Sunday, October 30, 2016

Critical Church: Sermon on Matthew 7:13-23

Back to the Sermon – the Greatest Sermon. Jesus has been teaching us from the mountain for the past thirteen weeks now. He's inviting us to the kingdom. He's inviting us to be the sort of people ready for the kingdom. He wants to make us a church filled with the Spirit – a people who get to the Law's goal of love and life because we submit to the Spirit's work in our hearts before the rules can even direct us with all their do's and all their don't's. 

He wants to make us a church that craves the kingdom of God and his righteousness above all else, and are willing to topple idols like popularity, wealth, and security in order to live for him. He wants us to clear our eyes of anything that gets in the way of seeing clearly how to worship God and serve those around us. He wants to teach us how to depend on God, how to live by faith, how to see with his hope and burn with his love. We need a righteousness, a way of living, that sums up everything in the Law and the Prophets. And that means loving God with all we are and loving our neighbor like we love ourselves – and that means to treat our neighbors, even our enemies, the way we'd be treated in a better world (Matthew 7:12).

And now Jesus is wrapping up his great sermon. He's the New Moses. God used the Old Moses to lay out his will in the Law, and then give the people choices. There are two ways they can go: either live the way he said, or live some other way – and which other way doesn't really matter, because that's a broad road. There's the narrow way, the first way: “If you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth … if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or the left, to go after other gods to serve them” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 14).

That's the narrow way. But then there's the broader, easier way: “If you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15) – in other words, this broad road leads to destruction. 

And then Moses said, “See, I have set before you today life and good, or death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you will live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; therefore, choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15-19). But they had to choose.

And so must we. So it's no surprise when Jesus, the New and Greater Moses, wraps up his New Torah, his new instruction for a new kingdom-ready people, in sort of the same way. Jesus also tells us to choose between two roads. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Two roads. One is a thoroughfare – wide, pleasant, scenic. There are lots of fun stops along the way. Plenty of tourist attractions. Looks like the perfect place for a road trip. And there are more lanes than you can count, and there's tons of room at the on-ramp. But the destination isn't good. It's even worse than New Jersey. It's destruction. Death. Hell. And Jesus tells the crowd on the mountainside, “Most of your neighbors are on that road.” That's a shocking thing to say. But it was the truth. The easy road with the wide gate is popular; it's trendy; it's got something for everyone.

Not so with the other road. It winds its way up over the mountain and down through the valley. It's a one-laner. The view isn't always pretty. It's long, it's slow, it's difficult, and you will probably suffer if you take it. The on-ramp isn't easy to squeeze through; it's very narrow. And once you're on, you'll find yourself tempted time and time again by the exit ramps, with plenty of signs advertising the many delightful attractions along the broader road. 

But there's one thing to be said in the hard road's favor, and it should be decisive: it's the only road that gets to the only destination worth the trip. It's better than the beach, better than Disneyworld, better than the Poconos or Cancun or Hawaii or the Bahamas. It's life. It's the kingdom of heaven. The very presence of God, with blessings and treasures galore. There's only one way there, and there's only one gate leading onto the road: and Jesus Christ and his offer of costly grace are that gate onto the challenging road of discipleship. It may not be an easy road. But if you don't want to end up burning in the bottomless ditch, it's the road you want to take.

This is vital! This is important! And Jesus wants to warn us that not everybody is going to lead us safely down the narrow road. You can't listen to just anyone and everyone. Some will steer you wrong. Yes, even in the church, there are counterfeits, impostors. At first glance, they may look great. They may look like perfect examples; they may look like ideal models; they may have all the trappings of religion, or they might entice with what the world finds valuable. Paul had to deal with some like that. He sarcastically called them “super-apostles” – the celebrity preachers of his day, who came to town and wowed the people with their razzle-dazzle (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).

Jesus just calls them “false prophets,” and he wants us to be on the lookout. Not paranoid. Vigilant. We shouldn't see every sheep as a wolf, but we shouldn't be content with the outward trappings of a wool costume, either. Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). On the outside, they pretend to be teachers of the truth, faithful to God or to Christ, friendly and supportive of all real seekers. And they may look so cuddly, so fluffy. But as bad as a sheep bite can be, it's got nothing on the sharp fangs and fierce jaws of a hungry wolf, slipping in unnoticed to tear the sheep apart and drag them away.

The Old Testament has a lot to say about false prophets. They pretended to speak for God, but they really didn't. They tried to give the people an easier message to swallow – or they tried to discourage the people when they needed to hear joy. They tried to divert the people from the road God had set before them. The New Testament has plenty to say about false prophets, too. It says there will be a lot of them (Matthew 24:11; 1 John 4:1). It says many will be popular (Luke 6:26). Some will dazzle us with lots of flash and power (Matthew 24:24). Revelation portrays a false prophet assisting the beast – John probably means the corrupt religious establishment in Jerusalem and elsewhere, endorsing the worst pretenses of Roman power.

Moses already gave us key ways to recognize false prophets. Someone who tries to lead us to any god other than God as he's revealed himself – that person is a false prophet, no matter what other credentials he's got. “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass, and if he says, 'Let us go after other gods,' which you have not known, 'and serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. … You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 13:1-4).

The same goes for anyone who points to the right God but misuses and abuses his name to bolster what they're saying that just ain't so. Like God said through Moses, “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?' – when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Any prophet, any teacher, any leader, anybody at all who spreads a fraudulent angle on God, is false. Any prophet, any teacher, any leader, anybody at all who brings a different gospel, is false. Anyone who twists the faith into something unrecognizable – that's false right there. And it's everywhere. For her entire life, the church has been plagued by heresies – false ways of thinking that were so dangerous, they led people astray. They offered a phony God, a phony Christ, a phony Bible, a phony gospel, or they got just plain kooky.

The ancient Docetists said that Jesus wasn't really human, wasn't really flesh and blood; he just looked like it, like a hologram, because bodies are icky and bad. The ancient adoptionists said that Jesus hadn't always been the Son of God; he was a man God adopted, just like the rest of us. Marcion said that the God of the Old Testament was a bad guy, and his scriptures were false, so we should get rid of them, and Jesus had come to teach us about a different god. The Cainite Gnostics went further and said that, if the Old Testament God is the bad guy, then his enemies like Cain must've been the heroes, and we should be more like them.

The Patripassians said that Jesus was the same person as the Father, and that when he prayed, he was just talking to himself, and the whole thing was a great game of charades. Arius taught that Jesus was a second god, the Father's first creation before the world; and some of his followers admitted that meant that even Jesus didn't really understand God's essence. Nestorius taught that Jesus was really two people, one being the divine Word and the other being the man Jesus; and so for anything we see Jesus do, we have to decide if it's the God or the man doing it. Eutychus taught the opposite: that in Jesus, deity and humanity became fused and mixed together into one new nature.

And throughout the ages, plenty of systems have kept twisting around Jesus and the Bible. You've got Islam, which some Christians originally viewed as just another heresy – one that reduces Jesus to just a great prophet, denies he's the Son of God or God at all, says he never died for our sins, and tells us to listen to Muhammad and his message instead. 

You've got Jehovah's Witnesses, who think Arius got it basically right about Jesus being the first creation and not God at all; and they deny Christ's physical resurrection, and say that the Second Coming happened invisibly in 1914, and that most of what the New Testament says is only for 144,000 special followers, and that the only way to escape the coming end is to obey their Governing Body of leaders.

You've got Mormonism, where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three Gods among possibly infinite Gods out there, and we're just the embryo form of the same kind of exalted being, and the plan is for us to become Gods just like them, but only by going through special rituals in their temples and listening to what their prophets and apostles say, now that Joseph Smith brought the true gospel and priestly authority back to earth in these latter days – whew! 

And you've got plenty of churches these days that fall into other heresies, like thinking that Jesus is only one way to God among many, or teaching that we can pick and choose what we like and what we don't like in the Bible, or telling people that what matters is living according to their own desires – and that is all far more common than we'd like to think. Even some in the professing evangelical world have fallen into it, and make no mistake: it is heresy, and it is spread by false prophets.

And any prophet, any teacher, any leader, anybody at all who abuses God's name, is false. And sadly, you find this a lot. Maybe you remember a couple years ago, there was a radio broadcaster out in California named Harold Camping. He liked to fiddle around with numbers in the Bible and try to tell his listeners when the end was going to come. One time, he predicted Judgment Day would be September 6, 1994. Apparently, that didn't happen. Then, he said there would be a rapture on May 21, 2011, and five months later the end would come. Well, first May and then October came and went. Only afterwards did he repent and admit that his attempts to prophesy were sinful. He was a false prophet in the most obvious sense of the word – and it's no surprise that he taught that all churches had fallen away from God and that it was best to just study your Bible at home and listen to his radio broadcasts instead. That's how false prophets work – and Camping was far from alone.

How many times have you heard someone try to manipulate you – maybe they're barely aware they're doing it – by prefacing what they're saying with, “God told me...,” or, “I think what God is saying...,” or something like that? In some circles, it's dreadfully common. And I'm not telling you that everything that starts with those phrases is automatically false. But before you buy it, test it. Because there is a very real danger that it's a lie meant to manipulate, that it's a word God never really spoke, and it matters whether the voice we're hearing is God or somebody else.

So when Jesus starts talking about false prophets here, he's building on what the Law already said. But he isn't leaving it there. He's expanding it. He's folding those truths into what he's saying, but he's amping up the challenge and giving us newer and deeper ways to test. “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). When Jesus says 'fruits,' he's including teaching and truthfulness, but he's adding to it, because in the way Jesus talks, a fruitful life is about more than what we think and what we say; it's about what we do, and who we are, and why we do what we do and are who we are.

And there's a difference between real fruit, good fruit, healthy fruit, on the one hand, and fake fruit, bad fruit, diseased and rotten fruit, on the other. Some fruit is good for eating, and some isn't. Grapes I like; little berries on thorn-bushes, not so much. “Are grapes gathered from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? So every good tree bears good fruit, and every bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree can't bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18). “Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). 

In other words, we can recognize a false prophet because, even if they point to the right God and say all the right things, they don't live this way. Their fruit doesn't bear it out. Their lives look nothing like the Sermon on the Mount. And that, too, makes them false prophets; it makes them unreliable guides; it makes them dangerous to follow, because if we lean on them and eat the fruit they give us, we'll get sick and fall off the hard and narrow road, or miss the gate entirely. We have to inspect the fruit.

That's what Martin Luther did. Today is Reformation Sunday. Four hundred ninety-nine years ago as of tomorrow, Professor Luther took a hammer, and he took a nail, and (as the story goes) he went up to the church door that doubled as the town bulletin board, and he posted a list of ideas he wanted to discuss. Because as he took a gander at the way the church around him was looking, and the way it was perverting the gospel and pretending you could buy pardon for money, he thought to himself, “This is awfully stinky fruit.” He never meant to start a revolution, not at first. He just wanted to start a conversation and help clean up a mess he at first thought was local.

And it really was a mess. The religious establishment of the time was corrupt – more than corrupt, notoriously corrupt. And Luther did not want to risk people being led down the broad and narrow road that leads to destruction – which is exactly where he saw the indulgence-sellers sending people, with dire delusions about the destination. To Luther's surprise, the corruption went to the top, and they weren't keen on the challenge. They told Luther to quit inspecting their fruit and start toeing the party line. He declined, even after they excommunicated him, even after they threatened him. In spite of his foibles and failures, he persevered to the close of his earthly pilgrimage. And his revolution of reformation didn't stop there.

To this day, that Reformation continues. Because to this day, that Reformation isn't done. We need to be reformed; we need to be pruned; we need to inspect our own fruit, just as much as the fruit of those we'd like to guide us. We can't afford to be complacent. We can't afford to lean on a false hope. And you can't rest your confidence in the things you do, no matter how impressive. No gift can ever substitute for fruit, and neither can any work that grows out of a faithless soul, which is just the wrong sort of plant in the scorched soil of sin. 

And yet the day will come, Jesus says, when people will be surprised they went down the wrong road. They thought they had all they needed! They'll say, “But Lord, but Lord, didn't we do this, and this, and this – and all in your name?” Picture it:
  • “But Lord, Lord, I was a Sunday School teacher; I was a trustee; I was a steward; I was a pastor.”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I went to church every Sunday; I put my two cents in the offering plate.”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I may not have gone to church, but I prayed at home and watched those preachers on the TV and even read the Bible sometimes!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I liked to hunt, I liked to fish, I felt close to God in the great outdoors, and I was a really decent person, and if anybody asked me if you were who you said you were, I would've said yes!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I believed all the right things; I always agreed with whatever you said!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I respected you, I called you a great teacher!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I gave money to the homeless, and I donated to all the good causes!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I stood up to the evil in society, and I was against racism and sexism and every other nasty -ism or sick -phobia, and I spoke out against oppression and fought for justice in your name!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I told them to put God back in the schools, and I voted the way I thought you wanted, and I said the Pledge of Allegiance, I supported our troops, I defended the Constitution, I was so good!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I always shared Bible verses on my Facebook page and typed 'amen' whenever the cute picture told me to!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I told everybody about you, and I always gave you credit for my success!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, people got healed when I prayed, and in everything I did, it looked like you were blessing me!”
  • “But Lord, Lord, I was a Methodist, I was a Baptist, I was a Presbyterian, I was Greek Orthodox, I was Lutheran, I was Reformed, I was Catholic, I was Mennonite, I was Amish, I was Evangelical – isn't that enough, Lord... Lord?” (cf. Matthew 7:22).
And none of it will matter. Some of those things are good, even necessary; others, maybe not so necessary, maybe not even so great or so good. There will be people who stand before the Judgment Throne of God, and say all those things to Jesus. But if it doesn't come from faith, if it doesn't match truth, and if it doesn't bloom in love and look like the fruit Jesus has been describing, it isn't what he's looking for. All those defenses will be heard. And still they will hear those frightful words: “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). “Every tree that doesn't bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). 

Because not everyone who just says, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, no matter their gifts or worldly achievements or even miracles and exorcisms and prophecies; but it's only those who do the Heavenly Father's will as the Son has made it so wonderfully known – trust, follow, be fruitful (Matthew 7:21). The only right answer on that day will be, “Lord, Lord, I trust you; your grace is my only credit; and you can see the fruit that your grace worked in my life, because I trusted you and followed you.”

It's not that we're saved by works, or that we become Christians by bearing fruit. Far from it! Like Luther pointed out, “The tree is known by its fruits, but is not made by its fruits.” The fruit is the inevitable outcome of what the tree actually is. Do we really trust in Jesus as Savior? Are we really devoted to him as Lord? Those are two sides of the same coin; you can't have one without the other. If we have faith, then it will bear good fruit. If we have faith – which is an active relationship with Jesus, and with his Father through him – then that can't help but become the defining feature of our lives. If we have faith in the Jesus who gave the Sermon on the Mount, then we will long to live by it; we will learn to seek the kingdom first; we will do what we can to follow his footsteps. 

Like Luther said, fruits or works make us publicly what genuine faith in Christ has made us already in the sight of God. “Work here, work there, only cut out of it all confidence and trust, and don't put your trust in works as a god, but let them only serve your neighbor … Your confidence for your salvation must rest alone in Christ, for which you dare not trust in your works a hair's breadth.” But from that salvation, we together bear fruit that makes our salvation public and puts God's gifts to good use in patience, in mercy, in teaching, in charity and all kindness.

And if we stay true, through the narrow gate that is Christ himself and Christ alone, walking on the hard road that too is Christ himself and Christ alone – it's all Christ, the whole Christian journey from beginning to end – then we will find ourselves in his kingdom. That's the only way. Don't let anyone lead you to another destination. Don't let anyone suggest to you a shortcut. Don't let anyone shift your eyes away from Jesus and onto himself, herself, yourself. Don't settle for a counterfeit God, a counterfeit Jesus, a counterfeit gospel, a counterfeit teacher, or a counterfeit road. Don't settle for less than what the real Jesus has been teaching you, by his own lips and by the writings of his prophets and apostles in Scripture, and by the gentle nudge of his Spirit and the witness of his Church so long as that stays faithful to what he's already said.

Don't lie down with wolves; don't be duped by thorns and thistles; don't be infected. Instead, let's be a critical church – not in the sense of seeking to tear down what's good, but in the sense of putting everything to the test, inspecting fruit, looking past the outer wool, and navigating our road wisely. “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the [one and only] founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Craving Church: Sermon on Matthew 7:7-12

It was a day not so different from today. A couple degrees warmer, maybe. For the land of Israel, that was about as cold as you needed to worry about, even on a mid-winter's day. But there was one dire difference between that day and today. We here had rain just two days ago. But that day in the land of Israel, it had been much, much longer. It was supposed to be the rainy season. But not a drop – not a drop. That's why he'd come. 

Drawing his cloak tight around him, he marched into the eerie stillness outside the holy city. He knew who he was. More importantly, he knew who God was. And they'd asked him to fix this. They'd said to him, “Pray for rain.” He'd told them to get ready for rain – to take the clay Passover ovens into their houses so they wouldn't get soft when the rain began to fall. He reached his destination outside Jerusalem – a little nook of the great outdoors where he liked to go to meet God. And there, he raised his hands toward heaven and began to pray. Not a long, eloquent, fancy prayer. Just a simple request. Rain. That's all he asked. Rain.

And the skies were dry. He'd asked for rain, and the skies were dry. So it was time to think. This wasn't a time for slinking away unsatisfied, resigning himself and his countrymen to drought. This was a time to desire. This was a time for boldness. So he took up his staff in his hands – a rough piece of wood, not too knotted – and thrust the tip into the dirt. He turned, and turned, and drew a circle around his feet – not too small, not too big, just right. And he lifted his eyes toward the cloudless sky, toward the God he knew and loved – the God who needed to send rain.

The man opened his mouth and spoke to God as if they were face-to-face. “O Lord of the Universe! Your children have turned to me! They know that in your presence, I'm like a member of the family. So I swear now by your great and holy name, there's no way I'm budging from this circle until you show mercy on your children!” 

He stared confidently at the sky, as if daring God to disagree. And then he blinked – but only as a raindrop hit his eye. A soft, sparse drizzle began to fall.

But he wasn't satisfied – not yet. He looked up toward God, as though seeing his face, and said, “This wasn't what I meant. A drizzle? Come on! I meant a rain, a healthy rain, the kind that fills up the wells and the pits and the caves! Send us rain!” 

And he waited, gazing up as thicker clouds rolled in from the sea. The drizzle swelled, grew harder, faster, began pelting and pounding the earth with great globs of water – a mighty storm with harsh wind and abundant rain started whipping his cloak around him. He clung to it tightly.

Closing his eyes, he struggled against all natural instinct to lift his face toward the violent torrents pouring from the sky. With water nearly choking his mouth, he yelled into the wind, “That's not what I meant either! Send a pleasant rain – mild rain that blesses the earth and shows your generous hand!” 

And with that, the rain soon eased. It was a hard but gentle rain; and as the wind abated, it fell straight down and filled the wells of the city. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained for hours, maybe a day. Jerusalem wasn't built for that sort of rain; the people had begun climbing the Temple Mount for safety. And so they sent messengers to his village, asking that he might make sure the rain stops. He prayed – and soon it was all dry.

Another messenger soon darkened his door. It was an official message from Simeon. Not an ordinary Simeon. Simeon, the queen's brother. Simeon, the great rabbi of the Pharisees. Simeon, the president of the Sanhedrin. The messenger relayed that, if the man were anyone else, he'd be excommunicated for daring to talk to God that way, pull those kinds of stunts, be so irreverent. But what is there to do with a man like Honi, the man who can throw a tantrum at God and yet be forgiven and indulged like a favorite son?

It's a true story – at least, the Mishnah says so. Honi was a wise man who lived about a hundred years before Christ's ministry. And his story, and the stories of the precious few miracle-workers like him, lived on. The disciples, the crowds, who gathered on the mountainside – they knew about men like Honi, and about the men from the Bible they imitated, like Elijah the great warrior of prayer. And people like Elijah, people like Honi – that was what it looked like to have real access to God. Only the rare few did. Sure, all could pray. But only a few delighted God so much they could dare to pray like that.

And now the disciples and the crowd hear this new teacher, this Jesus, speaking and acting with authority like a new Moses; he does wonders even Honi never did, wonders even Elijah never did. He heals the sick! He banishes the demons! And they get to listen to what he has to say. 

And the wonderful thing about this Jesus is, he talks about God like a Father – a real Father. It's not an abstraction, not a distant figure, but a real and present provider. He's offering to make us God's children in a new way. And he's showing us how to live that way. But the crowd is feeling a bit discouraged. To be honest, the disciples are feeling a little self-conscious themselves.

Jesus says God's children are more righteous than the Pharisees. Jesus says God's children are cured from anger and lust; they're peaceful and pure like their Father. Jesus says God's children are truthful like their Father; they don't trick, they speak straight. God's children are generous. God's children are kind. God's children don't look to tear down those who attack them, because that's not even what God's like. And in fact, God's children love everyone, they work for their worst enemy's benefit, because God gives the wonders of nature and life even to them. 

God is a perfect Father, and he's looking for his children to be like him. God stores up rewards for his children who love him and do good because it's good, not because it earns them praise and applause from their neighbors. God asks for his children's total devotion – for them to really imitate his generosity and to look toward heaven where he is. And God asks for his children's complete trust – to rely on his care and not worry. 

Jesus says that the Father's children don't judge; they live by their Father's word, but they don't scramble up on that throne and play-act his part. In fact, says Jesus, God's children should resemble their Father so much that they look on everyone with equal love and treat them like they themselves would long to be treated.

The disciples, the inquiring crowd – they hear these things, and they're reminded of all the times they've failed. All the times they've fallen short of the life Jesus is describing – and not just describing, but demanding! And it sounds almost like being God's children is too much pressure, too much work, to reflect him in all our deeds, all our words, all our attitudes. They wonder how they can ever live like that. And Jesus sees their crestfallen hearts. They need to be reminded, not just of the demands, but the privileges of living as God's children, God's actual beloved children.

And so Jesus tells them, in so many words. He says that God loves them – God loves us – no less than he ever loved Abraham his friend; no less than he loved Noah and Enoch; no less than he loved Elijah and Elisha; and, indeed, no less than he loved Honi. In what Jesus says, he's telling them that what Honi and other great saints enjoyed as a special privilege, he's offering to those who learn from what he's saying here, who learn to trust and treat God as Father – they, too, can approach God's throne of grace with holy boldness, like little children barging into the throne room because the King of the Universe really is their dear Abba.

The disciples have been worried; they've been concerned. Does God really listen to their prayers? Can they ever achieve this? Or are they forever too far away? And Jesus explains. Those in the crowd who have children – imagine that your little one, maybe three or four years old, totters over to you and asks, “Daddy, may I please have a bread?” In those days, a typical loaf of bread looked a lot like a round stone. What kind of father, hearing his little one's voice asking for bread, goes outside, grabs a stone, walks back in, and says, “Sure, sweetheart, here's your bread” – and watches as his child breaks his teeth? Or, if he hears his little son, little daughter, ask for a fish, what kind of father catches a snake and figures, “Well, they're both scaly, so same thing, right?” (cf. Matthew 7:9-11).

No! A father who thinks like that isn't just a run-of-the-mill sinner; he's a psychopath! And throughout history, even some of the worst sinners and dictators – the Pharaoh of the Exodus, or King Nebuchadnezzar, or folks like Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler, and the rest – didn't treat their own children like that, no matter how cruel or careless they were toward the rest of the world. Not a one of them, for all their many flaws as people and as parents, would torture their own little child by giving a stone and calling it bread. 

And, Jesus challenges us, if even evil people give their own children bread when they ask for bread, how can we think to fear that our Father in heaven, the perfect Father, the ideal of all goodness, would give us stones, snakes, and scorpions? Can't we expect more from our Father God than we do from our parents on earth, kind or cruel though they be?

The answer is yes! “How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” So much more, is the answer! Do not be afraid to ask! Don't give up so easily! Don't walk away from the throne of grace, but ask, and seek, and knock, and wait, and wrestle with God. But when you wrestle with God, you aren't trying to tear a blessing out of unwilling hands; you're enjoying the delights of your Father's presence, and he wants to bless you more than you want to be blessed.

Remember who Jesus is talking to. He's speaking to disciples. And disciples are Sermon-on-the-Mount people. They're Golden-Rule people. They're God's-love-for-everyone people. The Father's children have their Father's ear, they have their Father's heart, they have their Father's priorities. So often, we “ask and don't receive, because [we] ask wrongly, to spend it on [our] passions” (James 4:3). We ask with wrong motives for the wrong kind of things. 

But what has Jesus been teaching his disciples to pursue? What kind of “good gifts” are first and foremost on our priority list? What should we ask for? What do we seek? Where do we knock (Matthew 7:7)? We knock at the narrow gate that leads to life, even by a hard road (Matthew 7:14). There's a reason Luke's version of this passage says that the Father will give, not just any good gift, but “the Holy Spirit” (Luke 11:13). We “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” trusting that “all these things,” the other necessities of life, “will be added unto [us]” in God's good timing (Matthew 6:33).

And we keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking – Jesus is talking about a continuous action, like Honi being more and more clear about the rain. We're so used to thinking about the gospel in once-and-done terms. But that isn't what Jesus describes. And it's not how our forefathers gained their peace with God. 

There was a man once – Moses Dissinger – he eventually became one of the great evangelical preachers of his day. But in his youth, he was a much rougher sort. He would've fit in so well with the Buzzard Gang and maybe shown them a thing or two, because he never lost a fight. But one day he went to a revival meeting. He heard the gospel preached in power, and felt the word of God pierce his soul like a double-edged sword. And he saw that he was a sinner, that he was far from God, and he began to pray for forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit. And he prayed continuously. He was digging a foundation for a house, and every time he hurled a shovelfull of dirt behind him, he cried out, “O God, grant me grace!” Another shovelfull: “O God, grant me grace!” And the Lord heard his prayer and accepted him as a child, and filled him with the Spirit and with fire.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Pray first his name be hallowed, his kingdom come, his will be done. And then ask for your daily bread or your little fish; ask for forgiveness and guidance; ask for what you need to survive. And then, living in your Father's love, receiving righteousness to follow his Son's teaching, dare to boldly ask him for whatever else you still desire; and if it's a good thing, if you've had the sense not to ask for a bowl of rocks for breakfast or an angry snake for supper (and all of us, looking back, can see how some of our prayers were just that), you can keep on asking with confidence your Father won't let you down. 

The more I've tried to personally practice what I've been preaching, the more clearly I've been able to see the Father's active presence in my life. Oh, it might look differently than you or I would've thought. In Gethsemane, Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7). And the Father heard Jesus and answered that prayer – not by avoiding the cross, not by taking the cup of wrath away from him, but by answering his prayer on the other side of death itself. Some of our prayers to our Father may look much the same.

Our Father does love us – more than we can understand or imagine. But the truth is, he shows his care for us in a broken world east of Eden. It's a place that's sometimes more rolling dunes and cracked mud than leafy trees and lush gardens. And as so many sinners and saints before us have learned, there will be times, out in the desert, when the Father seems, to our sin-stained shortsightedness, almost like a deadbeat. Because our child minds can't understand why it's hot or cold, why the walk is so long, why our Father may have secrets we don't know yet, why we don't seem to get what we ask for and have to believe would be a good thing. It's easy to get discouraged in those times, when we cry out for bread and our stomach growls and we see no bread.

It's out in the desert, the wilderness, that Satan comes and whispers temptation in our ear, tells us to believe a lie, that our Father isn't good, that our Father is a taskmaster whose approval we need to earn and haven't, that our Father doesn't love us, that our Father isn't around, that we've been abandoned or disowned or orphaned. The only way to resist that temptation, when we wander in the desert for forty days or even forty years, is to cling in faith to the word of God our Father, which is so much more valuable than bread.

It isn't easy to trust. Not in the desert, not in a faith-crushing place. In the desert, we easily grow cynical, jaded, worldly – we think it the mark of sophistication to call our Father into question; we regard it as a sign of mature stature to rebel and move out of our Father's house, to look at him with critical grown-up eyes. Or so we keep hearing from that Snake following us around. But the Father never gave us a snake for a teacher; he gave us a fish – the Fish, as some early Christians called him: Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. (The first letters spell out 'fish' in Greek; that's why early Christians drew fish in the sand to recognize each other, and why even today you might have a 'Jesus fish' on your bumper.) And what the Fish tells us is the last thing the Snake wants us to hear: “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

We can't afford to let the desert break us. We can't afford to let the snake tempt us into world-weariness, jaded cynicism, perpetually extolling the virtues of doubt. “Ask in faith, with no doubting” (James 1:6). Learn all over again to trust your Father. Even when the bread looks stale. Even when the bread is tough to chew. Even when it seems slow to come. When your hand doesn't feel the warm fresh bread, watch what your Father's doing. He may be baking you a cake. He may be arranging a feast for a generation yet unborn. But you can trust he'll feed you; you may spend a few extra hours hungry (and a day with the Lord is as a thousand years), but you'll get that bread at the right time – not too late, but not too soon. 

God isn't a microwave, he's not a toaster, not a heavenly home appliance; he's not a bread maker, a machine designed and primed to pop out fresh loaves at the push of a button. He's a Father. Prayer doesn't 'work,' as though it were a technique, a formula, an incantation; prayer is just an honest conversation with our Father. He's looking for a relationship with you, and with us all together – a relationship with his children – not to spoil us, but to strengthen us, to raise us, to share delights with the whole family together forever.

With that kind of Father, why wouldn't you pray? And he asks us to pray – and to surrender, to obey, to wait, to endure, and to love. It's all part of the same Christian life, the journey on the hard and narrow road – holding hands with our Father. And even if that road turns through the darkest valley, with death looming all around us and wolves waiting in the shadows, take heart: your Father is strong and carries an awful big stick (cf. Psalm 23:4). And even with your enemies watching, you can dare to ask for a loaf of bread, and he'll get the table all ready for you (Psalm 23:5). But dare to ask; dare to seek; dare to knock. “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:8).

The grave plight of the church today is that we don't ask, seek, or knock. We satisfy ourselves too easily. We're so used to not receiving – or, at least, we worry that we won't receive, or we don't receive because we ask for what isn't good for us or what we won't use right, or we don't think we receive because we can't recognize the gift when we get it – and we're so used to that, that we train ourselves not to ask. We willfully live as people of low expectations; we snuff out our God-given longing. We settle for mediocrity. We settle for things we think we can accomplish by our own power, so that if God doesn't come through, at least we can make it without him. 

That's the plight of the church today: we learn not to yearn. We settle for meeting once a week and burying each other, and we think that's all we can have in this life; we normalize it, because it's easier for us to be normal than to dare to ask. It's like what C. S. Lewis said seventy-four years ago:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Brothers and sisters, let us not be so easily pleased. We are all that Honi or Elijah was, and more; we are the sons and daughters of God, the heirs of our Father's kingdom; we are our Father's family. We don't have to settle for less than the Father longs to give us. Let us be once again a craving church; let us learn again to yearn – yearn for the kingdom, yearn for righteousness, yearn for the Holy Spirit, yearn for our daily bread, and yearn for still more – bring our desires to our Father, and with the boldness of a child, ask, seek, and knock on heaven's door with all faith that our Father loves this little band of children. Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Clear-Eyed Church: Sermon on Matthew 7:1-6

Excuse me, sir, but if I'm not mistaken, you have a bit of a splinter in your eye. Doesn't that hurt? Didn't you notice it there? Well, that thing could get infected if you leave it in. Now, I happen to have a pair of tweezers, and I'd like to consider myself a bit of an expert at this. You can trust me. May I go ahead and just get that splinter for you? … What do you mean, no? What do you mean, I have something in my own eye? No I don't! Don't you think if something that big were in my eye, I'd notice it? Well, if you're going to be ungrateful, maybe someone else could use my help.

Ah, yes, you, ma'am – you have a splinter in your eye, too! May I get that for you? No?!? And you think I have some hunk of lumber in my eye, too? You're the second person to say that today. Come to think of it, I heard that last night. I wonder... Oh! I feel it! I've got to get it out!

Huh, would you look at that? I was blind... but now I see. What a world of difference that makes. Doesn't it? I wonder how I couldn't notice that was there? I guess it's easier to see someone else's flaws than my own.

Do you think there was a chuckle that sunny Galilean afternoon, when Jesus drew that mental picture for all the crowd gathered 'round? The image of a wannabe eye-surgeon, scrambling around to look at the little specks of sawdust in other people's eyes, while oblivious to the humongous thing sticking out of his own? And it sure was humongous. I toned it down. Because the word Jesus used, which some Bible translations render as 'log' and others as 'beam' or 'plank,' is the word they used back in that day for a roof beam – the kind we have in this here church, the big ones that needed fixed after the tornado. Can you imagine somebody walking around with one of those things jutting out his eyeball? And not even knowing it's there? Talk about a hazard!

And Jesus drew that picture to illustrate one simple principle: “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1). It's such a simple clause. Two words. And yet few verses have become the battleground for as much controversy as this one. It used to be that our culture's favorite Bible verse, or at least it seemed like it, was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world...” That's what we were all about, at least in what we professed. That's no longer our culture's verse. That's not their favorite. Instead, this has become the most widely used verse in America. And that wouldn't be a problem if it weren't because it was the most widely misused verse in America!

This country has an obsession with judgment, or what it thinks is judgment. These days, witnessing to just about any standard or norm of behavior is considered 'judgment.' Making any moral distinctions is considered as 'judgment.' If you happen to mention what the Bible says about marriage, that'll get filed under 'judgment' real quick. The same goes at times for drug use, or petty theft, or certain political views, or plenty of other things. Having a restrictive stance, and saying it applies to other people as much as to yourself, is automatically called 'judgment.' And there are few things modern America views as unacceptable vices as much as 'judgment' – 'intolerance,' they might call it, or even 'bigotry' at times.

The irony is that, for a culture that's so obsessed with avoiding 'judgment,' it's a pretty judgmental culture itself. It still draws lines in the sand, if not always where we'd draw them. It still believes in absolutes, even if it says it doesn't. Self-expression, the way you self-identify and present yourself to the work – as long as it doesn't flout the culture's rules on 'judgment,' it's sacrosanct. And any other view must, in the culture's eyes, be judged and removed from public view. But some of our culture's absolutes are still good ones. It still upholds the need for men to treat women with equal dignity and respect – and that's exactly right. And our culture is very quick to judge those who fall short of that standard.

You could go on and on. We live in a paradox. Our culture is obsessed with avoiding judgment, at least what it thinks is judgment, while freely engaging in judgment in ways that are almost unprecedented. Think for just a moment how much judgment you think you've heard this election cycle. Think how much judgment you hear around town in the latest gossip. 

We have entire entertainment enterprises whose main attraction is the chance to enjoy the pleasures of judgment within the safety of our own homes, staring at the TV. Our culture is very confused, even if it thinks it isn't, when it comes to judgment.

So we have to ask, “What did Jesus mean, when he said, 'Judge not'?” And that's a bit of a tricky question – the word we have in Greek there has as much variability as our English word. But from the context, we can safely say a few things. 

First, Jesus is not telling us that there's no such thing as sin – that whatever you want to do is cool, at least as long as it doesn't hurt anybody. Jesus isn't saying that, and he never would say that, because it just isn't true, and nobody knows that better than Jesus. There is such a thing as sin. There is such a thing as wrongdoing. There is evil in the world, and it is not the same as good; there are definite distinctions between right and wrong.

Second, Jesus is not telling us to never, under any circumstances, mention that such-and-such a specific thing is a sin. Jesus himself listed various sins: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander – these are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20). So did his apostles – they clearly marked out some behaviors as sinful, and they weren't shy about public airings of those lists: “Put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. … In these you once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth; and do not lie to one another” (Colossians 3:6-9). “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness,” and so on (Galatians 5:19-21).

Third, Jesus is not telling us to never, under any circumstances, notice that someone is engaged in a sinful pattern of behavior or say that to them. He may be telling us how and when, and we'll come back to that; but he clearly isn't telling us never to do it. He did it: he called out the Pharisees for their sin. He named Herod's sins as sin. He used the pagan Romans as a stock example of sin. And his apostles went on to name sin outside the church and challenge sin inside the church.

And fourth, Jesus is not telling us to never, under any circumstances, draw the conclusion that a certain person may or may not be saved. That's especially true among people who don't profess to be believers. Jesus has taught us that without faith in him as risen Savior and ruling Lord, there's no salvation. He is the Way; his is the only name under heaven by which we can be saved, rescued from our sin and its eternal consequences. He is the Truth; and whatever dares to contradict him is simply wrong. And he is the Life; every other option leaves us dead in our sins, but he is the sole source of vitality, human flourishing as God designed it. If someone does not even claim to trust and follow him, then it should be obvious to us that they're still outside salvation – not to say they can't be saved, or won't be saved, but that they aren't saved in their unbelief.

But even among professing believers, Jesus talks – and we'll get there in a couple weeks – about knowing them by their fruits. That distinguishes between real believers, real disciples, and nominal believers, mere claimants to the Christian name. Some of those fruits are theological – they have to do with what we believe. If I say I believe in Jesus, but I think he was a great and glorious prophet who witnessed to Israel and then skipped the cross and ascended straight to heaven, that doesn't make me a Christian; it makes me a Muslim. If I say that I believe in Jesus, but I think he was a creature God created first, and that he was an angel before his life-force was put in Mary's womb, and that after his death he stopped existing for a while but was recreated as a spirit without a body, that doesn't make me a Christian; it makes me a Jehovah's Witness. Those are false doctrines. Real believers, once taught the faith, profess the faith.

But some of those fruits are practical – they have to do with what we practice, what we do, how we live. Not to belabor the point, but imagine if I said this: “Oh, yeah, I said the sinner's prayer once. That was about forty years ago. I guess I meant it, at the time. Do I have a relationship with Jesus now? I dunno, maybe. I talk to him when I need something. Not sure if he's really there. But if he is out there, I know I can talk to him just as well when I'm out hunting as I can in church, there's for sure. And I don't let him tell me what to do – I want to treat my neighbors the way I want; I want to behave and believe how I want. I'm sure Jesus would be okay with that. And if he ain't, I don't want to hear it.” 

If I said that, if I lived it out, you'd be justified in looking at my fruit and having questions whether I'm really a believer, or just one in name only. Even Paul, the great teacher of grace, followed a list of sins by saying that “those who make a practice of doing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).

So if Jesus isn't telling us those things, what is he saying? As I've been studying this passage, “Judge not,” it seems the best way to explain is to say that, here, 'judge' means 'condemn.' And more specifically: To judge someone means to step into a God-like position above them, to look down at their real or perceived flaws, and to render a verdict with the pretense of divine authority. That's what it means to judge, here. 

That's why James writes that someone who judges his brother, while pretending to follow the Law, is actually judging and condemning the Law. Because the Law did not set you up in that role. The Law did not authorize you as a judge of your equals, your own brothers and sisters in the family of faith. If you grab that role that the Law didn't give you, you're effectively saying that the Law was wrong, and the Law needs to be fixed; you're taking God's word and changing it, to make yourself a judge (James 4:11). But, he says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge – he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).

Paul says the same thing. When you look at other Christians, other believers, they are not your servants. They do not live to please you. They belong to the Lord – the same Lord that you do. They are his servants. And so they answer to him, not to you. “Who are you,” Paul asks, “to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own Master that he stands or falls. And” – here Paul tucks in the gospel of grace, thank God – “he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). 

We can't pass judgment on each other, because we don't own each other; we don't stand in a position of heavenly authority to do so, because we are not heavenly masters over other believers. We are not God. We are called to imitate God, but in his character, not his position, except insofar as he has licensed us to represent him. And this is one where he hasn't. We are not heavenly masters over other believers. We are fellow servants, equals. And all of us will stand, as equals, at the judgment seat for a final performance review. “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer” (Romans 14:12-13).

So both Paul and James agree on this point, because they agree with Jesus. This is the same reason why Jesus uses the word 'hypocrite' again (Matthew 7:5), picking it up from the last chapter. Remember, a 'hypocrite' is literally an actor in a play – someone who assumes a role that isn't his own. In Matthew 6, Jesus warned about being like the 'hypocrites,' the Pharisees who turned their religion into public performance art to get praise and adulation – a reputation for righteousness that they didn't deserve. They played the part of a righteous person, but inwardly it was all about themselves, not about God. Here, the 'hypocrite' does something similar. This 'hypocrite' plays the role of master, a sinless moral superior, who can reach out and pick apart the flaws of others.

And it's hypocrisy, play-acting, because the 'hypocrite' not only isn't a master, but isn't even a moral superior! He's got a big ol' roof beam stuck in his eye – he's as blind as the rest! The 'hypocrite' acts the part of the master and abandons the role of fellow-servant; he acts like he's an eye surgeon and forgets he's a patient in the waiting room (Matthew 7:4). 

And what gets in his own eye? Partly his own other sins – the same things everyone else has – but partly also the sin of judgmentalism – the intrinsic blasphemy of setting himself up as judge.

That's the problem with judging. We set ourselves up as God. But we aren't God. Not only aren't we God, we aren't even sinless. We don't keep God's Law perfectly ourselves – not even close. And we certainly flunk and break the Law, and thus become law-breakers and guilty of the whole thing, if we arrogate to ourselves the authority to judge.  

“Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1) – if we fall prey to the sin of judgmentalism, won't we have to answer to God for that? Isn't there a risk in not repenting of it, of not bringing it under the forgiveness Jesus offers and laying it aside? If we judge, we're setting ourselves up to be judged for it.

But not only don't we keep God's Law, we don't even keep our own. The standards we hold others to, we're prone to break. And that makes us doubly hypocrites. “For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). Even if God held us just to our own standards, the standards we employ against everyone else to set us up as superior, none of us would actually pass the test. None of us have lived lives that perfectly accord with even our finely tailored ethics, which we devise to justify ourselves. The very standards we concoct are our own undoing. 

The more we play-act the role of judge, the more we set ourselves up for failure. The more we campaign against this or that sin in others, the more we condemn them for it and use it as a point of pride to pat ourselves on the back, the more it merely highlights our sinfulness and becomes the standard by which our sinfulness can be demonstrated to us.

Jesus offers us a solution. He wants to teach us the right way. We have to keep a focus on our own sin. It must have been a challenge for the disciples. Especially the Twelve. They felt proud – proud that they, and not their neighbors or cousins or whatever, had been handpicked by Jesus. Can you imagine? They were probably tempted to think of themselves as better. And now they're hearing the Sermon on the Mount. They hear him talk about throwing the kingdom open wide to people just like them – common folks, like fishermen and farm boys and ordinary people. They hear him say that they – they, and not others – will be salt and light for the world. 

And they hear him explain the Law and how to get ahead of it by the Spirit. Before the Law says, “Thou shalt not,” the Spirit will cleanse hearts of the desire. Forget murder; the Spirit creates hearts of peace. Forget adultery; the Spirit creates hearts of pure commitment. Forget divorce; the Spirit creates hearts of contentment. Forget oath-making and oath-breaking; the Spirit creates hearts of simple honesty. Forget regulating retaliation; the Spirit creates hearts of forgiveness. And forget hating enemies; the Spirit creates hearts of love for even them. And the Spirit knocks down idols – idols like praise, wealth, and security.

And what Jesus wants us to do is to reflect on our own lives – how do they match up? Do they look Spirit-led? Am I living toward what the Spirit makes possible, what Jesus calls us to? But what the disciples have been thinking – and Jesus knows it – is, “Ooh, boy, my neighbor Ben really needs to hear that bit on lust – he's got a problem. Oh, and Susie down the road keeps grudges; that bit is perfect for her, I'll have to share that with her later. Now Jesus is saying something about God and Mammon, and that makes me think of those fat cats on Wall Street – wish they were here to listen to Jesus. And what was that Jesus said about not worrying? I'll share that with cousin Zeke, he has anxiety issues. Thanks be to God that I am not like those other people!”

It sounds grotesque, when you say it out loud, doesn't it? But Jesus knows our hearts. Jesus knows that we can hear even his own words, aimed directly at our hearts, and we will instinctively pretend their main focus is on somebody else. We're inclined to maximize everybody else's flaws and minimize our own. We have a tendency to look around and see everyone's little splinters as glaring, massive problems. But when it comes to our own, we pretend it's little and unobtrusive. 

And that tendency is a sin especially prominent in the church, sad to say – which is partly why 'judgmental' is one of the first words that comes to American unbelievers' minds when they think of Christianity. And we have to answer for that. So often, we aren't even judging people for their sins against God's standards; we're judging people for their violations of our tastes and preferences.

What Jesus is telling us is that our first focus should be on ourselves. What's stuck in our eye should be, to us, like a big roof beam (Matthew 7:3). Dealing with sin in our own lives should be primary; it should be first and foremost. That should be what is most obvious to us. When our focus is there, then we take what Jesus has been saying, and we apply it to ourselves. We ourselves learn from it. 

And once we do, then we can go to other people. But not to judge them. Because now that we've wrestled with sin ourselves, we have to admit that we're not intrinsically better. We aren't exempt. We aren't sinless, we aren't superior. We're fellow-servants with our brothers and sisters in the family of faith.

And then, if it's needed, we can gently correct our fellow-servants' sins – without judging them. We can say, “Hey, I have a confession to make. I've really wrestled with this or that sin. And I'm seeing that you're in the same boat with me. Can we journey together?” Imagine that: coming alongside a fellow traveler, and finding the way together. That's what Jesus is telling us: “First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:5). 

First, deal with your own sin. Address that with all you've got. Bring it before God in earnest prayer. And then you can help others. Not as a judge. We aren't asked to be judges. We are asked to be witnesses. We don't judge others; we bear witness to how the Judge rules – and how the Judge offers us his heart, since Christ already served our sentence. And we do that as people who are honest about our own sinfulness, our own propensity to sit at the defendants' table. We bear witness to our fellow-servants, our fellow-subjects, and we journey together toward a healthier life, one that follows the Spirit who inspired the Law.

What Jesus is asking of us in this passage is for us to become a clear-eyed church. Step down from the judge's chair. When you hear the word, when you hear God's call, when you hear God's condemnation of sin, think first of yourself and the big beam in your eye. And recognize that all those sinners around you, even in the church – they're really people just like you. They have stories, they have motives, they have fears and wants and loves, they have souls. They don't need your judgment, because you aren't their judge. But they may need your help as a brother, a sister, a neighbor, a witness, a fellow-servant. 

Let's spend this week inspecting our eyes – our own eyes, not one anothers'. And then, only then, can we see clearly enough to really help each other on this pilgrim walk of holiness. Thanks be to God, our one Lawgiver, our one Judge – and our Savior, Advocate, and Defender through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Gospel in Nine Sentences: A Devotional Message for the National Ministry Team

Last week, I had the opportunity to go to the Small-Town Pastors Conference. Did anybody else here go? There was a lot of good stuff – I'd recommend it to any of you. And while I was there, our brother Gary and I had a great discussion over lunch about what he had learned from one of the presenters. And the presenter had said, “The Bible is sixty-six books; the gospel is just ten words.” And those ten words were these: “Christ died for your sins and rose from the dead.” Just that, ten words!

And so after Gary attended that seminar – and we both went to another seminar by the same guy that afternoon – we stood in the lunch line waiting for food and talked through some questions about evangelism. Specifically, what is the gospel? How much of the story do we need to tell people? How much background do they need so this gospel, this 'good news' we bring, makes sense?

On the one hand, when Paul preached to the Gentiles, he didn't run through all the events of the history of Israel, because it wasn't their history; he didn't talk about Abraham, didn't mention the Exodus, didn't speak of the exile, and didn't even use the word 'kingdom'; he didn't presume their familiarity with the Old Testament scriptures.

On the other hand, even Paul's Areopagus preaching in Acts 17 was shaped by his familiarity with the Old Testament; he traced a different sort of narrative with them, but a larger narrative all the same; it certainly took more than ten words, even to sum up; and when Jesus preached, he himself defined his message as “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; cf. Mark 1:15). The words of Jesus and the letters of Paul and other apostles are incomprehensible without that broader story.

It was a good discussion. And now I see, from reading the reports, which I know you all did too, that we're going to hear from the Kingdom Extension Community about their plans to assemble a helpful glossary, one that will help us navigate key terms, including but not limited to... 'gospel' and 'kingdom.' Is there a healthy, balanced way to do that? A way that people can simply explain or organize the gospel in just a few words – and yet still be shaped by God's bigger story? That's what I wanted to talk about this morning, with the time I was given, drawing on the ways the earliest Christian preachers explained the story to different audiences as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. What I came up with may not be one sentence, but it's still only nine – and unlike most of my sentences, they're short!

First sentence: God created. That's absolutely foundational. Without knowing that, it's impossible to understand the gospel. Because if we don't have at least an inkling who God is and why we owe him our love and obedience, we can't appreciate anything that happens in the story or any preaching of the gospel. We like to talk sometimes about a 'bad news'-'good news' approach. But the truth is, God never starts with bad news. He starts with good news, and when bad news enters the picture, he offers better news to top it. And that's the picture of God we need to have! It's also the picture of the world we need to have – as a place that, deep down, was made good. This is a foundational preliminary for the gospel. It was presumed in every gospel sermon we have in the New Testament – Peter's famed Pentecost sermon opened with who God is, as the Creator and Master of History (Acts 2:17-20); Stephen's sermon to the hostile crowd opened with God as “the God of glory,” the Creator of light (Acts 7:2); the audience of Paul's synagogue preaching knew Genesis just as well as we do; and even in his preaching to Greek philosophers, Paul most explicitly proclaimed “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). It was to those who didn't know the biblical story, who weren't heirs of Israel's history, that Paul made most sure to start telling the gospel right here – with 'God created.'  This is the Creed's one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen - all summed up with 'God created.'

Second sentence: Sin invaded. And now we have the bad news. It's the next step in Genesis – sin enters the garden in the figure of the serpent; sin lures and infects Adam and Eve, steals their innocence – and as Paul would say, ever since we have been “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14), as oppressed by its power – not just sins, but Sin itself. The Jewish crowds who heard Peter, Stephen, and Paul all knew that; and when Paul spoke to the Greeks about their altar(s) to an 'Unknown God' (Acts 17:23), he referenced it, too – because Greek legend traced the origin of those altars to a devastating plague sent by a god who wasn't appeased through sacrifices to all their usual suspects. Sin invaded God's good world, and that's more preliminary knowledge for the gospel. We need to take that reality seriously. If we neglect it, then we'll either condemn the world itself as bad, or we'll turn into utopians.  We aren't merely good-at-heart people who need a bit of guidance to clear up some misconceptions.  We are oppressed, wanting for freedom; we are infected, wanting for a cure; we are trapped, wanting for rescue; we are estranged, wanting for reconciliation; we are dead, wanting for new life.

God created. Sin invaded. Third sentence: We collaborated. And basically the entire sweep of the Old Testament is summed up in that, isn't it? That's where it gets personal; that's where we talk, not just of 'sin,' but of 'your sins,' 'my sins,' 'our sins.' Sin's invasion wasn't just something that happened long ago; it's a present reality. And it's because we all willingly pitch in to cooperate with it. What Adam did, we all ratify and support – if not in theory, then in practice – whenever we choose to follow his example and sin. That's more bad news – but a bad news necessary for people to realize as they hear the gospel. The gospel is personal, because sin is personal – because 'we collaborated.' Peter says it at Pentecost – points the finger at the crowd for their sin in crucifying Jesus (Acts 2:23). Stephen says it – points the finger at Israelite history: “Our fathers refused to obey [Moses], but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they returned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39), and “as your fathers did,” he says to the Sanhedrin, “so do you” (Acts 7:51). Paul's synagogue message echoed Peter's – even Abraham's descendants collaborated with sin in calling for the crucifixion (Acts 13:26-28). And speaking to the Greeks, he critiques their idolatry as collaboration with sin (Acts 17:29-30). If we neglect this truth, our willing collaboration with sin, our perverse efforts to actually keep the true God at a distance, then we'll march to the Great White Throne still making excuses.

Fourth sentence, and here's a turn back to good news better than the first: God loved us anyway. Even though the world was full of sin, and even though we collaborated willingly with sin, sold ourselves into slavery under sin – in spite of all that, God never stopped loving us, never has, never will. We see it throughout the Old Testament, right alongside every misstep of Israel and even the other nations. The world falls into senseless violence; but God loves us anyway and rescues a man (Noah) and his family as a remnant (cf. Genesis 6-9). The world assembles in selfish rebellion against God (Genesis 11); but he loves us anyway and chooses a man (Abraham) and his family to be his vehicle of blessing and healing to the world (Genesis 12:2), to grow into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). They keep refusing to trust him, but he loves them anyway. They build a golden calf in the wilderness (Exodus 32); he punishes, but loves them anyway. In their new home, they fall into cycles of national sin with all its consequences but then cry out for a redeemer, and he sends a judge – because he's been listening, waiting for them, because he loves them, and us, anyway. Their kings refuse to govern justly, their priests refuse to worship purely, their merchants refuse to deal fairly, and the nation as a whole so often refuses to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in right relationship with their God (cf. Micah 6:8); but he loves them anyway, chastising them only as a beloved child (cf. Deuteronomy 8:5). He calls out through his many prophets – even in the face of Israel's willing slavery to sin, God announces through Isaiah, “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:8); and who can forget God's faithful love depicted in Hosea, with his promise to betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy (Hosea 2:19)? Through the penalty of exile and beyond, what becomes clear is that, though God's justice is quite on display, he loves relentlessly even this undeserving mess he calls his people. And the New Testament, too, makes it perfectly clear: “For God so loved the world...” (John 3:16). If we neglect this truth, the relentless love of God in spite of all our sinfulness, we don't just miss one truth among many; we miss God's very heart, the wellspring of the gospel and all hope. In spite of all we do and all we've done, 'God loved us anyway' loved us too much, in fact, to leave us that way.

Fifth sentence: Jesus died to liberate. That's the centerpiece of the gospel, the core message – without that meaning, it's no gospel at all. There is no gospel without Jesus, God's Son, God's Word (or, as per the Creed, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made), the very life of God poured into human flesh as the only solution to our condition. (Again, as per the Creed: For us humans and for our salvation, [he] came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.) We were slaves to sin; Jesus died to set us free: If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36; cf. Romans 6:6). We were lethally infected with sin; but by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). That makes clear what we mean when we say, “Jesus died for your sins” – he died to cancel out all that collaboration, he died to break those chains, to give you freedom. (Again, the Creed: He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried.) And instead of just saying that Jesus died – an undeniable historical fact, which is of course mentioned in the sermons in Acts by Peter (Acts 2:23), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 13:27-29) – we get to make clear why it's good news. Health is good news! Freedom is good news! That's how he was crucified for us! That's what Paul said in his synagogue preaching: “Through this man, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). And in being made free from sin's chains, in being made free from sin's penalty, we find forgiveness and peace with God – the hope of a restored relationship. All possible because 'Jesus died to liberate.'

Sixth sentence: Jesus lives – so trust. And there's the flip-side, the other core pillar: the Resurrection. Even to the Greek philosophers, Paul reached the great climax of his sermon by declaring that God had raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:31). It was central to Peter on Pentecost, that God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (Acts 2:24), that this Jesus, God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses (Acts 2:32).  Stephen, on the day of his preaching, saw the risen Christ firsthand and proclaimed him in his martyrdom (Acts 7:55-56).  All Paul's synagogue preaching centered around that same truth, that “God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:30) – a truth he confesses even to the Greeks, about God raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31; cf. Acts 17:18). There can be no gospel where Jesus doesn't die for us, true. But there can certainly be no gospel where Jesus stays put in the grave. Praise God, Jesus is alive! Do we know that this morning? (We certainly confess it in the Creed: On the third day he rose again.) And there's only one response that makes sense to a crucified and risen Jesus Christ: Trust him. Have faith in him (John 14:1). Keep faith with him. Those who reject him, and the word of God about him, are choosing to reject eternal life and cling to death (Acts 13:46). This sort of freedom and life comes only to “everyone who believes, everyone who trusts and has faith in the God who did this (Acts 13:39). If he can conquer his own death from within a tomb, he can conquer death's hold over me and you. That's good news! Life is good news! The good news, as Paul preached it in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, is that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us, their children, by raising Jesus (Acts 13:32-33). That is how God fulfills his love-borne promise to his sin-slain creations. And so what sin killed in us can't stay dead when the resurrecting power of God we see in Jesus is on the scene. That's the victory God gives us – and he gives it to those who trust in Jesus and not their own works or worthiness. 'Jesus lives so trust.'

Seventh sentence: Jesus rules – so listen. That's the gospel, too. Peter closed his Pentecost sermon by emphatically saying that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Stephen called out to Jesus as 'Lord' with his dying breath, when he saw Jesus positioned as standing judge at the post of ultimate authority: the Father's right hand (Acts 7:55-59). (Like the Creed says: He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.) Paul, preaching to Greeks, agreed with Peter and Stephen that Jesus was the one through whom God would judge the world – that's an exercise of Lordship (Acts 17:31). And we know that salvation comes only by confessing that Jesus is Lord and trusting in his risen life (Romans 10:9). This is where the traditional expression of the gospel intersects with what Jesus said about the kingdom. Jesus needs to be confessed as the Lord, the King, through whom the kingdom of God was brought to earth and under whose rule it still extends its life-giving dominion which hath no end. If we neglect this truth, we risk ending up antinomian, or turning inward and making the gospel a private hobby. And just as the only right response to Jesus living is to trust him, the only right response to Jesus ruling the kingdom is to listen to him, to obey him – to keep his commandments, as he so often said (e.g., John 14:15) – to live like he's in charge, because he is. We're saved by faith in the risen Jesus, for service to the ruling Jesus, created [anew] in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). 'Jesus rules so listen.'

Eighth sentence: Jesus breathes – so mobilize. I'm tempted to replace the word 'mobilize' with three words: 'Gather, grow, go.' The good news isn't just about what God did in the Son; the good news is that the Son hasn't left us alone, but breathed his Spirit into us, still breathes his Spirit into us, so that we can do the work of the kingdom (John 20:22; cf. Acts 2:33).  As Peter preached in his evangelistic message on Pentecost, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). And the only appropriate response to the gift of his Spirit is to mobilize – we gather in fellowship, we grow through mutual edification, and we go into all the world and disciple, or train, every nation, every demographic, every neighbor and every neighborhood (Matthew 28:18; cf. Acts 13:47).  The only appropriate response is to let the Spirit work love in our hearts and let the Spirit's love come to expression in our hands and feet. This is why we aren't snatched up to heaven when we're saved – not just because the earth is God's good creation (which it is), but because we all have a mission on it, right here, right now. And without conveying that sense of purpose, that mighty adventure, that challenge and assurance all in one, I wonder if so much of our evangelism isn't selling the gospel short.

Ninth sentence: All will be new. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again” those words are ancient. So are the words of the Creed, that Christ shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom shall have no end. And when he does return in glory, he'll make all things new (Revelation 21:5). And that takes the gospel story to the end – what we see fulfilled at the close of Revelation, but what we hear promised throughout the Old and New Testaments. God's name will be hallowed. God's kingdom will come. God's will will be done (Matthew 6:9-10). New creation will be born, not just in seed but in the fullness of reality. Death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54). (Again with the Creed: We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.) Tears will be wiped away when all things are made new, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away (Revelation 21:1-5). That's the good news – and it's good news for the world, not just good news of escape from the world, the way we sometimes misstate it. This is God's game plan for the world we live in, to bring heaven here, to restore paradise here, to live here with us, to make it and us new together (cf. Romans 8:19-23). That's good news! That's the goal of the gospel.

God created. Sin invaded. We collaborated. God loved us anyway. Jesus died to liberate. Jesus lives, so trust. Jesus rules, so listen. Jesus breathes, so mobilize. And all will be new. Thirty-one words – a step beyond those original ten – but these nine short, easy sentences sum up the story, the excitement, the adventure, for all people: Jew and Gentile, man and woman, young and old. They cover, or at least bracket, the range of Jesus' preaching, of Peter's preaching, of Stephen's preaching, of Paul's preaching. And yet it's simple – you can type them in two lines and capture all that depth, and anyone can understand.  They are the gospel rubric into which everything else we need to say will fit.

Why are we spending time here this morning, here in the gospel, in these truths that we all know, that we all confess? Because we are nothing without the gospel – the whole gospel. Evangelism isn't just for those outside the church. There's a diagram in the book Discipleship That Fits – if you haven't read it, you need to, it's top-notch – and the authors point out that evangelism and discipleship both happen before and after conversion. Before conversion, evangelism takes top billing, but discipleship has already begun. After conversion, discipleship takes top billing, but it builds on the continuing gospel preaching of the church. We need to be perpetually re-anchored in these truths; we need to navigate by seeing ourselves and our world in the grip of this story.

And, I'm convinced, most every failure of the Christian walk – including distortions of leadership – can be traced to either treating this 'good news' like it isn't news (that is, like it isn't true) or else like it isn't good. Last time we met as the National Ministry Team, we heard a devotional message about godly leadership, and about the importance of sharing the gospel in each Christian message. I wanted to build on that. See, if we don't appreciate the gospel, in all its depth and in all its simplicity, we run the risk of going wrong. It anchors in the central truth of Christ crucified and risen – that's the perfect love of an all-gracious and all-merciful God. And yet it really is the gospel of the kingdom, where true leadership looks like the Kingdom's King, who knelt to serve and died to save and taught us wisdom for living and bade us keep his commandment of love. We must be immersed in this gospel, as believers, as pastors, as a National Ministry Team, as a denomination, as a church. So that's how I think we should begin this National Ministry Team meeting: by opening our eyes once again to what Paul called “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). May we always see, think, feel, and live in that light!