Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Luke 17:11-19: Gratitude

When I have come to the other side of a project that I have been working on for quite some time, I usually go through a moment of reflection. During this moment I ask myself questions like, What went well? What could have gone differently? Etc...

At some point during this moment of reflection an idea will pop into my mind and I'll say, "WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT BEFORE!?" (Kinda like when George Constanza thought of his "Jerk store" comeback a little too late... Has nothing to do with this post). 

As the above photo says, the reason some things escape us is because we fail to notice them. And the reason we fail to notice them is because we are so focused on another area that the peripheral ideas, even the great ones, just slip on by. So, while the things we pay attention to might take us to great places, it is the things that we fail to notice that always hold us back, and keep us from experiencing the depth and fullness of life.

This is especially true when it comes to gratitude. One cannot be grateful without being aware. And the more awareness a person has, the deeper their gratitude can be. 

In the passage we are focusing on today there are ten lepers who approach Jesus for healing. The leper was an outcast. Because of their unclean status they had to stay as far away from people as possible. And if they did encounter people they would often have to yell from a distance; a warning shot, if you will. Thus we see them in this passage meeting Jesus, not within the town, right at the edge of a village. And they do not walk up to Jesus but, "Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'"

As we have seen of Jesus, he delights to show mercy to those who seek it. It brings him joy to do things like this. Therefore when these ten ask for mercy, it is mercy they receive. Jesus sends them off towards the priest to complete the ritual that would get them declared clean so that they can rejoin society. They were not just healed, but they were given their lives back. All because of an encounter with Jesus.

If we were reading this story for the first time we would expect them to be extremely grateful, possibly even dedicate their lives to him. So it comes as a shock to us when we hear Jesus say, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?"

I find myself standing in judgement against these nine. "The nerve! After all that Jesus did for you, the very least you could do was give him a superficial 'thanks.' What was so important that you couldn't return and do that?" 

To be sure, these lepers were probably filled with joy over their restored status. They probably went off to be in community with the loved ones they weren't allowed to be around. Not bad things, not at all. Indeed, if we look at the text and assume that they obeyed Jesus, these nine lepers went off to fulfill a religious obligation. This is a good thing, yes? Maybe. But the heart of a person touched by God should view certain things, like strengthening relationships (Matt. 5:24), more than fulfilling religious duties. 

They were suddenly religious, but ungrateful. And I, for one, can't stand that kind of ingratitude... At least in other people.

It's very easy to condemn, isn't it? Easy to look down upon these nine with a condescending, "I would never do that!" But their behavior, sad as it was, is actually descriptive of how many people respond to God's mercy today. Like the ten lepers, we are quick to yell loudly for mercy when we are in need. But once the need has been met, how many yell as loudly in thanksgiving? 

Once we get what we need we are off to enjoy the benefits of God's mercy, but we do so without expressing gratitude over the mercies provided. Think of the quality of your devotional life when you had a need. When the need was met, did your prayers take a hit? Did you have less time for scripture reading and meditation. 

"But the other nine, where are they?"

The simple answer is that they are off living their life. Somehow they missed it, they failed to notice. Oh, they noticed that they were healed, but they failed to notice the work of God that they experienced through Jesus. The focused on what he did, but failed to notice him. True gratitude not only notices what was done, but it sees the sacrifice of the person who made the change possible.

This is what the Samaritan leper did. He saw that he was healed, but he also saw the face of Christ in his healing. Therefore, although he had a list of things to do now that he was healed, the primary thing was to go and worship. He simply goes to tell Jesus that he was grateful. In other words, he told Jesus that he noticed the wonderful work he did in his life. He noticed Jesus when he had a need, and after the need was met he saw him even more clearly.

The challenge we face is to become people who take notice. It is too easy to become people who take things for granted. We do that all the time. So we expect, or feel like we deserve, prompt service, perfect meals, doors held, respect, etc... The truth is, we deserve nothing. Everything we receive is a gift from God. 

Thanksgiving Day provides us with an opportunity to take notice, and give thanks. It is a very commendable exercise. And I hope that as you survey your life you will find many reasons to model the Samaritan who was once a leper.

"Beyond all else that you have given me, grant me yet one more thing: an unfailingly grateful heart."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Judges 6:11-16: Courage to Trust

In our current sermon series we have been looking at the story of Gideon's call in order to learn how we might apply the same kind of courage that he did, and realize the vision that God has for our lives. Thus far, we have seen how Gideon needed courage to see; that is, once he heard God's vision for his life, it required courage for him to then take an honest look at who he really was before he could become what God envisioned.

Next we looked at how Gideon needed courage to go. After hearing God's vision, and taking a spiritual self assessment, Gideon would need to form the intention, and go live into the vision of life that God had for him. He would need to begin seeing all his "might"–his resources–through the eyes of a mighty warrior. This would require courage.

These two instances of courage are vital, and without them we can never get any headway. But if these are the only two that we use to get to the place God has called us to be, we will end up frustrated and failing. Therefore, while we endeavor to be courageous in these areas, we must also seek to have courage in another area. We must seek to have the courage to trust, but more specifically, the courage to trust that God will be with us, and for us, as we journey towards the vision of life that he has given us.

If you pay attention to the passage that we have been reading, you will see hints of this throughout the whole of it. Every time Gideon is referred to as mighty, or when the angel talks about the deeds he can accomplish, it is always attached to the presence of God.

So, Gideon is hearing two messages. The first message is that he has to do something. He can't just be a passive observer. If Israel is going to be set free he must take action!

That is actually what God's grace really looks like. Many people think of grace as only forgiveness of sins. They assume that grace is just what you need when you mess up. But grace as forgiveness is only a small percentage of grace. But God's grace actually works in concert with our effort. We give our best effort, and God adds supernatural grace and presence to bring the results.

There is a story that Dallas Willard told about a time when God spoke to him just as he was about to preach before a large crowd. He says that as he rose to stand before the podium, he heard God say, “Remember, it’s what I do with the Word between your lips and their hearts that matters.” In that moment he realized that God alone was accountable to produce the result, and he was only responsible for his preparation.

That's what life with God looks like. We give our effort, God adds his presence. This is why trusting God is absolutely vital. For he is the wind that causes our sail boat to move where it needs to go. Without him we are just drifting. 

But now let us be honest. All this talk about having a trusting relationship with God sounds simple, doesn't it? But it’s not easy to go from living a life of complete reliance and dependence upon ourselves, to a life of dependence upon God. Because we’ve been conditioned, for the most part, to rely on ourselves. We work hard, we grind it out, we study, and we do so in an attempt to secure our own future by our own effort. To be sure, this is admirable, to have that type of work ethic is a good thing.

But when we start trying to move from people who are used to securing our own life by our strength, to people who primarily trust in God, we run into a wall. And many of us are at that wall. We’ve placed our confidence in our intellect, our positions, our prestige. That has been our way of being for a long time.

Like Gideon, we know the stories of the Bible. We know how God delivered Israel. We pray, we worship, we give, we serve. We even trust that God will secure our eternal destiny in heaven when we die. But if we our being honest, the majority of us might admit that we struggle trusting God with our day to day activities. Heaven? Sure. Tuesday? I better handle that myself.

So the question for us is, How can we go from becoming people who primarily rely on ourselves, to people who primarily trust and rely on God?

To find the answer to this question, I want to look at a part of the Gideon story that we haven't yet covered. It’s found in the 7th chapter of Judges.

After the angel told Gideon over and over and over again that he will be victorious over the Midianites, and after several moments where Gideon has been reassured that God is truly with him, we still find Gideon being a little bit apprehensive to do what God has called him to do.

Look at him in verse 9 of Judges 7, he is all set for the attack, he has the men that God selected for him to lead, he has everything he can possibly use to go to battle… but he is still afraid. Still afraid! After all that’s happened, he is still fearful!

So, “the Lord says to him, “Get up, attack the camp; for I have given it into your hand." Now check this out… "But if you fear to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah; and you shall hear what they say, and afterward your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp.”

In other words, God is telling Gideon, if you still don't trust that I will be with you in this battle, you are going to have to do something to develop that trust. You’re going to have to do something that makes you vulnerable, your going to have to do something courageous, you’re going to have to face your fears if you will ever come to know and trust that I will be with you like I said I would.

Therefore, go down to the very edge of the armies camp, the same army that you’re afraid of, sneak down there, and you will discover that what I said is true. It is there that you will find the courage to trust me.

See, most people who are following God live between the fences of knowing that God exists, and knowing that God is actually with them. Many of us are like Gideon, we’ve heard the promises, we know the bible, we’ve prayed, we’ve worshiped, and on and on, but we still find ourselves paralyzed with fear. We still find it difficult to trust God.

So, like Gideon, the only way we will ever learn to trust God, is by doing something that will take a little courage, it might require us to face our fears. We are going to have to do something that will place us in a position where we can learn that God is trustworthy.

See God is not just some theory or philosophy, He is a person, 3 in 1 and 1 in 3. And the way we come to know people is by becoming vulnerable to them. We have to risk something! Whether it is a first date, or a baby sitter, or a new employee, we always take risks to see whether or not we can really trust people.

But for some reason, when it comes to God, we want to take a weird non-risky approach. We just want to study enough until it happens. Friends, I think we can safely say that that approach won’t work. Over a hundred years of curriculum based studies has proven that it doesn't work. Therefore, we must take a step of faith, even if it is a small one. Because when we do take that step, the promise of the Bible is that God will reward our seeking with the knowledge of his presence.

On my ever expanding list of pet peeves, you will find an utter dislike for the way the Bible is often partially represented in public. It seems that the world is addicting to pulling out cute scriptures and turning them into wallpaper or something. But the one I particularly dislike is when Jeremiah 29:11 is partially stated.

Here is how we usually see it quoted:

To be sure, this is a powerful message of God’s love for us… powerful, but incomplete. And because it is incomplete few people ever enter into the reality of it.

Here is how the thought continues in the following verses:

You see, God wants us to know that we can trust him. But we will never come to know that we can trust him, unless we seek to find him as trustworthy. When we face our fears, creep down to the edge of the camp, as it were, we will discover that the God we serve is a God who can be trusted. 

Here is what Gideon heard when he snuck down to the camp. Verse 13 in Judges 7 begins,

13 When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling a dream to his comrade; and he said, "I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell; it turned upside down, and the tent collapsed." 14 And his comrade answered, "This is no other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, a man of Israel; into his hand God has given Midian and all the army." 15 When Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped; and he returned to the camp of Israel, and said, "Get up; for the Lord has given the army of Midian into your hand.”

When you and I step out on faith. When we have the courage to trust God, we will experience that God will reward our seeking of him, with knowledge of his presence with us. And when we know that God is with us, we will see each and every opportunity or obstacle ahead of us, as something that lies within the realm of possibility. Because, “With God, all things are possible.”

Have the courage to see. Have the courage to go. But know that you will only realize the vision of God by having the courage to trust in him.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Judges 6:11-16: Courage to Go

In the last post I focused on the courage it took for Gideon to look at his life, and admit who he truly was. This is a necessary requirement if one is to get to the place God has called them to be; they must understand God's vision for their life, and understand their current place in life, this way they can begin taking steps to abandon their current life, for the life God has for them. This, too, takes courage.

In the passage being studied the angel turns to Gideon and says, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand."

The strength that Gideon had did not look like much. By his own admission he was, "the weakest in Manasseh, and the least in [his] family." Therefore, looking upon his strengths (his resources, intellect, skills, etc...) he must not have seen anything of value. When one looks upon their self as weak and least, they will undoubtedly see their strengths as weaknesses. So in order for Gideon to "Go in the strength you have..." he will need to look at his life, not through the "weak and least" lens, but through the lens that God uses–the mighty warrior lens. For when he looks through that lens, he will see what can be done rather than what can't be done.

The 21st century church, and her constituents, can learn a lesson from this. For we have been given a vision of what our collective and individual lives can be. The image is of people living supernatural lives in the manner of their teacher Jesus Christ. We are, as the apostle Paul said, "more than conquerors." That is how God sees us. That, and much more. But is that how one would describe the contemporary church? Is that how you would describe your life? Are you living into the supernatural vision that God has for you?

Some are, but many are not. Therefore, like Gideon, we need to hear and heed the command, we need the courage to "Go in the strength that [we] have." We need to begin looking at our lives through the eyes of God, and looking at our "strengths" as tools to accomplish the mission of God in this world. When we do, we will realize that we have always had what we needed.

From looking at the Gideon story (Judges 6-7) what would you say were Gideon's strengths?

Well, from what we see Gideon doing he was clearly a creative person, for he learned how to thresh wheat in a winepress, and still get results. That’s no small task, so we know that one of his strengths is creativity. He was also very stealthy and he had a great lay of the land. For we are told that Israel would hide their grain within the mountains to keep them from the Midianites. So not only was he able to move around quickly and quietly, but he also must've had an abundance of clay pots to store his grain in. And since they lived in perpetual fear of the Midianites, you'd imagine that they had some sort of warning system, perhaps a trumpet.

So those are Gideon’s strengths. He is creative, he has the advantage of stealth and speed. He has a trumpet, and tons of clay pots for storing wheat. Those are his strengths, those are the things the angel tells him to use to defeat the Midianites.

No sword, no battle skills, no martial arts training. Just ingenuity, a good lay of the land, a trumpet, and clay vessels used to store wheat. Can anyone remember how Gideon and 300 men defeated the Midianite army?

We would expect that his 300 would be similar to that of Leonidas if they were going to defeat Midian. But the bible says they snuck up on them at night, surrounded them, smashed clay vessels, shouted out loudly, and began blowing their trumpets.

That has to be the worst military strategy I have ever heard! Would you agree? But this is the way the Midianite army falls.

See, when we use what we have, to the glory of God, when we give God our best, God has a strange way of adding super to natural, and helping us snatch victory from, the jaws of defeat.

Go, in the strength that you have.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Judges 6:11-16: Courage To See

There is a difference between courage and bravery. It is slight, but there is a difference, and it is important. To be brave is to be able to confront pain, danger or attempts of intimidation without any feeling of fear. And in many cases it is inherent.

My daughter Trinity is brave. When we take her to the playground she sees her older siblings climbing on the equipment made for bigger kids, and she follows suit. She doesn't consider the fact that she is undersized, and can do significant harm to herself, she just goes. She is brave.

My son Gabriel is not brave, and this is not a bad thing. For he looks at the same playground, and the height of the monkey bars, or whatever, helps him decide to play on something else. He sees the risk, and decides that he isn't going to take the chance. That is one illustration of bravery.

Courage, unlike bravery, is never inherent. It is not something that you either have or don't have. It's simply not that sort of thing. Because to be courageous is to be mindful of what is involved. It is to know the risks that are included, to be aware of your fears, and all the consequences, and still, with all that in mind, go through with a particular task.

The image of a parent rushing into a burning building is a picture of courage. They know that they face significant harm, or even death, but because of the love for their child within the house, they go forward courageously.

It is interesting that when one looks through the pages of scripture you will find that the word brave is rarely used; indeed, one can probably count the total number of times on both hands. Courage, on the other hand, shows up all over the place. See, we are called to be people of courage. That is one of the qualities that should mark the people of God. We are to know the risks, name our fears, be well aware of potential consequences, and still go forward, courageously trusting God.

In Judges 6:11-16 we find the Israelites living an oppressed life. The Midianites and the Amalekites routinely come to bully them, and steal their goods. Israel, the once conquering nation, responds to this bullying by hiding their goods in the mountains. They are not the picture of courage.

In the midst of this God decides to do something about this. And, as he often does, he selects a person to be the one through whom he would bring the change. Human wisdom would recommend a natural leader, maybe someone with military training, of someone who exudes confidence. We get none of that in this passage. Instead we get introduced to a man who is threshing wheat, an activity meant to be performed in the wide open air, in a winepress. His name is Gideon, and he is fearful.

To this man the angel greets, saying, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior." Clearly, the angel is speaking from a different vision of Gideon. For what we see does not resemble a mighty warrior. But the angel speaks to him and names him, not according to what he sees, but according to how God sees him. He is the God who, as the apostle Paul says, "calleth those things which are not, as though they were" (Romans 4:17).

Therefore, in the same way you don't call your kids stupid when they bring home a bad grade, but you tell them about their potential, God doesn't look at us and name us according to what we currently are. But he looks at us and names us according to who we can be when we are in union with him. Therefore, Gideon is not a coward, but in the eyes of God he is a mighty warrior.

Now here is where courage shows up in the story. Whenever we hear a vision of life that is better than the life we currently have, we are forced to analyze our current life, and answer the question, Why does my life not look like that? And it takes real courage to be able to take a hard look at who you are, who you really are.

Alcoholics Anonymous has made great strides in helping men and women move from a place of dependency to alcohol to a life of freedom. And the way they do it is by first laying out a vision for what life might be like if a person was free from the bondage of alcoholic. They help them see how their relationship with their spouse can be restored, they show them how they will be able to be a great parent to their children, and how they will once again thrive on the job. In other words, they do just like the angel in our story does.

But did you know that the majority of people who make no progress in Alcoholics Anonymous can’t get past step 1?  For step 1 involves admitting that you are powerless over alcohol - and that your life has become unmanageable. It involves taking an honest look at yourself, and that requires courage. Because when you look closely at yourself you will often see something that frightens you. But until we are able to look closely, and honestly, at ourselves, we will never make it to the vision of life that God has for us. For a person cannot get to where they need to be, unless they begin where they are.

Imagine someone using a map to get from Seattle to Florida, who happens to believe that they are in California. They would never arrive at their destination, because they are not beginning at their true starting point. The same is true in our life with God. We will never arrive at the vision of life that God has for us unless we have the courage to see where we are, and begin there.

Gideon had the courage to see himself. He eventually cried out, "But Lord," Gideon asked, "how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family."

"My name is Gideon, I see myself as weak and pathetic."

It takes courage to say that. Because there are several other alternatives. He could've said, "I'm actually fine threshing wheat in this winepress. I'm getting pretty good at it." That's what several people and churches have been doing. Instead of venturing on the vision of God, and striving to embody his vision of life, we settle for what is familiar. We simply settle for getting by–threshing wheat, as it were, in a winepress.

But God has called us to more. We are called to be mighty. But we will never become mighty, if we do not first have the courage to see, and name, who we truly are. 

Gideon had the courage to see. 

Will we?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mark 10:46-52: The Unhurried Life

I have previously written about this passage of scripture, you can read that post here. In that post I focused on the need to "stand still" for people, as Jesus does for Blind Bartimaeus. What I didn't emphasize there is that disciples of Jesus must constantly place themselves in a posture that will allow them to hear the cries for mercy, and be available anytime God is at work in our world.

John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, has written about an interaction he had with Dallas Willard.

He says, “Not long after moving to Chicago, I called a wise friend to ask for some spiritual direction. I described the pace of life in my current ministry. The church where I serve tends to move at a fast clip. I also told him about our rhythms of family life: we are in the van-driving, soccer-league, piano-lesson, school-orientations, etc… I told him about the present condition of my heart, as best I could discern it. Then I asked him, “What do I need to do to be spiritually healthy?”

After a long pause Dallas Willard responded, "You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life."

Ortberg went on to write that he was waiting for more advice, but Willard had no other advice to give him. Indeed, it was the only advice he needed to hear.

For we do, indeed, live in a hectic time. We are inundated with things to do. We are always on the go. Human doings, rather than human beings.

In the passage in Mark, the people in the crowd were busy doing. It was soon going to be Passover, and they were heading towards Jerusalem. If we use our imaginations we might be able to see that they were eager and anxious to get there. After all, this Passover promised to be different than previous ones. Because this year they were going to Jerusalem with Jesus the Nazarene. And though they weren't clear on who he really was, they did have hopes that he might be the Messiah, or some other prophetic voice that would liberate Israel. And with this in mind they hurried along to Jerusalem.

And here is where we see the devastating effects of hurry in the life of a person. Because the crowd was in a hurry, when they hear the cries of a man on the side of the road, they don't hear it as an opportunity to be used by God, but they heard it as an obstacle that threatens to delay their journey. And so, instead of helping the man, they walk up to him, put their fingers to their lips and say, "SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH."

No doubt we have been there, too. We have been so hurried that we neglect to give our kids the attention that they need. Our friends cries for help get shelved because of our constant demands at work. Worst of all, we might even do it to ourselves, maybe our own souls have been crying to Jesus, but we always rationalize it and say, "I'll get to him at a more opportune time, I'm just too busy right now." SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

That is what hurry is, and that is what hurry does. It magnifies an object or goal beyond measure and causes us to view everything else through offended and frustrated lenses. Is it true that every other driver on the road is an idiot besides you? No, but when you are in a hurry it sure does seem to be true.

What is the alternative? How can we function in a day and age that requires speed? Well, as John Wesley said, “Though I am always in haste, I am never in a hurry.” We can also learn from legendary coach John Wooden, who used to tell his players, "Be quick, but don't hurry." You see, a person who acts hastily looks extremely different than the person who acts in a hurry.

The best way to explain the difference between haste and hurry is to think about the way certain animals hunt for food. If you’ve ever seen a group of hyenas of piranhas hunt for food, you will see animals that are moving in a hurried pace. They are so frantic that often they bite one another in the attempt to get their primary target. Isn't that similar to the behavior of the crowd, as they metaphorically bite and tear down the blind man in order to get to their main target? That’s what hurry looks like.

We can learn haste, on the other hand, by observing snakes. A snake is never frantic, it’s never frazzled, it doesn't panic or act hurriedly. It simply waits for the right opportunity, then when the opportunity arises it strikes out speedily (Don't click this link if you don't like awesome snakes eating mice).

That is how the disciple of Jesus should be. Indeed, that’s exactly how Jesus was in this passage. He, like the crowd, was headed to Jerusalem. But unlike the crowd, Jesus knew exactly what would happen there. To say he had a lot on his mind would've been an understatement. But still, when he hears the cry of the blind man he stands still, and calls him over.

Jesus moves hastily at an opportunity to do the work of his father. Because he is in the present moment he sees an opportunity and capitalizes on it. See, the difference between Jesus and the crowd is that the crowd made arriving at Jerusalem their top priority, but Jesus makes obeying the will of his father his top priority. And the will of his father is not something that is only future oriented, but it is a moment to moment way of being. Or, we might say, it is abiding. Therefore since Jesus abides in his father's will, he is able to experience fullness of life, and work to bring about the good his father desires.

As disciples of Jesus we are invited to live such a life, too. We are invited to abide in the will of God, and do the work of God. But that cannot be done in a hurried state. For hurry is a seizing of life, and life was not meant to be seized, it was meant to be received. The way of the world will suggest to you that unless you hurry in some areas you will never accomplish anything. That is a lie. What is true is that what can be done in a hurried fashion can be done much better without hurry. And when we do things without hurry, we place ourselves in a position to see what God is doing in the here and now, and work alongside him.

Here are a few links to books of people who lived an unhurried life in the presence of God.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Matthew 5:27-32: What You've Heard About Lust

One of the things that I enjoy doing after cutting the grass is looking over the span of it all, and being satisfied with the work of my hand. There is something about the even cut that makes me feel like a master artist. But when viewing the grass from ground level you can't really see how beautiful it is, you can't see the detail, you can't see the lines in the grass. And for me the lines are the most important things.

So in order to see the lines, I go up to my bedroom, fling open the blinds, and gaze upon the Picasso of lawns in North America. By changing my vantage point, I was able to get a clearer picture of what I accomplished. This is a truism that touches many areas of life. Changing your vantage point often expands your perspective. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus is comparing the Old righteousness and kingdom righteousness, he is inviting us to change our vantage point and see things from the perspective of the kingdom.

In the passage indicated above, he is inviting us to learn what it means to avoid adultery. But, as we should suspect by now, his invitation is going to involve much more than a mere prohibition, it will involve a change in our vantage point that will enable us to see human beings through a different light, and react to them from that enlightenment.

The way the Pharisees understood the 7th Commandment, Do not commit adultery, was the same way they understood the 6th, Do not murder. They studied the command and sought to live according to its negative implication. That is, they established rules that would keep them from sleeping with someone who is not their spouse.

In that way the Pharisees should be respected and even emulated. For when we live without those boundaries we may end up in a compromising situation, where do things that we ought not do. So let us applaud the Pharisees for taking that aspect of the command very seriously, and let us do the same. But our emulation must stop there. For while they upheld the letter of the law–they didn't commit adultery, since their hearts were full of lust, they found subtle ways to break the spirit of the law.

For example, they created a law that said women must walk behind men, and keep their head bowed down. That way they were out of a man’s vision, and he wouldn't be tempted. (An early version of blaming the victim, "if you weren't wearing that...") If they did happen to look upon a women and find her appealing, they had no problem imagining what it would be like to have sex with her. And if the appeal was strong enough, they would use divorce as a means to get rid of their current wife in order to marry the new object of their lustful hearts. And because they technically didn't break the commandment, they would consider themselves righteous.

But righteous they were not. Because true righteousness, as Jesus taught repetitively, comes from within. And the actions of the Pharisees betrayed the fact that what was within was lusting, lasciviousness, and a desire to commit adultery if the conditions were right, they were not righteous.

Jesus, on the other hand, comes to teach us how to have a kingdom heart. And a heart that is rooted in the kingdom is one that not only does not, but will not, look upon another person as an object that can be used to satisfy ones own desires. Because the kingdom hearted person sees the other as a being created in the image of God, and seeks to help them realize that reality. The kingdom hearted person sees through the vantage point of God. We are invited to become such a person.

So how then do we become people who have kingdom hearts? How do we become people that set aside fantasized desires and see others through the eyes of God?

Well, Jesus says, "If your right eye offends you, pluck it out... If your right hand offends you, cut it off... For it is better to enter into eternal life with one eye or one hand, than go to Gehenna with both."

Here is what I believe he is saying, "Remove the thing from your life that is causing you to see people as objects, or interact with them in a sinful fashion." See, in Jesus day, the right side was the dominant side, it was the side of honor. So when Jesus refers to the right hand, I believe he is talking about the dominant way of interacting with one another. When he is talking about the right eye, he is referring to the customary way of seeing another person. And as we have seen from the Pharisees, the standard way of seeing and interacting was a fallen way.

Therefore Jesus says, "Get rid of that way of seeing and interacting, and learn to see things through your left eye, and interact with your left hand." In other words, learn to see and interact with people through a not so common way. That is, through the way of the kingdom. When a person has a heart that is rooted and grounded in the kingdom heart of God, their entire view of the world will fundamentally change. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

And what of divorce? This is an important subject in our day, and it is important to pay careful attention to what Jesus is saying here. Matthew 5:31-32: "It was also said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

In a day when marriage is being defined, redefined, and argued over, what we see in the New Testament is an admonition to take it seriously. For marriage is the most precious gift. As such, it should not be entered into haphazardly, or exited without just cause. Marriage is supposed to be a divine union where a man and woman join together and express the beauty of the giver of marriage. As Hauerwas says, "[It] is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years." In that regard marriage is a journey of loving and learning to love. 

Sometimes that journey is interrupted due to a breach of that commitment to fidelity. That breach often ends in divorce, and divorce is the unfortunate result of the presence of sin and brokenness in this world. It tears apart that which was never meant to be rent asunder. And we should mourn whenever a marriage ends in this way.

However, there are occasions where the end of a marriage is a viable option, and sometimes even a good one. The occasion Jesus references most is that of fornication. It is permissible, he says, to end a marriage if there has been infidelity by one of the parties. Note: He doesn't say you must get a divorce, grace, healing, and forgiveness are still available, but he understands and permits the divorce if that is the choice. 

In another place (Matt. 19:8) he says that divorce was permitted by Moses because of the "hardness of human hearts." Another way of saying it is, "divorce was permitted by Moses because of human meanness and obstinacy." So he permitted divorce because human beings hearts often grow cold, and once the heart grows cold all manner of immoral and destructive treatment occurs, and to suggest that a man or woman must remain married is to misunderstand the heart of God.

So sometimes divorce does happen, and sometimes it should. But if it happens, the disciple of Jesus should maintain a kingdom heart. They should lay aside anger, contempt, cultivated lusting, lying, and unforgiveness. They need not embrace the ways of this world and hate their ex-spouse. That is not the heart of God either. 

It is also true that God is reconciliatory God. He renews and restores. So there is hope for those who have been divorced to find life in a new marriage, or to reconcile with their spouse if the occasion presents itself and it is appropriate.

Either way, the message we receive is this: In all that you do, do it with a kingdom heart. Learn to see all things from the vantage point of the kingdom, and respond accordingly.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Matthew 5:21-26: What You've Heard About Anger

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times..."

We hear this and tend to let it roll right past us. We are familiar with it. We think, "Jesus is simply reinterpreting the old law for his new hearers." Well, he is doing that, but he is also taking a bit of a shot. The people who "have heard that it was said," were obviously hearing it from somebody, because in those days not everyone had access to the law, like we have access to bibles, so they had teachers interpret it for them.

So when Jesus says, "you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder...'" The people likely would have remembered the law, but they also would've remembered the individuals who taught and interpreted the law to them. These individuals consisted of the scribes and Pharisees.

These teachers were keen on studying, teaching, and adhering to the law and the prophets, but in this passage Jesus indicates that they fundamentally misunderstood the message that the law was delivering.

I believe that they misunderstood the message, because they misunderstood the originator of the message. They heard, "You shall not murder," and they immediately sought to live according to the principal of that law. They made it their aim to avoid murdering by any means necessary. That is, they read the law, and understood it in it's physical sense, the same way we might understand a law that says, "do not exceed 65 mph."

The problem with this approach to the law is that the lawgiver is Spirit, and when he gives the law to us, it comes first to our spirit. Then from our spirit it emerges outward. But if we first understand it in a carnal fashion, our understanding of it will end at not killing people. And even though avoiding murder is a good thing, to hear that as the totality of God's law, is to overlook how the law applies to the spirit of a person, and thus misunderstand the big picture the law is painting.

So Jesus comes and reinterprets the law in order that they can understand the original intent of the law that was given. "You have heard that is was said... 'You shall not murder.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. So Jesus equates anger with murder. "Same punishment," he says. How crazy is he? How can murder and anger receive the same punishment?

The answer to that question becomes clear when you see what it means to have an angry spirit. Jesus is not saying that anger, in and of itself, is bad. (Click here to read more from a previous post on anger.) He is saying that a spirit that has allowed the indwelling of anger, is murderous. For the spirit that has taken anger in as a welcomed guest, quickly becomes the type of spirit that wills the harm of others.

Think of the last time you allowed anger to remain. It began as something small and insignificant, maybe a spill on your clothing. Instead of "laying anger aside," as the apostle Paul says, you indulge it it. You allow it to taint the way you see everyone. Now the person who accidentally spilled something on you is a clumsy jerk, rather than a child of God who made a mistake. This is just a small way that anger indulged causes us to have a skewed view of reality. Think about what it does over a long period of time. Could it be that a spill on a shirt in the morning can lead to murder in the evening? Under the control of anger it is possible.

So it won't do to simply follow the advice of the Pharisee and avoid murdering people. For while you may avoid bringing about the death of someone's body, you might be walking around harming others, and your own soul, because you have let anger fester.

So Jesus advises his listeners on how to keep this command from the heart. He says, "when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister is angry with you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." And, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison."

Did you notice who the angry party was in his illustration? It’s not you, it’s the other person. So Jesus is saying, "Knowing how destructive anger is to the human spirit, I want you to become the type of person that regards your brother or sister so highly, that if you hear that they are angry with you, you will make it a top priority—even higher than your most sacred religious ritual— to seek them out and reconcile with them." 

In other words, Jesus is telling his listeners to begin viewing their brothers and sisters with the utmost regard, yearn to see them thriving in the kingdom of God, and do what you can to help them to that end.

By having such a view of our brothers and sisters, we will not only keep them from diving deeper into the cauldron of anger, but we will have a heart that is so full of love that there will be no place for anger in our  own lives.

This is how we keep the command to "Not murder" from our heart. It is not simply the avoidance of killing, but it is pursuit of love and reconciliation.

"You have heard that it was said... But I say unto you..."