Concerning Anger | Matthew 5

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ.

Laws are good for restricting behaviour. Especially when they are enforced on a consistent basis.

Most of us wouldn’t consider stealing from the grocery store, for instance. There are consequences for stealing in Canada. And the consequences aren’t worth the risk.

But while a well functioning legal system is good at restraining our bad behaviour, it can’t really retrain the longings of our heart. Laws can limit our bad behaviour. But they can’t make us good.

Those of you who are parents deal with this reality on a daily basis.

Chances are that you have rules in your house. Don’t hit, for instance. That’s a basic rule in our house. Everyday this rule gets broken and everyday Brittney and I have to reinstate the rule and reinforce it with consequences.

The trouble is that there are a lot of ways for siblings to be mean to each other. I can tell them to stop hitting, but then they just do something else, like stick their tongue out or say so “you’re a pooh pooh head.”

Rules are good at restricting our bad behaviour. But they can’t make us love one another.

And if there’s one thing that Jesus is driving at in this section of the sermon on the mount… its the renovation of the heart. Jesus wants his followers to not simply be good at restraining their bad behaviour, he wants them to actually be good from the inside out.

And so, in his moral teaching, he cuts to the heart of the matter.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Recall from last week that Jesus has an extremely high view of the Old Testament. He sees himself as one who is below the law. But he also has an extremely high view of himself. He sees himself as one who is uniquely positioned to fulfill the law the law and pull out its deepest meaning.

Jesus’ high view of himself, comes out loud in clear in the first sentence of this passage.

You have heard that it was said.… But I say to you.

Sometimes, when we’re in discussion with other people we say things like this. “So and so thinks this about such and such. But I say this about such and such.” If you’ve ever written an academic paper, this is the kind of thing you do all the time. You summarize what other people have said, and then you give your opinion on the matter.

And this is what Jesus is doing here. Except the so and so that he’s interacting with is God himself. And the such and such is the law of God handed down through Moses.

All dutiful Israelites knew that lawgiving was God’s prerogative and God’s alone. But here Jesus assumes that role. He has the audacity to position himself beside God.   

By assuming the role of lawgiver, Jesus is showing us his true identity. This is no ordinary man. This is Immanuel. God with us.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder.…’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. 

So, the sixth commandment stands, says Jesus. But its just the beginning. Murderous actions don’t spring out of nowhere. They are formed and nurtured in an angry heart.

Now I think we all know that there is a righteous kind of Anger. Somethings that happen in this world ought to make us angry. The killing of innocent children, for instance. Or torture.

At its best, anger is a passion for justice, motivated by love.

Jesus got angry a few times in the gospels. He got angry at Peter, when Peter challenged God’s will for Jesus’ life. “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus said to him. “You do not have in the mind the things of God, but the things of man.”

On another occasion, Jesus, filled with anger, cleared the temple of money changers and merchants. They were turning God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. And Jesus, motivated by love, was was filled with a passion for God’s justice.

Anger is an important resource in our emotional design. And when well trained and directed, it can be a powerful weapon for good.

The trouble is that most of us don’t have a well regulated relationship with our anger.

In her book on the 7 Deadly Sins, Rebecca DeYoung says that anger goes off the rails “when it fights for its own selfish cause, not for justice, and when it fights dirty.”

She goes on to describe four different ways that our anger can miss the mark.

1: We can get angry too easily

2: We can get angrier than we should

3: We can stay angry for too long

4: We can express our anger in non-restorative ways

It would helpful to go through all four of these points and unpack them all. But I’d like to focus on number 3 today. That is the kind of Anger that Jesus is warning us about in the sermon on the mount.

The greek word that Matthew uses for anger is a present tense participle. The present tense participle is used to describe an ongoing action. The anger that Jesus is talking about here is the anger that someone remains in or continues in. “Whoever remains angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”

Look, anger happens. We’re going to drive each other crazy from time to time. Anger happens in your family. It happens at work. It happens in Church.

But anger turns toxic when its allowed to settle in and make its home among us. When we nurse it, instead of resolving it. Unresolved anger is murderous for relationships.

I once mediated a conversation between a son and his aging, ailing, mother. The son wanted to talk with his mother about life and death and his mother’s plans and wishes. So he enlisted my help. But the mother didn’t even really look her son in the eye. I could tell something was off. So I pushed in a little. And then the anger came out. She hissed at her son, under her breath. Eluding to something that happened years and years ago. “I think there’s something here that you need to work on,” I said. He was willing. But she wasn’t interested. She died a month or so later. Holding onto anger.

Jesus says, whoever remains in anger will be subject to judgment.

I think he’s talking about ultimate judgement here. Judgement day. The day Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. You don’t want to be nursing a grudge on judgment day. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.

And I know its hard. I mean if someone has truly wronged you. Oh… that is so hard to let go of. Even harder to forgive. You feel so justified plotting revenge in your mind. Why let them off the hook by letting go of your anger?

But nursing a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. In the end its you who pay the price. Dwelling in resentment and anger is its own form of hell. It’ll ruin your life now. And it be catastrophic for your life later.

Be angry, says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. But in your anger, don’t sin. Don’t let it take hold. Don’t let it fester and grow.

Anger grows and is nursed in the heart. But it doesn’t tend to stay there. The most common way that anger shows up in our life is in the way that we speak.

You know you’re angry with someone when you start murdering them with your words: Jerk. Idiot. Stubborn A-hole. And I’m being fairly tame here. You’ve whispered much worse when under the influence of anger.

Raca was a derogatory slur in Jesus’ day. If you wanted to mock your neighbour’s intellect, you’d use the word raca. Stupid. Idiot.

And “Fool”. The Greek word behind fool is “moree”. If you wanted to mock the character of your neighbour, you’d use the word “moree”. Shyster. Rat.

Labels like this are convenient for us. After we give someone a derogatory title, we feel justified in treating them like a second class citizen. “Why try to have a conversation with that guy. He’s an idiot.” “Why give that her the benefit of the doubt. Everyone knows that she’s a fool.”

The bible says that every human we come in contact with is worthy of love and honour. God’s word over them is “good”. They are a person of worth and value. But with titles like Idiot and Jerk, we create distance, and it becomes easier for us to treat that person like dirt.

There’s more than one way to murder your neighbour. You can do it with your hands, but you can also murder with your words. Either way, it kills community.

And Jesus will have none of it in his community.

Instead, Jesus instructs us to chop anger off at the knees before it has a chance to fully mature.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24

This is a worship example. Jesus also uses the words brothers and sisters. So, in this example he’s talking about our relationships in the Church.

And its a rather extreme example. Perhaps even a bit of hyperbole. The altar was in Jerusalem, in the Temple. People would come all over Israel to offer their gifts at the altar. Now imagine you lived in Capernum, on the sea of Galilee, a multi-day walk to Jerusalem. And after a long walk, you’ve finally made it to the Altar, with your sacrifice in hand.

Turn around, says Jesus. Go home and be reconciled first. Then come back an offer your sacrifice.

The main point here is reconciliation is to be prioritized. The secondary point is that our worship slowly loses its integrity if we’re not dealing with the issues that are dividing us.

The “you” in this example is accented. Which means that the responsibility of reconciliation is on each of us. If you have something against someone, go talk with them. If you know that someone has something against you. Go talk with them.

Its so easy to point the finger, to put responsibility for reconciliation in other people’s court. I confess to making that mistake on a few occasions.

But what Jesus is saying is that the peace of the community is everyone’s responsibility. Consider it your responsibility to act.

Reconciliation, of course, is not always quick or easy. It can take time. And sometimes rushing reconciliation is the wrong thing to do. But we shouldn’t delay in getting the process started. We don’t want anger to get a foothold.

And the same goes with our relationships with our neighbours. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way…” (Matthew 5:25)

Our criminal justice system is weighed down with many unnecessary cases. Most disagreements can be settled without the courts. It just takes intentionality, good dialogue, and a willingness to absorb some minor injustice.

Perhaps one of the ways that Christians can be salt and light in the world, is by being slow to sue, and quick to settle matters outside the court.

In both examples, speed is highlighted. Jesus doesn’t want anger to gain a foothold.

I don’t know about you, but I find this teaching of Jesus to be tremendously difficult. Frederick Dale Bruner says that Jesus’ moral teaching in the sermon on the mount has a way of driving us back, again and again to the first beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The truth is that anger is going to get the better of us from time to time. When that happens, its important to remember whose we are, and God’s intentions towards us and the world.

God model’s what he commands, you know. He’s good from the inside out. He doesn’t remain in his anger towards us. In reality we are all idiots and fools, and God would be totally justified to dismiss us into oblivion. But instead, out of love, he quickly comes to us in order to be reconciled to us. Jesus, Immanuel, is God with his disciples. Jesus, Immanuel, is God working in history to restore shalom in a world that has been torn apart by Anger.

Yes, we need to join him in this work. Yes we need to be agents of reconciliation as he was an agent of reconciliation. But the power to do this work is found in the gospel itself.

I don’t know about you, but my anger tends to dissipate when have the wherewithal to take a time out and hold my anger up to the light of God’s love. Then I remember my own foolishness, and all that God has done to redeem me in Christ. Then I’m able to see others not as idiots or jerks, but as fellow creatures, made in the image of God. Jesus came to forgive and heal them too.

In addition to this, the gospel is also the declaration that Jesus is Lord. Which means that there is a just judge that sits on the judgement seat of heaven and earth. Nothing sneaks by his heavenly gaze. While I can’t always trust that my anger is properly regulated I know that Jesus’ anger is properly regulated. Vengeance is his, not mine.

I can let go of my anger, because I know that in the end, ultimate justice will be accomplished.

Knowing both God’s love and God’s justice reframes our relationship with anger. It melts it away like the sun burns away the fog of the morning.

And Jesus goes with us as we take this journey of reconciliation together. He sent his Spirit to write the law of God on our hearts, and to empower us to love one another, as he has loved us.

Let’s follow his lead and he continues to renew us from the inside out.

Amen.

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The Law and the Prophets | Matthew 5

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

There’s a bumper sticker that I’ve seen a few times. Its more prevalent in the United States, but I’ve seen it in Canada too.

It looks like this: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

There’s a fair bit of truth in this bumper sticker sermon. The forgiveness of sins is at the centre of the Christian testimony.

Furthermore, since Christians are often called hypocrites, its probably important to remind people that the Church is not a community of perfect people, but a community of forgiven sinners. This takes the focus off of us, and puts the focus on Jesus, our perfect righteousness.

Perhaps its even a good idea to declare this on the back of your car. That way, when you cut someone off in traffic, you have a built in excuse slapped to the back of your car. “Hey, I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

But…. “just forgiven.” Just. In the sense of “Only” or “Merely”? Is that an accurate description of what it means to be a Christian?

I think that most of us are probably aware of the dangers of a works righteousness approach to our relationship with God. This way of thinking says: God will meet me half way, but I have to meet him there. My life has to be sufficiently put together for God to love and accept me.

A works righteousness approach to God is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the gospel says that we were dead in our transgressions and sins, without hope, and then, by Grace, God made us alive again in Christ.

But there’s a ditch on the other side of the road too. The error of easy-beliefism or cheap grace. This narrative says: It doesn’t matter how I live. All that matters is that I mentally ascent to the idea that Jesus died for my sins. And then, I go to Church on Sundays, sing some nice songs. Life is good.

But easy-beliefism misses the point of the gospel too. For God revives people for a purpose. And he calls us to be like salt and light in the world.

Its clear from the sermon on the mount, that Jesus doesn’t fall into the ditch of easy belief-ism. But sometimes it appears as though he gets awfully close to falling into the ditch on the other side of the road. In our passage today, we read: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees… you will certainly not inherit the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

What a strong statement.

The Pharisees, as you may know, took law-abiding to a whole new level of seriousness. One of the hallmarks of that community is that they believed that everyone should practice the Jewish purity laws, even those who were weren’t priests, and even when they weren’t in the temple. Purity was for everyone, all the time.

The Pharisees loved the law so much that they created laws on top of laws, just to ensure that they would not depart from the law of Moses.

So, for instance, in the law of Moses, we read, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. On this day, you shall not do any work.” Its a simple law. Don’t work on the Sabbath. Keep it set apart. But, the Pharisee’s asked, what God mean by work? Can you make soup on the Sabbath? If you see a weed in your garden, are you allowed to pull it?

To clear out the grey, the Pharisees created 39 additional laws to make the law crystal clear. Nothing was ambiguous. They even determined how many steps could be taken on the Sabbath before one broke the commandment. Think about that. They didn’t even have smart watches back then. So, I guess you’d have to count all your steps.

Imagine getting an invite for dinner from a friend. “Well, gee, I’d like to come, but my step count is getting kind of high. I might not be able to make it back home.

In addition to being serious rule keepers, the Pharisees fiercely resisted cultural assimilation with their non-Jewish neighbours. Their very name, “Pharisee”, means “the separated ones”. And so, when the Romans invaded, the Pharisees built walls up in their lives to keep a firm seperation between them and foreigners. No Roman was allowed into their home. No sinner was allowed at their table. Period.

And Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will certainly not inherit the Kingdom of God.” What does Jesus mean?

In order to understand what Jesus is saying at this stage in his sermon, I think we need to take a moment and head back to mount Sinai. This may help us rescue Jesus from the ditch of works righteousness.

Recall the story of the Exodus. Long ago, the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, living in bondage to Pharaoh.

But then God heard their cries and came to the rescue. He established Moses as their leader. And after a fierce battle with Pharaoh, God, through Moses, brought his people through the Red Sea to freedom on the other side. It was a work of shear grace.

But its not as though God liberated Israel so that they could be free in the autonomous sense of the word. In reality, they had merely exchanged masters. They went from being under the cruelty of Pharaoh to being under the gracious sovereignty of the Lord.

And then the Lord leads his people to mount Sinai. And there he makes a covenant with them. And he says to them: “Though the whole world is mine, you are to be for me a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation.”

That is your identity. Salt an Light. A city on the Hill.

And then God gives them the law. And what’s important to know about the law is that its not merely a list of rules meant to protect the covenant relationship. They are also the means through which, when lived out, God will showcase his glory to the nations. By living out these commands, Israel will draw people to God.

Well, with that background in mind, let’s fast forward to the New Testament. Jesus is born. Jesus is baptized. His receives his identity as God’s son. And immediately he begins proclaiming the good news that God’s new exodus is imminent.

12 people hear the call to discipleship and accept the call. 12 people, one to represent each of the 12 tribes of Israel.

And then where does Jesus go? Well, he takes his disciples up a mountain. And then he says to them: “You are the light of the world.”

So before there is any work, there is grace. But with grace, comes a new identity, followed by a clarified ethic for how to live life.

“You have heard it said, do not commit murder. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

You have heard it said, do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in her heart.”

Its important to see the authority that Jesus is displaying at this stage in the sermon on the mount.

On the one hand, Jesus understands himself to be below the law of Moses. In fact, his view of the law couldn’t be higher. “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law” Jesus says. “No way. Every jot and tittle is here to stay until everything is accomplished.”

People were evidently questioning Jesus commitment to the Scriptures. They saw how he was treating the Sabbath; that he wasn’t counting his steps. “What’s next? Is he going to start cutting his lawn? On the Sabbath?” 

“Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law. Every jot and tittle is hear to stay.”

With these words Jesus affirms his strong and unwavering support for the Hebrew Scriptures.

I suppose it goes without saying, that his disciples should adopt a similar stance. If we want at all to be connected to the Kingdom of God, we dare not dismiss the Word of God in our thinking or teaching. Least in the Kingdom of heaven are those that do.

So, on the one hand, Jesus positions himself beneath the scriptures, but on the other hand, he positions himself beside the scriptures. And he makes a revolutionary claim about himself. “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill it.”

That word fulfill. Its a tricky word. The greek word behind fulfill is pleroo. It means: to fill to the full; to consummate; or to bring to full realization. 

So let’s use this baptismal fount as an example. Its nearly full. But now, let me fill it to the full. Now imagine that there was someone here today who was going to be baptized. In that case, this baptismal font would be more than full, but it would be brought to its full realization as an instrument of God’s grace.

Something like that is what Jesus is saying of himself in relation to the Old Testament. I have come to fill it to the full. To consummate its message. To bring it to its full realization as an instrument of God’s grace.

All the themes, all the stories, the prophets and the prophecies, the sacrificial system in the temple. Look at me, Jesus says. All of what God has been up to all these years. It all finds its “yes” and “amen” in me.

No person in history was ever able to fully live the law and the responsibilities of covenant life with God. 

Adam and Eve fell in the garden. The people of Israel turned to idols once they were settled comfortably in the land. Even King David, a man after God’s own heart, made a mess of things. Moses struck the rock and complained against God in the Desert. Elijah, the prophet, had front row seats to God’s power on mount Carmel, but the next day he grumbled and complained to God about being lonely. And he was constantly worrying about his life.

And all the while, as we’re reading these stories, we wonder… How is God going to do it? He promised Adam that one day he would crush the head of evil in the world. He promised Abraham that Abraham’s family would be a blessing to the world. He promised King David that one from his line would rule forever. How is God going to work this out? Who will come and actually live into Israel’s identity to be a light to the nations.

And then a man named Jesus is born. He’s from Adam’s line. But unlike Adam, he doesn’t fall when tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Like Moses, Jesus is a lawgiver. But unlike Moses, he doesn’t need God to write the law on stone Tablets. Instead, he’s the greater Moses who reveals to us the true creational intent of the law. Jesus is the son of David. He displays his Kingly power over demons, nature, and even death itself. But unlike David, Jesus never uses his power for secure pleasure or gain. Instead, he’s the first King in history to actually keep the law of God at his side, and serve his people with his whole heart.

Day after day, in the Old Testament, priests were busy in the temple. They were interceding. Offering sacrifices. Tending to the relationship between God and humanity. But then Jesus, the great high priest, made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. And he didn’t offer a bull or a lamb. Instead, he offered himself. Jesus the great high priest, and the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, Jesus says. I have come to fill it to the full.

The good news of the gospel, friends, is that now there is a righteousness available to us that far exceeds that of the Pharisees. Its the righteousness of Christ that is ours through Faith.

Jesus was the one child of Adam who didn’t deserve death. He lived the law and its demands. But he willing laid down his life, on our behalf, taking our sin and the consequences of our sin on himself. So that we could find peace with God.

I’m not perfect, but Jesus is. And his perfection is mine through faith. And so it is, or could be, for you too.

But that’s not the end of the story. For after Jesus was raised from the dead and after he ascended into heaven, he poured out his Spirit. And that Spirit seizes us and empowers us to be salt and light and light in the world. The Spirit also writes the law of God on our hearts.

The problems with the Pharisees, is that while they made a big deal about the law, their righteousness was only skin deep.

Keeping the Sabbath is not about how many steps you take. Its about resting from one’s evil ways and setting aside time to delight in God and rest in his providence.

And being pure isn’t about how often you wash yourself, and its not about the height of the walls that you surround yourself with. Its about purity of heart. Serving God with an undivided will. And simply embodying his call to be a light in the world, come what may.

The Pharisees thought they were erecting walls too keep themselves righteous. But in reality they were boxing the light in and so missing the entire point of the law.

You can’t see the light emanating from a city built on a hill, if the people who live in that city put huge walls up around the city.

This is why Jesus engages both the Romans and the Sinners. He’s the consummate  Israelite. He’s letting the light of God shine before others.

So not only is our righteousness greater than the Pharisees, because we have the righteousness of Christ through faith. But also, through the Spirit’s power, we are being renewed from the inside out and empowered to live the true creational intent of the law in our lives.

I have don’t have a bumper sticker on the back of my car. But if I did, I’d want it to read:

I’m not perfect, but I’m hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Or,

I’m not perfect, but I’m being perfected.

Over the next few weeks, Jesus is going to teach us what that looks like to live righteousness life. But to end this sermon, I simply want to return to the font.

Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fill it to the full. To consummate its message. To make it an instrument of Grace.

And he calls to you, and he invites you our on a journey of spiritual transformation and renewal. Come to me and rest. Come and build your life on me. Together, we will showcase the beauty of God’s ways in the world.

Amen

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Herod | Matthew 2

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

The Christmas character in the spotlight today doesn’t really help to get us in the Christmas Spirit. He’s anti-Christmas—like the White which in Narnia, or the Grinch on mount crumpit.

He was known as Herod the Great. But there isn’t really anything great about him.

Herod was born in 73 B.C. His Father was an Idumean, and his Mother was an Arabian. His Father, Antipater the 2nd was a political opportunist. His strategy was to target weak people in power and to try gain power for himself through them. He found a man named Hyrcanus [Hercanus] and Antipas made great political strides working with him.

Hyrcanus and Antipater were skilled at making friends in high places. They partnered with the Roman general Pompey, and through Pompey’s influence, they became the heads of state in Judea.

Then, when Julius Ceasar killed Pompey in Egypt, they partnered with Julius Ceasar. Under Julius Caesar’s rule, Antipater became the governor of Judea. His goal was to turn his family into a political dynasty. And so, once installed, he quickly gave his sons positions of power. Herod, his second son, was appointed governor of Galilee.

If you know anything about the Political situation in Rome at this time, you’ll know that it was a mess. Julius Ceasar was emperor when Herod was governor of Galilee. But soon after Herod was installed, Julius Ceasar was assassinated. And after his assassination, there was this big fight for power between Marc Antony and Octavian.

This battle lasted for quite a while. Initially, Herod partnered with Marc Antony. But when Antony lost a big battle in Egypt and took his own life, Herod skillfully switched to Octavian.

That was not an easy political pivot to make. But Herod, the opportunist like his Father, somehow made friends with Octavian. This alliance was a good one for Herod. Because soon after, Octavian was coronated Ceasar Augustus.

Meanwhile in Judea, and with help from Rome, Herod managed to secure the throne in Jerusalem. Once enthroned, his goal was the same as his Father. He wanted to create a Family Dynasty.

To do this, Herod had a defensive game and an offensive game.

His defence involved killing anyone who threatened his power.

His offence involved building great buildings and monuments for himself. He built auditoriums for entertainment, temples for worship, and ports for trade. He also rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Herod knew that he could score points with the Jews, if he built them a beautiful temple. So that’s what he did.

Herod had a long career as King over Judea. He ruled for 40 years. 

Things unravelled at the end of Herod’s life, though. He had 10 wives, and each of his wives wanted their son to the next King.

Herod ended up killing 3 of his sons and one of his wives in his mad drive to retain power. It is rumoured that Ceasar Augustus once said this of Herod: “It is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.” At least the pigs had a chance.

Herod was out for Herod. He was narcissistic and paranoid.

As Herod neared death, his main worry was that the people of his Kingdom wouldn’t mourn his passing. So, to ensure that they would mourn, he ordered that notable and popular people from all over his territory be brought to Jericho, where he was staying. And then he ordered that those notable people be put to death on the day that he died. That way, he would ensure his people would mourn on the day of his death.

Twisted right? Totally twisted.

Its no wonder that all of Jerusalem was disturbed when Herod was disturbed. You just never knew what he was going to do.

Now, enter the Magi. They arrive in Jerusalem at the tail end of Herod’s rule. And there question for him is this: “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star and have come to worship him.”

You can just imagine the horrified look on Herod’s face. “A new King has been born, eh. Born king of the Jews.”

Herod, of course, was accustomed to defending his power. But this threat was a new threat. The Magi said that this child was born “King of the Jews”.

Not surprisingly, Herod takes this threat seriously. His first move is to gather information. So he calls together the Bible Scholars of Israel.

Being Jewish, for all intents and purposes, Herod knew that the Hebrew scriptures spoke of a day when a new King would be born in Israel. A Messiah. Its interesting, I think, that while the Magi are simply looking for a new King, Herod is more specific. He wants to know where the Christ, or the Messiah will be born.

The Magi don’t know about the Messiah, but they’ve come to worship him. Herod knows about the Messiah, but he doesn’t want him around.

Its ironic, I think, that Herod trusts the scriptures enough to consult them. But, while he trusts them, he doesn’t want them to come true. He consults the scriptures in order to try to thwart the scriptures. This reveals Herod’s heart. Not all who search the scriptures are friends of God.

The Bible scholars, direct Herod’s attention to Bethlehem. “This is the place where the Messiah is to be born,” they say.

Taking this security threat seriously, Herod calls the Magi back for a secret meeting. Secret. Let’s just keep this between me and you. Later in the gospel Jesus will call his disciples to proclaim this message from the mountaintops. But Herod would like to keep this story under a bushel.

Before telling the Magi about Bethlehem, Herod asks them a question. He wants to know when they first saw the star. This reveals that Herod not only has a plan A forming in his mind, but a plan B as well.

Plan A is to have the Magi return to Jerusalem and give away the position of the new born King. That way, Herod can send a hit man to Bethlehem. Clean and simple. But Herod’s been in politics long enough to know that Plan A’s don’t always work. So he forms plan B. If he knows how long the star has been around, he’ll know the age of the babies that need to be exterminated.

Herod thinks he has this little Messiah problem completely under control. Little does he know who he’s up against.

When it becomes clear that the Magi aren’t coming back, Herod quickly implements plan B. That night in Bethlehem, every boy, 2 years of age and under, was put to death. That night in Bethlehem, the tears of parents flowed through the streets with the blood of their children.

But Herod didn’t get his man. Having been warned in a dream, Jesus and his family were safely on their way to Egypt.

We don’t usually spend time thinking about Herod at Christmas. But today I think its important that we do. Its important to remember that not everyone is excited for earth to receive her rightful King.

From the beginning of his life to the end of his ministry, Jesus faced opposition. The Devil sought to throw him off course. The people from his home town laughed him out of the Synagogue. The religious leaders hated him from the moment he opened his mouth. Many were attracted to him, the poor, the sick, those hungry for forgiveness. But many more, like Herod, were repelled.

Simeon predicted all this on the day that Jesus was presented in the temple for circumcision.

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35

Jesus himself acknowledged the divisive nature of his presence on earth. In a sermon to his disciples Jesus said this:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” Matthew 10:34-35

What does this mean? We usually think of Jesus as being one who unites. The prince of peace. This is true. In Christ there is no Jew of Greek, Slave or Free, Male of female. One time enemies are now members of the same household.

Its true that Jesus will be a reconciler, but Jesus will also divide. We see this in his ministry. Some are attracted. Others are repelled.

Peter describes Jesus as the Rock that has been laid on the path of history. Some will come to him in faith, and make him the cornerstone of their life. Others will trip over him, and seek to heave him off the path.

Matthew 2 foreshadows the reception the world will give Jesus. The wise men, under the influence of grace, come to worship. Herod, under the influence of sin, tries to bulldoze Jesus off the path.

And we might wonder. How could anyone hate the baby Jesus? I mean he’s so cute and cuddly. He lays in the manger. No crying he makes.

Well the truth is that no one hates the baby. This is why people flock to churches on Christmas Eve. They love the baby Jesus.

The trouble is that the baby is also born to rule.

This is what bothers Herod. And if we’re honest, most of us would say that this  bothers us too. If Jesus is King, that makes him a threat to our own sovereignty and autonomy.

Governments throughout history have seen the threat. Christians got in trouble in the ancient world not because they believed in Jesus, but because they believed that Jesus was Lord. This irked Ceasar, who thought of himself as Lord.

Recently, the Communist Party in China has been cracking down on the thousands of illegal house churches in their country. They rightly worry about what will happen to their control if more and more people submit their lives to the Lordship of Jesus.

So Jesus is a threat to the political establishment. But he’s also a threat to the power we have over our own lives.

You might not be as narcissistic as King Herod, but make no mistake about it, there is a little Herod inside of you.

All of us want to be little kings and queens of our own lives. We don’t want others to define us. We don’t want to submit to nature, or religion, or anything. “You do You.” We say. “Live your truth.” We say. “Believe in yourself.”

Brittney and I watched the Ellen Degeneres special on Netflix recently. And at the end of her hour of comedy—which was quite good—Ellen finished with a sermon of sorts. She exhorted the crowd to be proud of who you are. She encouraged them to live their truth. She talked about flying free and not letting others keep you in a cage. The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

I wonder what the crowd would have thought of Jesus words in Matthew 16: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25

Jesus didn’t get a standing ovation when he said these words. He still doesn’t. Its a hard pill to swallow. Jesus boldly asserts that the path to true life comes through putting to death your own life and following him. We like Jesus better when he’s cooing in the manger.

Herod wasn’t willing to let Jesus be King. What about you?

You know, on the one hand, I don’t feel to much resistance in my relationship with Jesus. This is partially due to the reality, I think, that I’ve already submitted my life to rule.

But its also probably true that I’ve learned to keep Jesus safely on the fringe of my life. I give him enough authority, to keep my credibility as a pastor, but not all authority.

Might that be true for you too?

Sam Allberry, an Anglican priest, says this about the Lordship of Jesus. “If someone thinks the gospel [that Jesus is King] has somehow slotted into their life quite easily, without causing any major adjustments to their lifestyle or aspirations, it is likely that they have not really started following Jesus at all.” Sam Allberry

Its no wonder that Herod went to great extremes to try to rid the world of this pesky new King. Its no wonder that many governments around the world have tried to kill the the Jesus movement. Its no wonder that many of our fellow Canadians are offended at Jesus’ words and actions. The King attracts and the King divides.

As we live out the Christmas story, as citizens of Jesus Kingdom in the world, we can expect opposition as well.

However, we don’t have to fear that opposition, because in the end it cannot thwart the purposes of God in history. Both of Herod’s plans failed. In fact, and this is amazing, if he was successful at anything, he was successful in furthering God’s agenda. To make this point, Matthew quotes the Old Testament. “This happened so that the word of scripture could be fulfilled. Out of Egypt I called my son.”

In other words, while the Grinch may have flexed his muscles, God’s is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.

Herod learned this the hard way. China is going to learn this the hard way, eventually, too. What about you? 

Brothers and sisters. Its important to know today that as a King, Jesus is not at all like Herod. He’s not obsessed with retaining his power. He’s not a tyrant. And while his call to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him is scary, you need to know also that his yoke is easy and that his burden is light. Jesus has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly. And as you find your identity in him, and live in submission to his Lordship, you will find a love like none other, and a joy like none other.

How do we know this? Jesus showed us. His first act as King was to lay down his life, for the sake of his friends and servants.

Jesus is not out to squash us. But to give us to true life in his name.

Amen.

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The Magi | Matthew 2:1-12

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

The Adoration of the Magi - by Leonardo Da Vinci

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

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

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

This was foretold in Isaiah 60.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First of all, they were gentiles. Unclean people.

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

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

What were Joseph and Mary to do?

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

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

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

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

How did they get to Bethlehem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same story repeats itself again and again through history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth is worth it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Quiet Joseph | Matthew 1:18-25

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

Who is your favourite Christmas Character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there was the wedding day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a righteous man, Joseph chose the quiet option.

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

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

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

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

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

And Joseph is discerning enough to see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the one who bears your guilt and shame.

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

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

Amen.

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The Persecuted Ones | Matthew 5:10-12

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is it about Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. 

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The Pure in Heart | Matthew 5:8

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purity is a gift, and a calling.

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

Katharos means =

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But even now, we get foretastes.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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