubled in size in the last 10 years, then I feel like a failure.

We all play these games in the areas of life that matter to us. But we also play them when we get together as members of the body of Christ.

In our culture, people compete for status by trying to secure higher paying jobs and a nicer home. But, in the Church we compete for status by trying to out-Christian each other with “Acts of righteousness.” We’ll put on a show if we have to. Raise our hands at the right time. Spend hours crafting perfectly manicured public prayers. Leave our charitable giving receipts in strategic locations.

But Jesus isn’t interested in show. Good actions are no longer good if they are done simply to impress our peers.

Be careful, says Jesus, not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. Matthew 6:1

Jesus lays out three different acts of righteousness in chapter 6. Giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. This is not an exhaustive list of “acts of righteousness” but these are central practices in the Christian life. Christians pray, Christians give, Christians deny themselves to become full with God. And Jesus’ assumption is that his disciples will engage in all three practices. He doesn’t say: “If you give, or if you fast.” He says “when you give and when you fast.”

But Jesus’ concern in this part of the sermon on the mount is not the practices themselves. He’s interested in how we engage these practices. He wants us to stop performing for our peers and to start living for God.

When you give, says Jesus, don’t be like the hypocrites, who announce their giving with trumpets.…

Trumpets! Its a funny picture. Trumpets are loud. Trumpets grab your attention. Imagine if, during our offering today, you had a trumpeter come in and toot their horn when it was your turn to give.  Toot! Toot! Cha-ching.

This is a stunt, designed to secure the applause of your fellow Christians.

Most of us don’t play the trumpet, but we all have little ways to let people know what we’re doing with our money. And we feel pretty good when others find out how much we’re giving. Or we feel pretty embarrassed, when others find out how little we give.

But when you give, says Jesus, don’t be like the hypocrites, who announce their giving with trumpets.…

And when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites. They contort their faces. They make it obvious to everyone that they’re fasting. “Ah, I’m so hungry,” they say. “I’ve been fasting for like days. Just working on my relationship with God. What are you working on?”

Hypocrite is the common word in both examples. The Greek word behind hypocrite is hypokrites. And my greek dictionary tells me that a Hypokrites is an actor, a stage performer. Someone involved in theatre. Of course, being a Hypokrites is a good thing, when you’re actually acting in a play.

But real life is not a play. And God is not interested in our acts of theatrical righteousness.

My mentor, Jim, grew up in a Southern Baptist church. His father was verbally and physically abusive at home. But every Sunday morning, Jim’s dad put on his best Sunday clothes, and he sent the best representative of himself to church.

He gave; he knew what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Everyone applauded.  But backstage, Jim’s dad was a troubled man. 

This is an extreme example. But it makes the point. How many of us send the best representative of ourselves to Church? How many of us, on occasional, use devotional practices to try to win the applause of our peers.

But Jesus knows the heart. And our Father sees the motives that move us.

How do we fight against hypokrites? How do we become righteous deep down in our heart.

Jesus proposes radical action. He calls us to fight off vanity with secrecy.

“When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

By this Jesus means, be the opposite of self-conscious. Give the money, and then forget about it. Don’t let others know what your right hand has done, and don’t even keep a record or it within your own memory bank.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a problem with being show-y in my giving. I blast no trumpets. But I do keep a mental record. And every now and then I pull out that mental record, do some calculations and think to myself: “I’m a pretty generous person.” And if anyone were ever questions my devotion to God, I could pull these numbers out in a hurry.

But Jesus doesn’t want us hold onto these numbers.

Just let it go. Keep no physical or mental record. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand in doing.

And “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen;” (Matthew 6:17-18)

Fasting is not about winning the approval of your Christian peers. Its about drawing closer to and living in dependence on God. So, wash your face and do your hair. Try to keep the fact that you are fasting under wraps.

When Jesus fasted, he did so in the privacy of the wilderness.

Secrecy fights vanity. I wonder who you are when no one is watching?

Jesus doesn’t want theatre. He wants us to live simply and authentically before the face of God.

Acts of righteousness, were’t given to us to help us to secure status in the community of faith. They were given to drive us into a deeper relationship with our Father in heaven, and to aid our Kingdom witness in the world.

The reward for flashy faith is the applause of others. Flashy faith reaps the dividend of earthly recognition. And that feels good. But flashy faith will be of no saving good on the day you go to meet with your Lord. For he sees who you are in secret.

The alternative to flashy faith, is authentic, quiet faith. These people often forgo praise on earth. But they live in the joy of knowing that their secret acts of righteousness are seen and applauded by their Father in heaven. And they will be invited to the awards banquet of heaven and earth.

Its not as though salvation comes to them because of their quiet acts of righteousness. No one is saved through works. Rather, the fact that they have their eye on the Father and not their peers is a sign that their heart has been captivated by the living God.

There’s no need to settle for the fickle applause of the crowds, when you finally come to grips with the reality that the creator and redeemer of your soul is smiling upon you.

God is the true audience. And he delights to invite us into his drama of salvation. In fact, he wrote his son into the score, and sent his Spirit onto the stage to unite us with his son, and the mission of the son. Through faith, we get to be participants in what God is doing in the world.

Why settle for the applause of your peers, when you can experience the applause of God.

One of the best parts about being the dad of a 6 month old, is that my smile makes my daughter smile. When we lock eyes, its nothing but smiles. And in that moment its like no one else exists in the world. One day Abigail is going to start looking elsewhere for smiles. But I hope that my smile remains the orienting smile in her life. And more so, I hope she comes to discover the joy of living out her faith before the smile of her Father in heaven.

If you make the applause of your peers you goal, you will live an anxious insecure life, and you will miss out on life with God. But if you make it your aim to live your life quietly, before the face of God, you will find a lasting security, and the affirmation your being so desperately craves.

Brittney shared a story with me this week. And she said that I could share it with you. I’d like to finish with this.

When Brittney was in seminary, she had a professor that she longed to please. Dr. Hamman was his name. She tried to impress him in any way that she could. She worked overtime on his assignments. She tried to sound smart when she raised her hand in his class. Pretty soon Brittney realized that she had developed an unhealthy way of being in relation to this man.

So she shared all this with her spiritual director. Sharon was her name. Sharon helped Brittney see that she was performing for the wrong person. And she, graciously invited Brittney to repent of her sin and receive God’s forgiveness. Brittney did.

And then Sharon told Brittney a story.

The week before, Sharon was worshipping at her church. During the children’s message, all of the children were gathered around the presenter. Everyone was focussed on the teacher. All but one. Of to the side there was a little girl who was looking out over the audience. She was looking at her dad. She waved at him. She smiled at him. He waved and smiled back.

There was a lot of people in church that Sunday, but these two were sharing a special moment together. The daughter deriving joy and sense of worth from her Father, and the Father, simply delighting in the presence of his daughter on the stage.

And I know that this isn’t a perfect example. But in a big way, that’s the way it is.

The Father applauds your simple act of righteousness. He is giddy with excitement as he sees you taking quiet steps of faith. You are seen by him. Live your life out as if he’s the only one watching.

Oh the reward of being found in him, and oh the joy of hearing his voice say: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Love Your Enemies | Matthew 5:43-48

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

Here at VCRC, we understand ourselves to be a family. “Blessed by heritage and grace,” we say, “we are a family of inspired believers.”

Understanding the Church as family, is a metaphor that runs deep in the scriptures. In fact, in very real ways its more than just a metaphor.

Its starts with God himself. God reveals himself as “Father” and invites Jesus’s disciples to call him “our Father”.

And if God invites us to call him our Father, than that makes us his children. “Heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ.” That’s how Paul describes our adopted identity in the book of Romans.

Given this, its not surprising that the baptismal font and the Lord’s Supper table figure prominently in our life together. In baptism, the water breaks on our new birth into God’s family. And at the table, we eat and drink with our Father in the company of our brothers and sisters.

But while understanding the Church in familial terms is rich and accurate, sometimes I wonder if we’re a little selective in how we apply this in our life together.

I mean, here at VCRC we tend to highlight the belonging aspect of our identity as a family. Which is good. But what about the becoming aspect. What about the call to grow up in the faith; to become mature members of God’s household.

As a Father, I want my children to know that they belong. And so I tell them everyday that I am so glad that God placed them in our family and that I am so happy to be their dad.

But belonging isn’t my only goal as a Father. I also want my children to become mature. I want to teach them how to handle their tongues and bodies in appropriate ways. I want them, one day, to be able to hold down a job, to balance a budget, to be a good friend and a faithful spouse.

I can’t, of course, force this kind of maturity on my kids.  But I can’t be passive about it either. I am an active participant in their character formation.

And the same is true for God. While nurturing our belonging, God is actively nurturing our becoming. He is an active participant in our character formation.

What is God’s goal for us? He wants us to be perfectly mature. Whole hearted in our love for God. And wholehearted in our love for neighbour—even when our neighbours happen to be our enemies.

“Be perfect, Jesus says.. as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This verse is totally bewildering, eh? I mean, maturity is one thing. But perfection. As perfect as God. How is this possible?

Part of the problem with this phrase is that the word “perfect” is not a perfect translation of the Greek word: Teleoi.

Teleoi means

  • Completeness
  • Brought to its end, finished.

A few examples might help.

A teleoi tomato is red and juicy and ready to be picked. That’s a tomato in its completed state.

Steph Curry is a teleoi basketball player. Its not that he doesn’t make mistakes, its just that he’s an all around complete package. His shot. His defence. In the realm of basketball, Curry is perfectly mature.

In English, perfection is equated with being without fault or flawless. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. He’s talking about wholeness. Maturity. Being what we were meant to be as God’s children.

Be whole, like God is whole.

Jesus has been encouraging us this direction for quite sometime now. In fact, for the last 7 Sundays, he’s been showing us what wholeness looks like in the community of faith.

Whole is the person who submits himself to the scriptures and lets Jesus be his guide in applying the scriptures. She is weeding out anger from her heart. He is fighting off lust like death. Whole is the community that protects the marriage relationship and seeks to be as faithful to each other as God is faithful to them. Their speech is simple. They mean what they say and they say what they mean, without need for oaths. And when someone slaps a mature member of God’s family on the cheek, they don’t repay evil with evil. But they seek to overcome evil with good.

And finally, a perfectly mature member of God’s family is able to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.

Wow! Love. Your. Enemies.

Love is a strong word. I can understand Jesus wanting us to respect our enemies. To be neighbourly towards them. But Love. Love is active. To love someone is to want and to work for that person’s good, without expecting anything in return.

Agape is the greek word used here. Which means that Jesus is talking about steady, loyal, sacrificial love. God’s love for the world is described as agape. “For God so “agape’d” the world that he sent his only son.”

“God demonstrated his ‘agape’ in this,” writes Paul. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Agape your enemies, says Jesus.

Its one thing to show steady, sacrificial love to your family and friends. That’s natural love. Its easy. Most of the time, you can count on them to return the favour.

Everyone in the human family is capable of this kind of love. But it takes a special kind of power and resolve to be able to show love to people who are out to take you down.

An enemy is not simply a random wrongdoer. This is someone who is consistently against you. The pestering is entrenched. And you have to deal with these people for an extended time.

Enemies come in all different forms. Some carry rifles, drive tanks, and represent an enemy ideology. Others pose less a of a danger to your physical life, but are a risk to your emotional or spiritual well-being. Maybe your enemy likes to hang out by your locker and he pesters you every day your at school. Or maybe your enemy is a toxic boss that makes every moment of your work-day a living hell.

In Jesus’ day, the enemies of Israel were the Romans. They walked over the promised land like they owned the place.

But worse then the Romans were the tax collectors. Tax collectors were traitors. They were Israelites who sold their soul to work for the Romans. So, for those of you who lived through WW2, the tax collectors would be like your neighbours who decided to side with the Germans. How did you feel about those kind of people?

Now imagine living on a shoe string budget, with barely enough money to put food on the table. And then a tax collector comes knocking at your door.

The Jews of Jesus day knew that they were supposed to love their neighbours. But their definition of neighbour was “other good Jewish people”. They couldn’t imagine loving oppressors or traitors.

But Jesus tells them otherwise. “I say to you…. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Be like your Heavenly Father towards them.

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5:45

There’s an evenhandedness to God’s gracious way of dealing with the world. Some call it common grace. God causes the evil farmer’s crops to grow, just as he causes the Christian’s crops to grow. He keeps my heart beating, and he keeps my enemies’ heart beating.

Sometimes we wish that God would just eradicate the toxic people who make in this world miserable. And while its certain that judgement day does approach for the tyrants of this world, in the meantime, God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.

If our Father in Heaven chooses to supply the wicked with daily bread, shouldn’t we, his children, do the same?

About 10 years ago, a French film came out entitled “Of God’s and Men” If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

Of God’s and Men tells the story of 8 monks serving a muslim community in the North African country of Algeria.

The Christian monks have a great relationship with their muslim neighbours. They get invited to their parties, they have meals together. One of the monks, Father Luc, is a Doctor. And a few days a week, he runs a clinic in town to serve the villagers.

As the film progresses, we begin to hear rumours that a radical Islamic militant group is on the move. Most of the film captures the discernment process the monks undergo. We see how they submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. We see them come to the conclusion that they need to stay at their post, in Algeria, and not flee back to France.

One day the Islamic militants arrive at the monestary. One of their own has been shot and is in need of medical attention.

Father Luc invites them in. He forces them to leave their guns at the door, but he invites them in. Then he proceeds to care for the man who has been shot. He pulls out the bullets. He dresses his wounds.

About a month later, the militants return to the monastery. But this time, they haven’t come for aid. They’ve come to arrest the monks, and to take them away. And the Monks are never seen again.

Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.

Sometimes we wonder…. Is that the best approach? Or the only approach to our enemies? What about justice? What about creating good boundaries? Is love for enemy the only mature response for a member of God’s household.

There are no doubt many complicated scenarios and situations that we could engage this morning.

Its safe to say that Jesus is not inviting us to become doormats. Having good boundaries with enemies is important too. Additionally, seeking justice is not always something that is opposed to love. 

And yet, it is true, that the more one becomes whole in Christ, the more one becomes concerned with agape. And as the Spirit transforms our minds, we begin to see that there is no such thing as mere mortals. Everyone and everything is charged with value. And Christ came to put an end to the cycle of sin and violence and redeem it all.

The mature have a poise about them. A resolve deep down in their bones. It was formed in them by God himself.  They remember that they too were once enemies of God. They remember the way that God showed agape love to them. How he sent his son. How they have been brought into God’s covenant family through grace alone.

When your standing neck deep in grace, it becomes easier to be gracious towards your enemy. 

Like the gospel itself, this kind of love is a beautiful thing to behold. There is no power on earth that is greater than a display of love for one’s enemy.

Jim and Elizabeth Elliot met in Quito Ecuador. They were both missionaries there. They married in 1953 and were sent out to minister among the Huaoroni tribe not long after.

Jim was killed by Huaoroni warriors in 1955. Elisabeth was left behind with a 10 month daughter. What was she to do? Shake the dust off her feet and move back to the states.

No, in obedience to God, she stayed put. She befriended a few Huaoroni woman, learned the language, and spent another 5 years actively discipling people from that tribe.

With God’s love at work in her heart, she was able to love the people who killed her husband. They didn’t know what they were doing.

So… how do we do it? How do we love like this?

Well, its important to know that we can’t do it on our own. If your aim is to “Love your enemies” you will fall flat trying.

But if you make your home in Jesus, as Jesus makes his home in you. Jesus will reform you from the inside out. He will renovate your heart. And after a while, you’ll find yourself keeping in step with your Father in heaven.

And that’s a good and liberating place to be. I mean, its such an awesome experience to feel love for an enemy the first time. Its liberating. Now, instead of being consumed with hatred, you feel free from them.

Corrie Ten Boom talks about this feeling of freedom. There she was, after the war, face to face with one of the guards who oppressed her and her sister in a German concentration camp. He was holding out his hand, and asking for her forgiveness. She prayed for the power to forgive. And as she reached out her hand, she felt a release. She experienced the love of God flowing through her.

In moments like that, you experience more than just a release. You experience something like the pleasure of God. And there’s no greater experience for a son or daughter to have than to know that the Father is smiling upon you and is delighted with your work.

So actively living in communion with the triune God is essential. This is where the power comes from.

But it also comes from prayer.

From personal experience, I have found this to be quite simply amazing. If you’re having trouble loving someone, start praying for them.

I literally imagine the person in my mind. Then I start asking God to bless the socks off of them. I pray for their relationships, their work, their joy. I pray that they would come to experience the fullness of life with Christ in God.

Prayer can be a gateway towards love of enemy. But its also a sign that you do love them. You wouldn’t bring them to your Father in prayer, if you didn’t love them.

While love for enemies is important on the interpersonal level, its essential on the communal level. We cannot bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ by fighting holy wars. The Church has tried throughout the centuries, but it has been catastrophic.  You can not win your enemy to the love of God while trying to fight them with the sword.

The battle is won through long-suffering love and love alone. 

I pray that we may become perfectly mature members of God’s family on earth. Lord, empower us to love all, even our enemies, as you have first loved us.

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Turn the Other Cheek | Matthew 5:38-42

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

In the mid 1980s, a Movie called “Witness” was released. The Main character in the film was a man named John Book. Book, played by Harrison Ford, was a hard nosed, but good, police officer from Philadelphia. (Leave slide up till next slide)

Due to corruption in the force, Book was forced to go undercover in Amish country. He went there to protect himself, and to protect a small Amish boy, who was a witness to a murder carried out by a crooked cop.

It took a little while, but Book eventually settled into life in Amish country. He got used to the clothes. They gave him a hat. Everyone seemed to appreciate his work ethic and carpentry skills.

Life was simple for the Amish in Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t always easy. They were often made fun of for the way they dressed and for their insistence on travelling by horse and buggy. Furthermore, everyone in town knew that the Amish were committed to non-violence, so occasionally, people would test the limits of their pacifism.

One day, a group of young trouble makers, approached a group of Amish men. They were taking a break. Eating ice cream on the sidewalk. The young men started to insult the Amish. They jeered at them, pulled off their hats. And then, one of the young men grabbed an ice cream cone and began to smear it in an Amish man’s face.

The Youth’s laughed. The Amish men went quiet. This was familiar territory for them. They were well practiced in the discipline of turning the other cheek.

After smearing the ice cream in one man’s face, the youth tried to do the same with John. The trouble was that John wasn’t schooled in the discipline of turning the other cheek.

Enraged, John broke character and beat the living tar out of this young, unsuspecting punk.

Its funny. But was that the right thing to do?

What would you have done in that situation?

Getting even, enacting payback. That seems to be our natural impulse. You hit me, I hit you. You send me a nasty email, I send you a nasty email.

This tit for tat response pattern is formed early. As soon as my kids were able to crawl they were able to enact revenge. And they do so every chance they can get.

Making the other pay comes naturally to us. Its non-violence and kindness in the face of evil, that needs to be learned.

Let’s sit at the feet of our master, and let him teach us the better way.

“You have heard that it was said,” says Jesus, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” Matthew 5:38

This ancient principle was written into Israel’s justice system. Perhaps its clearest formulation is found in Deuteronomy 19. Speaking to judges, those charged with carrying out justice, Moses says this:

“You must purge the evil from among you… Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:10-21)

The idea that grounds this principle is a good one. The idea is that the punishment should fit the crime. If you steal your neighbour’s cow, you owe your neighbour a cow. If you rear end your neighbour’s car, you owe them a new bumper.

This law taught basic justice. It taught people that actions have consequences. It helped to restrain evil in the land.

Additionally, this principle mitigated against people enacting revenge in an unruly way.

I mean, the experience of injustice produces such a primal response in us. Its hard to react in a measured way. I mean, when someone slashes my wrists in a hockey game, my first reaction is not simply to tap them back. I want to take them down. I want two eyes for the eye that I lost.

That’s how it goes with revenge. But this principle restricted that urge to get more than even.

And its important to know that Jesus isn’t throwing away this principle in the sermon on the mount. The principle is still good, especially when it is followed by those responsible for determining justice.

For instance, Jesus would never tell judges to implement a turn the other cheek policy. Imagine that. Imagine if a corrupt investment manager took off with someone’s life savings. And the judge said to the victim. “That person took your money, now give him your house as well.”

That kind of application would encourage evil in society.

Paul says in Romans 13, that the sword of justice is given to the ruling authorities by God himself. And its their responsibility to make sure that justice is done in the land.

Jesus wouldn’t disagree with this. His main audience is not civil servants carrying out the duties of their office. His main audience is you and me, his disciples.

And disciples, says Jesus, are supposed to abide by a deeper principle. We should be less occupied with retributive justice, and more focussed on creative witness to the radical grace of God shown in Christ.

You have heard that it was said. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:39-42

Do not resist an evil person. Wow! Do not resist an evil person.

The greek word translated “resist” is hard to translate. It means “to stand against” or “to oppose.” The idea here is… when you experience evil or wrongdoing “don’t dig in your heals.” Don’t “put up your fists.” Instead of standing against the evil person, stand against your urge to get even, and engage the evil person.

Its not that Jesus wants us to dismiss evil. To say, “that’s not such a big deal”. No, smearing ice cream in someone’s face is totally wrong and we’re not supposed to shrug that off. But neither are we to repay evil with evil. Instead, we are to overcome evil with good.

Jesus gives us a few examples to fuel our imagination.

If someone slaps you on the cheek. Turn your face, and let the person slap your other cheek.

If someone takes your outer-garment, give them your undergarment as well.

And If someone forces you to walk one mile, walk with them for two miles.

Give to those who ask of you. Even the greedy ones. Don’t turn away from the one who want to borrow from you.

A few things to notice about these examples:

Firstly, notice that Jesus invites us to avoid both the fight response and the flight response. Fighters tend to be aggressive. When they’re slapped, they slap back. Jesus says no to retaliation. But Jesus also says no to people who fight in passive aggressive ways. Flighters. People who check out. People who run away and try to ignore an evil person.

Jesus invites us to a response that is neither vengeful nor cowardly. He calls us to courageous, creative, non-violent engagement.

And the creative aspect is important too. There’s something unexpected about turning the other cheek. And if someone steals your outer garment, and you give them your underwear as well. That’s going to surprise people.

Instead of choosing a cold response to match a cold crime—‘an eye for an eye’— Jesus calls us to throw a surprise party. To show up in a creative way that causes the evil person to take pause.   

These 4 examples shouldn’t be over interpreted. Nor are they an exhaustive list. Jesus gives them to us to help us think about our own lives. Our own situations: How might I show up in a non-violent way, in a way that disrupts evil, and surprises evil with good. 

A good modern example of Jesus’ teaching here is found in a children’s book called “The Hug”. The author of this book is Geraldine Wolters. Great author. Maybe I can get her to sign my copy after the service.

“The Hug” is the true story about a Kindegarten classroom that decided to fight bad behaviour with hugs.

Tim was always acting out in class. He would hit other students and kick other students. He had a hard time handling himself when things didn’t go Tim’s way.

Mrs. Klein tried really hard to manage Tim’s behaviour. She’d talk with him, give him time outs, take away art time. But still Tim caused trouble in her classroom.

Not knowing what else to do, Mrs. Klein invited her class to think creatively about the situation.

“What should we do?” She asked.

“Maybe you could give Tim a time out?” One of the students suggested. “Maybe you should send him to the principal’s office?” Another said.

The trouble was that Mrs. Klein had already tried all these things.

Then, a boy named Matthew spoke up: “What if we gave him a hug?”

“You mean” said Mrs. Klein “that every time Tim hits or kicks, we should give him a hug?”

“Ya” said Matthew.

All the Kindegarteners agreed that this was worth a try.

A few hours later, Tim hit one of his classmates. “Alright everybody,” said Mrs. Klein, “You know what to do!” And one by one they all went over to give Tim a hug.

In no time at all, Tim behaviour had changed. He stopped hitting and kicking.

That’s a creative, courageous, non violent solution. A solution that bears witness to God’s grace.

This is a great example. But of course, life tends to get a bit more complicated the further we get away from Kindergarten. T

I’m part of a dad’s group that meets on Saturday mornings. I really enjoy it. Every week, I have a good conversation with someone. This week, I talked with a new dad named J.J.

J.J. asked what I did and I told him that I was a pastor. “What’s that like?” He asked. And so I told him what I do. I said a bunch of things. But one of the things I said is that part of being a pastor involves encouraging a community to become more like Jesus.

You know, he said. That’s a good goal. But I have a real hard time with that turn the other cheek business.

And then he proceeded to tell me how he had recently been betrayed by one of his good friends. It happened about a year ago. The friend promised something significant. J.J. reorganized his life with that promise in mind. But the friend pulled back his promise. He never followed through.

I could see J.J. working to control his anger.

“J.J.” I said. “You won’t believe this, but I’m preaching on that passage tomorrow.”

“Really” he said.

“Ya… but I don’t have any easy answers to give you,” I responded. “Being betrayed sucks, and its not easy to turn the other cheek.” 

Could this be the most difficult teaching of Jesus. Could there be anything more counterintuitive and contrary to our nature?

If we are to make any progress in putting this teaching into action, we need more than good, creative, ideas. We need a power at work in us that we cannot conjure up on our own. We need Christ and all his benefits; we need Pentecostal fire burning in our bones.

The only way that you can show creative love to an enemy is if you come to grips with the creative love that God has shown to you in Christ. You have to see yourself as the enemy. And then feel the embrace of God in the Cross of Christ.

And what’s more, it takes great security of identity in order to throw a surprise party for your enemy. You need to know, deeply, that your life is hid with God in Christ. That nothing can separate you from his love.

You also need to know that Jesus sits on the throne, and will one day return to judge the living and the dead. Injustice is too real an experience to shake off. One of the ways we can disrupt the anger is by reminding ourselves that its God’s job to avenge, and that he can be counted on to act justly.

We need Christ and all his benefits.

But we also need the Spirit’s power.

Prior to Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples were constantly reaching for the sword. When Jesus wasn’t welcomed in a Samaritan village, James and John asked Jesus if they should call fire down from heaven to consume the people. Jesus rebuked them.

Then when Jesus was being arrested, Peter reached for the sword and cut off a guards ear. Jesus told him to put the sword away.

These disciples heard Jesus sermon on the mount, but weren’t quite capable of putting Jesus teaching into practice. But after Pentecost, things changed. And one of the hallmarks of the early church is that they were known for their love of enemies. They forgave their enemies, took care of their enemies when their enemies were sick, took in their enemies unwanted children, and refused to respond violently to those who persecuted them.

What happened? What changed. They had received the Spirit. The same Spirit that was with Jesus during Jesus’ ministry on earth. And together, with the Spirit’s power in their hearts, they led a non-violent movement that is still impacting the world today.

One of the greatest displays of creative, non-violent action in the 20th century, was the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. became the spokesperson of that moment. And he insisted every step of the way that that movement not devolve into a descending spiral of violence. Instead, he advocated a non-violence approach to witness.

One day, while in prison, Martin Luther King wrote these words:

While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you…Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community… and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

That’s the aim of Jesus teaching. The double victory. The goal is not to heap burning coals on our opponents head, although that may be a byproduct. The goal is to win their heart and to prick their conscious by creative displays of love. That’s how Christ wooed us.

May Jesus empower us all for this radical ministry. Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yes, Yes, No, No | Matthew 5:33-37

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

On the surface, Jesus’ little teaching on oaths doesn’t seem to be that terribly relevant. Especially not after dealing with lust and adultery.

Oaths are something from a bygone era. You could go your whole life without officially swearing a formal oath.

But after reading and reflecting on this passage this week, it strikes me that Christ’s word to us today is an apt word, an essential word. Especially in our current climate of verbal manipulation and distrust.

You’ve heard that it was said, says Jesus, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 

Oaths were a big part of Israel’s life together. They didn’t have paper contracts or ball-point pens back then, so they couldn’t sign on the dotted line. All they could do was give their word; and make an oath to fortify their word.

Oaths were often used to back land agreements and important business contracts. “As surely as the Lord lives” I will respect this boundary line. “With God as my witness,” I will pay you back in full.

Bringing God’s name into the situation added weight to the agreement. And it was a big  deal. I mean, when an Israelite person brought God into the mix, they believed that God would deal with them severely should they not keep their word.

So oath making was part of the culture. And since it had become part of the culture, Moses put a few boundaries around the practice. For instance:

“When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” (Numbers 30:2)

“If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 23:21)

“Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:12)

Essentially, oath-making was an attempt to preserve trust in the community and prevent the communal breakdown that can happen through lies, and broken promises. God allowed this practice to take place, so long as the parties involved actually kept their word. Otherwise, they’d be misusing the name of the Lord, their God.

In Jesus’ day, however the practice of oath giving was getting out of hand. And instead of being used to fortify the truth, oaths were being sworn to blur the truth. The Pharisees, it seems, had became quite strict about the Oath Formula. So, instead of swearing on God’s name, they’d swear upon heaven. This, they thought, avoided using God’s name in vain. But, then that also afforded them an out, should they happen to break their oath. “What, I didn’t swear on God’s name, I swore on heaven’s name.”

So the practice was being manipulated. Jesus saw this happening and he shook his head. “You hypocrites.”

The point of this has nothing to do with the proper formula. The point is to tell the truth and be people who keep your word. That’s the creational intent behind the practice.

And so, Jesus just says “no” to Oaths. 

You have heard that it was said…, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Jesus is simply clarifying God’s original design for us, here. God wants us to be people characterized by integrity. Promise makers. Promise keepers.

Like divorce, the practice of swearing oaths was never commanded by God. It was permitted by God. And it was permitted because we live in a world filled with trickery and deceit. But there’s no need swear oaths in a community that forsakes lies and cherishes integral living.

My wife and I read a lot of books to our children. One of our favourites is Horton Hatches an Egg—by Dr. Zeuss. (Keep slide up till I’m done talking about Horton)

Horton is an elephant who lives in the jungle. He’s a little naive, but there’s no guile in Horton. He’s solid as a rock.

And one day, while walking through the forest, Horton stumbles upon Mayzie, a lazy bird. Mayzie is sitting on her egg. But she doesn’t want to be there. “She’s tired and she’s sore and she has kinks in her legs.” Mayzie wants a vacation from this Egg sitting business. So, she asks Horton to sit on her egg and give here a break. 

Horton doesn’t see how this is going to work. “This doesn’t make sense,” he says, “your egg is so small and I’m so immense.”

But Mayzie insists. “Please”, said the bird, “I won’t be gone long, I give you my word.”

“Very well,” says Horton. “You want a vacation, go fly off and take it, I’ll sit on your egg and try not to break it.”

So lazy Mayzie flies off and Horton climbs up onto her nest.

Time passes. But lazy Mayzie doesn’t return. And so Horton sits and he sits. Summer turns to winter. Horton sits through ice storms and snow storms. All the animals in the jungle make fun of him, but still Horton won’t leave his post.

Eventually, Hunters find Horton sitting on the Egg. They take aim at Horton. Horton cridges, but he doesn’t run away.

When the hunters realize that Horton is sitting on a egg, they get an idea. “This Elephant is funny,” they say, “let’s capture him, bring him home, and sell him for money.”

So, Horton is dragged through the jungle, and he’s put on a boat. That boat sails across the ocean and lands in New York. But even then, Horton doesn’t budge.

Why? Why doesn’t the dumb Elephant just leave the nest. Why doesn’t he say: “this egg is not my responsibility.”  Well, Horton won’t leave, because he told Mayzie bird, that he would sit on her egg. And, says Horton, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant, and an elephant’s faithful 100 percent.”

Mayzie bird swore she would return. “I won’t be gone long. I give you my word.” But really, her oath was just leverage, verbal manipulation. She wasn’t planning on returning. She was just trying to dupe Horton into doing her job.

But Horton said “yes”. And he meant what he said and he said what he meant.

Something like that is what Jesus means, when he says: Let your “yes” be “yes”, and your “no” be “no”.

Don’t swear upon anything. Simply speak the plain truth, hold to the plain truth, and carry out the plain truth.

Truthful speech. Man. So much relies on it. Words facilitate our relationships and create community.

My marriage is held together by the words I spoke to Brittney on August 25th, 2007.

Our country is held together by the agreed upon words in our constitution.

Our Church is held together by the promises that God has made to us and the promises we have made to him and each other.

And when we live into our words, and back up our words with with faithful action, trust is formed, and community is built.

But the opposite happens, when words are used to deceive.

Its not a surprise, that the scriptures call Satan: “The Father of lies”. For its through deceit and verbal manipulation that Satan does his best work.

We see this in the beginning, in the garden. The serpent was so crafty. He approached Eve and asked her: “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”

The answer to this question is obviously, “no”. God didn’t say that. God said that the man and woman could eat from all the trees. All except one. But the serpent is not interested in accuracy. He wants the couple to question God’s word. Furthermore, he wants to get the man and the woman to think that God is being stingy with them.

“Oh, you will certainly not die,” the serpent continues. “God is holding out on you. For he knows that if you eat from that tree, you’ll become like him, knowing good and evil.”

The devil is a powerful being, but he can never force our hand. Rather, he sows lies, and half-truths. He’s a spin Doctor. A creator of fake news. When you’re tempted to sin, he gives you reasons why its not such a big deal.

And when you’re feeling exposed, ashamed, the devil will feed your stories, excuses. He’ll help you defend yourself so that the truth can stay underground, and you self-image can be propped up. 

I don’t know about you, but I have an uncanny capacity to be articulate when I’m trying to keep the truth under-wraps.

Its no wonder that Jesus wants his followers to speak the truth, and do so plainly, with minimal verbiage. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything else comes from the evil one.

Swearing an oath can sometimes be used to fortify or protect the truth. But everyone also knows that oath swearing can also be used to evade the truth or to get an upper hand in an argument.

Its a trump card, really: “I swear to God. I’m telling the truth.” “You have to believe me. I swear on my mother’s grave. I’m telling the whole truth.”

This past week I listened to a Ted Talk on lies and deception. The speaker is an expert in spotting lies. And she said that Liars often use strong language in order to try to cover up their lies.

Bullies follow a similar pattern, when they are trying to get their own way.

After a while, no one listens to the person who is filled with oaths, but lacking in character.

And its easy to point the finger at other people. But look at your own self first. Do you ever listen to yourself talk. How often do you fudge a story? Do you notice how skilled you are at defending yourself when something you’ve done wrong has been exposes or you find yourself caught in a lie?

This past week, someone asked me about my spiritual life, and what I do to nurture my relationship with God. There’s two different ways answer that question. There’s the simple way, that makes me look moderately spiritual. And then there’s the more elaborate answer, that is mostly truthful, but stretched around the edges. But in that version, I come out looking a lot better.

Jesus says. Tell the truth and tell is plainly. No stretch. No spin. Anything beyond the plain truth takes you into Satan’s territory.

If you want to know how serious Jesus is about the plain truth, all you have to do is look at Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

Ananias and Sapphira sold a field, and then they brought the proceeds to the Apostle’s feet. They said that they had brought it all, when really, they had brought most and kept a portion for themselves. Just a little lie. Insignificant in the grand scheme of things, right?

But the Spirit of truth would have none of Satan’s handiwork in the newly formed community of Jesus. It was a little lie that derailed the first creation. God won’t let a little lie derail the new creation. And Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead on the spot.

Mean what you say. Say what you mean. Follow through on your word. May your speech be a reflection of your character. Let your character speak for itself.

Of course, there are times when the society we live in will require us to swear oaths. If you’ve ever taken the stand, for instance, you’ve had to swear an oath. Christians have debated what Jesus would think of this. Some make that case that we shouldn’t ever swear an oath, not even when the government requires it.

I don’t think Jesus is calling us to abandon all formal oath taking in this teaching. What he’s calling us to, is to be a people who don’t have to swear oaths in order to be believed.

And in a world of fake news, fine print, corruption, and trickery, we would really be a spark of light, and a bit of flavour, wouldn’t we, if we could live in such a way that our yes meant yes, and our no meant no. 

Another reason integrity is so important to God, is because God is filled with integrity. He gives his word, and he keeps his word. And his word accomplishes what it was designed to accomplish.

God promised Adam and Eve that an offspring of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. God crushed Satan’s grasp on the world through the death and resurrection of his son.

God promised Abraham that one from his family would be a blessing to the whole world. And here we gentiles sit today, a long way from the promised land, but nevertheless the recipients of God’s mercy shown to us through a descendant of Abraham.

And God promised King David that one from his family would rule on the throne forever. Well after his resurrection, Jesus, the son of David, ascended to heaven and now he sits at the right hand of God.

And all of God’s promises, have found their yes and amen in Jesus Christ. Our faith, hangs on the word made flesh.

And Jesus has made promises to us too. I will not leave you as Orphans. But I will send the Spirit of Truth to live with you. I will always be with you to the end. Behold, I am making all things new.

Jesus meant what he said and he said what he meant.

And we can live with the certainty of his promises today, as we seek to reflect his trustworthiness in the way we speak and live.

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Marriage and Divorce | Matthew 19:1-9

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

I’d like to begin today by saying that these are hard texts to preach. Hard for a number of reasons.

1: Firstly, this text raises more questions than it answers? What is the relationship between adultery and remarriage, for instance. Is remarriage ever allowable. If so, under what circumstances? And why do women seem to bear the burden of adultery if they have been divorced? What about the men?

2: Secondly, the gospels aren’t totally unified on this topic. In Mark and Luke, for instance, Jesus says that God is against divorce. No exemptions. But in Matthew, Jesus says that divorce is permissible in cases of sexual immorality. Paul complicates matters a little further in his letter to the Church in Corinth. He makes applications there, on the authority of his apostleship, that seem to open the door a little further for divorce in cases where an believing spouse is married to an unbeliever. So, in order to do justice to the topic of Divorce, we need to engage all of these different texts. That is something I will not be able to do in the next 25 minutes.

3: And finally, this text is hard to preach because, for some of us, this all hits close to home.  Divorce and remarriage aren’t speculative matters to you. Its your life. And you’re feeling the pain or have felt the pain that surrounds a troubled or ended marriage.

Most of us here can hide our sin and trouble. We can fold it up neatly like a teeshirt, and put it away in a drawer. No one else will ever find it. But that’s not the way it works for those who are divorced. Part of the pain, is that its so public.

So… how does a preacher wade through all this with integrity and sensitivity? You can pray for me.

To begin, I wanted to share something that I have found helpful when it comes to the hard things that Jesus has to say. Its been helpful for me to see that Jesus’ teaching ministry is an extension of his healing ministry.

Jesus is a wholistic healer. He touches and heals bodies—like a good physical should. But Jesus is also a nutritionist. Which means that his words, if eaten and digested, will lead to health.

So as I share Christ’s word on Marriage and Divorce, I trust that these words will be used to bring health and maybe even healing to marriages and potential marriages in our community. This is good food.

So with all that in mind, I want to begin, and spend most of our time together, talking about what is crystal clear in both of these passages. And what is crystal clear is this: God is pro-marriage. And Jesus’ main concern is that God’s pro-marriage vision be dusted off, respected, and not torn apart by insignificant matters.

In Matthew 19, the Pharisees engage Jesus in a little intramural discussion about Divorce.

There were two schools of thought on Divorce, in Jesus day. There were the hardliners and the liberals. These two groups disagreed on how to best interpret Moses’ law in Deuteronomy 24. In that passage, Moses permits a man to divorce his wife, if she has become displeasing to him, because he finds out something indecent about her.

So what does Moses mean by “displeasing” and “indecent”?

The hardliners believed that Moses was referring to sexual infidelity. Only in such cases, on their interpretation, could a man divorce his wife.

The Liberals interpreted Moses in a more open way. Something indecent could be anything that displeased a man. So your wife’s a bad cook. Certificate of divorce. Or your wife can’t have children for you. Certificate of divorce. Basically anything you didn’t like about your wife could be turned into a reason to divorce her.

So, the Pharisees want to see Jesus take a side in this debate. But more than that, what they really hope to do is trap him in a complicated matter. They aren’t really looking for Jesus’ answer. They are looking for a way to discredit Jesus.

Jesus will eventually come close to siding with the hardliners, but first he insists on recasting the terms of the debate in the light of God’s vision for marriage.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

So, there it is. God’s original design for marriage. Let’s unpack this blueprint together. 

The first thing we see here is that marriage is not a human invention, but a divine institution.

Marriage is a God thing.

And yes, of course, its good when governments recognize marriage, but its important to remember that marriage wasn’t created by the state. And this also means that the government can’t simply redefine marriage however it pleases. I mean it can. But as Christians, our understanding of marriage doesn’t get worked out on parliament hill, it gets worked out by God.

The second thing to see here is that marriage involves the coming together of two people. Male and female, husband and wife.

This, of course, raises the temperature in the room a little. But let me start with the obvious first.

Marriage requires two people. A marriage is a relationship between two people. This may seem obvious to all of us. But it should be noted that Solygamy is on the rise. Solygamy is marriage to oneself.

In 2017, Emmajane Love oversaw a solygamist marriage ceremony in Phoenix. 200 women took part. Each woman made vows to herself. And then each woman put a ring on their own finger.

Its good to make promises to yourself. But that’s not a marriage. A Marriage involves two people.

Male an Female. Husband and Wife.

One of the big questions we have to ask about this picture in Genesis is this: Is this picture descriptive or prescriptive. Meaning, is male and female part of the design; a prescriptive reality for all future marriages? Or is this descriptive of how marriages typically work, but marriage is not limited to a husband and a wife?

The trouble for those who wish to go the descriptive route is that each time the marriage blueprint is dusted off in scripture, you find the words male and female.

Our church is currently studying this in earnest, both locally, and denominationally. And as of today, our denomination has said that God’s design for marriage involves the coming together of one male and one female.

If you’d like to learn more about this, and talk about this more openly, I encourage you to come to the conversation VCRC is hosting tomorrow night.

Some see in Jesus use of Male and Female, a subtle critique of the male dominated culture of Jesus’ times. While the hardliners and the liberals differed on their stance on divorce, both camps believed that the man was in charge of the process. Women were never allowed to divorce their husbands. But when Jesus reminds the Pharisees that God made both men and women in his image, he is also subtly reminding them that women are people too. I.E. Not disposable. Equal partners in this thing called marriage.

So, Marriage is a gift of God, designed by God, that involves the coming together of two people, a man and a woman.

Now when I do pre-marriage sessions with couples, I usually spend sometime talking about the leaving and the cleaving aspect of marriage.

For this reason, a man shall leave his Father and Mother and be united to his wife.

First the leaving. In marriage a relationship has formed that takes precedence over the parent/child relationship. A husband doesn’t join his wife’s family, nor does a wife join her husband’s family. Both parties need to detach.

Of course, the command to honour one’s father and mother remains in effect. But the father and the mother no longer get the set the agenda for the newly established couple.

Leaving looks simple enough. But its actually quite difficult. I mean, moving to a new house doesn’t guarantee that someone has left their parents house. In fact, you could even live in an entirely different country, and your mother in law could still be calling the shots emotionally, and culturally, in your marriage.

Additionally, we all bring patterns of behaviour and expectations into our marriages. And these patterns and expectations were formed in our family of origin. A couple needs to unearth those patterns and expectations and decide together what kind of home they want to create. Sometimes this will mean choosing to do things like their parents did. And other times it will mean doing things differently. Either way, you have to decide and not let your Father or Mother decide for you.

A lot of problems that sprout up in marriages are connected to the reality that one or both parties have had trouble leaving their family, physically, emotionally or culturally.

And on the other side, sometimes its hard for parents to let go. It can be hard to watch your newly wed children struggle. And you want to help. And you can. But you have to resist becoming a third wheel in your child’s marriage.

So there’s the leaving, and the letting go, but there’s also the joining together. I like the word “Cleave.” It helps that it rhymes with “leave”. But it also captures the Hebrew and the Greek words too. To cleave, according to Merriam-Webster is To adhere to firmly and closely, or loyally and unswervingly. The greek word used by Jesus is the word from which we derive the English word for glue.

Marriage is a sticking together. A bond.

And this bond is maintained not simply because of the couples love for each other. Love is necessary, but love not sufficient. The glue that holds a relationship together is the promises made on their wedding day.

In his book of marriage, Tim Keller shares that he’s been to wedding ceremonies where the words exchanged by the husband and wife contain no actual promises. The couple simply expresses their love for each other. “I love you. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

But these kind words, says Keller, while nice, aren’t strong enough to glue a couple together for life.  A marriage isn’t held together by nice words. Its held together by vows. I won’t run away when I discover how selfish you really are. Please don’t quit on my when you discover how selfish I really am. I’m going to be there when you turn 80. I will sit beside you in the hospital. Visit you when you have Alzheimers.

To cleave means that Brittney is now my # 1 priority, for life.

And I’m thinking now, that just as God’s design for marriage rules out solygamy, so does God’s design rule out polyamory.  For the truth is that you can’t make vows like this to more than one person.

People say that they can. But I can’t see how it can be. I mean, what happens if one of your lovers gets into a car accident and becomes a paraplegic. Or what happens if you have a child with one partner and that partner needs you every night in order to take care of the baby. How’s that going to work?

A real marriage is exclusive and not open.

Leave and Cleave.

And the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

This is the mysterious part of marriage. A new thing is created. These two people don’t lose their individuality. But they are now one. 1 + 1 = 1. (Frederick Bruner)

We try to picture it symbolically during our wedding services. Two jars of sand are mixed together. And once mixed, its impossible to separate the grains. Two flames come together to light one candle.

One flesh. A lot of things come together in a marriage, but its sexual intercourse that makes a husband and wife one flesh.

Human beings, you see, are a unity of flesh and spirit. And what we do in the body impacts the spirit, and what happens in the spirit impacts the body.

We feel this connection. When you have a headache, for instance, that impacts your mood. And when you have a bout of depression, that impacts the operation of your body.

And so, when you’re sexually intimate with a person, its not just bodies that are colliding. Sexual intercourse creates a spiritual attachment as well as a physical attachment. Oneflesh.

I’m reading this book right now called the Shipping News, written by Annie Proulx. The main character in the book is a man named Quoyle. Quoyle is quite naive. A sorry character, really. He doesn’t have a lot going for him.

But one night, out at the bar, he falls hard for a woman. Now, if he had had any sense, he would have known that the woman he was falling for was trouble. But he didn’t. He was blind to her true character.

So Quoyle and this woman connect. They have sex. They start a relationship. And they have two kids together. But this woman, Petal, is not faithful. She’s sleeps around. She treats Quoyle like dirt. And she does horrible things to him and to their children. Eventually she leaves him; runs off with another man. But as Petal is fleeing with this man, they get into a car accident. And Petal is killed.

The reader is a little relieved to hear about this. This woman was trouble. But Quoyle is totally wrecked. He was deeply attached to this woman.

And no matter how much time passes, the memory of Petal haunts Quoyle. She comes to mind as Quoyle is driving his car. She comes to mind as Quoyle is falling asleep. His body longs for her.

Why does Quoyle dream about someone who treated him like dirt? Ans: Because they had become one flesh.

There’s no such thing as casual sex. And this is because you can’t disconnect the Spirit from the Body. I mean you can, but its damaging to your personhood. When you’re intimate with someone else, your self becomes joined to them in a way that is nearly impossible to shake.

This is why having sex before marriage is… well its not a good idea. And this is why having sex with someone other than your spouse, during marriage, is so damaging.

1 + 1 = 1. This is a mystery that the eyes can’t see. But deep down, the body and the spirit know.

So, Christ’s conclusion makes sense: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Funny story about this statement. A good friend of mine attended a wedding once where this phrase was used. The pastor quoted it after declaring the man and woman to be husband and wife. Except, the pastor accidentally said the word “celebrate” instead of “separate”. “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one celebrate.”  (#pastorfail)

God wants us to celebrate marriage. But he doesn’t want us to separate them.

God’s design is that marriages be permanent. “Death do us part.” Everyone has a role to protecting that. The couple. But also those who surround the couple.

Now, back to the Pharisees. They aren’t really interested in God’s vision for marriage. They want to hear what Jesus has to say about divorce. And so they bring Jesus’ attention back to Deuteronomy 24: “Why then,” they asked “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

To this Jesus responds: Command? Moses didn’t command anything of the sort. Rather, Moses permitted divorce “because your hearts were hard”. But it was not that way in the beginning.

In other words, what Jesus is communicating here is that divorce is not a God-thing. Divorce is a “hard-heart” thing. It’s something that God permits in a fallen world, but it’s not God’s primary game plan.

And, Certainly… Certainly… a man should never ever divorce his wife because she’s had a bad day in the kitchen, or can’t have babies for him.

You need to see, in these passages, that Jesus is standing up for the weaker party. Women were nothing without a husband in Jesus day. They couldn’t own property, it was hard for them to find meaningful employment. Now imagine that you were the wife of a liberal Jew. The wife of someone who believed that anything displeasing or slightly indecent was grounds for divorce.

There’s no security in a marriage like that. Everyday would be a fear-based performance to try to win the favour of your husband. That’s not marriage, according to God’s design.

Husbands, rather, says Paul, are called to love their wives and give themselves up for their wives, just as Christ gave his life up for the Church.

Now, while divorce is not God’s will for marriage, divorces sadly still sometime occur.  And sometimes, its even permissible for them to occur.

But before we go into the permissibility of divorce, I think that its simply important to make a pitch for strong marriages.

What God has joined together, he has joined together for a reason. Love your spouse. Celebrate your spouse. Encourage your spouse. Prioritize your spouse. Serve your spouse. Forgive your spouse.

If your spouse asks you to receive marriage counselling with her, don’t say “no”. Say “yes”. What could be more important?

Its so easy to drift. To become jaded. You can’t tuck away your sin and selfishness, very easily, in a marriage. We expose each other. And its often painful. But its worth the fight.

God didn’t establish marriage to make us happy. Marriage is a means through which God works to make us holy. And that’s where you want to be headed. For your own good, and the good of others around you.

Now Jesus in Matthew, does say that there is one ground for divorce. And that is sexual immorality.

Porneia is the greek word. Porneia is a fairly broad term that captures a wide assortment of sexual misdemeanours. Sex with relatives, Sex with animals, Sex with another person, and so on. Ongoing and unrepentant pornography use would also fit under Porneia.

What is it about sexual infidelity? Why does Jesus add this exception? Jesus doesn’t give us his reasons. But we know, anecdotally, that sexuality infidelity does a number on relationships.

If intercourse if part of the glue that binds a couple together, then sexual infidelity is the razor blade that pulls a couple apart. It hurts. And it makes it really hard to trust again. And a marriage cannot last without trust.

Of course, not every act of sexual immorality needs to end in divorce. Sometimes a couple can work through it.

Brittney had a good friend in University, whose parents had separated due to the husband’s unfaithfulness. But after a few years of counselling, repentance, and lot of conversation, this couple reunited and publicly restated their vows to one another.

It is possible to work it out, but its difficult. And this wouldn’t have worked in Brittney’s friends case, had the husband continued to be sexually promiscuous.

In cases of ongoing, unrepentant, sexual immorality, divorce is a live option for the non-offending spouse. Remarriage is a live option for them too.

Jesus is so brief in these passages. I wish he would say more. We might wonder what Jesus would say about marriages where abuse is present. Or substance abuse and addiction. Or what happens when someone simply checks out of the relationship and won’t re-engage, despite persistent efforts on the part of the other spouse?

Brokenness and hard-heartedness comes in many forms. I truly wish that Jesus would have elaborated on this teaching.

And I know that there’s pain here. Deep pain. Some of you have been betrayed in terrible ways. And it hurts so bad. I just want to acknowledge that for a moment.

But then I want to remind us about what is clear in the scriptures. Its easy to get restless in marriage. But when that happens, let’s hold the vision up. Marriage is a permanent institution. A joining together done by God. And sometimes, often, this means we even need to do the hard work of sticking with it, even when we feel stuck in a less than satisfying marriage. 

Divorce is never God’s first will. But it is something that is permissible in situations where sin has torn asunder what God has brought together.

Its not an unforgivable sin, however. And God’s grace attends the divorced just as God’s grace attends to every one of us who sins and seeks repentance. Healing and forgiveness are found in Jesus name. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.

Obviously, there are many situational issues that arise. If you have big questions and hard issues that you are facing in your marriage. I’d love to be help, if I can. And if I can’t, I’ll try to help you find someone who can. 

Now, to conclude…

I want to finish by stating why marital faithfulness is such a big deal to God.

It’s a big deal because God is faithful. And the marriage relationship was also designed to be a reflection of God’s faithfulness shown in Christ.

In the Old Testament, God made vows to his people. I will be your God and you will be my people. The People responded by promising to be faithful to God. But their faithfulness never lasted. Israel was promiscuous. They fell for other gods. 

But, even still, God pursued his beloved. Over and over again, he pursued them. Eventually, he came to them in a way that they could touch and see.

Jesus left his Father’s home, to cleave to God’s people. He displayed the long-suffering love of God through his life and suffering death. He died forgiving the people that God so loved. And through his death and resurrection a mystery has been opened up to us. Through faith, and baptism, we are now in a one flesh relationship with Jesus Christ.

And that means that nothing in all creation, nothing can ever again separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not famine. Not darkness. Not sword. Not even sin. Absolutely nothing can tear us from the grip of our faithful God.

He is faithful to the end. Let us be faithful to one another.

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Regarding Lust | Matthew 5:27-30

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

This past week I popped in on Meghan and Jakob Kort, and I held their new baby for a few minutes. Liam. What a cutie.

Infants are amazing. They are so small, and helpless. Basically, all they can do in the beginning is kick their little legs, make whimpering noises, and move their mouths in such a way so as to attain milk.

And yet, contained within their small frame is all this potential. Potential that will be unveiled as their lives unfold.

Pretty soon, Liam is going to learn to express anger. Soon after that, he’ll learn how to smile. Slowly he’ll come to experience the full range of human emotion. And one day, a number of years from now, Liam will come to discover that he has within himself, a capacity to be attracted, sexually, to other people.

Humans are sexual creatures. Born with a sex drive. This isn’t simply a by product of evolution, its part of God’s good design. “In the beginning, God created them, Male and Female he created them.” And God blessed the man and the woman and said: “Be Fruitful and fill the earth.”

And when the Lord God saw Adam all alone in the garden, the Lord God said, this is not good. So he created Eve. A helper. A companion. Someone similar to Adam, but different from Adam. A perfect fit.

And immediately, upon seeing Eve, Adam’s creational capacity for attraction was stirred. “Ah, here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

And then the author of Genesis provides us with this conclusion. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”

Sexual desire, and the invitation to unifying, procreative sex is found in the opening pages of scriptures. The bible celebrates this part of us. God celebrates this part of us. It is good!

But while being an remarkable feature of our creaturely life, the gift, says God, is to be practiced within boundaries. These boundaries protect the gift and protect the community.

The scriptures teach us that sex is to be used and enjoyed within the confines of a life long covenant relationship; a marriage. Its purpose is to unify a husband and a wife. To form a bond between them. And connected with this, its other purpose is to be a means through which children are born. Love and procreation.

When sex begins to stray from these ends, problems ensue. And the ramifications can be disastrous.

You don’t have to look far into Genesis to see the wages of a poorly ordered sex life.

When the Angels, or messengers of God, arrived in Sodom and Gomorroh, Lot welcomed them into his home. But then the men of the town surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that Lot let the visitors out. The men wanted to sexually violate these visitors.

Wanting to protect his guests, Lot offered the men his two virgin daughters. (Thanks Dad.) But the men of the city aren’t interested in lot’s daughters. Pleasure is not what they’re after. They are interested in defiling these men through sex. This is a rape scene, not a love scene.

God intended sex to bring people together. It was never intended to be an instrument of defilement.

Jacob’s family also showcases the wages of a poorly ordered sex life.

Jacob had two wives: Leah and Rachel. Leah was jealous of the attention that Jacob gave to Rachel. And Rachel was jealous of the babies that Leah was able to have for Jacob. So Rachel gave Jacob her servant, that she might have surrogate children through her. And then Leah gave Jacob her servant, so that she might have more surrogate children through her.

And Jacob does nothing to curb the jealousy and competition destroying his family. And the impact on his family is huge. It created factions. Favourites. Something that was created to bond them together, was being used to tear them apart.

Sometimes we wonder why God doesn’t put a a stop to polygamy in the Old Testament.

But Jewish Scholar, Robert Alter notes that we shouldn’t be fooled by God’s silence on sexual sin in Genesis. The moral of the story is so clear that God doesn’t need to drive it home. Polygamy is an absolute disaster. It doesn’t go well for anyone. Ever.

The clearest boundary placed on our sexuality in the Old Testament is found the 10 commandments. The command is short and simple: You shall not commit adultery.

The gist of this command is simple. Don’t be sexually intimate with someone whom you are not married to. Interestingly, the emphasis in this command is not the protection of one’s own marriage per se, but the protection of one’s neighbour’s marriage.

The idea is this: Don’t interfere in someone else’s marriage. Respect the fact that your neighbour’s wife belongs to your neighbour. Respect that your neighbours husband belongs to his wife. They have a bond. And maybe their bond has produced a family.

Disrupting that bond, disrupts the marriage, and that in turn disrupts the whole family. And when families are disrupted, the whole community is impacted. More on that next week.

So, hence the command: you shall not commit adultery.

The trouble is that we humans were not only created with a sexual appetite, but we were also born with an imagination. And while its one thing to control our physical impulses, its another thing completely to control the scenes that unfold in our mind.

And as per his usual, Jesus is going to take us deeper. He wants his disciples to possess a righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees. He wants them to not only be skilled at curbing their bad behaviour, but to be good from the inside out.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:27-28)

Of course, it goes without saying, that Jesus isn’t merely talking about men in this passage. Men aren’t the only creatures who commit adultery in their imaginations. However, it strikes me that this command is perhaps especially for men, given what we know about the typical male sex drive.

Anyone who looks lustfully at a man or a woman has already committed adultery with him or her in their heart.

Now, the greek word, “to look” in this passage, is a present tense, active, participle. This communicates ongoing action. So the looking that Jesus is talking about here isn’t a simple glance. This is a lingering look. A stare. An gaze that consumes.

To notice beauty in another human being is not the problem. We were created to notice beauty. And the fuzzy feelings that that produces in us is not the problem either—even if the person you’re noticing is is someone other than your spouse.

I used to think that getting married would radically change my capacity for attraction. I thought, wrongly, that I would only ever be attracted to my wife once I got married. But that’s not how it works. Your capacity to notice beauty and be sexually attracted to other people doesn’t ever really turn off.

And its important to know that that capacity is not bad in and of itself. Its a good part of our created design.

The trouble isn’t the first look, or the fuzzy feeling of attraction. The trouble is what we do next with what we see and feel.

To lust is to engage in willful, desirous, looking. Its looking with the intent to possess, to undress, to consume. Someone else becomes an object in your personal fantasy.

Jesus is hard on the eyes in this passage. But I’m thinking that eyes are only a small part of lust. Eyes often serve as the gateway to lust. But you don’t need to see in order to lust.

One of the most damaging consequences of lust is the way it transforms another person into an object designed for your sexual gratification.

Frederick Bruner—who I quote a lot—says it best: “[In lust] The other person is no longer really a unique human being; she or he is now simply kindling, tinder, a thing; a way for one to enjoy oneself, to express oneself, to feel one’s power.”

It feels harmless enough. Its not like you’re hurting anyone, undressing them in your mind.

But is that true?

Jesus says, Love the Lord your God with you all, and love your neighbour as yourself. Its awfully hard to love your neighbour as yourself, when your neighbour has become for you an object to be consumed.

And there’s an impact on you too. Especially when lust moves from being an occasional slip to a well worn habit.

I mean, how do you feel after a night of looking at internet porn? Its hard to look people in the eye after that, isn’t it. You feel so depleted. Ashamed. Isolated.

My friend who is a counsellor in Hamilton says that Porn even transforms someone’s imagine of God. In his experience he says that people who regularly view porn have a hard time imagining that God could ever be a gracious and kind towards them. Like Adam and Eve, they begin to hide from God because they are afraid of God. They notice their nakedness, and they feel ashamed.

And its sad. We were created to be known and loved by God. We were designed for experiencing rich intimacy with each other. But lust, left to run its course, begins to destroy both of those relationships.

And lust run amok will end up impacting your behaviour too. Just as murder and murderous words grows out of resentment, so do sexual offences and inappropriate sexual behaviour grow out of lust.

It starts with wandering eyes. Then it moves to wandering hands. Then you’re crossing boundaries you never ever dreamed you’d cross.

The Bruce McArthur homicide case has been in the news lately. McArthur killed 8 men over the last 10 years or so. I know his example is a difficult one. He had a complicated sexual history. For years he tried to be straight when in fact he as really oriented the other way.

But still, how does one move from sex to murder. The answer is “one small step at a time.” Keep feeding your lust. Keep fueling your appetite for the next experience. Lust unrestrained, can take you to some very dark places.

And its so deceptive. It always seems that true sexual satisfaction is around the corner. But it never comes. And what satisfaction is found never remains.

Sex promises the world, but it can’t deliver the goods. And it leaves us feeling more empty that we’ve ever felt before.

Some of you know about these dark places. And others of you have experienced the ramifications of someone else’s inability to restrain their lust. In the end people get hurt. The victim especially. But the perpetrator too.

Its no wonder that Jesus proposes severe action to cut lust off before it has a chance to grow.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Sometimes we wish that Jesus could be a little more understanding and nuanced. “I know lust is hard. Do your best. It will get easier.”

But no, Jesus is not nuanced. He’s brutally direct. Better to limp your way through life, then to go running full speed into hell.

I thought about Jesus strong words here for a bit. Why so extreme? But then I remembered my own battles against sin in life. And any time I’ve experienced freedom it is a least partly due to the fact that I stopped lying to myself and I had the courage to start telling myself the truth.

Sin is so deceptive. It will always help you find a way to justify your behaviour. And the only way out is to name reality. Take stock of the actual impact on yourself and others.

The truth sometimes hurts, but it will set you free. Jesus wants you to be free.

Obviously, he’s not actually telling us to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands. His point is simply that this serious issue require immediate and severe action.

If the internet is a problem for you, get it out of the house.

If your smart phone is a problem for you. Get a flip phone.

If your eyes tend to wander at the office, ask for a different view. Or quit your job and get a different job. 

Don’t negotiate with your lust, wage war against your lust. You don’t know where it will take you. You could end up doing things that you’ll regret for the rest of your life. It could take you to the front gates of hell itself.

There are, it seems, a few key weapons that we need to pick up in our war against lust. The truth is essential, but the truth needs support.

Since lust tends to isolate, and since isolation often makes us more susceptible to sin, one of the ways to combat lust’s power is to seek accountability in a community of grace and truth.

I used to be part of a bible study with a couple of guys. And at the end of every meeting, we would ask each other a few accountability questions. One of those questions was, “are you being faithful to your spouse.” For two years, I got asked that question every Wednesday morning.

Man… that was so helpful. And there was no judgment around that table. No fear of being shamed or being pushed away. But also no pandering pats on the back. Just grace, and then truth.

I wish that for you. Sharing your struggle in community can be so healing.

If hope to get a few emails early this next week. I would love to connect those of you who are wrestling. Also, if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with me or people at church, there’s a few AA style groups around for those who struggle with lust and pornography. Freedom is possible. 

Another key piece in the war against lust is setting up barriers in your mind that disrupt the well worn path from attraction to lust. Remember that sexual desire and attraction is natural. A good part of our creaturely life. Its when we dwell with the attraction that we get ourselves in trouble.

I remember in college that there came a day when I made a decision to not make the second look. It became apparent to me just how often I did that. So for a season, I just didn’t do double glances. Its possible to retrain your eyes.

One thing I have done, that has been helpful to me, is that I’ve started to acknowledge beauty when I see it. Name the attraction, feel the attraction. And then, let the person go.

Here’s an example. I was meeting with my Spiritual director the other day. We start each session with silence. Sometimes the silence lasts a long time. This past session, as I was connecting with God in the silence,  the face of a beautiful person popped into my head.

This is ridiculous, I thought to myself. So, I tried to push the face away. But it kept coming back. Then I reminded myself that attraction is not wrong in and of itself. So, instead of pushing the face away, I spoke the truth, “My, you are beautiful.” “I’m thankful for you and how God has made you. I hope you have a good day. Goodbye.”

These are ways that I have worked to disrupt the pathway from attraction to lust. I have learned the truth written by an old monk.

“I can’t keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can stop it from building a nest in my hair, and from biting my nose.”

Build boundaries like that in your mind, and you will build a house that lasts.

I have also found that reading about the injustice found in the porn industry has been helpful for me in my own battle against porn. Mary Lee Bouma, who’s coming here in a few weeks, has done a lot of research on this.

She wrote a frank article that can be found on the “Do Justice” blog of the CRCNA. It’s called: Porn Use: It’s about More than Personal Sin.

Did you know that most women who work in the porn industry rarely last for more than 6 months. The damage done to their body is such that they can’t continue.

Did you know that a healthy chunk of porn found online is produced by pimps who force their prostitutes to create the videos.

Did you know that the porn industry is a big player in the human trafficking world.

As my awareness of the injustice grew, my desire to be free from porn increased.

And the final and most effective weapon we have in the fight against lust, is the gospel itself.

Oh man, if God kept a record of our sexual sins, if he kept record or what happens in our imaginative life. Oh Lord, Who could stand. But with God, there is forgiveness.

Jesus came in the flesh. Meaning that he experienced first hand what its like to wage war against lust. He was stripped naked and objectified. Which means that he also knows what its like to be a victim of injustice and to have his body parts paraded before others. He bore our shame and sin.

He was isolated, so that we who live in hiding could be restored to community with God and neighbour. His body was broken and blood poured out for the complete forgiveness of all our sin. And yes, his blood applies to you too.

Totally and completely clean. That is the message that we have received. That is the reality that can be yours in Christ.

Christ knows that things you’ve tried to bury or leave in your past. The scenes that haunt you at night. He knows you inside and out, and he, out of love, died to redeem you, body and soul.

Together, let us pick each other up, join hands, and walk in the light.

This world needs some sexual sanity. People everywhere are discovering that Lust is fraud. A false god. Let’s show the world the beauty and true power of our God glorifying sexuality.

Amen

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment