Monday, May 28, 2018

Change Your World # 5 - "Relishing Righteousness"

             What are some of the foods that you’d never eat, no matter what?  Recently, I took one of those online tests to see how picky an eater I am.  There was nothing on the list of frequently-finnicky foods that I wouldn’t try.  Raw fish?  I love sushi!  Tofu?  Not a favorite, but I’ll eat it.  Mystery meat from some other part of the world?  Sure!  Recently, I was at the grocery store and saw a jar of Gochujang.  I have no idea what that is—so I bought it!  There’s nothing I won’t try, at least once.  Some of you may be quite different—you like your meat and potatoes, and you’re  happy that way.  Maybe for you, the list of foods you won’t eat is pretty long. 

A lot of foods were off-limits for Jesus’ people as well.  Animals that had both cloven hooves and “chewed the cud” could be eaten, but if an animal met one qualification but not the other (like the pig), it was verboten.  Slaughter had to be performed in a certain way, and the meat prepared according to precise specifications.  Birds that eat meat were off the menu as well.  The only fish that could be eaten were the kinds with scales and fins.  Dairy products had to come from kosher animals and must be prepared and served with implements that prevent meat and dairy from touching.  Neither could they be served on the same table or eaten at the same time.  All fruits and vegetables are kosher but may not come from fields planted with multiple kinds of seeds.  Also, fruit trees had to wait three years before they could be harvested.  And hybridization was not allowed.  Wine also had strict laws for how it was produced and bottled.[i]  For observant Jews, the list of prohibited foods and beverages is quite long.  If I found myself in that setting, I would get myself in a lot of trouble, because there is just about nothing that I won’t eat! 

Now, I don’t know how strictly Jesus kept kosher, but I do know that he often got himself in trouble over food and drink.  There was the time his disciples were picking wheat kernels and crushing it in their fingers, blowing off the chaff and eating the grain.  They got in trouble because the legalistic Pharisees said they were “milling” on the Sabbath.[ii]  Then there was the time he multiplied loaves and fish to feed a crowd.  Instead of owning him as master, they just kept trying to make him do what they wanted.[iii]  So it’s not surprising that he might be misunderstood when in the Beatitudes he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6 NIV).”  What do you suppose Jesus meant by hungering and thirsting after righteousness?

When Jesus puts the concept of food and drink together with the idea of righteousness, certainly his hearers could have thought he was talking about kosher foods.  But I think he was talking about being sustained by more than dills, lox, and bagels.  In fact, Jesus once said that a person “shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."[iv]  When God’s thoughts and word sustain you, you end up craving more than food.  You crave true righteousness, which has nothing to do with what you put in your mouth.  In Matthew 15:11 (NIV), Jesus says, “What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them."  Jesus was saying there’s a bigger picture than simply eating the right things or refusing the wrong things.  It’s how you live and how you love that honors or dishonors a person.

You see, Jesus hungered and thirsted after righteousness.  He gained nourishment from doing the right thing.  Even when it seemed like it was religiously the wrong thing.  When he broke all social conventions and skipped lunch with the disreputable Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples encouraged him to eat something.  “But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’  So the disciples were saying to one another, ‘No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?’  Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work (John 4:32-34 NIV).’”  Jesus was hungering and thirsting after righteousness.  He gained more nourishment from doing the right thing (even when it looked disreputable) than if he’d sat down to a feast.

            Jewish dietary laws governed not just what you ate, but where and with whom you ate.  Ritual defilement was like cooties—you could get it just by proximity with another person who was religiously tarnished.  So when Jesus was criticized for partying with the wrong sort of people, he said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds (Matthew 11:19 NIV).”  Just as Jesus was willing to set aside the Sabbath laws for the sake of compassionate healing, he was also willing to overlook dietary laws for the sake of compassionate fellowship.  For Jesus, hungering and thirsting after righteousness meant more than a desire to keep purity laws.  It meant doing the right thing, even if it looked like the wrong thing to all the “right” people. 

            When I say the word “righteous,” you might think of a Californian surfer, riding righteous waves.  Or, you may add to the word, hearing instead the phrase “self-righteous.”  Unfortunately, that’s what most often comes to mind.  When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he had in mind the opposite of self-righteousness.  Jesus was saying, “Blessed are those who fill up on doing what’s really right, for the sake of God’s love.  Even if you get criticized, and even if you go without because of it, you’ll still be filled.   Because you’ll have food that nobody knows about.”

[ii] Mark 2:23-27
[iii] John 6:1-15; 26
[iv] Matthew 4:5 NIV

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.