Evil Exists Because Worship Does Not

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

The Gospel of Luke 13.1-15

Since September our nation, including Puerto Rico, has  weathered three hurricanes (Harvey, Irene, and Maria) each wreaking havoc with high winds, floods, and mud slides. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, without electricity, food, medicine, and water. Relief efforts are ongoing and it will likely be months, perhaps years before there is full recovery.

We have barely begun to respond to the devastation caused by these natural disasters, only to be jolted by the news coming out of Las Vegas. On Sunday, October 1, Stephen Paddock aimed a rifle from the 32nd floor of his hotel room and fired at a crowd of 22,000 people as they attended an outdoor music concert. In a barrage lasting nine minutes Paddock killed 58 people. An additional 500 and more were wounded and/or injured. Stephen Paddock is now among the dead. Sadly, his death cannot erase the five-hundred and forty seconds of cruel, calculated, and cold-hearted evil he inflicted. There is an evil worse than natural catastrophe. There is an evil so real, so ugly, and so heartless we are left breathless in its aftermath.

Adjectives prove insufficient to describe such evil. Simply put: evil is real. Evil is ugly. Evil is vile and despicable. There are evil people in this world: Stephen Paddock is one of them. We do not know his heart. We can only judge his actions. And his actions merit this judgment: evil. Evil people are not evil because of their environment, their social status, education, or income. Evil has no gender bias. Evil is not attached to race, ethnicity, or nationality. Evil is an equal-opportunity employer. Evil exists because, as the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, “the (human) heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Evil exists because worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not.

As devastating and life-wrecking as can be a hurricane, flood, or earthquake, we tend not to be affected by such things on a visceral level. The bowels of our mercy tend not to be stirred by a Category 5 hurricane. A hurricane does not post to a Facebook page. A flood does not have an Instagram account. An earthquake espouses no ideology on Twitter, and no vengeance drives its destructive power. Natural disasters possess no native intelligence. Their paths do not bear the mark of premeditation. Their destruction is done without malice. They simply happen and we must deal with the flotsam and jetsam left by their mayhem.

What happened in Las Vegas is not the result of a natural disaster. Nor was it a natural disaster that took the lives of those in Orlando. No earthquake caused the shooting deaths in San Bernandino. No tornado killed 20 school children in Connecticut. No gale force winds took the lives of students at Virginia Tech. The list of evil acts is as long as recorded human history: Oklahoma City, the Unabomber, 9/11. Sadly, the list of evil acts will likely grow longer not because laws are insufficient to prevent it, but simply because “the (human) heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Laws, even God’s Law cannot change the human heart. Only the Spirit of God can do that.

So then, what to do? Give up? Never! The truth is there is no easy way through this. Evil hurts and the pain and grief it metes out is real. If the first step toward healing requires acknowledging reality, then perhaps the first step toward healing is to acknowledge the reality of evil and the existence of evil people. The next step is to lament the pain evil causes. Lamentation is a normal response to grievous pain caused by grievous evil. Rather than a sign of weakness, lamentation is an indication of our humanity.

To lament is to grieve. And grief in the wake of evil is not only normal, but necessary. To lament is to mourn. It is to weep. As Jesus wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, so let us weep with those so tragically and personally damaged by the evil act of an evil man. To lament is to let the pain pour forth. In time, the agony of unspeakable tragedy will exhaust itself in attempting to siphon dry the wellspring of our hope. It will fail because we have access to an inexhaustible wellspring of living water. We know the One who is Hope incarnate. Let us pray for those who weep. Pray they will find Him who is the Living Water.

In Luke 13.1-5, Jesus reminds us that when evil happens rather than explain why or attempt to defend God, we would be wise to consider how short life is compared to eternity. Life is fragile. If life is fragile then we are fragile. If we are fragile then death is real. And if death is real, then our struggle is not with “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6.12). And if our struggle is “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” then “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds,” (2 Corinthians 10.4).

Those who do not believe the Gospel scoff at any offer of condolence which includes the thoughts and prayers of Christ-minded people. How would they prefer we comfort those who mourn? Shall we offer the victims’ families a petition to sign? How shall we help the wounded recover? Will the promise of stricter legislation heal their physical and emotional wounds? Would it not be more helpful simply to weep with those who weep? Would it not be more comforting simply to sit with them in silence and pray?

Fools mock at the comfort promised by the Gospel. Let them mock. Let them scorn those who offer thoughts and prayers. Scorn will not bring back the dead. Sarcasm will not stop the spread of evil. Mockery never stopped a bullet. Mockery never defused a bomb. Derision never deterred a killer. Jesus commanded us to “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” (Luke 6.28). Bless those who scorn our prayers for the victims and families. Pray for them. They do not know what they do. Pray for the families of the deceased. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the helpers. Pray! Pray! Pray! And as God opens doors to offer tangible help take full advantage of such opportunities.

A mentor once told me, “Faith is what’s left after pain has erased all the platitudes.” Platitudes will not help us work through this, or any other tragedy. Yes. “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose,” (Romans 8.28). Yes. What others intend for evil God can use to accomplish good (cf., Genesis 50.20). However, neither of these truths are painless in the application or in the experience of those whom God has shepherded through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The apostle Paul, who joyfully proclaimed “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose,” suffered countless beatings, was thrice shipwrecked and beaten with rods, stoned, robbed, endured privation, and more. And before Joseph told his brothers, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,” he was betrayed by them, thrown into a well. They later sold him into slavery, eventually landing him in Egypt where he was wrongly accused of sexual assault, wrongfully imprisoned, spending years in jail. God does bring good out of tragedy, but that does not mean we make light of the tragedy from which the good eventually springs forth.

Amid the chaotic tragedy of Sunday’s shooting in Las Vegas stories emerged of heroism, bravery, selflessness, and compassion. Such acts shine as rays of hope in the midst of evil’s darkness. Evil is real. Yet so is truth. So is love. So is faith and hope. Evil exists because worship of the Almighty does not. Let us then pray that in the midst of this present darkness, our nation might turn to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and find life, hope, faith, and love.

You think about that.

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Jesus Came to Make Disciples

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And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. – Matthew 4.23-5.1

As Jesus’ fame spread, large numbers of people flocked to Him. And they had needs. He healed the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics. Miracles will always attract a crowd. However, the core of Jesus’ ministry is teaching and preaching. The miracles confirm Jesus’ authority as a teacher and preacher. The miracles validate His claim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

If someone were to ask Jesus: What evidence can you give us that the kingdom of heaven is at hand? Or, What does the presence of the kingdom of heaven look like? He would point to the miracles He performed. In fact, someone did ask Him that. In Matthew 11, messengers from Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizing Prophet, come to Him and ask, “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Listen to how Jesus answered them:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, lepers are cleaned and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

According to Jesus, the presence of the kingdom of heaven looks like blind people being made to see, lame people gaining the ability to walk, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, and the dead being. However, Jesus saves the most important piece of evidence for the end: “and the poor have good news preached to them.” Miracles will attract a crowd, but they do not lead people to repentance. Miracles do not change hearts. You want proof? Read Exodus. Pharaoh saw plenty of miracles. He didn’t repent. Want more proof? The first generation of those delivered from slavery in Egypt saw plenty of miracles -. Yet none of them entered the Promised Land. Miracles are evidence of the kingdom of God. They confirm the truth of what is being said, but miracles do not save people from their sins.

  • Only Jesus saves.
  • Only the Holy Spirit changes hearts.
  • Only the Holy Spirit opens hearts to hear the gospel.
  • Only the Holy Spirit leads us to repent—from rebellion against God to trust/obedience in God.

How? Through the teaching and preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. Miracles will attract a crowd of followers. But Jesus did not come to attract followers. Jesus came to make disciples. And the Sermon on the Mount is designed to separate followers from disciples. All disciples are followers. Not all followers are disciples. Disciples follow Jesus wherever He leads them, and wherever He sends them. Disciples do whatever Jesus tells them. Followers tend to pick and choose the times and circumstances of their loyalty.

This might explain why in Matthew 3.11, 12, John the Baptizing Prophet describes Jesus’ ministry in very frank and frightening terms: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” The winnowing fork Jesus uses to clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn is the teaching and preaching of the gospel.

Miracles will draw people to the light like moths to a flame. But only those who trust in Jesus will live, work, play, die, and be saved in, by, and through the light. Jesus came to make disciples not attract a following.

The Sermon on the Mount has two audiences. The first audience is the disciples. The second audience is the great crowd that followed Jesus wherever He went. When Jesus sat down to preach, the Holy Spirit used His words like a winnowing fork. The Sermon on Mount separates those who are drawn to Jesus by His teaching and preaching, from those who follow Him just to see Him perform another miracle. The kingdom of heaven is open to those who worship Jesus in spirit and in truth.

The big idea of the Sermon on the Mount is not, “Keep these rules and you will enter the kingdom of heaven.” On the contrary, the big idea is, “Now that the kingdom of heaven has arrived this is how disciples of Jesus must live.” Not everyone who calls Jesus Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven. Only those who are poor in spirit (5.3), obedient (7.21), and surpassingly righteous (5.20).

Jesus came to make disciples not gather followers. The Sermon on the Mount separates disciples from mere followers. The Sermon on the Mount humbles us. It is meant to drive us to seek the Spirit’s help to practice what Jesus preaches. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ – the Gospel which is the good news summed up as follows: the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, it’s time to repent and put our trust in Jesus.

You think about that.

Conquer Anxiety by Faith in Future Grace, Part 2

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“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” ~ Matthew 6.31-33

Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew 6 gain added strength when combined with His words at the beginning of the chapter. When anxiety tempts us to fear the future, Jesus tells that we need not be anxious about the future is because our Father who is in secret sees us when we give, when we pray, when we forgive and when we fast. He knows what we need before we ask, and promises to provide for us as we trust Him.

And how do we trust Him? By doing what Jesus says: seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

The command, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” ends with a promise of future grace: “and all these things will be added to you.” A short list of “all these things” is found in the verse which precede it. There is a sense in which anxiety – by driving us to worry ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ – makes us less human. Anxiety can make us forget we were created in the image of God.

In truth, we are created for than food and drink and clothing. Jesus reminds us we are created to reflect the glory of God by carrying out the mission of God. Food, and drink, and clothing, are important. Yet Jesus reminds us that life is more than what we eat and drink and put on our bodies. Anxiety about such things distracts us from our true mission.

Jesus commands us to aim at heaven because if we aim at heaven, He promises we’ll get earth thrown in. If we aim at earth, we’ll get neither. Jesus commands us to conquer anxiety by pressing on to fulfill a desire this world cannot fulfill. In contrast with the Gentiles who scurry hither and yon—like squirrels seeking last year’s acorns, Christians embark upon the peace-producing, soul-satisfying, heart-assuring, and mind-engaging quest of proclaiming the supremacy of Christ above all things. Our great calling is the Great Commission.

We conquer anxiety by taking an active role in the mission of God. We defang worry by doing what God requires. We overcome excessive concern about the future by doing what God requires. We do what God requires by practicing what Jesus preaches. We practice what Jesus preaches by doing two things: loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we love God with everything we have, we will seek first His kingdom. We will promote Him not ourselves. The Holy Spirit will change how we think, live, and treat others. He will help us find ways to include Him in every thought, insert Him in every conversation, and involve Him in every activity. He will open our eyes to the reality of God’s presence in our home, our church, our work, and our relationships. He will affect positively how and why we worship and work, relate to our parents and siblings, love our spouse, and treat our fellow Christians and co-workers. When we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will seek the righteousness of God. We will do what God requires. We will practice what Jesus preaches. The Spirit will open our eyes to the fact that the Great Commission is both local and global in scope.

To seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness is to serve God and God alone. To be preoccupied with excessive concern over ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ while serving God is serving two masters; something Jesus says no one can do. Serve God and He will add all these things to you. Let us seek the kingdom of God by loving Him more than food and drink and clothing. Let us seek His righteousness by sharing the gospel with our neighbor.

Let us conquer anxiety by faith in future grace.* Let us trust Him to provide our needs in the future.

You think about that.

[*To live by faith in future grace means exercising a robust trust in God’s promises to reward those who trust in Jesus by practicing what preaches. The future of future grace refers to God’s promises flowing into your life from the future with the result being that for as long as we live, our trust in God’s promise is revealed by treasuring up treasures in heaven. The grace of future grace refers both to God’s unearned and undeserved favor, as well as His power at work in our lives to make good things happen in us and for us.]

 

Conquer Anxiety by Faith in Future Grace

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Some people have a life verse. I have a life paragraph. It’s Matthew 6.24-34. Here’s why.

My wife and I were married in July 1981, and knowing I would enter seminary in September, we stayed with friends while we looked for an affordable apartment for us and a job for Jill (We had decided I would be a full-time student for the first semester and look for a part-time job in the Spring.) After three full days with no success, we were tired and perplexed, discouraged and anxious. Apartments were 4 to 5 times more expensive than the ones Jill and I shared with roommates in Brooklyn. Jill left her resume with several dental offices in the area. None called back.

Tired from a long, long day, my wife went to bed early. I reassured her that the Lord would provide. “Everything will be okay,” I said and left the room so she could go to sleep. I went into the living room to pray. “Lord,” I prayed, “I’ve encouraged my wife, now You need to encourage me because I don’t know see how this is going to work out.” Then I did something I never did before, and haven’t done since (and something I don’t recommend, but I was a young believer and God was very gracious.) I took my Bible, set it on its spine and let it fall open. It opened to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6 verses 24-34.

I did not realize it then, but that night God began to teach me how to live by faith in future grace. The phrase, future grace, may not be familiar to you, so let me explain what it means and why I use it. Future Grace is the title of a book written by John Piper. He defines future grace as follows:

  • To live by faith in future grace means exercising a robust trust in God’s promises to reward those who trust in Jesus by practicing what preaches.
  • The future of future grace refers to God’s promises flowing into your life from the future with the result being that for as long as we live, our trust in God’s promise is revealed by treasuring up treasures in heaven.
  • The grace of future grace refers both to God’s unearned and undeserved favor, as well as His power at work in our lives to make good things happen in us and for us.

In a sermon about future grace, Piper describe what it looks like with the following illustration:

Imagine a river. The water in this river, which is flowing toward you with great power, is the grace of God. It’s coming from the future and as it flows into your life, it falls over the waterfall of the present – this is present grace – into a reservoir called past grace. This means past grace reservoir is growing bigger every day, bigger every minute. The more God’s future grace flows over the waterfall of the present into past grace reservoir the more there is to thank God for every minute of your life than you did before. The right response of the heart towards past grace is thankfulness. The right response towards future grace is faith.

 Says Piper,

“God’s grace is ever cascading over the waterfall of the present from the inexhaustible river of grace coming to us from the future into the ever-increasing reservoir of grace in the past. In the next five minutes, you will receive sustaining grace flowing to you from the future, and you will accumulate another five minutes’ worth of grace in the reservoir of the past. Therefore this grace which moves in power from God to you at a point in time is both past and future. It has already done something for you or in you and therefore is past. And it is about to do something in you and for you, and so it is future — both five seconds away and five million years away.”

So what does this have to do with Matthew 6.24-34? Everything. The more I study the Sermon on the Mount, the more I realize that everything Jesus says after the Disciples’ Prayer is an exposition of how we must live in light of that prayer. In fact, the point of the Sermon on the Mount is to stress the impossibility of practicing what Jesus preaches apart from faith in future grace. Therefore ….

  • Without faith in future grace we will not serve God exclusively.
  • Without faith in future grace we will not conquer anxiety when and how God will give us our daily bread.
  • Without faith in future grace we will not seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
  • Without faith in future grace we will not trust God when He says that if we seek His kingdom and His righteousness “all these things will be added to you.”

I don’t remember the prayer I prayed that night in our friend’s living room. I do remember getting a good night’s sleep. By the end of the next day, we still hadn’t found an apartment. Jill still hadn’t found a job. That evening, just after 6pm the phone rang. It was for Jill. It was a local dentist. The dental assistant he’d hired turned down the job because she did not want to commute so far to work. He asked Jill to come to his office at 6pm the next day for an interview. The next evening, I waited in the car and prayed for Jill to do well. Almost an hour and half later, Jill came out to the car. “Well? How did it go?” I asked.

Her face lit up with a big smile and there was sunshine in her voice. “I start a week from Monday!”

“Great!” I said, “Now all we need is a place to live.”

As it happens, the very next day, the Lord provided! We found an apartment about three miles from campus and a short drive to the dental office. It was tiny—two-and-a-half rooms, but the rent, which included utilities, was affordable

Everyone who follows Jesus has a similar story; a defining moment when at the point of great need, we discover we have a great and generous God—a Father in heaven who sees in secret, and who knows what we need before we ask. It is because we have a Father in heaven that Jesus commands us not to be anxious about our life, or about what we will eat, or drink, or wear. It is because our Father promises to provide that we can conquer anxiety by faith in future grace.

You think about that.

All That is Not Eternal: A Summary of the Four Loves

[Ed. note: the following excerpt is adapted from The Four Loves: C.S. Lewis’s Theology of Love. The entire essay can be found in C.S. Lewis, Life, Works, and Legacy, Vol. 4 edited by Bruce L. Edwards, (Praeger Publishers, Wesport, CT, © 2007). The excerpt is the conclusion of my analysis of Lewis’ work, The Four Loves, (Orlando, FL, Harcourt Brace & Company © 1960)]

Anyone who reads C.S. Lewis should come prepared to think, to reason and to learn. This is especially true for those who know him primarily through reading his fiction. As an author of non-fiction Lewis is a demanding writer. Those who are muscular enough to stay with him will be rewarded. He may be demanding, but he is not disrespectful. If reading Lewis can be compared to the hikes which he loved famously, then the reader must be prepared for Lewis to outpace even the most erstwhile of hikers. The good news is a book allows you the leisure to catch your breath. In time, if you can catch up with and stay with him stride for stride, you will develop the necessary mental stamina to think, to reason and to learn.

I can attest to the benefits gained from this form of literary and mental aerobics. Quite honestly, The Four Loves is not easily “hiked” through in one reading. Neither is it easily hiked through after a second or third reading. The particular edition which I read to write this essay is now nearly illegible — so full are its pages with underlines, notes and various other diacritical marks; all the result of many hours spent reading the text. I was asked to read The Four Loves and to offer comment using pastoral insight. This being the case, let us move to the task at hand.

One wishes Lewis had written more clearly at times, but the harder the hike the greater the benefit gained from the exercise. In making his readers think more Lewis trains them in the art of following his argument – even when he digresses. Even so, Lewis’ worst digressions are still better than most authors clearly and cogently stated theme.

Those familiar with The Four Loves know it is more a philosophical than a theological treatise about love. This does not mean it does not have theological merit. It does. The natural loves permeate our culture just as they did in biblical times, just as they did in Lewis’s day. It is remarkable and a testament to Lewis’ skill as a writer that what he says—even though it was written in 1960— The Four Loves still speaks with a contemporary and trenchant relevance. Although it can be difficult to follow the line of Lewis’s argument, the careful reader, the one who takes his or her time to cogitate the text, will find great reward in great thought.

Trained as a preacher to find a unifying theme, or big idea, present in a biblical text, I attempted to do this with The Four Loves. The premise by which Lewis wrote The Four Loves is best summed up in the oft quoted statement, “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”[i] This statement, often taken out of context, applies first to the natural loves before it applies to anything else.

The natural loves are Affection, Friendship, and Eros. Included among these are also the Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human. Since the natural loves are natural they are not eternal. Hence they are eternally out of date. They are destined for decay unless they are transformed into becoming modes of Charity.

Separated from Charity the natural loves promise what they cannot deliver. They create a desire which they cannot ultimately satisfy. When the natural loves are pursued apart from Charity, the Love which is Eternal, the pursuit is for that which is eternally out of date. Borrowing from his knowledge of mythology Lewis compares the natural loves to gods run amok. When the gods run amok they meddle in human affairs unconcerned about the consequences brought about by their intrusion into human affairs.

Thus, when Affection, Friendship, and Eros become gods they become demons. Although there is too much of the mortal in them, they contain just enough of the divine which allows them to masquerade as gods. Not to bless, but to tempt, deceive and mislead into ruin.

In contrast, Charity is unnatural and therefore is, in the best sense, inhuman. Charity is love that is not of this earth. Charity comes to us from God in Heaven. Charity is the Divine Agape which intrudes into our existence for the sole purpose of making us aware that the longings, the cravings created by the natural loves can be satisfied, but not by any love that is natural. To bolster his argument, Lewis quotes Augustine’s maxim, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our heart has no rest till it comes to Thee.”[ii]

The Four Loves is a philosophical proof of the inadequacy of the natural loves to bring us near to God. Only Charity can do that. It was not Affection, not Friendship, and not Eros that John says motivated God to send His Son to earth to die. It was Love. It was Charity (Agape). Here it is wise to let Lewis have the last word.

“I have included two Graces under the word Charity. But God can give a third. He can awake in a man, towards Himself, a supernatural Appreciative love. This is of all gifts most to be desired. Here, not in our natural loves, nor even in ethics, lies the true centre of all human and angelic life. With this all things are possible.”[iii]

You think about that.

[i] Ibid., 137.

[ii] Ibid., 138.

[iii] Ibid., 140.

The Beatitudes Drive Us to the Cross

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One of the most influential books written about the preparation and delivery of sermons is Biblical Preaching by Haddon W. Robinson. In the chapter titled, Start with a Bang and Quit All Over, he describes the characteristics of an effective introduction. According to Robinson:

  1. An effective introduction commands the attention of the audience.
  2. An effective introduction uncovers needs.
  3. An effective introduction introduces the body of the sermon.

 

The application of Robinson’s criteria to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would reveal that Jesus commanded the attention of His audience with an action: He sat down. This is the posture of rabbi about to teach in the synagogue. Having sat down to teach, Jesus deftly uncovers the true needs of His audience, as well as introducing the body of the Sermon on the Mount.

Prior to delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had begun His preaching ministry with a terse yet arresting declaration: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The kingdom of heaven is here in the Person and work of Jesus.  Those who want to follow Him must learn the difference between what they think they need, and what Jesus knows they need. Since Jesus came to make disciples, not attract an entourage, the paint a picture of what life as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven looks like. The Beatitudes are the fundamental qualities belonging to anyone who practices what Jesus preaches.

The Beatitudes describe what a Christian is before describing what a Christian does. They define Christian character before they define Christian conductfor all Christians. Thus, it would miss the mark to interpret the Beatitudes as Jesus saying, “There are some Christians are pure in heart while others mourn,” or “There are some Christians are meek while others hunger and thirst for righteousness,” or “There are some Christians are merciful while others are pure in heart,” or “There are some Christians are peacemakers while others are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” No. ALL Christians are to have and to practice ALL the qualities listed in the Beatitudes.

We would be equally off target to believe the Beatitudes are limited to an elite sub-group of the spiritually mature within the Church. Once again: ALL Christians are to have and to practice ALL the qualities listed in the Beatitudes. Every follower of Jesus must, at some point, demonstrate every one of the qualities mentioned by Jesus in the Beatitudes.

But right away we have a problem. None of us is born with any of the qualities listed in the Beatitudes. They are not included in our DNA. Every quality listed in the beatitudes is a gift of God’s grace through the help of His Holy Spirit. Additionally, the presence and the practice of the Beatitudes separates those who merely follow Jesus from those who follow Him sincerely. Those who follow Jesus sincerely have experienced a spiritual rebirth by declaring their trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. The moment you and I put your trust in Jesus, we become citizens of the kingdom of heaven. This means we live in this world as resident aliens. We may have born as a citizen of the United States, or some other country, but through faith in Christ we have been born again and now, as the apostle Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 3.20). Since our citizenship is in heaven, our lives should reflect the values of our true homeland. How? By practicing ALL the qualities listed in the Beatitudes as they are given to us by God’s grace. But wait! There’s more! In addition to blessing us by giving us the Beatitudes, God promises to bless us when we practice them.

Why else would Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” or “Blessed are those who mourn”? While some translations prefer Happy to Blessed, the better translation is Blessed. Generally speaking, people who are blessed also tend to be happy. Besides, happiness is a subjective state; how we feel. Happiness comes and goes. Jesus is not talking about how we should feel when we practice the Beatitudes. He is talking about what we are in God’s eyes when we practice the Beatitudes. We are blessed!

What does it mean to be blessed? Simply put, to be blessed means to be approved, or favored by God. When we bless God, we are approving and praising Him. When God, by His grace, blesses us, He is showing us favor by approving us. There is no greater source of happiness then to be blessed by God.

 

Each of the Beatitudes ends with a description of the blessing received. Just as the eight beatitudes describe every Christian, so the eight blessings are given to every Christian. Each of the eight qualities described in the Beatitudes represent the responsibilities, while each of the eight blessings represent the benefits, of being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

Now someone may ask, “Are these blessings present or future?” The best answer is, “Both.” The kingdom of heaven is both a present reality and a future certainty.

Another may ask, “Do the beatitudes teach that we can be saved by our own merit and good works?” No, because this would contradict what the Bible teaches, namely, that we are justified or, saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Besides, the Beatitudes do not teach us how to confess faith in Jesus. Moreover, no one can truly practice what Jesus preaches unless they have confessed faith in Him. The Beatitudes describe the blessings which God bestows as a gift of grace upon those to whom He has given these qualities. They are not rewards earned based on our merit and good works.

Some scholars describe the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus introducing a new law. They base this on the fact that, in the OT, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments along with a host of other rules Israel was given to follow. On one hand, the Law was good news in that it clearly spelled out what God expected of His people with respect to living a holy and godly lifestyle. On the other hand, the Law was bad news because, despite clearly spelling what God expected with respect to living a holy and godly lifestyle, the Law was powerless to help a person practice the lifestyle God required. All the Law can do is point out their powerlessness to keep it. The Law can do nothing to help anyone obey it.

This was by design. According to God the Father’s plan for our salvation, the purpose of the Law is to point us to Jesus Christ. Where we broke the Law, Jesus, who is God the Son, obeyed it perfectly. His perfect obedience enabled Him to be the atoning sacrifice for sin. Jesus’ death on the cross enables us to be forgiven and thus saved from the wrath of God against our sin. The perfect life of Jesus makes it possible for us to made righteous, at the same time, His death on the cross as the perfect sacrifice makes it possible for us to be forgiven. God the Holy Spirit uses the Law to drive us to the cross of Christ. The Spirit helps confess our sin and declare our trust in Jesus as Savior. Once we have declared our trust in Jesus, the Holy Spirit continues to help us practice what Jesus preaches.

The Sermon on the Mount is similar to the Law in this respect: it shows the non-Christian that they cannot obey its teaching apart from the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit. The Sermon is meant to drive the non-Christian to the cross of Christ so they will declare their trust in Him. Once we have confessed faith in Christ, the Sermon on the Mount takes on a different function. It shows Christians how to live in order to please God. So, if the Sermon on the Mount sends us to Christ to be justified, Christ sends us back to the Sermon on the Mount in order to be blessed of God.

You think about that.

Where’s Jesus?

12698720_10153368895794071_1247567863398506829_o-1In the days before cell phones, the story is told about a grandfather who drove from New York City to visit his son’s family in Upstate New York. As he weaved his way through crowded New York City streets, jockeying for the best lane amid the holiday traffic, the old fellow could not shake the feeling he’d forgotten something at home.

Once outside city limits he pulled into a rest area. He had his wallet. He had his reading glasses. He opened the trunk. The presents and his luggage were all there. “Good,” he thought. Still as he got back in the car he could not shake the feeling he’d forgotten something. It was right on the tip of his tongue, like when you see a familiar face but you just can’t remember the name to go with it. Try as he might, he just couldn’t remember. So, he drove on.

Two hours later he pulled into the driveway of his son’s home. The feeling he’d forgotten something still nagged him. What was it that he’d left at home? It was only when his grandson greeted him did the man suddenly remember: “Hi, Grandpa!” said the young lad, “Where’s Grandma?”[1]

Given all the hustle and hurry of Christmas we might ask ourselves a similar question, “Where’s Jesus?” Sometimes as we rush around to get ready for Christmas it’s easy to forget we’re supposed to be preparing to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. With all the busy-ness that accompanies our Advent and Christmas celebration, it may be difficult to slow down long enough to remember what the Bible says about the birth of Jesus. If that is true of you this Advent, listen again to what the Apostle John says about Jesus in the prologue of his gospel (from the ESV).

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  

 14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made him known.

Using words very similar to those found in Genesis 1, John begins his gospel with the declaration: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  As the eternal Son of God, Jesus is the Creator of all things. “All things were made through Him,” says John at the beginning of verse 3.  Only God can create and John makes it abundantly clear that all the attributes and characteristics of eternity, divinity, and creative power belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.  In declaring that Jesus was in the beginning with God, John is declaring Jesus is God. He is the eternal Word through Whom all things were made.

As if that isn’t enough, verse 3 ends with this astounding assertion: “and without Him [Jesus] was not anything made that was made. The New Testament bears witness to the truth that apart from Jesus nothing can exist. Speaking of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power,” (1.3). The apostle Paul makes a similar declaration in Colossians 1.17, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

Where’s Jesus this Christmas? He is at the center of everything we do, everything we know, everything we experience. If “in Him all things hold together,” then even when it seems as if our world is falling apart, it isn’t. Jesus is there to hold it all together for us. He is here to hold us together and to keep us from falling apart.

C.S. Lewis captures the essence of the incarnation as follows:

In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.[2]

Christmas is about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through Him all things were made and in Whom all things hold together. It may not need to be said, but I will say it anyway, Christmas is not a man-made holiday. Christmas is the celebration of a Spirit-inspired, God-generated historical fact; the joyful declaration of a divine event—God the Son became the man we know as Jesus Christ.

Christmas announces the Incarnation as an historical fact: God became Man in Christ so that from His fullness we might all receive grace upon grace. The incarnation is God sending forth His Son as the Good Shepherd to seek and to save that which is lost. It is about God sending Jesus as the Light of the World who gives life to all who confess faith in Him. It is about God sending Jesus to be the Savior of a rebellious humanity who offers Himself as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. The incarnation is about God sending Jesus as the Suffering Servant who serves us bread and wine; washes our feet; and ultimately to lay down His life as a sacrifice.

And this Jesus Christ is the Savior in whom we confess our faith for salvation as well as the Lord whom we worship. He is the Word through Whom all things were made and He loved creation so much He became flesh and dwelt among us.

You think about that and have a blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas!

[1] Clergy Talk, Dec. 98, p. 26

[2] C.S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle,” Miracles, 111