The Peacemakers | Matthew 5:9

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word, its peace. Shalom. 

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

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

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

Isaiah 2 contains a similar picture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3: Evangelism.

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

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

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

But we shouldn’t stop sharing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work, Financial Stewardship, Creation Care.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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The Merciful | Matthew 5

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracious correction is an act of mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is now no condemnation that you need fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………

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

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

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Hungering for Righteousness | Matthew 5

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Do you see the logical progression here?

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

Righteousness.

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

Dikaiosune is the greek word.

Dikaiosune means

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

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

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

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

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

Dikaiosune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Those Who Mourn | Matthew 5:5

We’re engaging the Sermon on the Mount this Fall. Together, we’re letting Jesus teach us what it looks like to be a disciple. And together, we’re seeking to listen and obey, and so build our lives on the solid foundation of Christ and his word.

Jesus begins his sermon with a series of blessings.

We’ve been saying that these blessings, the beatitudes, characterize those who are on the right track. These are the people who have been touched by the gospel, and who are living in Sync with the values of God’s Kingdom.

Please stand to receive the world of the Lord. And when I get to the beatitudes, please read them with me. 

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the Meek,   

for they will inherit the earth.

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

Jesus says: Blessed are the meek. Meek is not a word we use much anymore. Its lost some of its currency.

I looked it up in the Oxford English dictionary, and this is its definition:

Meek = Quiet, gentle, easily imposed on; submissive.

Meek people are the ones who don’t speak up in class. In group projects, the meek submit to the group without making a fuss. If someone is walking towards them on the sidewalk, they move out of the way.

If you’ve ever been to a dog park, its not hard to spot the meek dog in the crowd. She is always cowering at her master’s feet; he rolls over on his back when the other dogs start to play rough. 

Meek.

Are these the kind of people Jesus’ blesses in this parable?

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus does say that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Maybe the meek ones are the ones who come in last?

While the easily pushed aside do have a special place in Christ’s heart, I don’t think this is what Jesus means by meek. Not in this beatitude.

You know, most of us are aware of the sin of presumption. This is the sin of thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.

In the 90’s, there was a cartoon on T.V. called Pinky and the Brain. Pinky and Brain were lab rats who shared a cage.

Brain embodied the sin of presumption. He had a one track mind. His mission was world domination.

“What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” Pinky would ask. “The same thing we do every night,” Brain would respond, “Try and take over the world.”

Brain had a high view of himself. He believed that he should be running the world. But, in reality, he was just a smarter than average, lab rat.

That’s Presumption.

In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve presumed to know better than God. God had said: “Don’t eat from that tree.” But through the serpent’s prodding they thought, “Why shouldn’t we from that tree? Its desirable? And besides, when we eat it, we’ll be like God!

Presumption flows out of pride. Its an example of the creature overstepping their bounds and pretending to be boss.

To be Meek, is to eschew pride. The meek do not race after power. They are content with their place.

But this doesn’t mean that the meek are wimps or doormats, or easily imposed upon.

There’s a sin at the opposite side of the spectrum that is nearly as common and just as dangerous as presumption. Let me introduce you another forgotten word: Pusillanimity.

For obvious reasons, we don’t use this world anymore. But its meaning is still important. It means smallness of Spirit. Or Fainthearted. The pusillanimous think less of themselves than they ought.They avoid difficult things for fear of failure. They keep their mouth clothed, when the should speak up.

Think of Symba, in the Lion King. His rightful place in the universe was to rule the Savannah on this Father’s throne. But Symba didn’t want to go back to pride rock to face the challenges at home. He preferred to live the Hakuna Matada life with Pumba and Simon. 

In the parable of the Talents, the King criticizes the servant who buried his talents. “Why did you bury the money?” the King asks. “I buried it because I was afraid” the servant said.

Pusillanimity. Faintheartedness.

True Meekness is opposed to presumption. But its also opposed to pusillanimity.

Perhaps its helpful to think about meekness as resting confidently between these two poles.

The Meek don’t think of themselves more highly than they ought. But nor are they fainthearted doormats. Rather, they are content to be the person that God created them to be. And they have learned to submit themselves to his authority, come what may.

The greek word for meek is “praeis”. This word was occasionally used by ancient people to refer to tamed animals.

Think of a horse. A broken horse. And by broken, you know what I mean right? I don’t mean, a heap of bones on the floor. To break a horse is to make a horse rideable. The goal for a horse trainer is not to snuff out the horse’s spirit. The goal, rather, is to harness the power of the horse, so that that power can become useful in the rider’s hands.

Its a thing of pure beauty, to see the constrained power of a tamed horse.

I find this image tremendously helpful for understanding what Jesus means by Meek. The meek ones are the ones content to let Jesus take the reigns of their life. Their will is not killed, but dialled in. Their personhood is not snuffed out, but broken, so as to become useful in the hands of God.

No one becomes like this, naturally. Meekness, as Jesus defines it, is not a fruit of nature, but a result of grace. If the gospel has not taken root in you, you will fight the halter and spit out the bit. But if Jesus and his Kingdom have captivated your heart, then you’ll let Jesus take the reigns.

It comes down to trust, really. Do you trust the good Shepherd?

The meek do, and they are on the right track, says Jesus. They will inherit the earth. 

Most bible scholars believe that Psalm 37 is the backdrop for the this beatitude. Four times in this Psalm, the phrase “They shall inherit the Earth” shows up.

So what’s this Psalm about?

Psalm 37 engages a real and frustrating problem: Why is it that the wicked prosper? If this world really belongs to the Lord, then why do the greedy get ahead?

The Psalmist acknowledges that this is indeed the case. But then, the Psalmist encourages the one who asks this question to put their trust in the Lord. Here are some snippets from the Psalm:

Do not fret because of those who are evil

    or be envious of those who do wrong;

for like the grass they will soon wither,

    like green plants they will soon die away. Psalm 37:1-2

Commit your way to the Lord…

He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,

    your vindication like the noonday sun. Psalm 37:5-6

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;

    though you look for them, they will not be found.

But the meek will inherit the land

    and enjoy peace and prosperity. Psalm 37:10-11

Essentially, the Psalmist is reassuring the reader that the world belongs to God. The wicked may have their day of fun, but the earth doesn’t belong to them and it will be taken away from them.

It will be like it was during the days of Noah.

Noah, you’ll recall, was made fun of by everyone as he obediently made his ridiculously huge boat. Everyone made fun of him, until the rains started to fall and the flood waters rose. And after God’s judgment of earth was complete, only Noah and his family were left. Only they inherited the earth.

So it will be when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.

The meek have set their heart on Jesus and his Kingdom. They know there’s no need to join the greedy who grab, because the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. And they belong to the Lord. So the earth is there’s.

The meek can commit their ways to the Lord, because they know that whatever happens to them in this life, their lives are safe in Christ, who conquered the grave.

Darrel Johnson says that the meek are anchored in the eternal. I like that. Anchored in the Eternal. They exude a quiet steadiness, and a confident faithfulness. The meek are hardly weak. It takes great strength to resist the crowd and stay true to Christ. The meek are hardly weak. They are the salt of the earth.

Two people in scripture are called meek, and I think we can learn from their example.

Firstly, Moses was called meek. Its almost a little footnote in the text. The NIV has it in brackets. But there is is.

We know that Moses was naturally a little shy. When God called him to lead his people out of Egypt, Moses baulked. He made all kinds of excuses. But God was a persistent trainer with Moses. And slowly, Moses learned to trust God’s leadership.

The context in which Moses is called meek is an interesting one. At a stage in his leadership, the people close to him are starting to question his authority. Aaron and Miriam, specifically, are getting a little tired playing second fiddle. “Why does God only speak through you Moses?” They ask. Why couldn’t he also speak to the people through us?

How does Moses respond to this mutiny from within his ranks? Well, even though this was a shameful thing for Miriam and Aaron to do, Moses doesn’t respond by defending his honour, or getting defensive. Instead, he quietly gives Aaron and Miriam over to the Lord.

And the Lord shows up in a powerful way. The Lord puts these two back in their place, and he even inflicts Miriam with leprosy.

This would be a good opportunity for Moses to say: “Take that, Miriam”. You deserve that. But he doesn’t. No, he begins to pray. And he asks God to spare Miriam.

Moses doesn’t return evil for evil. Rather, he takes the poison out of this situation by praying for the one who insulted him.

One of the hallmarks of a meek man or woman is that they are not quick to defend themselves or their honour. Those not broken in by the gospel fight back, try to save face, and prop up their public image. But those who are yoked to Christ, patiently endure, offer prayer for their enemies, and are forceful with speech only when God’s honour is at stake.

In Sync are the meek; they will inherit the earth.

The other person in scripture who is described as meek, is Jesus himself.

Jesus is the picture of restrained strength. Dialed in power. He did not think of himself as being above God, nor was he wimpy or fainthearted. From day one, Jesus let the Father take the reigns of his life.

They only time Jesus was aggressive was when true worship was being violated in the temple. The money men had moved in, and prayer had been forced out. So, defending God’s honour, Jesus overturned the tables.

When the devil tempted Jesus to trade worship for power, Jesus cooly responded with the word of the Lord. It is written, Jesus said: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.

Perhaps Christ’s Meekness is best seen in his trial, and crucifixion death.

Not my will, but yours be done, Jesus prayed in the Garden.

And when Peter took out the sword to fight the guards, Jesus told Peter to put the sword away. Its not the violent, after all, who will inherit the earth.

Jesus barely said anything during his bogus trial. He didn’t defend himself, nor did he curse the crowds under his breath. In fact, he asked God to forgiven them, because they didn’t know what they were doing.

Anchored in the eternal, Jesus carried his cross. He had the power to come down from the cross. He had the power to call down legions of Angels to fight for him. But he had restrained his power, and was channeling it for Father’s glory. 

He died trusting whole-heartedly in Psalm 37’s promise:

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath…

For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

And of course, God stayed true to the promises made in Psalm 37. For 3 days later, Jesus was raised from the dead. And now, says the scriptures, he sits at the right hand of God. The meek one, on the throne of power.

Dear friends… I encourage you this morning, to let Jesus take the reigns of your life and let him channel your power for good. You can trust him. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

In him, you will find a sublime simplicity. The kind your heart desires.

Under his leadership, you will become anchored to the eternal and not blown back and forth by the winds of change.

Fortunate are the meek. Blessed are they. For they will inherit the earth.

Amen

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

Praise Awaits You | Psalm 65

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Psalm 65 is a communal song of praise. It invites us out of ourselves and calls us to give thanks to the one from whom all blessings flow.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion. To you our vows will be fulfilled. To you all people will come. To you. To you. To you.

This psalm is about God. And I’m thinking that for us, this thanksgiving holiday is also about God.   

Of course, in our culture, thanksgiving means many things. Its a celebration of the harvest. A time to get together with family and friends. These things are good.

But we who believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, we look beyond the things of this world. The harvest, family… all these things come not to us by chance, but from God’s Fatherly hand.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion.

Psalm 65 gives us three reasons why God is to be praised. But before going into those reasons, a word about what it means to praise.

Praise grows out of a thankful heart. Its an expression of gratitude. You praise the chef, because you are thankful for the meal. You give your mom and big hug and celebrate her, because you are thankful for her presence in your life 

Praise is our gut reaction to things that delight us and are valuable to us.

The other day, I made an apple crisp. And when Brittney told our children that we were having apple crisp for desert, my children went crazy. They jumped up and down. They yelled: “Thank you, thank you thank you thank you. Apple crisp, apple crisp, apple crisp.

To praise is to let what you are experiencing on the inside to come out. Sometimes we clap. Sometimes we jump up and down. Sometimes we sing. We are trying to give voice, in a fitting way, to the thankfulness and joy we feel inside.

And its pleasurable to give voice to that thankfulness. You feel alive when you let it out. It feels wrong to be a keep it within. I mean, try not clapping after a soloist nails her part. Its hard not to clap. It feels good and right to let it out.

Its pleasurable to praise, and its also healthy.

One of my friends deals with chronic pain. Its something that she will probably have to for the rest of her life. She’s been in pain for so many years that the pain has impacted her brain. Now she feels pain, even if there isn’t actually any painful thing happening in her body. Somehow, the pathways in her brain have formed to play that mean little trick.

She went to the pain clinic not long ago, and part of her therapy involves trying to reform those pathways in her brain. The only way to do that is to practice gratitude. To express thankfulness. Its healthy to praise.

And it fits our design. The 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus, once said: “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” By this he meant that we are never more alive, never more fully human, then when we are expressing thanks and praise to God. 

And that’s because he is the being of ultimate value. He alone is the worthy of our thanks and praise. We were made to delight in him and to express gratitude.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion. 

Why praise God? Psalm 65 gives us three reasons. 

Firstly, God is be praised, because he forgives and fills our lives with good things in this  presence.

When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. Psalm 65:3-4

You may not know this about Brittney, but Brittney’s favourite day of the week is garbage and compost day. She is overjoyed when the garbage and compost trucks unloads our bins, and she gets very upset if I forget to bring the bins out. Don’t mess with garbage day.

I don’t share Brittney’s obsession with this, but I do get it. I mean, there’s a two week supply of dirty diapers in that garbage bin. And a two week supply of rotting food in that green bin. There are going to get messy and smelly, if we have to wait two weeks more weeks.

Well, it strikes me that sin is a little bit like garbage and compost in our life. It builds up and it begins to stink. You try to keep in contained, but the pile gets bigger. You try to hide the smell from visitors, but eventually it gets out.

Imagine if we lived in a world where sin stuck around, and there was no way to empty the bin. 

God is to be praised, the Psalmist says, because he forgives.

Kippur is the Hebrew world being used verse 3. It means to cover over, or to make atonement for. Perhaps you’ve heard of Yom Kappir—the day of atonement.

In many ways, the day of atonement was the apex of the Jewish Calendar.

The highlight of the day took place in the temple court. A priest would come out with a goat. And then, laying hands on the goat, the priest would pray a communal prayer of confession. The idea was that the sin of the people was being transferred to the goat.

And then, once the prayer was done, the priest would chase the goat out of the temple, and then someone else would chase the goat deep out of the city and into the wilderness.

The whole event was meant to convey the reality that God had dealt with the sins of the people. That “As far as the east is from the west, so far have has he removed our transgressions.” (Psalm 103)

Its such a deep human need, eh? Forgiveness. Thanks be to God that he does not leave us with our trash.

God used the blood of a goat in the Old Testament. But the sacrifice was never final. It was simply a shadow of things to come. But when the time was right, Christ entered the world. John the Baptist summarized Jesus identity and ministry: “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus was driven out of the city. And there in the wilderness, he was nailed to the cross. The one for the many. Atonement. The forgiveness of sins.

Not only did God take out the trash, in Christ, but he has also filled us with good things in his presence.

I mean, those who make their home in Christ, no longer live in a trashy house. Through the Spirit, God has formed a new house. A Holy House. You get new clothing in this house. New brothers and sisters. A set-aside seat at the Father’s table. Good things!

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion.

So God is to be praised for his work in Spiritual renewal. But he’s also to be praised because he is sovereign. This is what’s being communicated in verses 5 through 8.

God revealed his sovereignty when he delivered his people from Egypt. He displayed his power over Pharaoh and nature with the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

And at creation, God displayed his authority by overcoming the forces of chaos and creating habitable order through his word.

You know, scientists have often said that its amazing that we exist at all. A lot of things had to line up just so in order for life to flourish. Get too much closer to the sun, and we’d all burn. Get too much further away and we’d all freeze.

Who do we have to thank for all this? Our lucky stars? Mother Nature?

Not a chance, says the Psalmist. The Lord be praised.

And if we need more proof that the Lord is the ruler of all nations and the earth we need only look to the empty tomb. The Resurrection. That sign has brought praise to the lips of people from every tribe and tongue. People who were far apart, at war with each other, have made peace through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Praise awaits you, Our God, in Zion.

And the final reason to praise God according to Psalm 65, is because God is more than a cosmic orderer, he’s also a gardener.

You care for the land and water it… The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain… You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing. Psalm 65:10-15

Food. It doesn’t magically appear on you plate, you know. You can’t 3D print a turkey. Someone had to prepare it. Someone had to cook it. Someone had to purchase it. The grocer purchased the turkey from the butcher and the butcher purchased it from the Farmer. That Turkey hatched from an egg and the farmer fed it grain. That grain grew in a field that had been planted by a farmer. The seeds needed for that crop came from the previous harvest. There was no guarantee that they would grow. But they did.

Who deserves to be thanked for the Turkey you find on your plate?

Mom and dad probably deserve a little credit. The Farmer should probably be thanked too.

But our thanks, as Christians, can and should go much deeper. Who makes the sun to shine? Who makes things grow? Why is there such a thing called a Turkey?

We can manipulate and influence the things of this world, but at the end of the day, God is Lord of the harvest.

Every spring, I am totally anxious. I plant seeds. But for a few weeks, nothing grows. “It’s not going to work” I tell myself.

But then, by August, I am inundated with vegetables, and overwhelmed with gratitude.

Here is a picture of Joseph and my stash of butternut squash. I picked about 40 squashes in all. I only planted 6 seeds.

He crowns the year with bounty. My minivan over-floweth.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion.

All is good in Psalm 65. The world is as it should be. Salvation, creation, the harvest. Blessed be his name.

For some of you here today, 2018 has been a good year. Maybe you got promoted at work. Maybe you moved to a new and improved house. Maybe your primary relationships are thriving and you feel such joy. Its easy to sing the doxology when the world is as it should be.

But it can be hard to praise during years of drought. Maybe the harvest wasn’t good for you this year. Maybe the year was marked by suffering. There are more lament Psalms in the psalter than there are Psalms of Praise. So you’re in good company today, if you’re struggling to praise.

I don’t know what this year has been like for you, but I do know that we were created to praise. And that one day soon, we will praise the Lord God with a joyful heart and weep no more.

The praise in this passage is future. Praise awaits you, our God. When we get the temple, we’re going to praise like we’ve never praised before. And when we get to the new Jerusalem, we are going to praise like we’ve never praised before. May that day come soon, O God in Zion. May that day come soon.

Amen.

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Those Who Mourn | Matthew 5:4

We are exploring the sermon on the mount this Fall. This is Jesus’ most sustained teaching on what it looks like to live in sync with the reign of God. Together, we’re trying to grow in knowledge and practice. We’re trying to hear, and obey. And so build on the rock solid foundation of Christ and his word.

Before we look at Beatitude #2, a reminder about the beatitudes.

These blessings are descriptive of those who are on the right track. The poor in Spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, they are in alignment with the Kingdom of God. Congratulations to them. How fortunate they are. Blessings be upon them.

Last week I mentioned three preliminary observations that can help us make sense of the beatitudes. I’ll quickly repeat them now, because they are important.

  1. All beatitudes are for every Christian. The goal is to embody not just one or two, but them all. They go together. They’re a package deal.
  1. The beatitudes are not natural capacities, but the fruit of a relationship with Jesus.  These beatitudes are not natural nor the fruit of hard work. They are the fruit of accepting the gospel, and coming under the reign of God’s Kingdom. Beatitude people are beatitude people because Christ has made his home in them and they are making their home in him.
  1. The beatitudes set us apart. They make us different. The values of Jesus’ Kingdom are very different from the values of this world. Disciples march to the beat of a different drum. The poor are lifted up. The mourners are congratulated. This is not how the world works. But this is how the Kingdom of God works!

So, with that in mind, let’s turn to the scriptures. In our reading, we’re going to start at the beginning of the text each week, and then stop reading at the Beatitude for the day. When we get to the beatitudes, I’d like us to read together.

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

This blessing is incredibly strange.

Happy are the unhappy. Fortunate are the brokenhearted. Blessings be upon those who break down and cry.

One begins to wonder if Jesus is actually interested in putting together a winning team. Last week, we learned that his people are the ones who come with empty hands. Now, we see that Jesus blesses those who can’t stop crying.

The strangeness of this blessing is heightened by the grammar.

The world “Mourn” is a present participle in the greek. This means that the mourning is present and ongoing. “Blessed are those who are in mourning,” Jesus is saying. Or, a different way of saying the same thing: “Blessed are those who are in a state of mourning.”

Penthos—the greek word for mourn—is a strong word choice too. To Penthos is to grieve, to mourn, to be filled with sorrow. It was commonly used to describe those mourning the loss of a loved one.

The stoic philosophers of ancient world thought Penthos was a pathology. “Don’t mourn” they said. They key to living a blessed life is to be as even keeled as possible.

But Jesus isn’t interested in the strong, stoical type. His people are open hearted people. Gospel people have hearts that are porous to the pain of the world. Blessed are those who mourn…

Now, to be in mourning, and to grieve, its no fun. Its a terrible pain, literally. Its an ache that won’t go away with Tylenol. Its hard to sleep. Your mind races. The days are dark and cloudy.

Sometimes its even hard to be around people who are in grief. If you’ve ever gone through a funeral line, to try to comfort someone who’s in mourning, you’ll know that it’s a relief to finally make it out the other side.

Deep grief is deeply unpleasant. It usually means that there has been deep loss. Many of you have first hand experience of loss and grief.

But the presence of sorrow can sometimes be a sign of health too.

I mean, as a pastor, I don’t worry about parishioners who break down and cry. I worry more about about the ones that seem unaffected. Its not that everyone needs to be a sniffling mess—everyone mourns differently—but some moments in life do need to be mourned.

An acquaintance of mine lost his mother at a young age. His dad, he told me, never mourned the loss of his spouse. Never shed a tear. He never talked about her again. Instead, he took comfort in southern comfort. And it makes you wonder. How could life have been different for him, if he had the courage, or were given the permission to let out the pain?

It’s not always good for us to try to be calm and carry on. Sometimes we need to be a mess, and let the Lord sort out the rest.    

Some of you were told as kids: “Big boys don’t cry.” And you took that message to heart, because you wanted to be a big boy.

Some of you were told, maybe even by pastors and elders, that to grieve deeply was somehow a betrayal of your faith. A sign that you don’t really trust the Lord.

But to mourn is not to betray your masculinity, your faith or your God. It can be a healthy expression of emotion.

I mean, there are physiological and psychological benefits to mourning. How do you feel after a good cry? Better. Right?

But even more to the point this morning… To mourn, says Jesus, is to be on the right path. The presence of tears and sniffles is a sure sign that the gospel is taking root in your life.

Now, if its true that the mourners are blessed, then I live in a very blessed house. My children cry all the time. Right now, they all want to sit beside dad at the dinner table. And when that doesn’t happen, they penthos all over the place.

This is obviously very affirming for me. But its also annoying. “This isn’t worth crying over.”

Little children fall apart when they don’t get their way. Cry babies. Some people never grow out of the cry baby stage. They mourn, but it has nothing to do with God’s Kingdom and everything to do with the fact that things didn’t get their own way.

This isn’t the kind of mourner that Jesus blesses.

Jesus blesses those who ache for his Kingdom and who mourn over what the world has become. That’s what happens when Jesus gets involved in your life. His concerns become your concerns. His tears become your tears.

When Jesus saw the crowds coming out to him, he was filled with compassion for them.

That word compassion in the greek is splanknizomai”.A simple definition of that word is “To have one’s bowels yearn.”

Jesus saw the crowds, and his guts were impacted. They were hungry and didn’t have food. But that’s not what impacted Jesus. He felt deeply for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

No good teaching. No godly leadership. The elders had dropped the ball. And the people were wandering without direction. So Jesus led them to green pastures and started to teach them.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave too. Why? Well he loved Mary and Martha, and Lazarus was their brother. And he loved Lazarus too. But more so, Jesus wept because he knew that in God’s Vision of things, death is the enemy. Death is the consequence of sin in the world. Jesus felt that sting, and it broke his heart.

Jesus also mourns over Jerusalem. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jesus says through tears. If only you could recognize the things that make for peace. If only you weren’t so blind to God’s plan for salvation.”

Jesus knew that the results of this spiritual blindness was going to be catastrophic. So he mourned over the city that God so loved.

Jesus never mourned because things weren’t going his way. He mourned because the world was not as it should be.

You know, in the 1980s, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a heartbreaking little book called “Lament for a Son.” If any of you find yourselves in a season of sorrow, I heartily recommend this heartbreaking but restorative little book. It will help you mourn.

Wolterstorff’s son, Eric, died in a Mountain climbing accident when he was 25. The book is a series of short journal entries. Its a dad, working out his grief.

Here’s what Wolterstorff says about this Beatitude. Do listen up, this is gold.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” What can it mean? One can understand why Jesus hails those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, why he hails the merciful, why he hails the pure in heart.… These are qualities of character which belong to the life of the kingdom. But why does he hail the mourners of the world? It must be that mourning is also a quality of character that belongs to the life of his realm.

Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death.

The mourners are aching visionaries.

The Stoics say: Avoid grief. Stay calm. Jesus Says: Let the world break your heart. Blessed are you who ache for the new day.

Imagine, if in the face of evil or brokenness, you merely shrugged your shoulders. “Whatever,” “Who Cares” “As long as it doesn’t effect my internet connection.” Such people are far from the Kingdom of God.

Or worse, some don’t mourn the brokenness, but find a way to twist it to their advantage. They profit off the madness.

But Woe… Woe to you who laugh now, says Jesus. For you will weep and mourn later.

Wolterstorff helps us to see that the mourners are those gospel people who cry for things to be made right. He’s exactly right.

But if I could add one other thing cry about, it would be that we also need to cry over the sin that exists in our own hearts. The troubles of this world are not solely out there. Its in here too.

I fear that the Reformed Tradition has probably paid too much attention to the sin within. In generations past, those who sorrowed over their sin were considered to be the most spiritually alive. The goal for the average church goer was to look as serious, downcast, and totally depraved as possible. Some of them succeeded. 

This wasn’t necessarily a healthy Christian posture.

But sometimes I worry that the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way. Sin’s not really a big deal anymore. “Oh, that’s old fashion,” I hear. I’ve had conversations with people and they experience and express no remorse. “What’s the big deal? Its not like a hurt anybody.” But sin is a big deal.

I mean, there’s no need to flog yourself. But a little godly sorrow is an important sign of spiritual health. For the problems of this world aren’t simply out there. We participate in them. We perpetuate gossip and slander in our workplaces. We illegally download things that don’t belong to us. We watch internet porn which is fueling an industry that is using and discarding women at an alarming rate.

It is so important that there is space in our worship gatherings for godly sorrow and mourning. I’m talking to you, worship leaders. Of course, we’ve the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts. And we should express that without reservation. But we also live in a world that is torn apart by sin, evil, and injustice. It falls short of the glory of God. And so do we.

Therefore, we need space for tears of sadness, space for lament.

And sometimes I wonder… Maybe grieving people wouldn’t disappear from our worship community, if they knew that they’d have space during worship to mourn.

Could our gatherings, somehow, provide more space for the ones that Jesus blesses?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Comfort comes to those who weep. For those who weep over the reality of sin, there is the good news of the gospel. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Our only comfort, in life and in death, says the Catechism, is that I’m not my own, but that I belong, body and soul, in life and in the death to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. And he has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.

Richard Foster, a wise man in the realm of spiritual formation, once did a life confession with one of his trusted friends. He shared everything. Every sin. Every evil thought that he could remember. When the confession was over, Foster’s friend put the sign of the cross on Foster’s forehead. Brother, in the name of Jesus, you are forgiven.

Comfort. Gospel comfort now. And you can experience that day. Just look to the cross, and the empty tomb.

But of course, the comfort we experience in this life pales in comparison to the comfort we will experience when Christ returns. On that day, Jesus will restore the world to God’s design. On that day, the tears of the mourners will be wiped away for good.

This summer, a tragedy struck the Christian Community in Victoria. Emory Hutchison, a two year old girl, was hit in her driveway by the family car. She died.

At the funeral, Scott Anderson, Pastor at Lambrick Park, preached on Isaiah 65.

Isaiah 65 is a picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

In that passage, God says: I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days…. Isaiah 65:19-20

Never again. Scott said to the crowd of mourners who had gathered at Shelbourne Street Church of Christ. Never again, not when Jesus returns. Not on God’s holy Mountain.

Never again will cancer ravage our bodies. Never again will dementia tear apart our minds. Never again will we be tempted to twist the truth, tear down a neighbour, or disobey the Lord of life.

Never again will there be in it an child who lives but a few days.

We mourn now, because the world is not as it should be. But one day, the sound or weeping will be heard no more, for the mourners will be comforted.

Amen.

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The Poor in Spirit | Matthew 5:3

This fall, we’re exploring the Sermon on the mount. This is Jesus’ longest teaching on what it looks like to live in sync with the values of the Kingdom of God. And of course, at the beginning of that sermon we find the beatitudes.

We’re going to go through these 8 beatitudes one by one. Today we’ll explore the first one.

Before reading it together, I want to offer some set up.

First Beatitude. What does that mean? Beatitude is an English word that we don’t use anymore. It means “supreme blessedness”. It has its origin in the latin word “Beatus”. In the Latin version of the bible, each of the 8 beatitudes begins with latin world “Beati” (which is the plural form of Beatus). So, that’s why these sayings of Jesus are called the beatitudes.

Beatus means: Blessed, rich, or happy.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Rich are those who mourn. Happy are the meek.

The Greek word behind blessing is Makarios. Makarios is often translated as “happy”. But for various reasons, most translations go with blessed.

Happiness, in our modern world, is understood to be a feeling. But a feeling is not what Jesus is trying to communicate. To be Markarios, is be objectively in a good place. It could include the feeling of happiness, but not always. Those who are persecuted for Christ’s name, may not feel happy about it, but in God’s eyes, they are still, objectively on the right track. There lives have become aligned with the Kingdom of God. And that’s where the Christian most wants to be.

Darrel Johnson, in his book on the beatitudes, lays out a number of creative translations for Makarios.

Congratulations to the poor in Spirit

Right on are those who mourn.

In alignment are the meek.

In sync are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Fortunate are the merciful.

These people are in the right place. The Father is smiling upon them. For they are living in sync with his Kingdom.

A few more things about these beatitudes:

  1. All beatitudes are for every Christian. Its not like some of you are going to major in peacemaking while others of you are going to master meekness. No, the goal is for every Christian to embody them all.
  1. The beatitudes are not natural capacities, but the fruit of a relationship with Jesus. Some of you may think that you’re naturally poor in Spirit, or naturally meek. But none of these characteristics are natural to the human heart, at least not in the way that Jesus understands them. “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” And no one can live in sync with the Kingdom of God unless Jesus is at work in their heart. As Christ makes his home in us and we make our home in him, these characteristics, these blessings, will more and more shape our life. They are not natural to us, but the fruit of our union with Jesus.
  1. The beatitudes set us apart. They make us different. This is due to the fact that the values of Jesus’ Kingdom are very different from the values of this world. The meek don’t inherit the earth as it runs today. And the poor in Spirit are not given keys to places of power. And yet, in God’s Kingdom, these are the people who will inherit and rule. Jesus is forming a new kind of people. His Kingdom is here, in our midst, but it is not yet complete. So the challenge for the Christian is to be in sync with the values of God’s Kingdom, even when that means being out of sync with the ways of the world.

Everyone with me?

Don’t worry, we’ll return to these points in the weeks ahead.

Right now, let us turn our attention to Jesus’ word and the first Blessing. We’re going to read Matthew 5:1-3. But when we get to the first beatitude, I want you to read it with me.

Matthew 5:1-3

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Lifting up the “poor in Spirit” is sort of an anticlimactic way to start a sermon.

Its even more anticlimactic if you think of this less as a sermon, and more of a throne speech. Jesus, Matthew has been clear to say, is no ordinary man. He’s the son of David, the son of God. The long promised King.

Jesus has just preached the good news of the Kingdom, and now’s he’s giving his throne speech. This is his manifesto for life on earth.

You’d think Jesus would start by firing up the troops. 

“We may be small. But we’re mighty. We may not have guns and tanks, but we have heart and soul. Now let’s get out there and show the world what we’re made of.”

But Jesus doesn’t pump everyone up. Instead, he heaps supreme blessedness upon those who feel very inadequate. 

Fortunate are you who have nothing. Congratulations to you impoverished ones; you who bring nothing of value and are totally dependent for everything. Yours is the Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit.

Now in Luke’s version of the blessings, the “in Spirit” part is dropped. In Luke, Jesus simply says: “Blessed are the poor”.

So who exactly are the blessed poor? Is Jesus blessing a social class, the physically poor, or is he blessing poor souls?

You know, in the Old Testament, to be poor meant be lacking in material goods and dependent upon the generosity of others. The widows and the orphans were poor.

But overtime, the word poor began to expand in use and meaning. David, for instance, in Psalm 34, refers to himself as a “Poor Man”. But David’s poverty, here, is not physical poverty. Rather, he’s troubled and in need of help. And so, being unable to take care of himself, he begs God to help.

The Word poor began to be used as a metaphor. We do this too. We say that we’re in poor health, or that we have a poor job. For Israel, to say that they were poor was simply a way of describing their need and dependence upon God.

This is what Jesus means when he blesses the poor.

Jesus is not congratulating those who live below the poverty line, because they live below the poverty line. Rather, he’s congratulating those who see themselves as having nothing of value to offer to God. In fact, they stand in need of help.

Robert Guelich says that the poor in Spirit “are those who find themselves waiting, empty handed, upon God alone for their hope and deliverance.” ~ Robert Guelich

Most kings look for capable people to recruit into their Kingdom. They select the strong, the accomplished. This is how the world works.

But not so with Jesus and his Kingdom. Jesus heaps praises upon those who have nothing to offer. In sync are those who know their poverty, and know they need God.

And the knowing part is important here.

In truth, we all depend upon God each day. For salvation, health, and daily bread. But not everyone knows that. The Rich in Spirit, for instance, feel themselves to be quite capable.

I think of the Rich Young Ruler who came to Jesus. He felt capable. “What must I do to be saved?” He asked. “I’ve kept the commandments. What else must I do?”

He thought he had what it took to inherit the Kingdom. He had figured out how to win at the game of life, why couldn’t he win eternal life applying the same work ethic?

“What must I do?”

This guy didn’t see his poverty. And so, graciously, Jesus deflated this man’s bubble. And the rich man went away poor in Spirit. Little did he know that in that moment, he was closer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.

In contrast to the Rich man, Matthew presents us with the children. The disciples tried to keep these little rascals away from Jesus. “Why should Jesus waste his precious time with them? They have nothing to offer.”

Perfect, says Jesus. “Let the Little children come to me and do not stop them, for to such as these belongs the Kingdom of heaven.” Then he blessed them.

Fortunate are the ones that do not hide behind their accomplishments and wealth. Congratulations to the those who have come to know their poverty, and who come empty handed, like children, to Jesus.

Jesus makes a similar point in one of his parables.

“Two men went to the temple to pray,” Jesus said. “One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you the truth, Jesus said. The tax collector went home justified before God, not the Pharisee. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

You know, if you compare yourselves to others, you’re always going to find someone that’s worse that you. There’s always someone out there who is “more of a sinner”.You can always say: “At least I’m not like them! At least I’m not that bad.”

But only those who are far from the Kingdom of God play the comparison game.

Instead of comparing yourself to others, what happens when you begin to see yourself in the light of God’s glory and holiness.

Isaiah had an encounter with God and he was levelled. “Woe is me,” he said. “I am a man of unclean lips.”

When Peter first encountered Jesus, he fell down before him. “Get away from me, Lord. For I am a sinful man.”

John Newton, the author of Amazing grace, used to think of himself as a pretty good guy. Better than a lot of people, at least. But then one day, while reading a book called “The imitation of Christ”, he had the blessed experience of being levelled by God. And he came to see himself as a “wretch” in need of grace. 

About 3 years ago, I was at my parents place in Ontario. For whatever reason, I was home alone. And suddenly, an aspect of my life was revealed to me, and I saw clearly my own twisted, self-centeredness. A heavy feeling came over my body, and I literally felt like the only appropriate thing for me to do was to lie face down on the carpet.

Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips.

That’s only happened to me a few times in my life. Its awful and amazing at the same time. Awful because it hurts to come to grips with your own poverty. But its amazing, because God doesn’t leave you on the carpet. Never, ever, will he leave a contrite heart facedown on the carpet.

I love God’s word in Isaiah 57:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—

  he who lives forever, whose name is holy:

“I live in a high and holy place,

    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,

to revive the spirit of the lowly

    and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Isaiah 57:15

Do you ever feel like a complete failure? The Lord makes his home with failures.

Do you feel stuck, afflicted and ashamed because of a besetting sin? The Lord makes his home with humble sinners.

Do you feel broken, incapable of turning your life around. The Lord makes his home with the broken ones.

He lives in a high and holy place, but also with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Jesus embodied this in his ministry. He made a home with the prostitutes and the tax collectors, not the Pharisees. This is why the Thief hanging next to Jesus on the cross inherited the Kingdom of heaven, while the chair of the Jewish Sanhedrin did not.   

It can be very uncomfortable to acknowledge your poverty. Even harder to admit it to others. It makes us feel insecure, exposed. And so we hide from others and ourselves. We hide from God. We self medicate with food, drink, pornography, etc… Anything to fill the void we feel. We have all manner of tricks up our sleeve—many of them unconscious—to ensure that we don’t feel or appear poor.

But today I want to encourage you to let down your guard and come out into the light. Let the Lord level you, and then let him love you. It is his delight to lift up the poor, to heal the wounds of the hurt.

Could it be possible that the ones who feel the most out of sync with God’s Kingdom, are the ones who, when they acknowledge their poverty, are closest to the Kingdom.

Its the poor in Spirit, not the proud, that are on the right track. Theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

I’m sure glad that the Sermon on the Mount begins with this blessing. For, as we go through Jesus’ throne speech, there will be many moments when you will feel exposed, and inadequate. Jesus has hard things to say about lust, worry, hypocrisy, etc. His sermon will level you.

But when that happens—and I encourage you to let it happen—then you can return with confidence to beatitude #1.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

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