Sunday, May 13, 2018

Change Your World # 4 - "The Meek Shall Inherit"

            Have you ever inherited anything?  Many years ago, when my grandmother died, she left each of her grandchildren a small inheritance.  Nothing to get rich off of—but it helped pay off some debts.  A couple of years ago, my stepdad passed away.  From him, I inherited the pickup truck that I’m still driving today.  Maybe you’re waiting on an inheritance right now, and you feel badly because it’s too hard to wait.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has something to say about inheritance—but what he has to say may surprise you.

            Jesus might have initiated a discussion about inheritance while standing on the steps of some great financial institution.  Or, if he had talked about it in front of Herod’s palace, that would have made an impact.  But instead, Jesus took his followers on a field trip to a place where there was no wealth to be seen anywhere.  There, on a grassy mountainside, beneath rolling clouds, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth Matthew 5:5 NIV).” 

This had to be the last thing his hearers expected.  “Blessed are the meek?”  They were accustomed to powerful landowners ruthlessly acquiring and defending property and money, amassing fortunes and creating dynasties.  But here, Jesus says you’re blessed if you’re meek?  It wasn’t what they were used to hearing. 

Ironically, this Greek word that is often translated as meek, gentle, and humble, almost sounds like proud in English.  Praus is a hard-to-translate word that people often mistake for weakness.  But instead, meekness means “strength under control.”  Jesus says if you want an inheritance for yourself or your children, you don’t have to step on people to get it.  You don’t have to ruthlessly defend what you have, or greedily hoard more and more.  Jesus’ plan was greater than the world’s plan.  Jesus said, “Just practice meekness, and your inheritance will be on its way.”

            Micah 6:8 (NIV) tells how to gain this inheritance: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”  This is the basic recipe for meekness.  None of these things are weak—all of them require strength, under control.  Justice demands you do it, whether it’s convenient or not.  Mercy requires that you be in a position of strength, to demonstrate it.  And humility means you know who you are in Christ, without either false bravado on the one hand or self-effacement on the other.  When you practice justice, mercy, and humility, you develop meekness that is power under control.  And Jesus promised that the meek will inherit the earth.

Again, don’t misconstrue the meaning of meekness.  One person who misunderstood this was…

J. Upton Dickson [who] was a fun-loving fellow who said he was writing a book entitled Cower Power. He also founded a group of submissive people. It was called DOORMATS. That stands for "Dependent Organization Of Really Meek And Timid Souls -- if there are no objections." Their motto was: "The meek shall inherit the earth -- if that's okay with everybody." They symbol was the yellow traffic light.[i]

            If we understand that meekness is not weakness, then when we read Jesus’ statement that the meek shall inherit the earth, we do not see him switching on the yellow light.  Jesus was anything but a cautious doormat.  Instead, he was the one who rebuked storms, overturned tables, and pillaged hell to emerge with its keys in hand.  Meekness doesn’t mean weakness—it means being strong, but using that strength only for God’s glory and never for your own.  I’m reminded of a time when Jesus’ disciples asked him to call down fire from heaven on a village that refused to listen to their teaching.  Jesus rebuked them, saying, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them (Luke 9:55-56 NASB).”  This is the spirit of meekness that Jesus demonstrated, and the spirit he blesses—to have power yet choose to be gentle.  Jesus says there is an inheritance for people like this, who choose gentleness over ruthlessness.  They will inherit the earth.

            Now, you might say, “Who wants to inherit the earth, with the state that it’s in?”  A lot of people inherit things they don’t want.  My brother says, “I inherited those big, copper, octagonal wall hangings with authors in them. Shakespeare and somebody else that I can’t remember. They used to hang in Grandma’s old house. Apparently, I must have commented on them once. Now they’re living in my basement and, every so often, I wonder what their metal value might be.” 

            Some inheritances you don’t want, and don’t even like.  But I promise you’ll like this one.  The meek shall inherit the earth.  Now, don’t read this like you’re reading the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, where Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth.  Yes, the Greek word can be translated as earth, but I don’t believe in this context it means the whole earth and its kingdoms.  can also mean land, as in a country—but meekness doesn’t go hand in hand with inheriting a country, does it?  No, Jesus must mean something different.  also mean land, as in tracts of land.  Now we’re getting closer, because land can be farmed, and it can be made fruitful—and Jesus wants us to be fruitful.  But the problem is that this idea leads us back to the notion of inheriting property.  But can mean one more thing, and that’s dirt.  I believe Jesus was saying, “The meek shall inherit the soil.”  And I don’t think he means physical soil, either.  It’s not an earthly inheritance, like a kingdom or land.  Instead, it’s a fertile, loamy quality that you cultivate in your soul, simply by practicing meekness. 

            The meek shall become earthy.  Down to earth.  Humble—like humus, or dirt.  The meek aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty for the sake of helping others.  The meek will be made fertile.  Out of meekness, good things grow.  Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God—and this will turn you into the kind of person God can use.  It’s not an inheritance you can get rich off of, but it will make your heart into good, rich, soil.

[i] Our Daily Bread.  April 10, 2018.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Change Your World # 3 - Those Who Mourn

            I want to talk with you about three profound griefs in my life.  First was the death of my maternal grandfather.  Granddad loved me with fierce intensity.  As long as Granddad was there, I knew there was strength I could lean on.  Losing him meant that suddenly life was less safe, and it made me feel vulnerable.

             Then there was the loss of my marriage.  When she said, “I don’t think I can be married to you anymore,” my heart felt like it was ripped out of my chest and torn to a thousand pieces.  It left me feeling unloved and unlovable, like I would be deserted and pitiful until the day I died alone.
            Another major grief was the adulthood of my children.  This came as a surprise, because nobody told me it would hurt this much.  I didn’t walk my daughters down the aisle, because I performed the wedding ceremonies.  Each time I feared I would be unable to make it through the service, so choked was I by tears.  No matter what people said, I felt like I wasn’t gaining sons—I was losing daughters!  Since three of my children have reached adulthood, I’ve watched them struggle in ways that I cannot help.  It makes me feel impotent and weak, to be unable to scoop them up and kiss them better like I used to.

            Each of these three different kinds of grief has affected me tremendously, and in ways I never could have predicted.  What griefs have you been through in your life?  How has mourning surprised you? How have you found strength? 

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12[i]), Jesus said, “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  This might sound like so many platitudes that people say to folks who are hurting—usually trying to comfort themselves instead of their hurting friend or relative.  But when it comes to suffering, Jesus was anything but trite.  The Bible says, “He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief (Isaiah 53:3).”

In his early life, Jesus knew the trauma of living as a refugee, and then the bigotry of people who accused him of being illegitimate.  In his youth, he must have felt (as many teens do) that nobody understood him.  As an adult, he made enemies for his teaching and life of grace—enemies so powerful that they had Jesus publicly tortured and executed, to the tune of the jeering crowd.  Yes, God through Jesus knows a lot about suffering and grief.  Trust me—whatever your grief is, God has experienced it too, and suffers with you.  You are not alone. 

Sometimes that’s enough, to know that God suffers too, and that God is with you.  But other times you just need to know you’ll get through it.  Today, I can look back on my darkest hours and see from the position of hindsight how God got me through it.  But when I was in the depths, I needed faith to see in the dark.  Hebrews 1:1 says, “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.”  Then the rest of the chapter then details the struggles of people who went through immense grief, yet were blessed by faith. 

Abel, the first martyr, died for his faith at the hands of his own brother.  While Noah and his family barely escaped the flood, it’s not a happy story—they watched the whole earth die.  Abraham and Sarah lost a family and a home, in order to pursue God’s calling.  Abraham faced the prospect of offering his son on the altar, and Isaac, though grieving his own life, willingly laid himself down.  Joseph knew the suffering of the pit and the prison.  Moses was abandoned as a child, became a murderer, and had to flee from his home.  Called to lonely leadership, he had few friends for the rest of his life, and died without seeing God’s promise come to fruition.  Some of the Hebrew heroes emerged victorious.  Verses 33-35 say:

“By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight.  Women received their loved ones back again from death.”

Yet, others did not come through their trials so well.  Verses 35-37 say:

But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated.

Hebrews goes on to say that all of these people endured hardship, without seeing the full benefit of their suffering.  Yet faith was what helped them to continue, even though they were in the dark.  Faith was grasping onto the truth that even in their grief, there was something that their eyes could not see.  Faith understands that God “does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow (Lamentations 3:33).”  It knows that there’s something better to hold onto.

When Granddad died, I had no idea that losing him would make me aspire to be more like him.  When my marriage ended, I had no idea that I would find hope and love on the other side.  When my children grew up, I couldn’t imagine the joy that I now know from watching them grow as independent adults, and the pleasure of being a grandparent.  In each of these situations, God was doing something, even though in my pain, I couldn’t see it.

 Faith means seeing with a blindfold on—trusting God in the dark.  In the first message in this series, I said that we can change our world by changing the way we see it.  This is certainly true when we see with the eyes of faith.  When Jesus said, “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” It was a promise that through faith, we would see the world in a different light—even when we’re in the dark.

[i] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Change Your World # 2 - Blessed are the Poor

            As the weather warms up, many of our school students (and teachers, too!) have spring fever.  It’s hard to stay focused on what you’re learning when you look out the window and everything’s so beautiful that you just want to be outside.  Seniors in high school have the double-whammy of two diseases—spring fever and senioritis.  Senioritis is when it’s your last year of school, and you just don’t care anymore.  All you can think about is graduation.  And when you get to graduation, the valedictorian is up front telling you all about how you can go out there and change your world—but all you’re thinking about is summer vacation.  You’re listening to the sage advice of your top schoolmate, and all you can think is, “Yeah, whatever—the beach is waiting!” 

Bible scholars suggest that Jesus’ disciples were mostly about the same age as high school seniors, so you can bet that it wasn’t until years later that they really appreciated Jesus’ words when he told them how they could change their world.  I think teenagers and young adults today get a bad reputation for not knowing what they want to do with their lives.  The truth is, Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what they wanted to do, either.  So instead of taking up the family business, which was generally expected of everyone, they decided to attach themselves to a wandering rabbi and become professional students.  I’m sure that Jesus knew they wouldn’t appreciate his lessons until much later, so he tried to make them as pithy and memorable as he could.  The Beatitudes are the core of his teaching about how Jesus’ followers could change their world.

Jesus begins with “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs (Matthew 5:3).”[i]  Many translations say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but this is pretty hard to understand—I think the New Living Translation does a good job explaining what Jesus means.  You are blessed if you’re poor and understand your need for God.

This is a pretty hard concept for Americans to understand, because we have so much.  Could Jesus possibly have meant that you’re blessed if you’re poor?  Maybe he just meant that you’re blessed if you realize that you’re spiritually in need of God.  That sounds good, right?  But, just in case we’re confused, Luke 6 gives us a parallel version of the Beatitudes where Jesus simply says, “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.”  Plus, all through the gospels, Jesus pronounces blessings on the poor and woes upon the rich.  No—Jesus literally means that God blesses the people who don’t have much in this world.

            Why is this?  Well—some were born into poverty, and never had much.  Others lost what they had, through no fault of their own.  Maybe it was taken from them, or maybe circumstances like huge medical bills caused them to lose their fortune.  Still others might have brought about their own poor condition through a series of bad decisions.  Or some few people like Saint Francis of Assisi may have taken what Jesus said literally, about selling what they had and giving to the poor.  Or maybe they never had much but chose a life of service to others, over the acquisition of wealth.  One way or another, there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have much.  In fact, the number of poor people far outweigh the number of wealthy in the world.  According to the Washington Post:

To be among the wealthiest half of the world last year, an adult needed to own only $3,210 in net assets (minus debts), according to the data. To be in the top 10 percent, a person needed to have only $68,800 in wealth. To be in the top percentile, the threshold climbed to $760,000, according to Credit Suisse.

According to the Federal Reserve, the median American family had $81,000 in net worth in 2013.[ii]

By those standards, where does that put you, personally, compared to the world population?  Jesus’ disciples were among the world’s poorest people at the time.  Certainly, their status as homeless students of an itinerant teacher made them even poorer.  Jesus was speaking directly to poor people, proclaiming that God hasn’t forgotten them.  In fact, God promises that they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.  Why is this?  Why do poor people get this beatitude, or blessing, while Jesus warns the wealthy time and time again?

Because when you’re rich, you trust your money and your stuff, but when you’re poor, all you’ve got is God.  When you’re poor, you pray more.  You rely on God more, because you don’t know where your next meal or car repair is going to come from.  For some of us, the worst thing that ever happened to our spirituality is when we started making a better paycheck.  We were closer to God when we didn’t have our retirement funds or inheritances or stocks to fall back on.  So in the Beatitudes, Jesus has something to say to those who struggle with money and those who don’t.

To those who are poor (if that’s you, listen up), Jesus says, “You don’t know it, but you may just have it better than the rich people around you—because you’ve got the real treasure.  You’ve got Me!” 

To those who are rich (those with ears to hear, let them hear), Jesus says, “Good and faithful servants take what they have and sow it into the lives of others, so the Kingdom will grow.  Maybe your reliance on wealth has drowned out the sound of My voice.  Maybe you need to give some of it to the poor around you who don’t know where their next meal or car repair is coming from.  Then you can help my little ones up, while uncluttering your spirit so you can know Me more.”

Of course, I realize that some of you are like kids (and teachers) with spring fever, and haven’t heard a word of this.  Or, you’re like twelfth-graders with senioritis, and you’ve heard, but you quit caring long ago.  But I have the hope, just like Jesus had the hope, just like the valedictorian has the hope, that after some time has passed these words may be remembered: “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”  Those who have the least will inherit the most.  The words of the Teacher turn your expectations upside down, calling you to radical faith that will change your world.

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[ii] Swanson, Ana.  “You might be among the world’s richest people and not realize it.”  January 21, 2016.  March 19, 2018.

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Change Your World"

             Many people don’t know this about me, but I’m really an introvert.  A lot of folks think that’s odd, because pastors are always among people, whether in homes or hospitals or in church.  Often, we’re in huge crowds where we interact with loads of people all at once.  But I’m an introvert who’s had to learn to function as an extrovert.  Extroverts get jazzed up from being around large groups of people, while introverts have to recharge when they’re alone.  In fact, an introvert doesn’t get ready for a party—they gather strength for a party.[i]  Then later, they recover from a party.  But if you’re at a party and you’re talking to an introvert, you can tell he likes you if he’s looking at your shoes instead of his own.[ii]  The other day somebody asked me, “What are your plans for this weekend?”  I got all excited and said, “Nothing—absolutely nothing.”  That’s when you know you’re an introvert.

            I think Jesus was an introvert.  Yes, he was always followed by crowds who wanted him to teach them, heal them, take care of them.  But he was also always sneaking away from the crowds and going off by himself to recharge.  One of the funniest scriptures about Jesus is Matthew 6:1-2[iii]: “One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them [emphasis mine].”  In other words, what we often call the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t Jesus preaching to the crowds at all—but a little bit of private teaching time that Jesus had with the disciples, when the crowds got too big to handle.  When you think of it, the Beatitudes are far too deep a subject for the general populace to get anyway—it was meant for the insiders, those who were disciples already.  Jesus knew that the crowds often didn’t listen, but he wanted to give his disciples a clue as to how to change their world.

            So we have this little gem that we call the Beatitudes.  You may have heard some clever preacher call them the “Be-Attitudes,” because these attitudes help us to be all that God made us to be.  (That’s brilliant—I wish I’d come up with it.)  If Christians would just live by the Beatitudes, we’d all do an amazing job at becoming like Jesus—which is the point of Jesus’ message to his disciples.  This is the beginning of a series on the eight key attitudes of a Christian—but today, I simply want to get a bird’s eye view.  Matthew 5:3-10 says:

God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

            Here’s what Jesus is saying—in life, you get what you focus on.  When you realize your need for God, you get God.  When you’re honest about your need for comfort, you get comfort.  When you’re down-to-earth, you inherit the earth.  When you focus on justice, you can accomplish your goals of equity for all.  When you’re merciful, you get mercy back.  When you work for peace, you’ll be honored by the people who will later benefit from that peace.  When you lose everything for Jesus’ sake, you gain everything in return.  Jesus is saying that you tend to get what you give the most attention to.  If you focus on pain, you experience more pain.  If you focus on how bad the world is, the world just seems worse.  But if you focus on blessing, you get more blessing.  In the words of the great philosopher Qui Gon Jinn, “Your focus determines your reality.”

            When the crowds pressed in, Jesus knew that this truth was too much for most of them, but he told this secret to his followers.  If you change your attitude, you can change the world.  First, you can change the world by shifting your focus off the problem and onto the solution. Change the way it looks to you, and you change your response.

There was a very wealthy man who was bothered by severe eye pain. He consulted many physicians and was being treated by several. He did not stop consulting a galaxy of medical experts; he consumed heavy loads of drugs and underwent hundreds of injections. But the ache persisted with more vigour than before.
At last, a monk who was supposed to be an expert in treating such patients was called for by the suffering man. The monk understood his problem and said that for some time he should concentrate only on green colours and not to let his eyes fall on any other colours. It was a strange prescription, but he was desperate and decided to try it.
The millionaire got together a group of painters and purchased barrels of green paint and directed that every object his eye was likely to fall to be painted green just as the monk had directed. When the monk came to visit him after few days, the millionaire's servants ran with buckets of green paint and poured it on him since he was in red dress, lest their master see any other colour and his eye ache would come back.
Hearing this, the monk laughed and said "If only you had purchased a pair of green spectacles, worth just a few dollars, you could have saved these walls and trees and pots and all other articles and also could have saved a large share of his fortune. You cannot paint the world green."
Let us change our vision and the world will appear accordingly.[iv]

            So, we change our world in two ways.  First, we shift our attitude and change the way we see the world.  This in turn changes our response to the world.  Like the person who annoys you—you can’t control him, but you can control the way you see him, and your response to him.  Second, we change the world, not by trying to paint the world and make it the way we want it.  But by treating it with compassion, justice, mercy, and peace—by adopting the attitudes of Jesus, the world begins to change itself in response to this love.  It happens little by little, and not all at once.  But eventually you will see light dawn, when you “think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth (Colossians 3:2).”

[iii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.
[iv] Reynolds, Randy.  “The Other Side of the Wall.”  March 13, 2018.

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Death and Taxes"

            Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world, nothing is certain, except death and taxes.”  But death doesn’t get worse every year.  Since this is tax season, I thought I’d tell you a story:

An old preacher was dying. He sent a message for his IRS agent and his Lawyer (both church members) to come to his home. When they arrived, they were ushered up to his bedroom. As they entered the room, the preacher held out his hands and motioned for them to sit on each side of the bed. The preacher grasped their hands, sighed contentedly, smiled and stared at the ceiling. For a time, no one said anything.
Both the IRS agent and Lawyer were touched and flattered that the old preacher would ask them to be with him during his final moment. They were also puzzled because the preacher had never given any indication that he particularly liked either one of them.
Finally, the Lawyer asked, "Preacher, why did you ask the two of us to come?"
The old preacher mustered up some strength, then said weakly, "Jesus died between two thieves, and that's how I want to go, too."[i]

            In Jesus’ time, lawyers and tax men were thought of just as poorly.  Gospel writers portray lawyers as always having tricks up their sleeves, trying to pull a fast one on Jesus.  And they depict tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Matthew, along with Matthew’s publican friends, as sinners particularly in need of God’s grace.  Because Israelites hated paying taxes to Rome, they found Caesar’s IRS agents particularly hard to stomach.  I can imagine that when the Pharisees and Herodians (notorious enemies who shared a common disgust with Jesus) came to Jesus with a tax question, they were casting sidelong glances in Matthew’s direction.  Mark 12:14-17 says:

They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” 
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

            Now, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of sermons declaring how Jesus perplexed those who would ensnare him, explaining that we owe taxes and honor to our government, and worship and obedience to God.  While all that is true, I want to simply point out a difference between what we owe the government, and what we owe God.  On the one hand, sometimes Caesar demands what we can’t pay, or what is difficult to pay.  For example, if a person told the tax collector they couldn’t pay, the brute squad would invade their home, confiscate their property, and maybe throw the delinquent into prison.  (Not unlike today, in some ways.)  But God, on the other hand, never asks for more than you can pay.  In fact, if God asks something from you, God usually provides the payment. 

            In Matthew 17:24-27, we read about another incident regarding taxes.  This time, however, it wasn’t the imperial tax, but the temple tax that needed to be paid.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
            Unlike Caesar’s tax, which could only be paid by the blood, sweat, and tears of the person who owed it, Jesus demonstrated that when God demands something of people, God often pays the price Himself.  Imagine—before this need ever arose, God arranged for a fish to swallow that coin.  Or created a fish with a coin inside, just for this purpose.  However God did it, it was God who paid the tax demanded by the temple.  When Peter had nothing to pay with, God paid the price.

            God did this for Adam and Eve, providing the first sacrifice that offered its skin to cover their nakedness and sin.  God did this for Abraham, when God asked the prophet to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).  God did not ultimately require human blood; Instead, God Himself provided the sacrifice.  A ram in the thicket, caught by his horns, became the gift upon Abraham’s altar.  But this story simply foreshadows Jesus’ offering of Himself for the sin of the world.  God provided Himself as a sacrifice, to pay a tax we could never pay.  When Jesus hung on the cross between two thieves, he identified with our sin.  As death and taxes are certain, Jesus’ death paid our price.  Just as the fish’s mouth provided the treasure, so from Jesus’ mouth came the blessing of forgiveness that saved the world.

            Have you ever owed a debt that you couldn’t pay?  Maybe this year at tax time, you especially feel that way.  When it comes to your spiritual debt, God pays the price for you.  God doesn’t simply allow an extension—He offers a grace period that extends to eternity.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"Rocky Road"

                Holocaust Remembrance Day is this coming Thursday—a time to remember the victims of Hitler’s reign of terror.  One CBS report[i] introduces Ben Stern, a 95-year-old Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who needs a caretaker and roommate when his wife enters a nursing home.  When 31-years-old Lea Heitfeld moved in, she tells him that not only is she of German descent, but her grandparents were active Nazis.  In the interview, Heitfeld recalls, “The first thing he said is, 'Lea, I want you to know, you're third generation. You're not responsible for what happened.'"  Stern asserts, “Lea is not guilty about what her grandparents did.”  Though Stern’s seven brothers, one sister, and both parents were killed in concentration camps, he releases Heitfeld from the burden of blame.  You see, because Stern has been down such a rocky road in life, he realizes the need to give people grace.  This astounding forgiveness so inspires Heitfeld that now she’s getting a master’s degree in Jewish studies.  This story is just one example of the amazing power of grace.

            Grace is that remarkable ability to forgive, even when a person doesn’t deserve it.  It is the unmerited favor of God to humanity.  Grace can also be a gift we give to others, when we have experienced that kind of unlimited and unconditional pardon.  But it wasn’t always this way.  Under the old covenant of law, people had a good (but lesser) arrangement with God.  It wasn’t until the time of Christ that God made a new deal by providing a better way of grace.

            You see, in the beginning of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, God is depicted as “a jealous God…punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:5-6).”[ii]  God reiterates this in Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9-10.  While I do not believe these scriptures mean God actively punishes descendants for the sins of their ancestors, it does indicate that the decisions we make can result in blessings or suffering for those who come after us.  God certainly warns of life’s consequences, including addictions, diseases, and other curses that come from the sins of previous generations.

            In Ezekiel 18, God spells out forgiveness under the old covenant of law, bringing clarification to the misunderstanding that God may actively punish descendants for the sake of their ancestors.  God points out that this covenant (old to us, but new at the time) is better than people’s assumptions.  You see, people used to quote a proverb saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (1:2).” The whole rest of the chapter is spent in an explanation that God punishes the guilty for their own sins and doesn’t punish people for either the sins of their children or their parents.  This chapter embodies the grace experienced between Ben Stern and Lea Heitfeld.  It’s also a good example of the grace that we ought to give one another, when we deal with racism and ethnic history in or own context. 

            Under the old covenant of law, this good (but not best) way that God dealt with people had to do with their own behavior, whether it was righteous or wicked.  Ezekiel 18:26-28 says:

When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.  Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
            In other words, God’s forgiveness was dependent on that person’s behavior.  If the person’s behavior was bad, repentance from sin earned forgiveness.  But when Jesus came, God offered a better approach to forgiveness—the way of grace.  In Jesus, the requirements of the law were met because God knew we could never meet them.  No more would humankind have to earn forgiveness by demonstrating good behavior.  In fact, the new covenant recognizes that no behavior can be good enough. Romans 3:10 says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”  Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  So, knowing that we were incapable of effecting our own redemption, God did it for us—before we even repented.

On the cross, Jesus cried, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).”  Jesus didn’t declare forgiveness for any Roman who would put down his hammer and nail, or pardon for any prostitute who would just stop sinning.  No—Jesus forgave everyone, everywhere, for all time, before any of them repented of their sin.  Jesus didn’t die for the godly.  Romans 5:6 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  Verse 8 says that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”[iii]  You see, Jesus didn’t die for us because we’d repented.  He died for us so that we’d repent.

Yes, under the new covenant, God’s forgiveness is not contingent on our change of behavior.  Our change of heart and conduct is because we’ve been forgiven.  Receiving God’s unconditional love and grace makes all the difference.  Now, there are some people who will argue with that.  They’ll say, “You’re claiming that the law is over and done with, and should be thrown out!”  No, I’m not.  They’ll say, “You’re claiming the law is no good anymore.”  No, I’m not.  I’m saying that the law was an essential ingredient for making grace, but now that we have grace, it’s so much better than the law.

Take, for example, chocolate ice cream.  Mmm—there’s nothing better than chocolate ice cream…except Rocky Road.  Rocky Road couldn’t exist without chocolate ice cream.  Chocolate ice cream is essential for making Rocky Road.  Chocolate ice cream doesn’t cease to exist, just because you add nuts and marshmallows.  It still exists, and is part of Rocky Road, all the way through.  But next to Rocky Road, chocolate ice cream just seems to lack something.  If chocolate ice cream is the law, then Rocky Road is grace.  Grace couldn’t exist without the law—but grace exists because the law just didn’t satisfy.  In the same way, we needed the law as an ingredient to make grace.  But now that we have grace, the law by itself just isn’t enough.

I’ve known a lot of people who’ve told me, “One day, when I’m ready to clean myself up, I’ll become a Christian.”  That’s like saying, “When I’m ready to repent, I’ll get forgiven.”  It doesn’t work that way anymore.  It’s forgiveness that causes you to repent.  It’s salvation that cleans you up.  It’s grace that sets you free.  So today I pray you’ll receive that grace, share that grace, and be free indeed!

[i] Tracey, Ben.  “Holocaust survivor finds unlikely roommate in granddaughter of Nazis.”  April 29, 2017.  February 19, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NRSV.
[iii] Emphasis mine