Thursday, April 19, 2018

Right Idea, But Stronger Meaning

The passage for this week’s sermon was Matthew 6.33-34. Verse 33 is one of those hallmark verses for Christian thought. You might have memorized it and maybe even recite it sometimes. As a pastor and educator, I do mention the passage often, but misquote the verse often. Let me use me state it as I usually do here, and without looking it up for yourself (yet), see if you can see my error.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6.33

Now, let me say that the capitalization of “Kingdom” and “His” are my typing techniques related to God, so you may omit these two possibilities. Also, you may omit “to” and is “to you” instead of “unto you” because that is merely a difference in translation, but it does not impact the meaning. With those items removed, do you see my error? Perhaps, perhaps not. The error is that I left off the first word of the sentence – But.

In the original Greek, the word “de” which means “but” or “however” is actually the second word of the sentence, but that is because the Greek language places emphasis on words depending upon where they lie within the sentence (particularly a word being first or last within the sentence). In this verse, Matthew wrote the first word as “seek” (Greek, zeteite), so the emphasis of our action is to seek. However, that is not the main point. The main point is that Jesus is contrasting what He has just said with this statement. The statement could certainly stand alone, and if we quote the verse as I did above, we certainly get the right idea. However the meaning of Jesus words, with the inclusion of the “but” is much stronger because of the contrast He draws (thus, the title of this post).

Matthew 6 fits together so well. If this verse is the climax of the sermon (as I believe it is), then consider how well the rest of Matthew 6 fits. We should seek first God’s Kingdom and righteousness instead of our own righteousness, which we often do by:
  • wanting others to know how much we give (verses 1-4).
  • speaking eloquently or not want to speak at all – when in public (verses 5-8).
  • bringing attention to our sacrifice as we fast (verses 16-18).
  • chasing what the world has to offer (verses 19-23).
  • serving our desires instead of God (verse 24).
  • being worried about what we do and don’t have (verses 25-32).

In the midst of these items is the prayer Jesus taught His disciples as an anchor for us to remember God and His provision throughout each of these aspects of our lives. And then, in verse 31, Jesus says that we do not need to worry about our food, drink, and clothing, because our Father, the one which is in heaven (v. 9), knows what we need (v. 32; cf. verse 8).

Therefore, when we seek God and His righteousness, we are seeking the things of heaven (v. 20). Again, these truths are well understood in the context with some study and the application of logic. But, we cannot forget the “but.” That “But” at the beginning of verse 33 is a staunch reminder to the truth that we DO often seek our own pleasures, our own kingdoms, and our own righteousness instead of seeking after what God desires for us. And, of course, a mature believer realizes that s/he does this to their own detriment, but we (yes, I include myself as guilty) struggle to let go of this world, and cling to everything of God. So, Jesus used this contrasting word to emphasize His point.

The question for you and I, as always, is how will we respond? Last week, the same basic question was in play about whether or not to worry (be anxious). Again, the two are very much related. If we are seeking God (and His Kingdom and righteousness), then our concerns are much different than if we are seeking our own. And, as I have mentioned countless times in this series (if not here, then in conversations, or on the church’s blog – ffxbc.blogspot.com), it is in seeking God’s righteousness that we will be satisfied (Matt. 5.6), not in seeking our own.

So, please heed the words of Jesus to “seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.” But to do so, you and I must first realize the importance of giving up more trivial concerns in order to truly focus on the concerns of God.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Commandment Against Being Anxious

The Sermon on the Mount contains many different commands from Jesus. As I have mentioned before and elsewhere, this makes sense as it is God speaking to His people through His servant (in this case, the Son) about matters of how He desires them to live. This harkens back perfectly to God speaking to His people through His servant (Moses) on the mountain in the Old Testament. We know that God gave many commands for the new nation of Israel and codified a few on two stone tablets – commands we call the Ten Commandments.

Jesus clarified these ten and other commandments within His sermon as recorded in Matthew 5-7. For example, do not murder was “enhanced” to include hatred against another (Matt 5.22). Jesus further clarified what true giving, true prayer, and true fasting were. But in my preparations this week, I came across a new command. It is a command I have read many times. It is a command I have said before. But until this past week, I had never included the thought with the severity of a command – and yet, it uses the same language as many of the Ten Commandments used. That is, Jesus began this command with “Do not...” Do not be anxious (Matthew 6.25, 31, 34).

Now, at first glance, you might object to this being a command. If so, you likely object because you, like me, had simply not thought about it in these terms before. But we cannot dispute that the phrase used is identical to “Do not murder,” “Do not lie,” “Do not commit adultery,” etc. The difference is that those earlier commandments have to do with action while Jesus command here about anxiety has to do with thought. Yet, isn’t that exactly what Jesus did in the latter half of Matthew 5? He took the actions of murder, adultery, lying, etc. and made it about our thoughts, not just the act. So, we cannot dispute that thought is paramount to kingdom-living. Of course, our actions are important, but we cannot fool God if we do the right actions even though we do not have the right thoughts.

This concept truly struck me this past week as I was preparing my sermon. Jesus’ words truly jump off the page as He says the same words three different times within just a few short sentences. And while we may still be hesitant to lump “Do not be anxious” with the Ten Commandments, the idea of our anxiety is rooted in not trusting God which can be like having another god before the one true God.

Jesus does not say that we cannot have concern. Jesus was concerned about what was before Him as He prayed in Gethsemane. But the question is: Does our concern go into overdrive? Being concerned about the past is foolish – nothing can be changed. However, we can learn from the past. Being concerned about the future can lead to making better decisions. But if we are concerned about the future, we really only have two viable options if we are to avoid becoming anxious. First, we must deduce if something can be done about the projected future. If we can affect the future (even potentially), then we should do it (this would include prayer). If our efforts (beyond prayer) cannot change anything, forget it. Let me restate this – if you cannot do anything about the future, then why worry about it? It is going to happen. Make plans for it, don’t worry about it.

As I type this, I realize the idea of not being anxious is much easier said (typed) than done. But the command not to be anxious does not come from me, it comes from the one who created the universe. He is in control. And that will not change.

I do realize that some are medically diagnosed with various disorders which are called anxiety. I am not suggesting medication cannot help or that it should not be used. Just at the heart can be helped with medication, so can the brain. (After all, both are organs, right?) But apart from that, most of us worry over a variety of matters which, truly, do not matter – especially, when we are busy seeking first (primarily) the kingdom of God and His righteousness (but that part will have to wait for next week’s post).

So, do not worry. Do not be anxious. Do not fret over what might happen. Either do something about it, or let it go. Whether or not you agree that His words represent a commandment on par with the Ten Commandments, your choice, and mine, is to follow these words or ignore them – just like every other command God has given. But, for those who claim to follow Jesus, to ignore His words is as impractical as it is unwise. Let us wisely choose to follow and, therefore, learn how to not be anxious about anything.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Because Jesus Is Alive

I am certain that some in our church were disappointed not to hear a complete message on the resurrection this past Sunday. But really, how many messages can be preached on the topic? I do not ask that to suggest that the answer is minimal, but the reality is that most people who attend church on the day the resurrection is remembered (celebrated!), already know the story – and know it well. Now, that doesn’t excuse not mentioning the resurrection because it is the proof for our faith in Jesus and some who come will not have heard the story or will not know its significance. (Yes, the blood sacrifice on the cross is critical but without the resurrection would we know that Jesus was any different than others who were crucified?)

My message this past Sunday was in continuation of Jesus’ message from the Sermon on the Mount. We looked at Matthew 6.19-24 and the comparison of two types of treasures, two types of eyes, and two distinct masters. As I outlined the series, I could only think of one better passage from Jesus’ sermon for Resurrection Day – Matthew 6.33 and seeking first the kingdom and the righteousness of God. But the dates didn’t work, so Matthew 6.19-24 were the choice. Why do I say it is such a good passage for the day?

Matthew 6.19-34 are all one unit and fit extraordinarily well with what precedes (it is as if Jesus knew what He was doing as a preacher!). In the preceding verses, Jesus has taught His disciples to pray to a Father who cares for them and their needs. In the verses for this week, Jesus says that His disciples must choose what is truly important to them. And then the chapter closes with the proof that the Father will supply what His children need if they trust Him. And that leads us back to the resurrection.

The choice of treasures is easy to make if we keep our focus on the resurrection over and against the offerings of the world. The choice of eyes to have is easy to make if we want the light of Jesus to be a part of our lives as opposed to living in darkness. And the choice of masters is easy to make if we realize that money (mammon, all possessions) cannot truly do anything for us and certainly doesn’t care for us like the Master (God) who sent His Son to die and rise again that we might choose to follow Him.

The problem is that far too many people want to celebrate the holiday known as Easter without allowing the truth of the resurrection affect their lives every other day of the year. But if we truly understand that Jesus did die for us (and He did), and now lives for us (and He does), then shouldn’t we also choose to live for Him? And by choosing to live for Jesus, then we should bring all of our decisions into line with the ideas presented within His great sermon recorded by Matthew.

Of course, if Jesus is not alive, then nothing He said matters. And, if Jesus is not alive, then, as Paul, said, “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15.19, read 1 Cor. 15.12-28 for complete context). If Jesus is not alive, then I urge you to quit reading this blog because it is a waste of your time. In fact, I should stop writing it weekly, because it is a waste of mine. But I will not stop because I believe Jesus IS alive, and hope you will keep reading (whether you believe that or not) to find encouragement, to be challenged, or perhaps to one day realize that the same Savior who died and rose for me did the same for you and desires to have a relationship with you.

So, yes, this past Sunday’s sermon was a bit different. But my church realizes that I do things differently from time to time. However, my intent is to live my life because Jesus is alive and, therefore, to help others do the same. If that means that I use the day we celebrate the resurrection to talk about the choices we should make to live for Jesus, then maybe it is because we, as people of faith, as a church in Fairfax, or even as the global Church need to arise from our slumber to serve our Lord who rose from the dead. I know I need the reminder sometimes, and Sunday was a good day to remind many others as well.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fasting - Another Gut Check

My current sermon series continually provides gut checks for me. As I have stated a few times already, I am quite familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, but in studying it again, and living with it week after week (now 13 weeks with another 8 or 9 to go), the words of Jesus continue to convict me in ways I have not felt in quite some time.

This past Sunday focused on the few verses on fasting from Matthew 6 (vv 16-18). I have fasted – many times. I have done several extended fasts including periods of 40 and 50 days (twice), and others not quite as long. I do not say this to impress anyone because that would go against the very purpose of Jesus message. I reveal this information here because my reward for those fasts was already secured – not from others, but from myself. Not all of my fasts were self-rewarded, but in my zealousness to fast in prior years,  I did so with a partial intent on focusing on God, and a partial intent on seeing if I could do it (thus the 50 days, essentially I gave up food for lent). Why? Not because I was called, but to see if I could. And I can honestly say those two 50-day fasts did not draw me closer to God, as I recall. Now, thankfully, other fasts have brought extreme moments of intimacy with God in addition to a greater trust in His provision. I do not mention those fasts here because my reward with God is secure if I hold them close to my heart, so I simply mention the fact that not all of my fasts have been (partially) selfishly motivated, but some definitely have.

Thus, the words of Jesus spoke directly to me this week. I have always tried to maintain my personal appearance and not allow others to know I was fasting. Of course, with the weight loss that ensues, it is hard to prevent questions, and when you are invited to eat with others, it causes a challenge, but overall, I did well to conceal my fasting each time from most everyone. And while fasting, I studied the concept (such as Isaiah 58), and was frustrated I could not give more to others because  my food bill often increased as I supplemented water with various types of juice (non high-fructose types). I would say I learned a lot about fasting, about myself, and about God, especially on the fasts when my focus was completely upon Him.

Overall, I am thankful for the opportunities when I have fasted. I say that because I now have diabetes and do not know that I can safely fast from food. If God calls me to fast, and I am certain of His call, I still will, but it has been a few years now since that has happened. Nonetheless, I need to be ready to respond if He does call. However, the need for me to find times to be intimate with Him are what is critical. He should not need to ask me to fast, and I should not need to fast, for that to happen. But to fast for an extended period with the potential health hazards does require some assurance (within the context of faith) that He is the one asking it at this point.

If you have not fasted, I would encourage it. Start small – perhaps fasting for lunch. It is more than skipping a meal, it is replacing the meal with a focus on God. Over time, perhaps you will fast for a day or longer. An extended fast certainly has its physical challenges at times, but it has so many blessings along the way that I literally would get to a point I didn’t care if I ate again (other than having a desire to chew something!) So, try it. See where God leads you. I assure you (because of Jesus’ words), if you fast to seek God, you will be satisfied (Matthew 5.6).

As for me, I need to determine how I might now fast in a non-traditional sense. I am certain He has ideas in mind for me, and this past week of study and preparation to preach Jesus’ words has resurfaced the idea in my mind. For now, I have no clear answers, but I am certain that if I truly want to know Him better, some type of fast will lead me where I (should) long to go.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Most Difficult Command?

What might you consider the most difficult command in the Bible? Let’s face it, some commands are easier to keep than others. And that list of easier commands will differ depending upon the person. For instance, and I am only referring to those who believe the Bible should be followed, some may have more of a temptation to lie. Others may have difficulty with coveting. Still others may find it a challenge to honor their parents. And the list could go on. And, this is only three of the Big 10 – the Ten Commandments, and then only at face value. For as Jesus commented on the commands in Matthew 5, He elevated hatred to murder, and lust to adultery and coveting, etc. Thus, presumably, if we use the understanding Jesus provided a person might change which command they find most difficult to keep. And because the Bible is filled with so many commands, and so many are so challenging, a great number of people choose to follow only some, make excuses for ignoring them, or choose to not to follow them at all. GK Chesterton said well, when he coined the following quote.

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” – GK Chesterton

How true that is. But if I step back from myself, and try to picture the greatest challenge of all commands, I think it would come down to loving others. Of course, loving God properly (with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength) is not easy, but if one believes in God, the one will love God, and so the issues is one of degree, not of doing it at all. That is, the challenge is how much (or how well) we love God, not in loving Him, that is the challenge. But loving others is difficult – except, of course, for the people we love. And thus, the real challenge is to love the unlovable, not those whom we find it easy to love.

But why is it difficult to love some and not others? And why is it difficult at times to love even those we usually love? The answers to these questions are different, but one of the biggest considerations in whether or not we love someone is if we can/will forgive them. Therefore, I will argue that although love might be most difficult overall, our ability to forgive is almost equal and plays a distinct role in our capacity to love just as our love for others is a critical aspect in our ability to forgive.

So, to love is to forgive and to forgive is to love. The reason forgiveness is difficult is because it is only necessary when we have been caused some type of pain. It is easy to love someone when no problems exist, but when conflict arises, love is tested. That conflict could be the result of any type – physical, emotional, spiritual, etc. and the pain that results can then lead to anger and bitterness over time or can be resolved by forgiving the other person and loving them regardless of the issue.

In my sermon this week, I preached on Matthew 6.12, 14-15 where Jesus taught His disciples to pray to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” and then expanded on the thought by saying that when we forgive others, God forgives us and likewise if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. These are strong statements, but they go to show how important the concept of forgiveness is. Essentially, what Jesus is saying if we understand what God has done for us, how can we not forgive others?

Forgiveness is not easy, and thus it is often lacking in our relationships. We might say we forgive someone, but then have mixed feelings every time that person comes near. To forgive is not to forget, but it is to not hold anything against another person. (I encourage you to see my sermon blog for more on this as I do not wish to repeat it here.) But the fact that we are human and have been hurt by another human is why the concept of forgiveness is so difficult. And yet, we desire to be forgiven when we make mistakes toward others, so we should follow the maxim of “Do unto others” let alone forgiving because we desire God to forgive us.

The beauty of forgiving others is the freedom that we find ourselves. As we forgive, we allow the bitterness and anger to be released, and we are the ones who are freed from bondage, not the other party. This week, I encourage you to find that freedom as difficult as it may be. Consider the person(s) who have wronged you and the pain you have been caused. Don’t excuse their behavior, but forgive them. I know what some may think. “But Andy, you do not know what they have done.” You are right, I do not, but God does. And He is willing to forgive them, so you should be too. More importantly, He will forgive you if you take the step of forgiving that person (those persons). Because remember, you have likely asked God to forgive your debts as you forgive your debtors.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Convicted!

Truly learning to live by the Bible can be broken into three distinct aspects. Reading the Bible exposes us to the contents. Studying the Bible brings understanding of its principles. And applying the principles helps transform us into the people God has designed us to be. Far too many people are content with reading (or hearing content) and not moving to true understanding. For these individuals, any attempts to apply what they have read/heard is often abandoned when resistance is met or they often focus on applying minor details rather than major principles. Those who move to studying the Bible may have a better understanding, but the danger is that by knowing more one must develop a stronger fortitude to withstand the challenges that will come. Regardless, the Bible is not meant to be a book of entertainment; rather, it is to encourage, exhort, or even inspire us (for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways)  to apply the principles to our lives.

For the last couple of months, I have been preaching a series from Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount). Like many long-term Christians, I have read this sermon many times, studied parts of it multiple times, reviewed all of it a few times, etc. But like many who have read certain parts of the Bible many times, sometimes as I read, or even study, I do not take sufficient time to dig deep enough into the meaning and then rush off to another task without giving myself enough time to properly apply what I have learned. As I mentioned in the post a few weeks ago, being a teacher or preacher adds an measure of accountability (see James 3.1; to view the prior post, click here). As a person who espouses Kingdom-first for our church and in other conversations, I am paying particular attention to what I am reading, studying, and teaching in expectation that I will not just preach what Jesus preached, but will better live out what He preached (and how He lived).

So, this past Sunday’s message was on praying righteously (Matthew 6.5-8, and the Disciples’ Prayer – vv. 9-13). These verses should be convicting in themselves. Before giving the model prayer to the disciples, He mentions not praying “empty phrases” (ESV) or “vain repetitions” (KJV). In other words, don’t just say your prayers, and don’t simply repeat the Lord’s Prayer (or Disciples’ Prayer as I call it – we have no record of Jesus praying it, just telling the disciples how to pray – Matthew 6, Luke 11). We should be intentional in praying to God (and not simply for ourselves) and in what we pray. After the prayer, Jesus then elaborates on our need to show forgiveness to others as part of our being forgiven by God. Again, all of that is, or could be, convicting for myself or any number of people. But...

What truly struck me last week was a particular comment found in the commentary on Matthew from the Intervarsity Press. Craig Keener wrote the following note related to verse 5: “Because prayer promises the hearing of an Advocate more powerful than any other, it goes without saying that those who spend little time in prayer do not in practice believe much in a God who answers prayer;....”(1) Keener continued the paragraph with the basic thought of how foolish (my word, not his) are those who pray for their prestige rather than truly praying to God.

Now, I hope I am not guilty of praying to make a scene. I do not believe I am, but I can recall times in the past I was concerned with what others might think of my prayer. That is not something I think about now. But...do I pray enough or do I “spend little time in prayer” per Keener’s comment? No, I do not. And thus, in His words, I am a functional atheist in the power of God as it relates to my prayer life. I do not dismiss these words as hyperbole. I think Keener is right in general, and has nailed me specifically. To pray righteously begins with praying to God (Matthew 5.5-6) and with intention (Matthew 5.7-8), but it must include a belief AND A FREQUENCY that proves belief in who God is.

Apart from Jesus, I doubt anyone will ever stand before God and say, “I prayed enough during my lifetime.” We cannot change the past, but we can alter our projected future. As I consider what Jesus said about prayer and what Keener wrote about being a functional atheist, I have been convicted. But that is simply the reading and the studying portion of learning. Next, I must apply the principle in order to truly make it stick and become the man God wants me to be. It begins now with one small prayer (to be more faithful in my praying), but if I follow through, I will reap great rewards because I will know my God much more intimately than I do now. And isn’t that the point of a conversation – to know more about one another? He may already know everything about me, but the fact He wants to hear from me, and wants to share Himself with me is a pure reflection of the love that He has for me. And, of course, the same is true for all who believe.

So, how you do respond? I hope you will be like me and choose to pray more, pray longer, and perhaps pray better. But, however your prayer life needs to improve, it can only do so if you do one thing – pray! Again, that is why I intend to do and this post is my public commitment to do so.

(1) (Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1, Mt 6:5). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A True Gift

I have expressed many times how much I like teaching the Bible. One of the reasons is seeing God’s truths unfold before my eyes as I prepare a lesson or sermon. Other times, the insights come from reflecting back on what I have taught. For me, this week, the joy has been in seeing how well Matthew 6 truly fits together within the chapter and within Jesus’ overall sermon. I am very familiar with the passage, but God is opening my mind to understand something new and fresh as I study and prepare each week.

Of course, Matthew 6 transitions to Jesus revealing the importance of our attitude in giving, praying, and fasting before challenging the devotion of our hearts later in the chapter. And, of course, the section about giving (verses 1-4) speak of the act of giving money. But as I have said for years, God does not care about your money, He cares about you. You can give all the money in the world, but such an act will not bring you any closer to God or make Him love you any more (or less). When we give money, we give something, but God cares about us as people. If He gets us, then our money will follow, but the inverse is not necessarily true.

This principle is true throughout Jesus’ sermon, but is especially evident in Matthew 6. Jesus is calling for His followers to be righteous (begins in Matthew 5.6, then continues in 5.20, 6.1, etc.). Related to giving, Jesus wants our hearts to be involved when we give money, which is most easily accomplished when we have given ourselves to God. Certainly, the giving of our money shows an appreciation for the gifts God has given us, a proper understanding that we are truly stewards of those gifts, and a trust that God will continue to provide for our needs (the latter portion of Chapter 6). But again, it is not the money or financial resources God wants – it is us.

When we give ourselves to God, we are revealing in a larger way that we appreciate the gifts and talents He has given, showing that we are simply stewards of the body, the time, and other resources we have been given, and show a trust that God will honor us for placing our faith in Him (Hebrews 11.6). Of course, it is far more difficult to give up our thoughts, our dreams, and our purpose (let alone our resources), but it is only difficult because we treat these things as “ours” when ultimately they are His. (The previous sentence is easy to type, but not nearly as easy to live by on a daily basis – at least for me.)

If what I have just said is true, we can truly offer God what is already His. Thus, our money is truly not the most important item to be given. Sure, churches have budgets and ministries need money (we all do) to function. The monetary aspect should not be neglected! However, many people make a financial contribution and consider their work done. This understanding lacks a proper understanding of what God has truly done.

Jesus died for us. Did He have to die? Yes, the way God decreed it. But think about this, if God wanted to purchase our salvation, and if money were the primary currency for the transaction, it would not have been an issue for God to raise the necessary funds. After all, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50.10), but the hills belong to Him as well! So, Jesus gave Himself. Jesus was and is the inexpressible gift (2 Corinthians 9.15). Jesus is the true gift that God has given us. Not money, not a house, not a car, nor anything material – the gift was Him in the flesh.

The consideration we must make is that if God’s truest gift to us was personal (not material), then why do we consider our material gifts as significant to God. Again, the act of giving is important, but it is us – the person – that He wants. Each individual that gives himself/herself to God is significant. When we give ourselves to God, we give back to Him all of us – our time, our talents, and our treasure.

So, in learning to give from a perspective of righteousness, give yourself first to God, just as God gave Himself first for you. No truer gift exists. No greater gift is possible. But the choice is up to each one of us to make the decision to truly give as we have been given.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Hermeneutic of Love

One of the most important principles in hermeneutics (proper interpretation) is to seek to understand what the message originally meant. Although the principles of the Bible are timeless, the actual stories happened to real people and the words were recorded so real people could remember them. The same is true with the various New Testament letters. They were written to real people making up real churches dealing with real problems. And the same is true with the various teachings of the Bible, including Jesus sermon in Matthew 5-7. His teaching was not random; rather, it was very purposeful. He was teaching those who were with Him near the very beginning of His ministry to know what life was like from a Kingdom perspective.

Over the past several weeks, I have been preaching through this magnificent sermon and reflecting on some thoughts here in this blog. The ultimate idea is that Jesus wants His followers to think in terms of “on earth as it is in heaven” and thus is teaching those listening (and now reading) what living in the Kingdom of God is like. In the first part of this sermon, Jesus began by sharing about the blessings of being a true followers (the Beatitudes), then said that true righteousness must be greater than those who parade themselves around as righteous people (the Pharisees), and finally gave His commentary on several commands that had been tainted over the years. Then, at the conclusion of what we call Matthew 5, Jesus said that those listening (“you”) must be perfect because our Father is perfect.

Everything Jesus has said to this point in His sermon has one single theme – love. The first verses point to a God who loves us, and then Jesus turns to how our love for God and others should be lived out in our daily lives. Of course, living in this manner is difficult, but a part of that is due to perspective.

In preaching this series, I have been especially focused on trying to get to how the people listening to Jesus that day may have considered His words. Again, the words were originally said to people living in a context that was 2000 years ago. Certainly, Jesus’ words are timeless, but He said them to the people then, and thus we must realize that He said particular words and used particular examples for a reason. (I often use the analogy of baseball here. If someone were to describe the game of baseball they might talk about hitting a ball with a bat. But the context matters. For instance, telling a similar story 200 years ago would cause the listener to think something very different for bats would only be known as the flying mammal.) Thus, as we begin to understand what the words meant then, we can better relate the words to what they mean now and how we should live accordingly. The challenge is that records of the past are much more difficult to find and so sometimes assumptions must be made.

However, all of the teaching Jesus did in this first part of this sermon (Matthew 5) leads to the unmistakable purpose to love. In fact, the last of the commands Jesus mentions is that we should love even our enemies and we do so because our Father does so. Thus, Jesus ends this portion by saying that we should be perfect because our Father is perfect. Contextually, Jesus is speaking about being perfect in love, not in action. Of course, neither is possible. We have sinned and will continue to do so until we are made complete on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1.6). But our nature can be perfect because Christ’s righteousness becomes our own when we place our faith in Him. Thus, we may not live perfectly, but we may be considered perfect by our Father because of our faith in the Son. As such, we must grow in our capacity to love – even as Jesus showed us what it means to love others, including our enemies.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. I fail miserably sometimes. But if Jesus said we should do so, then I cannot dismiss my need to do so if I truly want to be a follower. I thank God for giving me a demeanor that is not hateful or spiteful. But to actively love requires intentionality, and sometimes I am not as intentional as I need to be. This series has reminded me that I must focus more on loving in all aspects of my life. As Paul wrote, we may do many things excellently, but if we do not do it with love, then we miss out on the real purpose of life. Jesus knew this. Jesus taught this. Jesus lived this. And we should too. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Distracted

This past week I preached from Matthew 5.31-37 as I continue to preach from Jesus’ great sermon that we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. These verses are about promises made – in marriage, and in general. The latter verses speak of the oaths that people attach to their promises to make them more believable. The problem, as Jesus states, is that the items Jews used for their oats were not theirs to swear by (heaven, earth, Jerusalem, hair). But the bigger problem is the need to swear by anything because our words are not trustworthy on their own. For followers of Jesus (Jesus’ audience in this sermon), that is unacceptable.

But it isn’t just promises made to others, it is promises made to ourselves that can be broken. I am usually a person who is very focused and driven to accomplish whatever it is my mind is set to do. A part of that comes from an addictive personality that can get overly focused at times. This tendency is part of the reason why I do not engage in activities like smoking or drinking. I do not like the taste of either, but have partook of each many years ago. But just because I do not engage in these “vices” does not mean I do not have my own challenges.

For years one of the challenges was food. I was constantly overeating and my body showed it. The problem is that in most churches, gluttony is not considered the same type of sin as drinking. In fact, many churches (and pastors) will joke about eating too much while condemning someone for getting drunk. My intention is not to engage in this argument here, but to show that I, like many, must stay focused on what is important to me or I can get distracted by lesser items.

Recently, I have faced such distractions. Since my return from Kenya, I have had more time than usual. Ordinarily I would take the time to be productive, but lately I am finding myself engaged in a hobby that has taken too much of my time. The hobby is not bad, but instead of spending thirty minutes or even an hour engaged in the hobby, I find myself spending two-plus hours at a time. For me the hobby (managing a soccer club in a video game) is mostly relaxing while allowing me to engage my mind in a manner apart from my normal duties as a pastor, seminary professor, leading a new ministry, in addition to being a husband and father (to grown children).

Now, in fairness, we do not have cable television for most of the year, so I do not watch sports like some (this was a hard transition for me at first). We do subscribe to a service for each Fall so I can host a group of people to watch football as a ministry opportunity; however, that is only for seventeen weeks each year. So, instead of placing myself in front of a tv to watch sports for several hours each week, I play a video a game. But the problem is that I have much to do to fulfill my promise to achieve my vision which is to become the man God wants me to be. That is an aspiring vision and one I cannot reach on my own on this side of eternity in any case. But it is made more difficult by spending too much time trying to get a second-rate soccer club to a championship in a top-tier league.

So, in light of the message I preached Sunday, regarding Jesus’ message from nearly 2000 years ago, I pledge to re-orient my focus. I will still play the game some – it is a form of re-creation for me. But my priorities must be to reengage myself where I am called to serve – as a husband, father, pastor, teacher, leader, etc. Time is too short to do anything else. I need not pledge an oath on anything to make this happen, but I must be true to who I know I am and more importantly who God has called me to be.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Danger of Teaching

I love to teach. Specifically, I love to teach the Bible. And I particularly love to teach the Bible to people desperate to learn. Fortunately, I have a consistent opportunity to do so – at the church I pastor, at the seminary where I teach, and on occasion, in another nation (such as in Kenya on my most recent trip). But, as I teach, wherever I teach, I am often reminded of one verse, written by James, that warns of a stricter judgment on those who teach (James 3.1). That warning has never been more appropriate than this week.

On Sunday, I preached from Matthew 5.21-30. In this passage, Jesus equates unwarranted anger with murder and lustful looks with adultery. Talk about raising the bar! As humans, we may think these comparisons are unfair, but Jesus is not referring to our living as citizens of earth; rather, He is revealing what a citizen of heaven will do. The purpose of Jesus' sermon is to show what kingdom living and kingdom thinking are to be. He has introduced the kingdom (Matthew 4.17), called others to follow Him (4.19), and now is teaching about how to live accordingly. The teachings are not easy for us, but that is the point. Jesus raises the bar in such a way to show that we cannot be righteous without Him (c.f. 5.20).

And yet, as a teacher, I am held even more accountable. My righteousness comes from Jesus alone, but while we are all to live in a manner worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4.1), the calling of a teacher and pastor is a step above. Thus, it would be easier not to teach passages that are challenging in hopes I could claim ignorance. But such a claim would not hold even if I could say it truthfully – which is, in part, what James 3 is referencing.

Beyond Sunday, I taught at the seminary on Monday. This week’s topics were on how to listen for one class and keeping true to a vision for the other. Admittedly, I am not the best listener. I know the principles of listening, but I allow myself to be too busy at times to truly take the time to listen well. Thus, James 3.1 was relevant again. Then, a few hours later, I was teaching principles of leading a church based upon the corporate (and personal) vision. As I spoke, I was reminded of principles which I need to do a much better job of following.

So, three times in two days, James 3.1 was brought to the forefront of my mind. But teaching is a gift God has given me, and a calling He has made of me. I must teach which means I must strive to be better at the practicing of what I preach/teach. It is not that my desire is to not do what I teach (although as I blogged a couple of week’s ago, I/we am/are all hypocrites). But to do what you know to do, and what you teach others to do, requires extreme commitment. For instance, someone might respond to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5.21 that they haven’t physically murdered anyone. But can the same response be given about being unjustly angry at someone per Matthew 5.22? Only those who are extreme in their commitment will strive for such a goal. According to James 3.1, a teacher should be a person with that kind of extreme commitment. As a teacher, I hope that can be said of me – perhaps not always now, but prayerfully, it is who I am becoming.

So, yes, James warning must be understood by those who desire to teach. It is a dangerous position to hold in one sense, but it is a tremendous blessing to be called of God to help others know Him better (and about Him more). If God calls you to teach, I encourage you to respond eagerly for there is no greater honor, but heed James warning to be true to all parts of God’s truth – now matter how difficult the concept is to live by or to teach.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Hearing God’s Voice

Our world has many competing voices. Whether the sides are chosen politically, artistically, or related to entertainment people have opinions of the right or best approach/understanding/type on all kinds of matters. The problem is that in many cultures the “winner” in these discussions (debates) is the one who yells the loudest and/or the longest.

Ironically, God can be louder than anyone, and His message and existence is certainly longer than anyone can fathom. However, although God could be louder and longer than others, His typical modus operandi is to speak to people personally, and often softly. And since the coming of the Holy Spirit, God often speaks to us internally rather than audibly. (Some do not believe that God speaks audibly any longer, but if He wants to do so, He can!) The question is do we hear what He is saying? Do we know how?

I am convinced that for all who are born again, God speaks to us continually. A good father will speak to his children, and as God’s children, our perfect Father will speak to us. But as we choose to listen to the other voices in our lives, God’s voice gets drowned out. Over time, we become more and more skeptical when we hear others say that God spoke to them. Of course, we should be discerning to ensure that what others claim to have heard from God fits with God’s character and Word (1 John 4.1-3). But just because we may be skeptical of God speaking to others does not mean He does not. For how can the Spirit lead us into all truth if He is not speaking to us (John 14.25-26).

So, how can we answer the two questions above? Books and studies have been written on this topic (a search on Google can keep you busy for awhile), but very simply I believe our hearing from God requires two things – an openness to hear from Him and taking the time to do so. Let me briefly explain.

As I mentioned above, many are skeptical that God speaks today. Because we cannot see God, many believe we cannot hear from Him. But it only takes a little bit of faith to change that. As the father said to Jesus in Mark 9.24, “I believe; help my unbelief.” A statement like this man’s is perfectly honest and can be helpful in overcoming our doubts. But it may not be quite enough. If we have ignored the voice of God, we need to seek forgiveness as we repent. God may have stopped communicating because you or I did not show interest in communicating with Him. As we sense this might be the case, we need to ask for forgiveness, then show our intent and willingness to listen.

That willingness means we must take time to do listen and hear. Jesus repeatedly said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The idea is that our ears pick up many sounds throughout the day. Our ears are always listening, but much of what enters our ears is never fully processed as sound. It is simply background noise. For instance, as I type this, the soundwaves entering my ear include paper being wadded up, my keyboard, a low hum from my pc, a few internal noises from the pc, and the heat being blown from the furnace. Before I typed that sentence, I had not considered any of those noises. I had ears to hear, but I had not “heard.” So, Jesus words are an encouragement to pay attention to what we may actually hear. So, we must pay attention, but we must also take the time.

Psalm 46.10 reminds us to be still and know that God is God. Being still is not common in today’s western world. My recent trip to Kenya reminds me that once removed from the hustle and bustle of life, we can find a different type of peace. As our team said, there is time and then there is Kenyan time. Many in the world can relate to this idea, but not the western world. As such, we do not know how to take time to be still. We may pray to God, but we do not take time to hear from God. Prayer is communicating with God, but communication is meant to be two-way. When we only unload our requests, and don’t take time to hear God’s response or desires for us, then we miss an invaluable opportunity to become more like the individuals He wants us to be. So, we must take time. Maybe it is only one minute this week, then five next week, and over time, we take fifteen minutes or even an hour. But if we do not start somewhere, we will never hear Him, and we will be no different than we are now.

Finally, when we do hear from Him, we must respond. God doesn’t need to talk to us to hear His voice. He talks to us for us to respond in obedience. John 14 repeatedly says that those who love Jesus will obey His commandments. If we hear God leading us to do something and we do not respond, then we cannot say we love Him. And, over time, like I mentioned above, we will likely stop hearing from Him again. So, listen, hear, and respond. When we do, we are showing God that we truly wish to honor Him.

Hearing from God should be natural for any Christian (John 10.3-4). But we must be intentional about our listening – whether audibly or internally. To do so will likely require us to stop listening so intently to all the voices that fill our days. As we take the time to begin to listen to God, we will learn to distinguish His voice, and over time, we will desire to hear more from Him. It will take time. And it will take discernment, but what a gift it is to have the Creator want to communicate with us. Let us receive what He wants to share, and respond for His glory.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Greater Righteousness

In Matthew 5.17-20, Jesus shocks those listening by stating that only those who have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees. Modern readers who understand the nature of these two groups have little issue understanding why Jesus said this, but those hearing the words then would have been greatly troubled.

The scribes and Pharisees were the teachers and interpreters of the Law – the Mosaic Law (Law of Moses). The rules set by these groups were designed to “help” the people refrain from breaking God’s laws. The problem was that the rules were focused on actions (the exterior), not the intent (interior). Jesus said the Law must be kept perfectly, but it must be understood properly. In the verses mentioned above, Jesus sets the table for the rest of this section of His sermon (what we call Chapter 5).

The challenge for the people then was that the scribes and Pharisees seemed righteous because of their actions. No one in that time period was more “righteous” than these groups. However, these groups were self-righteous, not righteous before God. Therefore, a greater righteousness (one from God) was indeed needed. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and make God’s righteousness available to all (remember, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, v. 6).

The same thoughts that trapped the Jews in the first century are present today. Some people are self-righteous and think their actions will justify them before God. Other people look at how “good” others are and lose any hope of being “good” themselves thinking they could never measure up. But that is Jesus point, we cannot measure up on our own. We can only be righteous through Jesus. When our life is yielded to Him, it is not about our actions, it is about His actions through us. Yes, our actions matter, but a life yielded to Jesus (i.e. Jesus is Lord) will desire to do the things He wants us to do.

When we do what He wants, it is because we are becoming like He is. That is when any self-righteous actions begin to truly transform into a truly righteous attitude. Of course, we will make mistakes, but that is why the intent is more important than the action – if indeed we try. Intent by itself is not faith, it is missed opportunity. But action with pure intent is an exercise of faith. Such action is “successful” whether or not the outcome is as expected.

So, yes, we are to have a righteousness that exceeds even those people who seem to be the most holy. Only God knows who is truly righteous through the blood of Jesus. The fruit of our labor should reveal our righteousness, but God truly looks at the heart. So don’t settle for trying to do righteous deeds. Instead find true righteousness in Jesus. It is the only way. As we become righteous, we will do what is righteous as well.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

For God’s Glory

This week’s post comes as I prepare to leave Kenya. As I continue to reflect on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, verse 16 says that all we do should be for God’s Glory so that others may glorify the Father.

Our work in Kenya has included training over 60 pastors and seeing nearly 70 people come to know Jesus. By no means is anyone on our team perfect, but for one week we have shown our good works, the Father has been glorified and many people, including ourselves, have been blessed beyond measure.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

I Am a Hypocrite

The words of Jesus should challenge our very core. No matter how much we may know Jesus or how much we may know the Bible, life is a constant struggle to do what we want to do. This is true throughout each year of our lives, but is often made evident around mid-January as resolutions made for the new year begin to be broken.

The reality is when we say one thing and do another we are hypocrites. But saying something does not need to be audible. In Matthew 5.8, Jesus mentioned the pure in heart. So, if we perceive we should do something (even in our heart),  and do not do it, then by definition we are hypocrites. Therefore, I am a hypocrite. However, thankfully, Jesus’ words were that the pure in heart will see God, not the pure in hands.

Psalm 24.3-4 specifically states that only those with clean hands and a pure heart will see God. The problem in Jesus day was that the religious leaders (particularly the Pharisees) were focused on what people did (clean hands), without affecting the heart. Jesus knew these verses well and used them to help people see that the heart is more important. Later James would write that cleansing one’s hands is important as is purifying the heart because the people were “double-minded.” This means not only did they say one thing (the first) and do another (the second), they likely said the second thing and did the first as well.

Nothing we can do can earn God’s favor. It is our heart that He wants and which allows us to be before Him. In this life, we will always fail to do everything we believe. That makes us hypocrites to the world, but Jesus did everything His heart knew to be true. That is, His hands and His heart were clean and pure throughout His life. Thus, by placing our trust in Him, our hearts can be pure and our hands can be cleaned.

So yes, I am a hypocrite. But my belief in the only one who was not/is what matters. I must continue to better align my hands with my heart, but although the world may always see the crack that exists between the two, God only see the cross.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Keeping Up with the Meek

Teaching and preaching the Bible offers two distinct realities each week. On the positive side you get to interact with the written word of God and craft a message or lesson to help communicate God’s truths and make them applicable for our lives today. That is truly a joy. But the negative side stems from the exact same reason. The applicable aspect of the message is not just for those who receive the message; it is for the one delivering it as well. Some weeks living up to what is being taught is truly a challenge. However, gaining new insights, and stewing over them a few extra days before teaching is truly a blessing.

This past week, one insight that has brought me great joy is Matthew 5.5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I have read this many times and have taught that the idea of meekness is like controlled strength. And, of course, I have taught about Jesus being meek. Truly, I know the verse well, but sometimes God illumines His Word in fresh ways. I believe the fresh understanding is due, in part, to having just completed a series on God adopting those who receive Jesus (John 1.12, for instance). With that series fresh in my mind, the word “inherit” in Matthew 5.5 jumped out like never before in its context.

The truth is like many people, I am driven (at least, to a point). I am not hyper-driven, but I am very purposeful. When presented a new opportunity, I not only determine if I have time, but how the opportunity supports my long-term objectives which certainly include what I believe God is asking of me over time. While I pray the first two beatitudes are true for me, I admit, sometimes, my purposefulness can get in the way. And like anyone, I have temptations, which, for me, includes wanting a few newer, or better items.

But the key insight this week was how hard some people work for so little. The old adage is that people try to keep up with the Joneses, but really what does the Jones family have? A nicer house? A newer car? A bigger bank account? Ok, great. This post is not how they achieved those items, but for those that want what the Joneses have, it will likely take a little more effort – and that may require extra ambition, which may move a person from being meek. Meekness is much more than dealing with ambition, but when our personal ambition gets in the way of our following God’s way or pushing others out of the way for our own gain, then we have crossed a line – and gained very little.

This post is not to suggest that hard work is not valuable or a good thing. But if our reward is only a nicer meal, a nicer car, a nicer home, or something similar, then we need to ensure we are not overstepping our bounds to acquire these items. Because, as Jesus said, the meek will inherit the earth. THE EARTH! Again, hard work is good and necessary, but we must consider for whom we work and what our expectations are (Colossians 3.17, 23). Why? Because God is offering far more than a car in a driveway or a house in a neighborhood. He is offering the earth, which is simply a step-stool for Him. Imagine how much He will give those who are truly His children. And, the promise is that it is ours not by what we do, but because of who we are. The promise is that the earth is inherited, not earned, just like salvation. With salvation, we can do nothing on our own to be saved, but our response to our salvation should be to do great works for God. Likewise, inheritance is not about work, it is about being an heir – in our case referenced here, an heir of God.

So, the next time I am tempted to impose my will on another, or, even worse, on God, I must consider if the earnings from my efforts are worth more than reward I have been promised. I cannot think of an instance where my earnings would be better, but without diligence I will fall into the same trap I have fallen too many times. If you are a follower of Christ, my desire is for you to consider your meekness in all occasions as well. Perhaps we can help one another not to fall, but let us definitely be willing to help one another up if we do.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Best Sermon Ever

I have heard many good sermons. I have heard many bad sermons. And I have probably preached a few good ones, but I know I have preached a few duds as well. But the question is how do we determine what makes a good sermon? Is it how full of Scripture it is? Does it matter how well it can be understood? Should it make us feel good, feel bad, or feel challenged? Does the person preaching make a difference? Does the appearance of the one preaching make a difference? Etc. Etc. Etc. The reality is that some of these items may be important, but different people have different requirements for what they think – many of which do not really matter because what truly matters is what God thinks about the sermon.

So, how might we narrow down the greatest sermon ever? Well, one way to begin is to make sure it is without any error. The idea is to communicate God’s message so it should be done faithfully. Certainly no preacher is perfect in understanding or presenting the text, but I believe it is possible that each Sunday (or whatever day) some preachers likely come very close on this aspect and certainly their heart intends to honor the Lord by delivering an error-free message. So, communicating God’s truth must be considered important.

Clearly communicating the message is important as well. If the message is not understood, then it is not good. Some people communicate better than others, and all communicators have an off-day, but the best sermon ever should meet this qualification without any hint of failure. Clear communication does not equate to perfect understanding by the recipients, but without it being clear, any chance for understanding is lost.

The ability to remember the sermon should have some importance. If the sermon is preached and forgotten by everybody by the time they reach their homes, the sermon was not effective. But some sermons resonate deep in our bones and challenge us time and time again. Sometimes, we even remember specific words which can be an encouragement to us when life is difficult or challenge us when life is a little to easy.

I realize a few more items might be added to this list, but I will add just one more. While I believe a good, and even a great sermon, could be preached by anyone, this post is considering the best ever. Thus, the person involved does matter – not because of training or skills, but because of the person. That person is Jesus. Who better to clearly communicate the truths of God without error in a memorable way than God in the flesh?

So, which of Jesus’ sermons is the best? The Bible records a few extended teachings of Jesus, and His teaching the disciples on the night before He died (John 14-16) must be considered high on the list. But that was with the disciples and those who joined with them in the upper room. As far as a message presented to the masses, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is likely the greatest. Ultimately this teaching was profound touching on levels that are hard to fathom. However, it has several principles which are clearly understood, if hard to observe. (Of course, certain verses are misunderstood and/or misapplied as well (e.g. Matt. 7.1), but this is not the fault of Jesus.) The passage is also memorable. Most Christians can probably say the next few words of several sentences which are a part of this great sermon which was given some 2000 years ago.
  • Blessed are the...
  • You are the salt...
  • You are the light...
  • Our Father in heaven... (many non-Christians have these five verses memorized!)
  • Do not lay up for yourselves...
  • Seek first the kingdom...
  • Ask, and it will be...
  • Whatever you wish others would do to you...

In our day, phrases like “best ever” or “greatest of all time” are usually said in the moment without considering all the possibilities, but the fact is that this sermon, for the reasons given above, is very likely the greatest of all time. It was truthful, clearly communicated, and memorable. But most importantly, it was preached by Jesus. Thus, it is a sermon that is still impacting people today. I am looking forward to preaching a series of sermons on this great sermon. I realize the bar is high, but if what I have said about the sermon is true, the best thing I can do is let Jesus do the preaching while I simply add a little explanation for our modern ears.

I hope you will take time to read this great sermon (Matthew 5-7) before next week. As we go through it, I hope we each gain more insights from it (my sermon notes will be included on the church blog each week – ffxbc.blogspot.com, and my personal reflections will be posted here). More importantly, my true hope is that we are challenged to raise our level of living to another level – to live “on earth as it is in heaven.”