Discerning, But Not Critical | Matthew 7:1-6

Jesus seems to like using animal illustrations. Dogs and pigs make it into this passage. But elsewhere Jesus uses other furry examples.

At one point he calls Herod Antipas a fox. On another occasion he calls the Pharisees a brood of Vipers.

And then, in Matthew 10, as Jesus is preparing his disciples for mission, Jesus uses four different animal examples in one verse.

Behold, he says to them: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16

Now, in context, Jesus is inviting his disciples to be wise and pure. He’s sending them out and he wants them to land in a community like a dove lands on a tree. Graceful. But they are to be smart about it. Discerning. If there is receptivity to the gospel message, they are to press in. But, if they are shut down, and persecuted, they are to move on. “Shake the dust off their feet,” says Jesus.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be a shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

As I was thinking about the dogs and the pigs this week, my mind drifted towards the snakes and the doves. What do all these animals have in common? Nothing, other than they’re animals.

So why do I bring them up? Well, I think the animals in Matthew 10 can help us interpret the animals in Matthew 7. When it comes to living into God’s Kingdom, disciples need to land as gracefully as doves, but we also need to be as discerning as snakes.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be critical. But we can’t be naive, either. 

Now, one of the major errors made when interpreting this passage, is the error of thinking that Jesus is inviting us to turn off our critical faculties. To be blind to sin. And to avoid evaluating another’s behaviour.

In this way of seeing the text, Jesus comes off sounding like a good, modern liberal Canadian. “Live and Let live. You do you. Who am I to judge?”

But this isn’t what Jesus means when he says “Judge Not.”

All throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus has been inviting us to not be like the hypocrites or the pagans. And later he will implore us to avoid false teachers. So clearly, Jesus wants us to know the difference between righteous and unrighteous behaviour.

Additionally, we’d have to toss out much of the New Testament if the “live and let live interpretation” were correct. Because Paul and the other writers spend a lot of time encouraging godly behaviour and condemning ungodly behaviour in the body of Christ.

And, of course, later in Matthew, Jesus himself institutes a Church discipline process as a means to gracefully deal with sin in the body of Christ. So its safe to say that perceiving clearly and naming correctly are necessary skills for the disciple to have.

The problem with judging is not the critical discernment piece. The problem is when we think we belong in the judges chair and then we deal harshly with each other.

John Stott thinks that what Jesus is warning us about here, is the dangers of censoriousness. “Censoriousness”. I had to look that word up, because I’d never heard it before.

And what I found is that a censorious person is someone who is inclined to look for and point out the faults of others. It’s their mission to expose error and impose judgement.

Says Stott: Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes. John Stott

Don’t do this, says Jesus. “Quit being so critical of each other” (Frederick Bruner, traslation). Be innocent as a dove, not rambunctious like a bull.

In high school, I worked for a few months as an egg picker. Awful work. Imagine 2000 chickens running wild around a windowless barn. And my job was to collect the one thing that each of those chickens didn’t want to give up.

One of the things that I found so sad about life in the chicken coop, is the way that chickens treated other chickens who had developed defects.

One hen had a tumour on her head. And wherever she would go, other chickens would peck at her tumour. A few days later, I found her dead on the floor. That kind of thing happened all the time. Broken leg. Peck, Peck, Peck. Busted beak. Peck, Peck,  Peck…

I’d like to say that that kind of behaviour is limited to the hen house, but truthfully we do that kind of thing to each other too.

Often the worst pecking happens within the family. Most of us can tolerate the faults of people we don’t live with. But at home we grow weary of each other’s faults, and we start to peck. “You should know better by now.” “Why do you always cut corners when you clean your room?” “You’re such a selfish jerk.” “You only think of yourself.”

This pecking can be bad in the body of Christ too.

Does it ever work? All that critical nagging and fault finding. Does it ever produce a cm of change? Rarely.

Pecking each other into submission is not the Jesus way. Judge not, he says, or you will be judged. In fact, the same measure you use on others will be applied to you as well.

Its tricky to know what Jesus means by this measure business. Is being judged in return a natural consequence of being censorious? This is true to life, I suppose. If your boss is a fault finding fanatic, then you’re more likely to be critical of her in return. But if she cuts you some slack, you’re more likely to cut her some slack.

But Jesus could also be talking about the final judgement, here. If you yourself have no grace for others, then clearly you are far from the grace of God. And you can expect the true judge to bump you from your judgement seat and be critical of you.

So how should we deal with faults as Kingdom people. Well, says Jesus, we should work on ourselves first.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

It’s a hilarious picture, really. (Hold up plank) “Hey buddy… I can’t help but notice that you have a little something in your eye. I could see it from a mile away, because my eyesight is, like, perfect. Let me get that out for you.”

Its a funny picture. But isn’t that the way it goes. This is basically a law of nature: We chronically underestimate our own faults, while we exaggerate the faults of others. But as Jesus already made clear, being critical of the faults of others is not the way forward.

The first step is to take a good look in the mirror. Name your own sin, faults, and weaknesses. Confess your own sin to God. Ask someone to help you with this burden. Do what you can to pull it out, God helping you.

Part of the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching here is that starting with yourself teaches you humility. Change is hard. Have you ever tried to take a plank out of your eye? Or move past a besetting sin. It can take years or difficult work. There are set-backs. Its hard!

And its only as you work on yourself that you realize how hard sanctification is. And when you figure that out, you’ll be way less judgemental and way more gentle with others and the sins and weakness that they have.

Another aspect of wisdom to this teaching, is that this is how change really happens in a community. If you tell people to shape up, they’ll never do it. But if you work on yourself, invite other people into your growth, people will be inspired by that. And they’ll desire to join you on the road of personal growth.

A few years ago, I went on a pastoral retreat. The main presenter was humble and quite vulnerable. He shared with us that he used to be a big bully.

At the end of the retreat, we were invited to confess something we had learned of ourselves to someone else. While there was about 7-8 people that I could have gone to do this with, I went to this man. I went to him because I knew he wouldn’t peck at me. His vulnerability inspired me to be vulnerable. His growth, encouraged me to grow.

This is the Jesus way of dealing with faults and sins. Start with yourself, and then be of service to others. The goal is no planks or specks. A speck of sawdust might not look like a big deal. But it can do a lot of damage in there. Its has to come out.

Jesus wants us all to have clear vision. But its important to be gentle with each other’s lives. Be as gentle as doves, and we will fly together.

And yet, at the same time, be as wise as serpents.

The gentle, Kingdom approach to dealing with faults is beautiful. And when a group of people decide to grow towards holiness together, in a gracious, vulnerable way, amazing things happen. But not everyone is ready for that. And not everyone wants that. In fact, some people hate it. And they come not with sawdust in their eyes but with clubs in hand.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

Now before we explore this strange teaching, let’s remind ourselves a few of the things that Jesus has been teaching us. His has said, “don’t hit back, but turn the other cheek.” He has said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He has also told us not to call people names like fool or idiot, or pig or dog. That is like murder, says Jesus. Such hatred has no place in a disciples heart.

So, the attitude of the disciple, towards the neighbour, every neighbour, is always and forever, love.

And yet, Jesus also says, that if you go to a town, and you receive no welcome there, and no one is receptive to Christ’s Kingdom, then shake the dust off your feet. Move on.

Jesus did this in his own home town. He was amazed at their lack of faith, so he moved on. Paul routinely did this is his ministry too. When he received welcome, he would settle in and do some preaching, but whenever he was persecuted, he moved on.

It is true that we have to be patient with others, and sometimes we need to persevere. But its also true that some people are just not ready to receive the goods that God has on offer in Christ or to be a gentle member in the community that is growing in godliness together.

Its not that they themselves are dogs, or pigs—although some people, after a lifetime of hardening their heart to God, are truly lost. Its just that, for whatever reason, there is no readiness.

I remember attending a high school chapel once. The speaker shared his own story. He was vulnerable. Authentic. He talked about his sin, and God’s grace. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. 

Later that day, I overhead a few 3rd year students making fun of the speaker. They were laughing at his story. Making fun of the way he talked.

“Pearls before swine.”

And I don’t say that or mean that in a sneering, demeaning way.

Those third year teenagers simply weren’t ready for the goods that God had on offer to them in that chapel.

In every mixed crowd, there will be a mixed response to God’s Kingdom work. For some, the good news pops, the call to confession cuts them to the heart, and the assurance of pardon is music in their ears. They are ready to participate in the work that God is doing in them and join the community that is striving towards holiness together.

But others will shrug their shoulders and check their facebook feed. Or, storm out in anger because the preacher had the nerve to gently question their way of life.

You can’t predict or control the results, but you can be discerning about where you give your time and energy.

Generally speaking, the Christian response to those who reject God’s Kingdom is patience and perseverance. This is how God pursued us. But there comes a time when it time to move on. To give the pearls and Holy food to someone who is more receptive.

Be as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves.

So where do we get the power to be gentle like a dove, and the wisdom, to be wise like a serpent.

It starts by recognizing the way that God has been demonstrated his love for us. He sent the pearl of great price to live among us. He demonstrated great patience and perseverance in doing so. For humanity trampled the pearl, Jesus Christ, underfoot.

The world wasn’t ready for him, but God sent it anyway. And while we were incapable of receiving him, Jesus took all the splinters, the planks, and the sawdust out of us, and into himself, so that we could become the beloved, community of God.

Because God has acted this way towards us, we can be non-judgmental with each other.

And consider that way that Jesus has been shrewd to you. Somethings you weren’t ready to receive as a teenager, but now you are. I find it simply amazing that Jesus reveals himself to us at a pace that we can handle. He serves us the Holy Food in season. He doesn’t belittle me for being where I am, rather, he patiently works on me.

Think about that.

Who Jesus is and how he engages us…. Its him, and the Spirit who dwells within, that gives us the power we need to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Amen.

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Do Not Worry | Matthew 6:19-34

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

Jesus’s main point is not hard to find in this passage. He says it a number of times in a number of different ways.

“Do not worry about your life?” “Do not worry about tomorrow.”

Worry. I think we all know about this thing called worry. And one thing we all know about worry, is that it’s a hard thing to stop.

Frederick Buechner says that telling someone not to worry is like telling “a woman with a bad head cold not to sniffle and sneeze… or a lame man to stop dragging his feet.” Frederick Buechner

Why do we worry. We worry because we are vulnerable creatures. We worry because we can imagine a future in which our needs are not met or are plans go unrealized. We wonder if we’ll be Ok.

  • Did we save enough for retirement?
  • Who will take care of me when I can’t care for myself?
  • Will my job be there for me in the future?
  • Did I choose the right career path?
  • Do I have enough money to pay rent, or tuition, or to buy groceries?
  • Will I ever find a suitable partner?
  • Will my children make friends?
  • What happens to them if something happens to me.
  • They said they’d be home by 11pm. But now its 12pm. Where are they?
  • The doctor wants to see me right away. He says its urgent.

According to Psychologyhealthcare.com the majority of humans worry about four things rather consistently. 1: We worry about money. 2: We worry about our jobs. 3: And we worry about health. 4: We worry about our relationships and the people that matter for us.

And its no wonder that we worry about these things. These things aren’t trivial. I mean without money, we can’t buy food, we can’t put a roof over our heads, we can’t send our children to college.  And when things go south in your marriage, or your body, or something significant happens to someone you love, all of life comes to a grinding halt.

And Jesus says… “Do not worry about your life—what you will eat or drink; or about your body—what you will wear.”

I find it a little shocking that Jesus tells us not to worry about these things. I mean, I could understand him telling us not to worry about image. Or chasing after wealth. But food and clothes?

How would this teaching sound to the poor? How can you possibility concern yourself with the Kingdom of God, if you don’t have daily bread.

“Do not worry about your life”…

The greek word for worry is “merimnao”. It means “to be anxious” “troubled with cares”.

This word, merimnao, is used a number of places in scripture. In Philippians 4, Paul says to the Church, “Do not be anxious (merimnao) about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

And then, in the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about seed that is sown on different types of soil. Some is scattered along the path. Some is scattered among thorns. And still other seed is scattered in good soil. 

The seed, says Jesus in his interpretation, represents people and their response to the  word of God.

The seed that is scattered among good soil, grows to be exceedingly fruitful. But the other seeds don’t fare so well. Jesus says this about the seed that is sown among the thorns. It “refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries (merimnao) of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”

I still don’t know what Jesus words would sound like in the ears of the poor, but it is true that worry chokes both a disciples growth and his or her fruitfulness. Worry shrinks our world. Makes us succumb to analysis paralysis. And that is not Jesus vision for his disciples.

Before applying Jesus’ antidote to worrying, I think it’s important to distinguish between two different types of anxiety. Our capacity to be anxious is not wholly bad. In fact, its a good part of our created design.

The other day, I sitting in my living room and out of the corner of my eye, out the window, I saw my two year old running up the driveway, towards the road. Jailbreak.

In that moment, I didn’t say to myself, “Ah… Don’t worry, David. Worry won’t add a single hour to your son’s life.” No, in that moment I jumped into action.

That kind of decisive action is produced by acute anxiety. And it’s very important that we are capable of this kind of split second response. Jesus isn’t telling us to shut down this part of us.

What Jesus is targeting here is chronic anxiety—the worry that moves into your living room, and whispers horror stories into your ears at night. The worry that causes you to become focussed on securing your own life, instead of confidently living for Christ’s Kingdom in the sure and certain care of the Lord.

Its a constant battle, isn’t it.

I mean, how often do you have the urge to do something of importance. Something that aligns with God’s Kingdom mission. To have a hurting neighbour over for dinner. To have a hard conversation with a loved one. To go on an adventure that you know aligns with some aspect of God’s mission.

But then… you start asking those nagging “what if” questions. “What if they don’t like my cooking?” “What if conversation doesn’t go well?” “What if we run out of money? Or don’t have enough of it later in life?”

And pretty soon, the thorns of worry kill the possibility of meaningful fruit.

One of the reasons that I memorized this text last summer is because this is me. Worry causes me to think and act in small ways. To take few risks.

There are reasons for this. The short form is that when I was a child, some difficult things happened in my family’s life. The meaning I made from that experience is that the world is not a safe place. In response to this meaning making, I developed what I’ve come to call a scarcity mindset. I fear lack. I worry about getting in over my head and running out. And I make many decisions accordingly.

I’m very thankful that God, through Faithwalking, helped me discover this about myself. Because now I can do things to try to disrupt this behaviour and re-write the story.

But while I’ve made some progress relegating worry to the basement, she’s still in the house, and she still pesters me.

So, what can be done to move on from worry to trust. I want to know. Don’t you?

Well, friends, I have good news for you today. I have searched high and low and I am happy to report that I have found two words that if properly employed will kill worry and replace it with care-free bliss.

Would you like to know what those words are?

Hakuna Matata.

Hakuna Matata, what a wonderful phrase. What does it mean? It means no worries, for the rest of your days. Its a problem free, philosophy.

Obviously I’m joking. But before sharing Jesus’ antidote to worry, I think its important to consider how our culture invites us to move on from worry. The Hakuna Matada approach is shockingly prevalent.

And its similar to the “don’t worry, be happy” approach that was popularized by Bobby McFerrin in the late 80s. You know the song. “In this life we have some trouble. If you worry, you make it double. Don’t worry. Be Happy.”

What a great song! Too bad its bad advice.

Both “Hakuna Matada and Don’t Worry, Be Happy” promote escapism as the antidote to worry. The message is that anxiety can be sidelined with the pursuit of happiness, and the avoidance of hard things. For Symba, the state of Pride Rock is out of sight out of mind, so long as he’s hanging with his friends in their jungle oasis.

But there are problems with this escapist approach to worry.

Firstly, it’s pretty hard to avoid reality forever. You may successfully push worry down the road by partying it off with your friends, but eventually, it will come back with a vengeance.

And secondly, pursuing happiness doesn’t deal with the root causes of worry. We worry because we are vulnerable. And no amount of happiness seeking can ward off the consequences of a terminal illness.

The only way to put worry to death is to find something solid to stand on. Something you can trust, in life and in death.

Look at the birds of the air, says Jesus to the disciples he’s called out on an adventure.  They do not sow or reap or store up in barns. And yet your heavenly father feeds them. And see how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. And yet I tell you that not even the best dressed man on earth was decked out like one of these.

If that is how God cares for the birds of the air, and the grass off the field. Will he not so much more care for you?

Jesus tells these stories about birds and flowers, because he wants his disciples to know something important about God.  Namely, that God is a living God. Not just the covenant God of Abraham Isaac and Jakob, but the covenant God of you and me.

Living Covenant God. You know, in seminary, I learned how to talk about God correctly. I passed oral exams, talking about God correctly. But the God I learned to talk about, was more abstract that present. More the idea of fire, then an actual consuming fire.

But there’s not an instant that goes by in which God ceases to be the living God over creation and history. Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest. The birds have their food. The lilies sprout up as beautiful as ever.

And how much more does God watch over us, and tend to the people pursuing his mission in the world.

I was listening to my friend Clarke lecture a few days ago. Clarke is the leader of Canadian L’abri, which does its ministry in a big house near the urban bee on West Saanich road. In his lecture, Clarke was talking about the ministry of L’abri, and how it started.

L’abri was started by the Schaeffer’s. Edith and Francis. Through prayer and providence, they were able to secure property in Switzerland. Their vision was to provide shelter for young people wresting with issues of faith and reality.

But they also wanted their life together to be a tangible expression of the truth that God is a living God. So they never advertised their ministry. They never fundraised. They simply prayed. They prayed that God would provide the ministry with resources, and that God would bring the right guests into their house.

And God showed up. Again and again. There has never been a time when L’abri was an empty shelter. Miraculous checks continue to come into the mail for just the right amount at just the right time. “God prompted me to give,” the card would read.

Now we might have some wonders about L’abri’s insistence to only pray and not fundraise. But I appreciate their intentional desire to live in trust, to not light their own way, but to follow leading of the Lord and be a tangible expression of God’s living presence.

This is solid ground, says Jesus. This is why you don’t have to worry and why you can give yourself fully to the work of the Lord. The God who raised Jesus from the dead, who feeds the birds off the air, he can be counted on to care for the needs of his Kingdom seeking disciples.

The seek first his Kingdom part is important here. God sustains his missional community. If you’d prefer to seek first your own Kingdom. Or, if like Symba before Nala’s intervention, you prefer to avoid the messy work of fighting for what is good, then you will probably not receive manna from heaven or miraculous cheque’s in the mail.

Food and Clothes come to those who Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness. What Jesus doing here is taking away obstacles to ministry. Don’t let the thorns of worry choke out your growth.

What does it mean to seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness. I like how Eugene Peterson describes it in the Message.

“What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving…. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions…. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.” (The Message)

What are the God things, and God initiatives before you. Every time you show hospitality to a stranger or neighbour, you are participating in a God thing. When you encourage a brother or sister in the faith, or share the hope that you have within you with a co-worker, you are engaged in Kingdom work.

The focus of God’s Kingdom work in the world is the transformation of hearts and minds. But it expands out from there. Whatever you do, says the Apostle Paul, do it for the glory of God. Righteousness is about right relationships. Its about justice and peace.

And its only as we give our lives over to God’s initiatives in the world that we begin to see God provide us with the things that we need.

And even if the food and clothes don’t come, still, like in the case of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abendigo, before King Nebucknezzar and the fiery furnace. Still, it is better to be serving our Lord unto death, then it is to be bending the knee to the idols of our age.

But those who step up in faith, routinely find that he is faithful.

So do not worry. Do not worry. I don’t know what cares and concerns are stirring you up today. Lean in to what God is doing around, and you will find that all that is needed, his hand will provide.

Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble on its own.

I love this conclusion. There’s a lot of realism here.

Nowhere does Jesus promise us a hakuna matata life. Even the sparrows and the lilies don’t have an easy go of it.

You can count on trouble. Each day. There will be trouble. But each day there will also be daily bread. Each day, daily bread. Don’t let the worries of tomorrow keep you from tackling the God initiatives today. Each day has enough trouble of its own. But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things—food, clothes—will be given to you as well.

Amen.

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Treasures in Heaven | Matthew 6:18-24

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

One of the fascinating features of human life is that we humans are goal oriented creatures.

We are like arrows. We weren’t made to sit in a quiver. We were made to soar through the air and hit a target.

Survival is a basic goal for humans everywhere. We share that aim with plants and animals. But we humans set higher goals. We don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive. And so we make plans, we cast visions, and then make sacrifices in order to hit the targets we’ve set for ourselves. A squirrel is not going to spend ten years to become a doctor. An Eagle won’t build a nest that will protect his family of generations.

Built into our human design is a capacity to think long term, and then to fly towards a future that appeals to us.

And this is true whether you have lofty goals or simple goals. In fact, its even true if you think that you don’t have any goals at all. Some vision of the future is always beckoning you forward.

Becoming a doctor requires a high degree or clarity and intentionality. But other goals we have for ourselves are unspoken, or unconscious. Maybe your unspoken, unconscious goal in life is to simply avoid failure. And so, each and every day you play it safe. Never adventure beyond your comfort zone.

Whether your purposeful about it or not, some target is always helping to organize your life.

Jesus is familiar with our goal oriented design. And, at this stage of the sermon on the mount, he’s instructing us to get our aim right. To develop a vision for life that intentionally reaches Godward instead of earthward.

Seek ye first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moths and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Jesus’s words here are so challenging. But I think they are also profoundly loving. Jesus challenges us because he wants us to avoid a meaningless life that chases after things that fade. He desires to liberate us from the tiresome, schizophrenic state of trying trying to serve two masters.

Vision is a big deal. If your eyes and heart are captivated by the wrong objects of desire, eventually your whole life will be filled with darkness.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your vision is good, your life will be filled with light. But if you vision is bad, your whole body will be filled with darkness.

This saying of Jesus is as little complex, but I think there’s a simplicity to it. Essentially, Jesus is saying: Whatever has caught your eye, will impact your life. If a cookie sitting on the counter catches your eye, and you desire that sugary goodness,  your body is going to want to go over there and consume that cookie. If the prospect of success, or prestige has your eye, you’ll arrange your living so as to attain that goal.

We seek after and devote ourselves to the shiny things that catch our eye. This capacity is neither bad nor good on its own, it just is. It all depends on what has caught your eye.

If you are captivated by God’s bright vision of Shalom found in Isaiah 11—the lion will lie down with the lamb—and you set yourself to seek that vision, then your whole life will be filled with light. But if you are captivated by pleasure, or power, or money, or success, then your whole life will be slowly overtaken by a creeping darkness.

Just think of the difference between Sauraman and Gandalf—the Two prominent wizards in the Lord of the Rings. They highlight this reality well.

Gandalf doesn’t waver in his vision. His deepest longing is to see the ring destroyed and shalom restored to the people of middle earth. And he devotes his life, and sacrifices his life, to see that vision come to fruition. And in the end, his whole being is filled with light.

Sauraman started with the same vision and brightness. But then he started to study the dark arts. At first he studied them because he wanted to know how to defeat the dark Lord. But soon he became enthralled by what he was learning. Then he started to desire the ring of power for himself. It caught his eye. And his life followed. Slowly the darkness slowly took over.

We become like what we worship. If your eyes are captivated by noble things, you will be ennobled. But if your eyes are captivated by foolish things—pleasure, power, worldly possessions—your whole life will become dull at least, and potentially dark.

So, how do we orient ourselves correctly? How do we get our sights off of the things of earth, and back onto our Father in heaven.

Well, is starts by training our hearts to treasure the right things. For our eyes search out what the heart longs to see.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moths and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.

Treasures. Treasures come in many forms. Jesus isn’t just talking about money here. Your treasure is simply that which is on top of your hierarchy of valued things.

Maybe you treasure your creature comforts. Pedicures and massages. Red wine and rich food.

Leisure, sport, and recreation are big treasures here on Vancouver Island. We love to go exploring. To play. To go hiking, skiing and surfing, do yoga.

And then there are the things. New cars. New clothes. A beautiful house. Bikes. I’m a sucker for bikes. I have 3 good bikes, but still I long for more bikes.

One way of getting at what it is you treasure is to explore what it is that you think will make you happy. Fill in the blank: If only I had………, then I would be happy.

Or you could flip the question. If ……… was taken away from me, I would feel miserable and empty.

The trouble with treasures, at least the ones that are found on earth, is that they tend to break down. They don’t satisfy us forever.

I gave one of my bikes a tune up yesterday, and I noticed a little bit of rust forming on the frame. Why?

Everything fades, gets eaten by time. And what doesn’t fade can be stolen or lost.

I mean, if you treasure your looks, and the attention that your looks win you, one day you are going to wake up and feel miserable and empty. Because time steals youth and replaces it with wrinkles.

If you treasure the respect that your career has given you, one day you are going to wake up and feel miserable and empty. Because recessions happen, and one day your boss is going to tell you that its time to retire.

Building up treasures on earth is a chasing after the wind.

But there are more than practical reasons to avoid storing up treasures on earth. The major reason Jesus gives us is that our heart gets consumed by what we treasure. And when we become obsessed with the things on earth, our hearts tend to grow cold towards our Father in Heaven.

I have noticed something about myself. I used to be impacted by stories of tragedy. I’d read about floods and earthquakes and my heart would break for the people involved. But now I find myself more concerned with the business cycle. Did the markets have a good day? Are housing prices going up or down?

What’s happening in my heart?

When we treasure the wrong things, our hearts grow cold towards God and our eyes wander.

The only way to stay warm blooded is to set our eyes everyday, on things above.

This treasures in heaven business is a little less intuitive than treasures on earth. What does Jesus mean by this?

I think Jesus is simply telling us to treasure what God treasures. To place God and his Kingdom at the top of our hierarchy of things we value.

God belongs at the top. And for good reason. The psalmists tell us that God is both all powerful, and always present to his people. There is no where we can go to flee his presence. He forgives our sins and heals our diseases. And out of the great riches of his covenant love, he sent his only son, that we might be restored into a right relationship with him.

Better is one day in his courts, than a thousand elsewhere.

Why is this?

Well, its hard to describe from the outside. But resting in God’s presence feels a lot like returning to the shire. Its the place we belong. In his presence, he lifts us up and makes us truly human.

This is why Zaccheus climbed a tree. This is why the crowds followed Jesus around the sea of Galilee, even though they didn’t have food for the journey. They were receiving food of a different kind. Teaching that filled up their soul.

Worship is one way we store up treasures in heaven. When we engage in worship, we are, intentionally setting our heart on things above. Its counter formation in a real way. All week long we’re being summoned and encouraged to set our hearts upon the things of this world. But here we gather to have our weekly adjustment. Here we say, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Here we sing “Behold our God, seated on the throne, come let us adore him. Nothing can compare. Come let us adore him.”

And an amazing thing happens, when we forsake the things of earth and treasure God above all else. He gives us the treasures of earth back, but now we engage them in a different way.

Now, instead of simply being consumers, we become stewards. And instead of seeking to build our own Kingdom, we work with our resurrected saviour to  build the Kingdom of God.

Every time your choose people over power, you are storing up treasures in heaven.

Every time you pray for a brother or sister, give to the poor, do your job for the glory of God, you are storing up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

Many of you volunteer at the Bible’s for Missions Thrift store. That work is meaningful place to volunteer because the Bible League is involved in meaningful ministry around the world. You’re not just selling second hand clothes. You’re supporting the mission of God. That is of eternal significance.

Don’t you want that? To live a life that is significant? To feel like your life is part of something that God is doing?

Serving yourself gets boring real quick. But how great is it to go to sleep at the end of the day knowing that you’ve been apart of something of eternal significance.

American Preacher John Piper wrote a book not long ago, called “Don’t Waste Your Life.”

In the book, Piper tells the story of two different couples. Ruby and Laura are the first pair. Ruby never married and Laura was widowed in her middle age. But the two connect and they do mission work together. They devote the second half of their lives to sharing the gospel and serving the poor in Central African.

Then an accident happens. While driving in rural Cameroon their brakes fail and Ruby and Laura go over the cliff. They both die in the accident.

The next couple is Bob and Penny. They took early retirement and moved to Florida in their late 50s. The toot around the harbour in a 30 foot boat, play softball and collect sea-shells on the weekends.

“What story is more tragic?” Piper asks. The elderly women who die serving the poor. Or the 50 something couple who retreats into a life of leisure?

Those women served the Lord in life, and that day they encountered their greatest treasure, the Lord. That is not tragedy, that is glory, says Piper.

But Bob and Penny… Slowly the things of this world will be taken from them. Their boat will rust. Their baseball swing will fade. And mobility issues will slowly ruin the shell collecting hobby. And what will be left? That’s the tragedy.

Don’t waste your life, says Piper. With the Lord as your treasure, you will always be rich.

These are challenging words.

But could it be that one of the reasons Jesus words are hard for us to hear is because we’re trying to serve two masters? Trying to serve our own dreams and wishes and hoping to please Jesus on the side?

I don’t know if you’ve ever had two bosses before, but that’s a tough place to be. Its hard to be loyal to both if they see things differently.

How can I attain the middle class dream and serve Jesus at the same time? How can I have both God and mammon? Its impossible to serve both. But many die trying.

If mammon, money, material possessions has your heart. Jesus won’t be experienced as good or glorious. He will always be getting in the way.

The rich young ruler found this out the hard way. He desperately wanted eternal life. But he wasn’t ready to drop his worldly goods. So he went away from Jesus, sad.

No one can serve two masters.

Once again, I want you to see the liberating power in Jesus words. Trying to live a double life is exhausting. But there is great freedom in simplicity. And those who come to yoke themselves to Christ find that he is a gentle and good master.

Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and you will find that all the other things of life will fall into place.

I had a visit with Hans Brinkert the other day. Hans is dying. There are things happening in his body that cannot be stopped.

“What matters to you these days?” I asked him. “Oh”…  he said, “that’s really changed.”

“I used to collect little silver spoons,” he said. “I really liked them. But they don’t mean anything to me anymore.”

“Now, I cherish the simple things. The relationship I have with God, my family, my wife. And I desire to be a witness to his Grace and Forgiveness.” (paraphrase)

This is a complex time, for Hans and Lien. But Hans has a peace about him. That’s because he’s serving one master.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if all our lives were characterized by that kind of restful simplicity?

Brothers and sisters. You have been sought. Treasured by God. And Jesus has invited you to put on the easy yoke of following after him in the world. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. But seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.

Amen.

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When You Pray | Matthew 6:5-15

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second thing to avoid in prayer is endless babble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why say things to God when God already knows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Father in Heaven. Our Father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Heidelberg Catechism. Q and A, 120.

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

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

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Being Seen | Matthew 6:1-4;16-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Sharon told Brittney a story.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Love Your Enemies | Matthew 5:43-48

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teleoi means

  • Completeness
  • Brought to its end, finished.

A few examples might help.

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

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

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

Be whole, like God is whole.

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

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

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

Wow! Love. Your. Enemies.

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

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

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

Agape your enemies, says Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be like your Heavenly Father towards them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it also comes from prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Turn the Other Cheek | Matthew 5:38-42

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you have done in that situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That kind of application would encourage evil in society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus gives us a few examples to fuel our imagination.

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

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

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

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

A few things to notice about these examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What should we do?” She asked.

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

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

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

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

“Ya” said Matthew.

All the Kindegarteners agreed that this was worth a try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need Christ and all his benefits.

But we also need the Spirit’s power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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