Sunday, May 29, 2011

Depending on God, Matthew 6:19-34

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rights in the Kingdom, Lam. 3:34-36, John 1:6-13

I confess I am an activist. Not a week goes by that I don’t sign a petition or send an email to my political representatives or a company either in support or protest for their actions. I’m a member of several social justice organizations. I put my money where my mouth is by boycotting products that treat workers as little more than slaves or contributing to those who bring clean water, education, and food to others. It is an important part of Christian faith to stand up for those who have no voice. Over and over in the Old Testament God calls God’s people to action to stand up for the orphans and widows, the poor and needy, the afflicted and oppressed, the immigrant and the hungry. God brings judgment on God’s people when they become oppressors. God cares about human rights. We see this in our Old Testament reading. God sees when human rights are being abused. And in this sinful fallen world, we are to speak up for those who have no voice.
I did a couple of word studies on rights in the Bible. The Old Testament word for human rights and legal rights is “mishpat”. It is also translated ordinance, justice, and is used many times in the Law pertaining to God’s laws and justice. While there are many proscriptions for how to determine justice, it is rarely something we are to seek for ourselves. Rather it is something we are to administer and seek for others. The word is used to tell us what to do, not what to demand for ourselves. When it comes to ourselves, we are to rely on God for justice and vindication. Sometimes that happens through human instruments and systems, but sometimes it literally takes divine intervention. Regardless, it is always God who vindicates, who determines right, and who satisfies justice.
Job is an example of one who went directly to God for vindication. He claimed his righteousness and rightness over and over to God and before his friends. Even though God does vindicate Job and declares Job righteous, Job also learns to see his own unrighteousness in the presence of a holy God.
The Old Testament call to defend those who rights are being taken away or abused still very much applies to us today. In our denomination’s mission 6-fold mission statement known as the “Great Ends of the Church,” one of those is the promotion of social righteousness. The world is still a sinful, broken place.
But inside the Kingdom of God, which is the true home for the believer, even now, things work differently. In the Kingdom of God, we have no rights with a couple of exceptions. The main exception is found in our New Testament reading this evening. John 1:12—“But as many as received Him, He gave the right to become the sons of God, to them that believe on His name.” The other exception is the right to the tree of life, which we read about in Rev. 22—“Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they will have the right to the tree of life,” and the negative example a few verses later, “If anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away that person’s right to the tree of life.” Everything in the Kingdom is gift or privilege. I’ve been doing a sermon series on the Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, we learn that we don’t have a right to anything. We aren’t supposed to go to court. If we are accused, we are to give the accuser more than what they demand. We are to turn our cheek to our enemy. We are to give to anyone who asks. Now, what we’ve realized as our church has gone through this series is how miserably we fail to live Christ’s mandate and how desperately we need the One who has fulfilled all the law on our behalf.
The New Testament word for “right” is exousia, which means the power to act or authority, and is often translated “power” or “authority”. In the Kingdom of God, we have no authority except that which comes from Christ. In Matthew 28, Jesus says all authority on heaven and earth is given to Me. Jesus gives us the right to become God’s children. He gives us authority over evil, over principalities and powers, over spiritual wickedness in high places. He has given us all power over the Enemy. But when it comes to those things that we think of as human rights, we have no right to demand them. Again, from the Sermon on the Mount, we are to be totally dependent upon Jesus for food, shelter, and clothing. Jesus goes on to say that we do not have a right to our bodies to do what we want with them—they are rather, the property of the Holy Spirit. Paul reminds us in Romans that the potter has the right to the clay—God is the potter; we are the clay. God can make us into whatever God desires, and we are not to talk back. We don’t have a right to our very life. We must lay them down and die totally to self in order to live with Christ. We know we fail miserably which is why Jesus used the continuous tense when He said, “If anyone is to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We have to constantly deny self and daily take up the cross. It is only in Christ that we have any rights, authority, and power. In order to have any rights in the Kingdom, we must submit totally to Christ’s Right—His authority, His power.
When I was in high school youth group, we had a lesson on what it means that Christ is Lord. As part of that lesson, we received a paper that was entitled, “A Surrendering of All Rights.” Listed on that sheet were a lot of things to which we think we have a right, but are not listed in Scripture—the right to our bodies, the right to be free from pain and suffering, the right to food, clothing, shelter, the right to be right, etc. Our youth leader asked us to sign it if we were serious about acknowledging Christ as Lord of our life and keep is someplace where we would remember. I kept that sheet in my Bible for many years. With that sheet, we also received a list of the blessings and promises that surrendering to the Lord brings—peace, unending, unconditional love, joy, the promise that we will never be alone, the promise of eternal life, justification in Christ, forgiveness of all sin, the Holy Spirit, and so on and so on.
Although Christ’s Kingdom is not yet fully and visibly realized, as the Church of Christ, we are to live in the Kingdom to the point where we exhibit Kingdom life to the world. Also in my denomination’s mission statement, the Great Ends of the Church, another one of those six great Ends is the “Exhibition of the Kingdom of God to the World.” When we start demanding our own rights, which are not rights at all, we not only fail to exhibit the Kingdom of God to the world, we obscure its visibility.
And yet there has been a constant push to make privileges into rights within the church. Marriage is a gift, although a widespread one. God gave Eve to Adam. But now the church is fighting about who has the right to be married. The answer according to God’s word is no one. Marriage is a gift. The church is fighting over ordination rights. There are no ordination rights. Ordination too is a gift. No one has the right to be ordained—I don’t care how many years of seminary you’ve had. You are either called and equipped by God, or not. It’s not a right, for anyone.
You may have heard on the radio or read in the paper that my denomination passed an amendment to our Constitution that now allows certain classes of people previously denied “the right to be ordained” to be ordained as ministers and officers in the church. Let me read to you what it is we passed:
"Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates."

There is nothing biblically wrong with this statement. It reminds us of our desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life. To me all means all, including those areas, which some people claim that their “rights” are being denied. We cannot claim rights and joyfully submit to the Lordship of Christ. I did not vote in favor of this amendment despite the fact that in many ways I find it an improvement over our prior language because it doesn’t single out one particular aspect of our lives that we are to submit to Christ. I did not vote for the statement because there has always been an agenda behind it pushing “rights”. No sooner was this amendment passed then a movement to redefine marriage within our denomination started making a lot of noise.
How can a such a statement so in line with Scripture become so twisted? Because we use our self-proclaimed authority to interpret the statement instead of the authority that God granted us in the written Word. Most of the divisions found in today’s church boil down to the authority of Scripture. When we undermine that authority, we have little on which to stand. Our youth group is using an abstinence curriculum by Lakita Garth Wright called “The Naked Truth.” This past Sunday we unlocked the lie of “safe sex.” In our Bible study, we looked at Jeremiah as an example of the lie that Judah believed regarding “safe religion”. Listen to what we learned:
"Problems arose when the people of [Judah] grew weary of God’s ways and devised their own. People today fall into the same trap. When we start living for ourselves, we often want others to join us, so we create lies to convince ourselves and others that it is safe to turn away from God. The King and priests of Jeremiah’s day were preaching the lie of “safe religion.” “Safe religion” says you can do what you want…You don’t have to worry about the consequences of sin because God will always forgive you, always love you, always protect you, even when you totally disobey God’s commands. Believers in “safe religion” look to churches and pastors to tell them they are “safe” even when they are not. “Safe religion” says it’s easier to do your own thing than to follow God.”

We are living in a time where “safe religion” is prominent. Paul warned Timothy about this time where there would “be teaching for itching ears.” While God does always love us and forgive us, there are consequences for sin—including the teaching of lies. Self with God on top is not the way God’s Kingdom works. There must be an exchange of self for Christ.
Civil rights do not carry over into the Kingdom. We don’t need them there. They are unnecessary because Christ gives us everything we need. He has broken down every barrier. Demanding our “rights” except in accordance with God’s promise of Sonship and the blessings that go with it, is a clear sign that we are not submitting to Christ’s authority. We can hold God to God’s promises because God never breaks God’s word. But we can’t ask God to justify the self. The self must die in order to inherit eternal life. We can either have self-justification, which is no justification at all, or Christ’s justification. It is either Christ or self; it cannot be both. Will you keep demanding your rights or will you submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Going the Extra Mile, Matt. 5:38-48

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jesus Still Takes Marriage Seriously, Matt. 5:27-37

It’s appropriate that we’ve reached this point in the Sermon on the Mount on Mother’s Day. Marriage is under attack in our world today. There are numerous attempts to redefine marriage. Over 50% of marriages fail. Increasing numbers of couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage either because they think marriage doesn’t mean anything or because they fear divorce. Children are growing up today who have never known a father. Their mothers have long disassociated themselves from the man who impregnated them long before the child is aware that such a person existed. Some mothers don’t even know who fathered their children. No man ever enters the picture of many children’s lives as a father figure. 59% of you have been divorced. The divorce rate among churchgoers is no different than that of society at large. In 100% of marriages I’ve conducted at least one, and most often both parties have been divorced. All except for one couple that I’ve married cohabitated before marriage, and at least one person and most often both people of all the couples I’ve married have claimed to be believers in Christ. In fact, that is necessary for me even to perform a wedding per our Book of Order. These are not good statistics, and yet marriage still matters to Jesus.
Our passage today reveals to us once again that Jesus’ “Great Moral Teaching” only exposes how miserably we fail to live up to it. Jesus starts with expanding # 7 of the 10 Commandments—“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Jesus again expands the prohibition to include lustful thoughts. Like murder, adultery begins in the heart. And like murder, adultery carries with it a death penalty. Jesus is showing us that the wages of sin is indeed death. Adultery implies that at least one of the parties is already married. Jesus will end this section talking about keeping vows. Adultery breaks the marriage vows. Jesus warns us to do what we need to do to in order to keep from sinning in this way. Jesus warns us against wanting was is not lawful for us to have.
Jesus moves from adultery to divorce because they are so closely tied together. Jesus names adultery or infidelity as the only legitimate reason for divorce. God can be no more blunt than saying, “I hate divorce,” which God does in the book of Malachi among other places. According to Jewish law, only a man could initiate a divorce—women could not. But Jesus will allow the woman to initiate a divorce in cases of infidelity. In this teaching in Matthew, Jesus wants us to understand that our sins don’t only affect us, but have much wider consequences. We are so selfish that we think our sin only affects us. But Jesus says that when a man divorces his wife, he’s forcing her to sin. Women did not live independently in Bible times like they do today. They either lived with their parents, or other male relative—like Mary and Martha with their brother Lazarus, or with their sons, or with a husband. The only options for widows to live independently were if they were older widows with no children (widows indeed) who were to be provided for by the community or if they were prostitutes. There was a provision in the law for the nearest male relative of the dead husband to marry a young widow, so that she would be taken care of. This is what we read about in the book of Ruth as well as in Genesis with Tamar. Because a woman had to remarry if she was divorced, Jesus is saying that in cases of divorce that are not recognized by God, the husband who is choosing to violate God’s command is causing others—his ex-wife and her future husband to live in sin. Jesus says this not to criticize the woman and her future husband as much as to make us understand how serious divorce is and that it has far reaching consequences. He does it so that we will rethink our decision and not choose divorce. He reminds us that divorce itself is sin.
In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas reminds us that we don’t have any leeway when it comes to our responsibility to keep our vows. We are not responsible for the other person’s behavior, but we are responsible for our own choices and attitudes. It’s important that the couples with which I work, that those from broken prior marriages be able to articulate their mistakes without justification, regardless of what the ex-spouse did. It’s important because if you can admit you were wrong then you can also choose not to do that wrong thing next time. You can act and react differently. I’m working with a couple now. One of the spouses was badly hurt in a previous marriage, but that spouse also chose to engage in very inappropriate behavior. I knew that behavior needed to be expressed. The person was able to admit that wrong without my prompting, which allowed me to ask the follow up question, “So what can you do to avoid this situation in the future?” The new couple is now able to develop a plan of action and set appropriate boundaries so that the new marriage has greater potential of being their last marriage. Admitting our fault also means that we can be forgiven. Remember that Jesus not only forgives our sins but also redeems us.
Jesus concludes this section by talking about vows. He is referring to any vows, not just marriage vows. He isn’t saying here, “Don’t make vows,” because He will allow Himself to be put under a vow later. But Jesus is saying, “Don’t make vows with conditions attached.” The Jewish teaching was that only vows made in God’s name were binding; otherwise, you could wiggle out of them. Jesus says, it’s stupid to swear by anything because God owns everything and controls everything. Therefore, all vows are binding. Instead, mean what you say. To be anything other than honest is to be under the influence of the evil one. If you have to put in excuses or conditions, you show that you are untrusting and not trustworthy. The marriage vows we take are intended to encompass any condition—sickness and in health, better or for worse, richer or poorer, til death do us part—so that there isn’t wiggle room to get out of our promise to be faithful to another person.
There is a disturbing story in the book of Judges about a judge named Jepthath. Page for page, Judges has more gore and disturbing stories than any other book in the Bible. This judge Jepthath, who is praised as a mighty warrior, makes a vow to the Lord to offer as a burnt offering whatever comes out of his house if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites. Jepthath is victorious. And it is his beloved daughter who comes to greet him. Jepthath, as grieved as he is over the vow he made, will not break it, and Jepthath’s daughter accepts it. After having a two month good-bye party and time of mourning with her girl friends, she submits to being a sacrifice. Unlike Abraham with Isaac, God does not intervene and send a ram, because God never asked Jepthath to sacrifice his daughter. In Judges the stories are presented without commentary. The story ends. And yet in Hebrews 11 Jepthath is mentioned as a man of faith. Yes, he did keep his vow, but it was a stupid vow. Why is he called a man of faith? I don’t think it has anything to do with what Jepthath did. It’s all about how God sees Jepthath. God sees only the faith. And when it comes to us, God doesn’t see our mess-ups. God only sees Jesus when we repent. God doesn’t see how badly we’ve failed to keep our vows or how foolishly we have made them. God sees the faith of Christ in us.
The youth group is currently going through an abstinence curriculum by Lakita Garth Wright called “The Naked Truth.” In her book by the same name, Lakita has a chapter dealing with the modern notion that marriage is “piece of paper.” Here’s what she has to say...(I read pg. 154 and part of 155 from Lakita Garth's book, The Naked Truth." It is also proven that cohabitating before marriage does not reduce the potential for divorce later. All of the couples I’ve married realized at some point that marriage is more than just a piece of paper, that it is indeed different than the cohabitating life they have previously lived. They are all able to define what marriage means to them and how it is different. The words “life-long commitment” always come up. They know that cohabitating means a temporary commitment—that I can have an easy out if I want it. It’s proven that married couples feel more secure and more fulfilled in their relationships than cohabitating couples. Each of the couples I’ve married have also realized that there is a spiritual dimension to marriage, and that the spiritual dimension is important to them.
I listened to a Bible Study this week where the Talmud describes the cherubim on top of the mercy seat as symbolizing an embrace—that their wings reaching out to each other with God dwelling in the midst of them reminds us of what our relationship with God and each other as the body of Christ is like. We are to remember that marriage is also a symbol of that relationship. It mirrors what our relationship to God is like. God desires oneness with us. Marriage is important to Jesus because it symbolizes His relationship to the Church.
The more I study the Catholic teaching on marriage, the more I agree with it. Regardless of what the world does, exclusive of civil rights, spiritual marriage is different. It is already defined and cannot be changed because of its representative nature. We also must remember that in the Kingdom of God, we have no rights. Everything is privilege and gift except the right to become the children of God.
Once again, we are all condemned by Jesus’ teaching. This passage leaves none of us innocent. Once again we can be so grateful that Jesus has fulfilled the Law for us. We break our promises and vows so easily. We deserve death, but Jesus gives us life. God remarries us and remains faithful to us when we go astray. Jesus re-presents us as His spotless bride. He changes us from sinners to saints. He redeems our whole lives, including our marriages, so that they too may be holy. And He empowers us with the Holy Spirit so that we can be faithful and obedient to Him.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mass Murderers and Serial Killers, Matt. 5:21-26