#8: Blessed are the Persecuted…” Matthew 5:10-12 & John 15:18-20a, 16:1-3 (NIV)

Well, we have finally reached the conclusion of the Beatitudes of Jesus! Throughout our study of these sayings of Jesus, we have imagined that the “door that leads to blessedness” is secured with eight locks. In the first seven beatitudes of Jesus, we discover keys that fit the locks, and yet even then the door remains secured. The final lock is the most difficult to open. This morning at last we have within our reach that eighth and final key that can open the door to the blessed life.

The first seven beatitudes actually represent attributes of the Christian character: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. These together make up the ideal of the Christian life we all strive to achieve. Now, in the eighth beatitude, Jesus tells us what we can expect from the world if we live as “beatitude people,” successful in living-out the other seven.

You’d think the world would rejoice to have such wonderful, upright, noble people in it. If you are able to live according to these teachings of Jesus, surely everyone will like and respect you, right? WRONG! No, the exact opposite is true: When you live by these rules of heaven (these “beatitudes”), the world will NOT love you – it will hate you! That’s what our first scripture lesson from John makes clear!

Jesus can never be accused of false advertising! He doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t sugar-coat it. He tells it like it is: “If you live by my beatitudes,” Jesus tell us, “persecution IS going to come your way. You can count on it!”

And just in case we didn’t get this point, in Matthew, chapter ten, Jesus says this to his followers: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves… they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… Brother will betray brother to death… and you will be hated by all because of my name… Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Let there be no mistake about it: Over and over, Jesus makes it very clear. Following him means following a crucified Savior with stripes on his back and nail holes in his hands and feet. And those who would choose to follow him must be prepared to take up their own cross as well. That is the price of living the Christ-like life. Paul, who was no stranger to persecution himself, summarized it well when he wrote to Timothy: (2 Tim. 3:12) “All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

You and I are fortunate, indeed, to have grown up in a country and a time in history when persecution has not been a big issue. But it was a huge issue for the first generations of believers. They knew that accepting Christ would mean hardship, torture, and maybe even death.

Even under the best of circumstances, it wasn’t easy to be a Christian in the ancient world. It impacted all areas of life: their professional life (should Christians do business with non-Christians?); in their social life (what should you as a Christian do when you’re are invited to attend a feast offered at one of the pagan temples), and their home life (many homes were divided, one member was a believer, the rest not – often the Christian was disowned, cut off from the family forever). You and I today can identify somewhat with those early Christians. Christians in the business world today have very hard decisions to make about what is ethical and moral; Non-believing friends tempt us to compromise our beliefs so that we might “fit in” with the crowd; Even our homes can become battle-grounds for our faith.

But that wasn’t the worst of it for the first Christians: Those “persecutions” were mild compared to what many believers suffered. Thousands were tortured and killed for one reason, and one reason only: These followers of Jesus refused to renounce their faith in Christ.

Rome controlled all the known world, and ruled over diverse and far-flung peoples. And they used the pagan Roman religion as a tool to try to impose some form of unity on the empire – sort of a “common denominator” or a glue to hold the empire together. In the time of the Early Church, Caesar himself was considered a god. Once per year, everyone in the empire was required to make a sacrificial offering to the emperor and to say the words, “Caesar is lord.” Of course, Christians refused, because for them, only Jesus is Lord. Therefore the government accused them of treason for putting loyalty to Christ above loyalty to Caesar. The Romans executed Christians by the thousands, in horribly gruesome ways – too gruesome to describe here.

But persecution isn’t something that stopped centuries ago – That certainly isn’t news to anyone one here this morning. As we see on our TV screens over and over, there are many Christians around the world today, and even right here in America, who are still suffering persecution – even death – for their faith. We all have seared in our memories the horrific pictures of our Christian brothers and sisters suffering at the hands of ISIS – the Islamic State – as ISIS resorts to barbarism as they slaughter Christians.

Fortunately, you and I do not suffer severe persecution for our faith. In fact, for the most part you’d be hard-pressed to find real persecution in America – the recent complaints raised by some believers in the US are trivial by comparison. We complain that people say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, and we call it persecution. Some people force monuments to the Ten Commandment from court house grounds, and we say it’s persecution. It is no longer possible to offer prayer at football games or city council meetings, and we scream persecution. Trivial stuff, by comparison.

For most of us, “persecution” only means name-calling and ridicule, being the brunt of bad jokes, maybe losing a client or a friend, – and from time to time, some minor discrimination.

Now, I’m not saying that being a Christian in America is easy, or that it isn’t getting more and more challenging. But, we should thank God every day that we are blessed to live in such a country as the United States of America, where we have the right of freedom of religion!

Sadly, the truth is that the rates of persecution against followers of Christ are on the rise all around the world, and even right here at home.

One website reports that today the world is more anti-Christian than at any period since the first century. In fact, it is estimated that every five minutes, one Christian dies for his or her faith! That means that in this hour of worship, 12 Christians around the world will be martyred for their faith in Jesus.

I’m afraid that a time is coming when our faith will be put the test and we will be given the opportunity to take a stand for Christ – and pay a price for our faith. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. If it happens, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Jesus DID tell us that persecution is part of discipleship, and he has never been wrong before.

So, in this beatitude, Jesus tells us to expect persecution. But he also tells us that persecution is a good thing! “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad!”

Rejoice and be glad? In the midst of persecution! Does that make sense? How can persecution ever be a good thing?

Scripture reminds us that God can make anything, even the worst experiences of our lives, into “good things.” In Romans, Paul puts it like this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). He can take any situation, no matter how tragic, and use it for his glory and purposes.

As I see it, there are four ways persecution can be a “good thing” – can have a positive effect:

1) First of all, persecution takes our eyes off the world, and focuses on eternity.

In the early church, there are countless stories of people of faith who, when faced with persecution and even death, did so without hesitation or fear. It’s as if they knew that they were part of God’s larger plan; that by dying for Christ, they were not losing, but winning, sharing the ultimate victory of God.

As Paul wrote in Romans (8:35-37): “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

When you or I face persecution (even in small ways) and feel discouraged, we need to remember that we are children of God, and that no matter what happens to us, we are eternally in his care. So long as we focus on the face of Christ, we can withstand anything the world throws at us. As the song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” So, first of all, persecution is “good” because it helps us to focus on God’s Eternal Promises.

2) Secondly, persecution separates the true believers from the superficial ones.

I sometime get catalogues geared for younger men (believe it or not, I used to be one), with people wearing trendy clothes and jewelry, including lots of crosses. Many people, both men and women, wear a cross as an ornament, a decoration, what younger people than I now refer to a “bling.” Most people have no clue that to wear a cross means that we would be willing to die, rather than disgrace or deny Christ. I’m sure that most people who wear a cross as decoration wouldn’t do so if they really knew that this is what it meant.

Nothing separates the authentic Christian from the nominal Christian more quickly than persecution. It is the proof of the pudding, the litmus test of loyalty to Christ.

Polycarp, an early bishop of Smyrna, faced the choice of making a sacrifice to Caesar, or to die. This is what he said: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me.” Palycarp was burned at the stake.

The Apostle Peter, who would one day face martyrdom himself, gave encouragement to those facing persecution when he wrote this in his first letter, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold, that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” So, persecution is good because it proves to the world our faithfulness to God.

3) Persecution also strengthens the faith of those who endure the persecution.

Persecution is designed by Satan to weaken us and tear us down, but the opposite is the result – the more the persecution, the stronger the faith.

In the early part of the 20th century, Christian missionaries fanned out all over China planting the seed of the gospel, but saw little result. In 1949, when the communists began to oppress the Christians, and expelled all the missionaries, there were only 700,000 Christians in all of China. The Christian faith has been persecuted now in China for 70 years, but today, that 700,000 has grown to around 108 MILLION followers of Jesus, and growing! We have also seen the same thing happen in Communist Cuba – after decades of suppression of the Christian faith, the church in Cuba is booming.

You see, the Church has always blossomed in times of persecution! Tertullian, one of the leaders of early Christianity, expressed it well when he wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

I’m no athlete (I know that must come as a surprise to you!), but even I know that a lifetime of training is required to be prepared to be strong, skilled, and victorious! Well, just as a world-class athlete must suffer through rigorous physical training to have a strong body, so the suffering of the Christian through persecution can serve to strengthen her or his faith. It’s like the old saying puts it, “No pain, no gain!”

Paul expressed this truth this way, in Romans (5:3-5): “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”

So, look upon times of persecution in your life as the training-ground of your faith, that you will grow stronger so you can finish the race, and win the prize.

So, we’ve seen that persecution can be “good” when it 1) focuses our attention on eternity, 2) proves the genuineness of our faith, and 3) makes us stronger.

4) Finally, our persecution serves as inspiration to others.

In the Book of Acts, we find the story of the birth and development of the Early Church. You might recall that one of the deacons was named Stephen. Stephen wouldn’t stop preaching in the name of Jesus, and so an angry crowd stoned him to death, while Saul stood by and gave his blessing. It wasn’t too long after, that Saul became the Apostle Paul when he was blinded by God on the Road to Damascus. The greatest persecutor of the church became its greatest proponent. And I believe that Paul’s miraculous transformation began that day he witnessed the noble way Stephen died for his faith. You could even argue that Stephen’s persecution inspired Paul’s conversion.

The same holds true for you and me. When we suffer persecution, our experience can become a witness to help strengthen the faith of others.

None of us will ever forget the video several years ago of that line of 21 Christian young men in orange jump-suits, kneeling on that Libyan beach, with the row of ISIS executioners waiting to lop off their head with swords. Those terrorists intended this broadcasted execution as a way to discredit the faith of those young men, and to demoralize all of us around the world who profess faith in Jesus Christ.

And, it’s true that ISIS did succeed in ending the lives of those Christian martyrs. But in their dying, those young men actually declared victory for Christ, even over death. Before they lost their lives, the video shows that they shouted out, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and “Yeshua” (the Hebrew name of Jesus). Far from demoralizing and defeating the Christian church, the courage and faith of these brave followers of Jesus has inspired every Christian around the world to a deeper and mor profound commitment to Jesus!

Jesus tells us: If we are serious about living out our Christian faith, we can expect to experience some type of persecution. Pray that in our case, it might be mild – that it will not require of us so great a sacrifice.

But should severe persecution come, may God grant us the grace to have a spirit of rejoicing, counting it a privilege to prove our loyalty to Christ. As Paul writes in Philippians (1:29): “And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”

But it will be worth it, because God has promised a reward to all who are true to him. We are “heirs with God, and joint heirs with Christ” – Paul writes is Romans (8:17), “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” And the Book of Revelation (2:10) counsels, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Those who are persecuted for their faith are indeed ‘Blessed” – why? – because they have been prepared for their heavenly reward.

Billy Graham once told of the experience of a friend of his who suffered like the character Job in the Old Testament – he lost his job, his fortune, his wife, and his home. But he held on tenaciously to his faith because it was the only thing he had left. One day, as he was walking somewhere, he stopped by a huge church to watch some men doing stonework. One of them was chiseling a large block of stone. “What are you going to do with that?” the man asked. The workman said, “See that little opening away up there near the spire? Well, I’m shaping this down here so it will fit in up there.”

Why is there persecution? “To shape us down here, so we will fit in up there.”

My friends, that is what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

#7: Blessed are the Peacemakers Ephesians 2:13-18 &Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)

This morning, we are nearing the end of our eight-week series on The Beatitudes. As we have considered them one by one, we have discovered that they hold the keys to happiness. I hope you have been examining your life using these guidelines Jesus gave us in his Sermon on the Mount. If you are taking Jesus’ words to heart, and applying them to your life, then you should begin to find a deeper more profound happiness. You will know what it means to be “blessed.”

Today, we are focusing on the seventh Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

In court, a witness was telling about seeing a fight in which two men were beating each other with chairs. The judge asked, “Why didn’t you try to establish peace? Didn’t you think about that?” “Yes I did, Judge,” the man answered, “but I couldn’t find another chair!” When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” I don’t think that was what he had in mind!

Peace – It’s the most elusive thing on earth. The desire for peace is as old as time. It all started peacefully enough in the Garden of Eden, but things quickly went downhill. It wasn’t long before Cain killed his brother Abel, and peace was no more. In fact, throughout the nearly 4000 years of biblical history, there were only 300 years of “peace.” When people are polled about what they would most wish for, most will say “peace on earth.” And yet after thousands of years, we are no closer to peace than were those warring tribes of ancient history.

Everybody wants to know inner peace for themselves, but personal peace seems just as elusive as world peace. People will try anything to bring peace to their troubled souls: alcohol, drugs, cults, materialism, sexual gratification, New Age spiritualism, psychiatry, careers, relationships, and more. Some of those things are self-destructive, others are beneficial – but all of them provide only an artificial peace – a peace that is shallow and temporary.

Lasting peace can only be found in one place. In John 14:27, Jesus explains how we find true peace: “Peace I leave with you,” he said to his disciples, “my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” The peace we long for is the peace that only Jesus can give – a peace that passes all understanding.

Biblical “peace” involves much more than what we normally think of as “peace.” When we think of peace we usually assume it is “the absence of conflict.” I image most all of us here today have that kind of peace, as we hopefully do not have to deal with conflict and strife. However, that doesn’t mean that we all experience peace in our souls. Many of us may long for something more.

In the bible, “peace” is the concept of the Hebrew word “Shalom.” Shalom is an all-inclusive word. In the Middle East today, Jews still greet one another with the word Shalom. Even the Arabs have a similar greeting meaning peace, “Salaam.” Shalom means more than hello. It even means more than simply “the absence” of trouble. Shalom wishes everything that makes for a person’s highest good – not just the absence of evil things, but the presence of all good things. Shalom is a state of blessed contentment and wholeness – both inner and outer peace.

That is what we all want. Yet some desire it more than others. Thomas a Kempis said, “All men desire peace, but very few desire the things that make for peace.” Longing for peace isn’t the same as achieving peace. Many people hear this Beatitude and feel vindicated that they are peacemakers because they wish for peace. Unfortunately, they misunderstand what Jesus meant by “peacemakers.”

Instead of peacemakers, some of us are “peace hoarders.” As I said, everyone longs for peace. But “peace hoarders” are those who only are interested in finding peace for themselves, but they are unconcerned for others. They may focus selfishly on their own inner tranquility and not have any concern for bringing peace to the lives of others. Before we are too quick to dismiss the notion that we might be “peace hoarders,” consider this: Are you here this morning primarily to gain peace for your own soul? Or are you here primarily to learn how you might bring peace to those around you?

There is another kind of “peace hoarder” – someone who seeks out a haven from the rough and tumble world (either physically or emotionally) where they can escape and insulate themselves from any conflicts that might disturb their peace. We are becoming a nation of “peace hoarders” – moving to the suburbs to escape urban violence – living in secure gated- and deed-restricted communities – shutting our ears, closing our eyes, hardening our hearts to others in trouble – wanting a place to hide from the world’s problems.

There was a couple who were very concerned about the possibility of nuclear war. So they got out a map of the world to try to figure out where on the planet would be the safest place to live. They moved to the Falkland Islands just before war broke out between Argentina and the United Kingdom! So much for their haven of peace!

Jesus wasn’t talking about a peace that turns its back on the world. He didn’t call us to be “peace hoarders!”

Here is a question for you to consider: Are you more interested in hoarding peace than sharing it? Could you be a “peace hoarder?”

So some folks are “peace hoarders.” Others are “peace talkers.”

Not all of us are selfish about peace. Most want to bring peace to others. But many people are “peace talkers,” – they love the idea of peace, they give it lip service, but that’s about all. It’s sort of like the old saw about the “weather.” Everyone likes to talk about the weather, but no one does anything about it!

Well, politicians and nations like to talk about peace, but only when it is convenient or in their national or political interest, yet they just as easily abandon peace (just consider the roller coaster of peace talks in the Middle East, and you see what I mean)!

According to Victor Cherbulliez, from 1500 BC until 1860 AD, there have been no less than 8,000 peace treaties (all of them designed to bring a permanent peace). But each one lasted only an average of two years.

During World War 2, there were two native American soldiers in a fox hole during an air raid. One said to the other, “The way I figure it, is back in 1918, when they smoked the peace pipe, nobody inhaled!”

Or as someone has said, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice-doggie,’ until you find a rock.” Nations are notorious for “talking” peace, yet waging war.

But the same is true for many of us. We are quick to agree that we should love our neighbor – unless, of course, that neighbor happens to be our enemy. We give lip-service to peace, until peace would require us to forgive someone who has hurt us, or make some concession on our part. Jeremiah warns of the danger of empty talk of peace (Jeremiah 6:14): “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Talk is cheap. But actions speak louder than words.

So, here is another question for you to consider: Are you one who believes peace is good thing – in principle? Are you willing to give it lip service, but quickly abandon it when it doesn’t suit your purposes? Are you a “peace-talker?”

So some people are “peace-hoarders,” others are “peace-talkers.” And, some of us are “peace-keepers.”

We hear a lot about “peace-keeping” as the mission of our military from time to time. Even today we have service men and women stationed around the globe, not so much to wage war, but to keep the peace. We believe that peace-keeping is a good and noble undertaking – and it is.

But, Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the peace keepers.” People who see themselves as peace-keepers believe in peace – almost to a fault. For them, conflict must be avoided at all costs. The danger, of course, is that in the name of peace, “peace-keepers” can lock in the status quo, which may include injustice. If a person loves peace in the wrong way, he or she can succeed in making trouble, not peace.

Let me give you an example: In the years leading up to World War 2, Adolf Hitler rose to power and the Japanese began military aggression in the Pacific. As trouble was brewing, peace loving Americans, wanting to avoid conflict, buried there heads in the sand. What seemed like a noble cause for peace ended in terrible death and destruction.

We know this is true from our own experience, as well. A marriage where the couple stops talking just to avoid conflict is not really at peace, only an uneasy truce. The marriage is likely to blow up later.

You see, the problem with “peace-keeping” is that it sees peace as the most important goal to strive for, which it is not!

Stanley High, in the publication Evangel, put it this way: “We’ve got to recognize that we are not working (primarily) for a peaceful world. Peace will be a by-product of something else. We are working for a world of justice and righteousness. Peace is a by-product of justice and mercy.”

You see, when you ignore the higher concerns of justice and mercy, peace cannot be permanent – because you haven’t addressed the root-causes of the conflict.

There are times when you and I play at being “peace-keepers,” even though we recognize injustice, prejudice, and tension in the community (racial discord, the deplorable treatment of migrants, ethnic or religious minorities, and other issues). The temptation is to try to pour oil on the troubled waters to keep the situation from getting out of hand (to keep the peace at all cost), rather than address the root-causes of the problem, and risk conflict. This is why interracial dialogue in the face of racial tension in America in the past few years is so essential. When we ignore the root causes of conflict just to keep the peace, we often give our silent blessing to injustice, and real and lasting peace is not possible.

So here is the third question for you to think about: Are you one who is willing to gloss over injustice and prejudice in the name of keeping the peace, even if it means condoning those evils? Are you a “peace keeper?”

But, Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the peace hoarders, or the peace talkers, or the peace keepers.” He said, “Blessed are the peace MAKERS.”

That is a very different matter! The other three are reactive. Peace making is pro-active! We are not just to “find” peace, or “talk about” peace, or even “keep” the peace. We are to MAKE peace out of situations of conflict.

In Isaiah 58:12, God says, “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.” Robert Schuller said this, “When God sees a breech, he builds a bridge.” We are to be bridge-builders, healers, catalysts for restoration, “repairers of the breech.”

Making peace is not easy. Peace is much harder to achieve than war. Thomas Mann said, “War is only a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”

With this Beatitude, Jesus is issuing a battle cry! We are to “wage peace” with the same zeal we use to wage war.

You say, “OK, I’m ready to go out and be a peace maker.” I must warn you, “peace making” is a risky business. The world will not applaud your efforts at bringing peace.

Let me share some examples: Our country’s attempts at negotiating peace between warring sides have often been met by anger from both sides, with the “peace maker” being attacked and ridiculed. Here’s another example: The police will tell you that domestic disturbance calls are often the most dangerous, and the policeman stepping in to a violent conflict to be a peace maker may himself/herself be shot. And we all know that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached peace and reconciliation, and was thanked with a bullet.

The former vice president, Hubert Humphrey, once wrote, “Negotiating between conflicting parties is like crossing a river by walking on slippery rocks… Its risky business, but it’s the only way to get across.”

This “peace making” business – is dangerous! It’s no wonder so few of us do it! Yet, Jesus commands us to do no less!

Why are we to be peace makers? We are to be peace makers, not just because Jesus said so, but because Jesus was the ultimate peace maker!

Jesus came into the world in order to make peace between God and you and me. In Colossians 1:19-20, Paul writes, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

Jesus is the “Great Peace Maker,” who risked everything to win peace for us! In Ephesians 2:13-14 we read, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace.”

Jesus never asks of us anything he has not himself done. He has called us as his disciples to be about his work of peace making. And it may very well be that, in doing so, we may have to pay a high cost, but not any higher a cost than he was willing to pay. Which may be why the Beatitude on peace making is followed by the final Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…” Hmmm. Do you think Jesus might be trying to tell us something about the cost of being a peace maker?

If peace makers are likely to receive persecution, then why does Jesus say they are happy or blessed? Because, as he says, they are “children of God” – peace makers are “God-like in their work.” The person who makes peace is engaged in the very work the God-of-Peace is doing. The peacemaker is happy because he himself is at peace – peace with God – with him or herself –and with others. Therefore, the peace maker lives his or her life with no fear.

When at peace with God, we have no need to fear the world (remember, Jesus said “I have overcome the world”). When at peace with God, we have no need to fear death (remember, Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life”). The peace maker is happy because, as a “child of God,” he or she is at peace.

Let me close with a story about a peace maker – the kind of peace maker Jesus is talking about.

There is a story recorded by the church historian, Theodoret of Cyrus, about a monk named Telemachus who lived in the 5th century. Telemachus felt God saying to him, “Go to Rome,” but he had no idea why. But in obedience, he left his cloistered monastery and set out for Rome. When he arrived in the city, people were thronging in the streets. He asked where everyone was going and was told that this was the day that the gladiators would be fighting and killing each other in the Coliseum. Telemachus thought to himself, “Four centuries after Christ and they are still killing each other, for sport?” He ran to the Coliseum and heard the gladiators saying, “Hail to Caesar, we die for Caesar” and he thought, “this isn’t right.” So he jumped over the railing and went out into the middle of the field, got between two gladiators, held up his hands and said “In the name of Christ, forbear.” The crowd protested and began to shout, “Run him through, Run him through.” A gladiator came over and hit him in the stomach with the back of his sword. It sent him sprawling in the sand. He got up and ran back and again said, “In the name of Christ, forbear.” The crowd continued to taunt Telemachus, and began stoning him. Even as he fell to his knees, he shouted “In the name of Christ, forbear!” They continued to hurl rocks until Telemachus’ body lay broken and bloody in a heap, dead. A hush came over the 80,000 people in the Coliseum. Soon one man stood up and left, then another and more, and within minutes all 80,000 had emptied out the arena. When the emperor heard what had happened, he proclaimed Telemachus a saint and declared that gladiatorial contests should never be held again. The day Telemachus became a “peace maker” was the last known gladiatorial contest in the history of Rome.

So friends, here is the crux of this Beatitude of Jesus: To be a peace maker is to be so at peace with God that we are freed to risk everything to be Makers of Peace for others.

Are you a “peace maker?” Do you care enough about making peace that you are willing to risk your own life for the cause of peace? Telemachus cared that much. Martin Luther King Jr. cared that much. And of course, Jesus cared that much!

If you care that much about the cause of peace, then you already know what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called children of God.”

#6: Blessed are the Pure in Heart…” Matthew 5:8 (5:1-12) & Philippians 4:4-9 (NIV)

What does it take to live the blessed life? What are the secrets to happiness? The answers lie in the eight Beatitudes Jesus gave us at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. Over the past five weeks, we have been considering them one by one… we only have three more to go!

This morning we are considering the 6th Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

You know, this is probably the most popular of all the Beatitudes. That’s ironic, because it is also the most difficult one to achieve! Jesus says, to be happy we must be pure in heart – that’s impossible, isn’t it? Perhaps we might be able to be pure in our intentions – maybe even in our actions – but “pure in heart?” No one is pure, except Christ alone! How can Jesus hold us to a standard which is impossible for us to achieve?

Jesus calls us to be pure, but we are by nature impure. Jesus says as much in Mark 7:21-22, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Because we are human and are given free-will, we are prone to sin. That’s what the church has called “depravity” or “original sin” – our inevitable propensity to sin.

A pastor said to one of his parishioners, “I hope, madam, you believe in total depravity.” The lady replied, “Oh, pastor, what a fine doctrine it would be, if folks would only live up to it!” No need to worry about that! Sin comes naturally to us. It seems it can’t be avoided. I find it an interesting coincidence that the word “live” (l.i.v.e.) spelled backwards, is e.v.i.l. (“evil.”) Yes, sin comes to us naturally!

Scripture tells us that it is our sinful nature that separates us from God. Because God is totally pure and holy, he cannot abide the impure and unholy. Therefore, since we are impure, we cannot hope to “see God,” as the beatitude states it. As It is written in Psalm 24; “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts…” And friends, that ain’t us!

Yet Jesus says that, if we are to ever “see God,” we MUST become “pure of heart.” But how do we do that? To answer that, we had better understand what we mean by “purity.”

How “pure” are you? Based on Webster’s definition, purity has four connotations or meanings, each of which can teach us something about what it means to have a pure heart. According to the dictionary, the four definitions of “Purity” are:
 Freedom from foreign admixture or deleterious matter.
 Cleanness; freedom from foulness or dirt.
 Freedom from guilt or defilement of sin; innocence; chastity.
 Freedom from any sinister or improper motives.

For the rest of our time together this morning, I’d like for us to each give ourselves a little test to measure the level of our “purity of heart,” based on these four aspects of purity, and see how we measure up. Are you ready?

Our first meaning of purity is “freedom from foreign admixture or deleterious matter.”

In other words, something is considered “pure” when it is “unadulterated or uncontaminated.” The word for “purity” in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) is “katharos.” This Greek word has several connotations, each of which help us understand this Beatitude better:

In the ancient world, people had the practice of adding water to milk or to wine in order to make it go farther. In a similar way, the word was also used in the field of metalworking to describe metals whose strength had been compromised by the presence of alloys and impurities.

As you are aware, since the discovery of the Titanic resting on the bottom of the North Atlantic, there has been a huge amount of interest and research into the circumstances of how this unsinkable ocean liner could go down on its maiden voyage after striking an iceberg. There have been many theories, but one of the most compelling is the analysis of the bolts that were used to hold the hull together – they contained alloys that caused the bolts to be brittle and to break under pressure. Hundreds of lives were lost because the bolts contained impurities.

A person with a pure heart is one whose zeal for God is not watered down or corrupted by influences that compromise the strength of our faith. That person has had the dross burned out so that only the purest metal remains.

The Old Testament prophet Malachi used this same image to describe the Messiah who was to come. He said that their coming Messiah would be “like a refiner’s fire . . . he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, …he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver…” (Mal. 3:2-3).

The message is clear. We must be on guard constantly, because it doesn’t take much “deleterious matter” to make us impure and our life brittle.

So here is Question #1 on our quiz: Is your life characterized by this kind of purity? Or would it be more accurate to describe your faith as “watered down” or “compromised?”

The second dictionary definition of “purity” was this: “Cleanness; freedom from foulness or dirt.”

Another meaning of “katharos” in the Bible is “cleanness,” as in how we care for our body, or the laundering of our clothing.

If you have ever traveled in a third world country where standards of personal hygiene are more relaxed than ours, you know how important bodily cleanliness is – obviously it can lead to a significant level of “BO” (body odor) – but when neglected entirely, poor hygiene can become the cause of disease, and even death. God cares about how we use or abuse our bodies – whether we exercise, eat properly, abuse tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, engage in illicit sexual activity, and so on. The old saying is true, “Cleanliness IS next to godliness” (by the way, that phrase is nowhere in the Bible, even though most people think it is).

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says this: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

But this is more than just cleanliness of the body itself. It is also addressing the cleanliness of our mind (such as which TV shows and movies we watch, the music we listen to, what we look at on the computer or social media, and the books and magazines we read); – and the cleanliness of our mouths (the jokes we tell, the language we use, our lies or the gossip we pass on). Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: Never watch anything you wouldn’t want your children to watch, and never say anything you wouldn’t want your mother to hear.

I think this is what the writer of Hebrews was referring to when he wrote: “Let us approach (God) with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Cleanliness IS next to godliness. Don’t allow foulness to dirty up your life. Keep your life pure and spotless.

So question #2 on our purity test is this: “Are you pure in your body? Are your mind and mouth free from foulness and dirt?”

The third meaning of “purity” is this: “Freedom from guilt or defilement of sin; innocence; chastity.”

This is the deeper, more profound meaning of “cleanness.” In Bible-times, when a person sinned, they were labeled “unclean” by the religious leaders. They even had to offer special sacrifices and take ritual purification baths to be declared “clean” again, and rejoin society. But even that didn’t cleanse them from the defilement of sin. Sacrifices and washings MAY have made them acceptable to their community, but the guilt of their sin remained. In the Christian church, we may no longer pronounce people “unclean,” (at least not to their face) but we still speak of sin as making us unclean.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God pointed out the futility of our human efforts to remove our sin, God said; “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me.” Sin is an ugly stain which can only be washed away by one “detergent,” the blood of Jesus.

A favorite hymn of mine is “Grace Greater than My Sin.” One of the verses says this well:

“Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow may you be today.”

Friends, all of us are sinners in need of the grace of God. It’s not whether or not we have sinned – we have. What counts is the status of our sin. Have we been declared innocent? Has the stain of our sin washed clean?

So, here’s question #3: Are you free from sins which bring impurity into your life? Or is there some unrepented and unforgiven sin that you are trying to hide from God, causing you to be unclean and impure?

The final connotation of “purity” in the dictionary is certainly the most problematic of the four: “Freedom from any sinister or improper motives.”

As we have seen all through our look at the Beatitudes, it is possible to live an outwardly pure life, yet not have pure motives or views. Even Christians who strive to live according to the Christian faith find themselves drawing on many other influences in deciding how to live (our society, our family, our social class, the media). And when you are motivated by anything other than that which is godly, you will end up mired in sin.

The Greek word which I mentioned a few moments ago has still another connotation – not only can it be translated “cleanness,” it can also be translated “purged.” That same Greek word is used to describe grain after the chaff has been sifted away. In that context, purity means not allowing that which is useless and trivial to clutter up our lives, but to dispose of those things that might distract us from following Jesus.

There’s a similar way this same word is used – in a military context. It is used when describing an army that has been purged of soldiers who are cowardly, weak, or ineffective. It is just as we find in the story of Gideon in the Old Testament, where God culled the army of Israel down for 32,000 men to 300 (like the Marines, God must have been looking for “a few good men”). In that military context, purity means purging our lives of anything that might weaken our resolve and make us more vulnerable to the attacks of the devil. We must not allow weaknesses in our defenses or cracks in our spiritual armor. Whatever there may be that would weaken us, we must get rid of it – we must purge it from our lives.

The idea is that there must be a singleness of purpose to serve God without allowing anything to distract us from our faithfulness in following him.

As James warns in his letter in the New Testament about the danger of distraction in our spiritual life, “The doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (1:8) In other words, we must not permit anything that would make us “double-minded” in our faith. It must be purged from our lives.

So, the final question in our purity quiz is this: Are you sure your motives are always pure? Or, are you “double-minded,” too easily distracted from your walk of discipleship? Do you have any “chaff” or “cowardly soldiers” you need to purge from your life?

Well, how did you do? Can we certify anyone here as “pure in heart” this morning? Of course not! None of us is pure (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be). But, no matter how hard we try, we can never achieve purity on our own.

Just consider the Pharisees we read about in the Gospels: No one was technically more “pure” than they. Yet Jesus called them “cups which are clean on the outside and filthy on the inside,” “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones.” They had only fooled themselves into thinking they are “pure,” but their hearts were sullied by sin. Ours are too.

There was a famous preacher years ago who had a clock in his church that was well known for its inability to keep the time accurately – sometimes too fast, often too slow – but never right. Finally, after many efforts to regulate it, the pastor put a sign over it, that read: “Don’t blame the hands – the trouble lies deeper.”

This is true for each of us. We can do our best to “fix” our problem of impurity, only to discover that the “trouble lies deeper.” We can try to be pure – to live above reproach – and still be impure.

So we’re back to the original quandary I raised at the beginning of this message: How can Jesus hold us to a standard which is impossible for us to achieve? We are told to have “pure hearts,” but no matter how hard we try, we always fall short. It seems like an unsolvable riddle – a “Catch 22.” But God has provided the solution.

The Good News is that, just like grace, purity is a gift. We’re saved, not by our own virtue, but by grace – by the merits of Jesus who died for us. In the same way, we are made pure, not by striving for perfection, but by laying our impurities at the foot of the cross. The Scriptures say it best: “When we confess our sin, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In this sixth beatitude, Jesus was saying that it is only when we have allowed God to cleanse us, that we can begin to “see God.”

John Keble expressed this beatitude beautifully in poetry, when he wrote:

        Still to the lowly soul
            He doth Himself impart,
        And for His cradle and His throne
            Chooseth the pure in heart.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “for they shall see God.” They are “blessed” because it is only in pure hearts that God chooses to take up residence.

#5: Blessed are the Merciful…” Matthew 5:7 (NRSV) and Matthew 18:21-35 (NLT)

This morning, we are continuing our reflections on the Beatitudes, the guidelines Jesus gives to help us discover the keys to happiness in life. The first four “keys” seem contrary to our expectations. Happy?: – the poor? – the sorrowful? – the meek? – the hungry? Those don’t seem like things that would bring happiness, but as we have “unpacked” each verse, we’ve seen the truth of each one.

But today’s Beatitude is different. “Mercy” is something we understand, something we aspire to, something that doesn’t seem to need “unpacking.” What’s more, mercy is something we think we’re pretty good at. Finally! A Beatitude that can make us feel good about ourselves.

Everyone believes in mercy. If you took a poll, most of us would describe ourselves as “merciful.” We are Christians who have a heart for the less fortunate: When an appeal for help is issued, we are there, whether it’s – putting money in the plate to help hurricane victims, donating money or food for our food pantry, donating cast off clothing for our clothes closet, making donations to the Pastors Discretionary Fund or the Children’s Home, or volunteering to help in a Hospital – we do a lot of charity work. It’s natural for us. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

We don’t give “mercy” a second thought. And that’s the problem. “Mercy” is more than a few benevolent acts from time to time. It’s more than showing pity for the less fortunate at Christmastime, more than compassion for the poor once in a while, more than a few cans of soup during a food drive. “Mercy,” the way Jesus uses the word, is more than the use of charity to clear our consciences for being blessed so much more than others in the world. It’s not something we do to make us feel better.

Mercy is an attitude, a whole approach to life. That means, it’s not as easy as we thought! We can’t just “dispense” a little charity from time to time and call ourselves “merciful.” Mercy describes how we approach all of life – its part-and-parcel of what it means to live as a Disciple of Jesus. It’s not a passing wave of pity that comes and goes, but a lifestyle we choose, a deliberate act of the will. Mercy is a quality of character that is tested in every relationship of life.

The Hebrew word for “mercy” is “chesedh,” which means, not only to sympathize with a person, – not only to feel sorry for a person in trouble, – not only the occasional opening of your purse when the offering plate is passed. Biblical mercy has been defined like this: “the ability to get right inside the other person’s skin until we can see things with their eyes, think things with their mind, and feel things with their feelings.” It means putting ourselves in their place. And once we have fully identified with others, THEN it is natural for us to respond to their need with acts of charity. The difference between “charity” and “mercy” is in our motivation: Charity can be motivated by trying to feel good, or to soothe our guilt. Mercy is motivated by the love for the other as a child of God.

It’s possible to be charitable without being merciful. You can give to others without “getting right inside the other’s skin.” You can offer charity for the poor without caring about what made them poor. You can give to the needy out of guilt, and still despise and ostracize them. As I said, whether it’s mercy or not all depends on our motivation. Eddie Fox said it like this: “Kind actions coupled with unkind thoughts are hypocrisy.” You see, mercy isn’t so much what we do – it’s who we are.

Yet even with that said, most of us still think of ourselves a merciful. For Christians, this kind of mercy comes fairly naturally. We show mercy, at least to some extent, to all people. It’s not that hard.

But here comes the rub. It’s easy to show mercy to strangers who have been hurt by other strangers or by circumstances. For instance, from afar, it’s easy for Christians to plead for mercy for convicted murderers on death row. It’s much harder to show mercy when that mercy is to be shown to those who may have hurt US, or our family! When we are the victims, we demand justice, not mercy! But it is precisely at that very moment that Jesus is calling us to show mercy!
We all were shocked several years ago when that misguided young white man in South Carolina murdered those black church-goers in cold blood. It was a horrific crime! But you may also remember the news coverage of the hearing held for that young murderer – where family members of the victims stood one after another and forgave the one who had taken the lives of their loved ones!

That incident brought back the vivid images of that day in May of 1981 when the Pope John Paul II was shot by a Turkish terrorist. Do you remember that? But perhaps you may not recall the powerful image published several years later. The pope made a visit to his assailant in prison, and a photographer snapped a picture of the two speaking to one another. The visit lasted for twenty minutes. When the pope emerged, he said, “I spoke to a brother whom I have pardoned…and the Lord gave us the grace to meet each other as men and as brothers.” Very similar to the grace offered by the family members of that South Carolina shooting. Both the pope and those family members understood what Jesus meant by “mercy.” Not just charity – not even merely empathy for brothers and sisters in need. It’s much more than that.

You see, mercy, in the biblical sense, means forgiving those who have wronged – YOU! Much of our understanding of justice comes from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle taught: “Justice is a virtue of the soul, distributing that which each person deserves.” According to that way of thinking, if you are wronged, you should demand justice, punishing them – they should get what’s coming to them.

“Mercy,” on the other hand, has been defined as “active compassion, based on justice, and guided by understanding, illuminated by love, and restrained by forbearance.” In other words, as the one who was wronged, you may be in a position of judgment, yet rather than demand retribution, you show them mercy.

As I said, this is not easy to do. If you were the grieving family of a loved one murdered by that person on death row, it would be very difficult to forgive him or her, and plead for mercy to be shown. If you are the victim of a marriage gone sour, it would be difficult to forgive the one who hurt you, and be merciful. If your boss passed you over for a promotion you expected and deserved, it would be difficult for you to forgive him or her, and not hold a grudge. You see, being “merciful” is a lot harder than we thought! But no one ever said following Jesus was easy.

So, Jesus says we are to show mercy. Why? There are at least three reasons.

1) Mercy is a response to God’s mercy toward us.

The dictionary defines “mercy” like this: “refraining from harming or punishing offenders, enemies, persons in one’s power; kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness; forbearance and compassion; a disposition to forgive, pity, or be kind; kind or compassionate treatment; relief of suffering.”

Doesn’t that sound exactly like what God has done for us? Because of our sin, we deserve judgment and condemnation. Yet because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, God “refrains from harming or punishing offenders, showing kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness, a disposition to forgive.”

The story is told of a man who, after receiving proofs of a portrait, was very angry with the photographer. He stormed back to the photographer and arrived with these angry words: “This picture does not do me justice!’ The photographer replied, “Sir, with a face like yours, you don’t need justice, you need mercy!”

Just like the servant in the parable, you and I deserve justice, yet God has shown us mercy. And He expects us to show that same mercy to others – yet we don’t. Friends, we need to plead for mercy, if for no other reason, than our failure to show mercy to others.

So, mercy is a response to God’s mercy towards us. That is the first reason to show mercy. Here is the second reason:

2) We will receive mercy from God in direct proportion to the mercy we show to others.

In every word of grace, there is an element of judgment. God shows us mercy through the forgiveness of our sins, but He is deadly serious about our obligation to extend that mercy to others.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, came to America with General Oglethorpe and served as the pastor of that early settlement in Georgia. During his time in America, a young man in the settlement stole some wine. Wesley went to Oglethorpe to intercede on the boy’s behalf. “I never forgive,” Oglethorpe said. Wesley replied, “Then, sir, I hope you never offend!”

Over and over in Scripture we hear the same harsh lesson. The level of mercy available to us from God is directly proportionate to the level of our mercy shown to others:

Obviously, this is the message of the parable in our scripture this morning.

Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, `You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny. “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you [Jesus says] if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.”

To drive home the point, we hear it over and over: In Matthew 7:1-2, Jesus says this,

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Matthew 6:14-15 are the verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer. They make it clear what God expects of us:

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

And then in the Letter of James, chapter 2, verse 13:

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

C.S. Lewis was a well-known Christian author in the last century. Lewis lived in England during the difficult days of World War II. Near the end of the War, Lewis comforted the British population with a number of radio broadcasts. In one of them, this is what he said:

“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we have in war time. And then to mention the subject at all is greeted with howls of anger… ‘That sort of talk makes me sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew? So do I. I wonder very much… I am not trying to tell you in these talks what to do. I can do precious little. I am telling you what Christianity is. I didn’t invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we don’t forgive, we shall not be forgiven.”

We may not like this second truth, that God’s mercy has strings attached; But it’s right there in God’s word!

So, we are to show mercy to others because: 1) God has shown mercy to us, and 2) We will receive mercy in proportion to the mercy we show others. But there is a third reason to be merciful:

3) Mercy is its own reward because we get back whatever we give.

Jesus says, not just that we are expected to show mercy, but that it is in the very act of showing mercy that we discover happiness. You see, it’s the Law of Proportionality: we receive in life exactly what we give. If you give criticism, you can expect criticism. If you give gossip, you shouldn’t be surprised when you are gossiped about. If you give little, you will receive little. If you hate others, they will hate you.

But if you are gracious toward others, they are likely to be gracious to you. If you speak well of others, they will speak well of you. If you are generous, you will receive blessings in return. If you love others, you will be loved in return.

According to Jesus, the same holds true for mercy. When you show mercy, you will receive mercy. Mercy is its own reward – because we get back precisely what we give.

But mercy is also its own reward because those who are able to live by this Beatitude are happy people. By forgiving others, they (the ones doing the forgiving) are liberated people. They are at peace with God and neighbor. They are no longer prisoners of their own unforgiveness. They are freed from those things that make us unhappy – anger, bitterness, resentment, or looking for revenge. Merciful people know the joy that comes from forgiveness.

William Shakespeare said it well in his play the “Merchant of Venice”. The character Portia says this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

You see, mercy makes everyone a winner: the one who has sinned against us is forgiven; we are freed from the bitterness of an unforgiving heart; and God is then freed to pour out His mercy on you and me.

Talk about being blessed! It’s no wonder Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy!” It’s one of the keys to a happy life.

#4: “Blessed Are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness” John 6:22-35 and Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)

Today we are continuing our look at what it takes to live a blessed life – what it means to be truly happy. And we have discovered that the door to happiness in life is locked, and to open it, we need special keys. These “keys” are the eight Beatitudes Jesus gave as he began his Sermon on the Mount. They all begin with the words: “Blessed (or happy) are…” The first key, you will recall, is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The next key, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Last week we received the third key, “Blessed are the meek.” All of them seemed like unlikely “keys” to happiness because they all run counter to what the world tells us will make us happy. But as we have tried each Beatitude-key in the locks, we have found that they fit! Today, true to form, Jesus surprises us again: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.”

There was a man who took his wife out to a buffet restaurant. The wife was concerned about all that he was eating, and said to her husband, “That’s the fifth time you’ve gone back for fried chicken. Doesn’t that embarrass you?” “Not at all,” he replied, “I keep telling them I’m getting it for you!”

In America, most of us are like that man. We don’t have the slightest clue as to what it means to “hunger and thirst.” Most of us have never experienced real hunger or thirst – and those few times we have to miss a meal, we think we will die!

Way back when I was in seminary, we were challenged during the season of Lent to fast from food one day per week. Fasting is a spiritual discipline designed to help us focus on God, and so I decided to try it. We were asked to fast on Fridays.

On the Thursday before my first fast day, I laid out my plans to survive this fast day – I made sure to eat my dinner Thursday night at 11:30 p.m. – and all the next day, I still felt as if I would faint dead away before the fast ended at midnight the next night. I was so famished, I ate my Saturday breakfast at 12:01 a.m. Friday night! At that time, I decided that God didn’t really want me to fast! (I know, that’s a cop out!). The truth is, I was doing it all wrong – and so I need to try it again this Lent – doing it with the right attitude this time!

The biggest problem in America for most of us is not that there is too little food, but too much food! Sure, some people are hungry, and I’m proud that our church has a wonderful food pantry ministry. A number of you volunteer to help, and many of you donate food our cash to support it. We want to make sure no one in our neighborhood has to go to bed hungry. Jesus understood that people need to have their physical hunger met before they can address their spiritual hunger. In our first lesson, a huge crowd came to hear Jesus preach, and what did Jesus do? He filled their stomachs before he filled their souls.

Those who come to our Food Pantry for groceries also have a spiritual hunger that only God can fill. Through our other ministries, we offer them spiritual food, as well. And that’s why we are developing fresh expressions of church, like our bike trail ministry, to share spiritual food with those in in our community.

Yes, there are folks who know what it means to be hungry. But for most of us, we eat far more than we should – and our waistlines prove it! We are spoiled. When we feel the slightest pang of hunger, we just go to the refrigerator for another piece of cheesecake!

Several years ago, I was a part of, what is called, “The Generative Leader Academy” in our Annual Conference, a training opportunity designed for pastors launching new congregations, and those like me who were serving churches going through revitalization. They do this every year, and I was honored to be chosen to participate. (By the way, this program is an example of our church’s apportionment giving at work – the cost of this training is covered 100% out of the Conference Budget.)

Anyway, one of the thins a presenter said at the retreat came to mind as I was thinking about my sermon this morning – especially about how our life-experience determines our perspective about hunger. The presenter was talking about Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son,” which is the story of a boy who asks his father for his inheritance early so he can set out on his own. And you remember that things do not go well for the boy, and he begins to starve. He ends up in a pig sty, tempted to eat the pig’s slop.

Our leader then told of a study that was done about perspectives and how they shape how we see things. He said that researchers asked American Evangelical Christians, “Why did the boy end up starving in the pig sty?” How would you answer? “He squandered his inheritance with irresponsible living.” This is true – it says so in the text. Then they asked Russian Evangelical Christians the same question, “Why did the boy end up starving in the pig sty?” Do you know what they said? “There was a famine in the land.” This also is true – the text says that, as well. Finally, they asked African Evangelical Christians why the boy ended up starving in the pig sty. They said, “Why, it’s obvious. No one gave him anything to eat.” And yes, this also is what the text says.

You see, perspective is everything. Those who know what it means to be hungry – really hungry – will hear this Beatitude of Jesus more profoundly than you or I ever could. We don’t know what it means to be starving.

The experience of people in the ancient world was much more similar to those today in Africa than to us in America. The people to whom Jesus spoke were well acquainted with hunger and thirst. When they ran out of milk, they couldn’t run down to Publix to pick up another gallon. When they were thirsty, they couldn’t just turn on the tap. Remember – there was no refrigeration, so food when it was abundant quickly spoiled. Food often was scarce and had to be rationed: adult males ate meat once day per week – women and children got meat even less often.

Life in the ancient world meant living on the edge of starvation. They were at the mercy of the weather. Throughout the Bible, famine was a common experience – in fact, the Bible is filled with stories of migration to flee famine, stories that shaped the Biblical narrative in profound ways. For instance, the central story of the Old Testament about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt would never have happened, had it not been for the fact that Jacob and his sons, 400 years before – way back in the Book of Genesis, migrated to Egypt to avoid a famine. Famine was a frequent occurrence in the ancient world, and even so today. Yes, those to whom Jesus spoke knew hunger and thirst first hand – it was a constant threat.

It’s true – you and I may not hunger and thirst for food and drink, but that does not mean that we are satisfied with life. There is a hunger that goes deeper, and in some ways is more painful than an empty stomach. We have a longing to fill a spiritual void in our life. We hunger, not for food, but for meaning in life – for purpose – for joy – for love – for God.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once made this profound observation: “In India, people are dying of physical starvation. In America, people are dying of emotional starvation.” Yes, we can stuff our faces all we want, but our real hunger won’t go away.

And in an attempt to fill the emptiness of our lives, we feed on spiritual junk food.

Several years ago, there were disturbing reports coming out of North Korea about a desperate famine in their land. It got so bad that people were actually feeding on grasses and hay – anything to make their hunger pangs go away – even though what they were eating gave them no nutritional value. In the same way, we will try anything to satisfy our spiritual hunger – fame, success, power, sex, cults, psychics – only to discover that they are spiritual junk-food and contain empty calories – and quickly our spiritual hunger returns.

And of course, that Prodigal Son I spoke of a moment ago tried all those worldly things to find fulfillment in life, squandering his inheritance with riotous living. In the end, his life was empty and he was desperate. Of course, his physical hunger was symbolic of a deeper hunger. He fed on the pig slop, when he could have been feasting at the banquet table of his father.

You and I are a lot like that foolish boy. We are starving spiritually. Yet, for some reason, we prefer to be filled with the pig slop the world offers rather than returning to Our Father’s house and feed at the banquet table our Father has provided! And we wonder why we are still hungry!

The issue is obvious. God states it plainly, through the Prophet Isaiah (55:2): “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” And Jesus says the same thing in John 6:27: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

And what is that “food” that can fill us? What is the water that can quench our thirst? Jesus. Only Jesus.

As we sing in one of our favorite choruses: “Fill my cup, Lord. I lift it up, Lord. Come and quench this thirsting of my soul. Bread of Heaven feed me till I want no more. Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.”

Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…. Whoever drinks of this water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” It is only Jesus who can satisfy our hungry hearts, only He can give us living water to quench our parched souls, only He can make us righteous in God’s sight. That is why Jesus gave us this Holy Meal!

Friends, before us is the Banquet Table of Our Heavenly Father, filled with spiritual food and drink – nourishment for our souls on our journey through this world, and beyond. It is there for the receiving – all we have to do is come to the table and ask God to feed us with the spiritual food we need for life’s journey.

As Jesus said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

#3:  Blessed are the Meek…”

The Beatitudes Sermon Series:  “The Life God Blesses”

#3:  Blessed are the Meek…”

Galatians 5:16-25  and  Matthew 5:5 (Weymouth New Testament)



This morning, we are continuing our look at the Beatitudes of Jesus – those “keys to happiness” that seem so elusive in our lives.  We all want to discover true happiness, to live a life of blessedness.  And yet it seems that the door to happiness is locked.  We try all kinds of “keys” to unlock the door – things we believe might make us happy, and yet we are not happy.


Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hands us eight keys that will finally unlock that door – keys we have been receiving one by one:  The first week we considered what it means to say “Blessed (or happy) are the poor in spirit.”  Last Sunday we reflected on the words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Both seemed like unlikely “keys” to the blessed life – but Jesus insists that they are!


Today we are handed a third key:  “Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth.”


As we have seen throughout our study, Christ’s prescription for happiness runs counter to the world’s advice:  The world insists, “Blessed are the rich in things.”  But Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The world promises, “Blessed are those who have been spared sadness.”  But Jesus counters, “Blessed are those who mourn.”


Today, Jesus surprises us again, “Blessed (happy, to be envied, fortunate, well-off) are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”


MEEK!  – Inherit the earth?  That can’t be true!  We all know who gets ahead in the world, and it’s not the “meek!”  People get ahead by assertiveness and intimidation, by looking out for #1.  We’re like the woman Billy Graham once wrote about, who said, “I want to climb the ladder of success, and I don’t care whose fingers I step on as I climb up the rungs.”


No, Jesus, you’re wrong!  The meek are the ones down at the bottom of the ladder who are always getting their fingers stepped on!  Everyone knows that the meek don’t inherit the earth – don’t they?


That all depends on how you define the word “meek.”


Let me get at it this way:  Have you ever aspired to be meek?  When you were a child, did you say, “When I’m all grown up, what I really want to be in life is, . .  .to be meek! That’s my aspiration –  my highest goal in life.”


When you look at your children or grandchildren and think about them growing up, what is your dream for them?  Do you say, “My dream for them is that they might be meek”?


“Meek” really is not a word that comes to mind when I think of what I want to be myself, or what I want other people to be.


And some of that is because when we think of the word “meek” there are so many negative connotations of “meekness.” If you were to put the word “meek” into the thesaurus in your computer, it would spout out a number of words that we don’t like very much, words that we might call downers or negative. So, here are some synonyms of meek, according to the computer:


acquiescent and spineless,

brow-beaten and bullied,

compliant and docile,

cowed and dominated,

hang-dogged and hen-pecked,

intimidated and broken and crushed.


Is this what we want to be? Is this what we want for those we love – to be like that? You know, I really don’t think so.  But Jesus says, “Happy, Blessed are the meek. They are the winners.”


What do you think of when you hear the word “meek?”  For me, “meek” conjures up an image of someone who is weak, cowardly, sheepish, and easily intimidated – someone who would let others walk all over them – someone without enough gumption or self-respect to stand up for him or herself.


When I hear the word “meek” I always picture those old Charles Atlas ads I used to see on the back of comic books – that caricature of a skinny little man lying on the beach who had sand kicked in his face, by that muscular bully, too weak and shy to defend his honor.  At least, that is how I have always thought of this word.


You see, that described me growing up.  I was the kid who got sand kicked in his face.  Skinny, uncoordinated, and introverted, I was easily intimidated by the “jocks” in the class, who labeled me the class “nerd.”  I had no self-confidence, and even less self-esteem.  To my way of thinking, I was the very definition of “meek.”


But as I have studied for this sermon, I have learned that I was not “meek” at all, at least, not according to what the Bible means by “meek” – a wimp, maybe;  meek, no.  As with so many of the words in the Bible, our English translations do not begin to convey the whole meaning of the original language.  The biblical meaning of the word translated here as “meek,” has little to do with my juvenile notion about what the word means.


In the Bible, there are three individuals who are identified as possessing the quality of meekness.  Who do you think they would be?  – you might be surprised!  From these three characters, I think we can learn a whole new definition of what the Bible means by “meekness.”


From the first character, we learn that to be meek does not mean to be weak.  To the contrary, in the Bible, meekness is actually strength.


The first individual in scripture described as “meek” was none other than that great and imposing Old Testament figure, Moses.  In Numbers 12:3 we read, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.”


Moses, meek?  Moses –  who was raised in the palace of the Egyptian Pharaoh, meek?  – who killed an Egyptian guard out of anger, meek? – who confronted Pharaoh and demanded Pharaoh’s obedience, meek? – who stood before God Almighty and boldly pleaded for mercy for the sake of his people, meek? – who led an unruly and stubborn nation with a firm hand for forty years, meek?


According to our modern ideas of the word, Moses was anything BUT meek!  There must be more to this word than first meets the eye – and there is!


A number of years ago, Bill McCartney, the former football coach and founder of Promise Keepers, spoke at one of the Promise Keepers rallies I attended.  He was describing strength of character, particularly as it relates to leadership.  In his talk, he defined “meekness” like this: “strength and courage, coupled with kindness.”


If that is what meekness means, then we can begin to see how the Bible could call Moses “meek.”  Certainly, in his role as the liberator of God’s people, Moses exhibited “strength and courage, coupled with kindness” – strength of faith to follow God’s direction, courage to stand before Pharaoh putting his life on the line, and kindness as he looked with compassion upon the plight of his people.  Yes, Moses was meek by that definition.  That’s because, to be meek does NOT mean to be weak.


The second individual identified in the Bible as being “meek” also was an example of strength rather than weakness.  But that wasn’t why he was called meek.  There is another aspect of meekness that must be considered.


To understand how this second biblical character could be considered meek we need to look carefully at the technical meaning of the word in the original language used here in Matthew’s gospel.  The Greek word in this passage, literally translated, means, “TRAINED TO OBEY.”  So literally, this Beatitude should read like this: “Blessed (Happy) are those who are trained to obey, for they will inherit the earth.”


There was a man who was terminally ill, and knowing he was dying, said this to his wife:  “My dear, see that you bring the children up to honor and obey you, for if they don’t obey you when they are young, they won’t obey God when they’re older.”  There’s a lot of truth in that!  To be meek means to have been trained to obey.


How many of you have ever attended a rodeo?  I’ve only been once or twice, but I enjoyed the experience.  One time, more than years ago, while I was serving a church in a rural community, I took my two sons to a rodeo (I don’t know if they even remember it – they were quite young at the time).  I remember trying to explain to them about “bronco busting” – you know, the technique used by cowboys in the old west to break wild horses.  The wild horses that galloped freely across the open lands of the American West possessed a great deal of strength – but their unbridled power was of no use to anyone.  In fact, unharnessed strength in any form can be very dangerous!  In order for a horse to be useful to its master, its WILL must be broken.  Only then is its strength controlled and refocused so it becomes useful.  The same is true for us.


So, who was the biblical figure that demonstrates this quality of meekness?  Not surprisingly, he, too, seems like an unlikely candidate.  The Bible describes the mighty King David as “meek!”


David?  We don’t think of David as being meek!  And he wasn’t meek for much of his life.  For the first half of his life, David was caught-up in himself.  He was wildly successful at whatever he tried:  As a boy he killed the giant Goliath and in the process, rescued the entire army of King Saul from disgrace.  He was a great military leader whose fame caused him to become something of a super-hero, the kind of macho-man that made all the women of Israel swoon, and all the men of Israel jealous.  His was a “rags to riches” story: he went from being an overlooked shepherd boy to become the most beloved King in all the history of the Jews.  He just seemed to have the charisma and the talent to do anything.  It appeared that David could do no wrong!


But it wasn’t to last.  David’s troubles began when he started to believe his own press-releases!  David arrogantly began to trust in his own strength and abilities.  His authority went to his head, and as always happens, he began to abuse his power.  He seduces another man’s wife, gets her pregnant, and then arranges to have her husband murdered to cover up his sin.  And again, as always happens, the truth came out.  God exposed David’s sin through the voice of a prophet.  And David confessed, repented, and was restored to God’s favor.


You see, David was like that wild horse – powerful and dynamic, yet dangerous.  It wasn’t until God “broke” David’s will that David discovered that true greatness comes, not from our own power, but from a spirit of obedience and submission to God.  God had used David’s sin to “train him to obey.”


David displayed true strength of character when he stopped relying on his own power and finally submitted in obedience to God’s will.  After David’s sin, David penned Psalm 51:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me . . . The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”


David was a wild stallion!  David needed to be broken, his power needed to be harnessed.  He needed to submit to having God put a “bit” in his mouth so that God could lead him where God wanted him to go, and use him as God wanted him used.  David had finally discovered that true power comes to those who have been trained to obey.


In the case of both these “meek” characters from the scriptures, their strength was ultimately not in their own power, as powerful as each of them was.  Their strength and greatness came from their willingness to live in submission and obedience to God, to humble themselves before God.  Their own strength had to be broken so they could discover that true strength only comes from God.


So, back to our Beatitude of Jesus:  We’ve seen that meekness is not weakness, but strength.  But not just any strength.  According to Jesus, the meek who are blessed are those who draw their strength from God, and who are humble and completely obedient to the will of God.  Their quiet, harnessed, disciplined strength comes from beyond themselves.  These are the people, Jesus says, who are the true winners in God’s sight.


So, how MEEK are you?  Could you be called “meek” in the way the Bible uses the word?  And, how do you know?


The litmus test is to reflect on this question:  Where does your strength come from?  Are you going through life “flailing away” like a bronco, full of power, thrashing in every direction at once?  Or have you allowed God to “break” your will so that you might be trained and used by Him?


Only when we have done that, Jesus says, can we begin to know what it means to live a blessed life and discover true happiness.


Oh yes, earlier in this message,  I said there were three individuals in the Bible who teach us about meekness.  The third, of course, is Jesus himself – the perfect illustration of One who possessed “strength and courage, coupled with kindness;”  One whose awesome power was rooted in his “obedience and submission to God’s will.”


Was Jesus weak or was he strong?  Certainly, in the eyes of his contemporaries, Jesus was a weakling, a loser, the guy who got sand kicked in his face by the bullies of the world.  But in actuality, Jesus was anything but weak.  And I’m not just talking about those moments in his life when he demonstrated his power – commanding the wind and a waves to be still, the healing of the sick and the raising of the dead, or even his furious anger at the hypocritical religious leaders or the moneychangers who had desecrated the House of God by cheating people who came to worship.  No.  I’m talking about his meekness in standing before his accusers, and accepting their ridicule, taunting, and abuse.  And of course, the ultimate act of godly strength when he willingly allowed himself to be nailed to a cross, so that God’s perfect will might be fulfilled, and you and I might finally receive that ultimate “key” to happiness – eternal life.  Now that is meekness!  An awesome meekness!


Earlier in this message, I listed all those negative connotations of the word “meek,” words that certainly don’t apply to Moses, to David, or to Jesus.  But there were also other synonyms identified by the thesaurus in the computer that beautifully describe all these Biblical figures – and most especially Jesus:  In addition to strength and obedience, meekness also implies being:


modest and self-effacing,

unassuming and understanding,

patient and persevering,

unhurried and quietly confident,

contented and courteous.


Blessed are the meek, Jesus says, those who are modest and self-effacing. Happy are the meek – those who are unassuming and understanding. Happy are those who are patient and persevering. Fulfilled are those who are unhurried and quietly confident, contented and courteous. These are the ones who are the true winners in this world.  These are the ones who will know what it means to live a blessed life.


Or in Jesus’ own words, “Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth.”


As we have seen, these may sound like lovely words.  But they are not spineless words. In fact, they’re just the opposite. If you’re going to be meek, as in “meek” like the synonyms in this second list, then you are going to be a very, very strong person indeed: meek, but not weak – like Moses;  trained for obedience – like David.  In other words, meek, just like Jesus.


And “Jesus” IS precisely what he calls us TO BE:  As Jesus instructed us in Matthew 11:29:  “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am MEEK and lowly of heart.”


Friends, f you want to live the blessed life,  – – you must first become “meek –  like Jesus.”


#2:  Blessed are those who mourn

The Beatitudes Sermon Series:  “The Life God Blesses”
#2:  “Blessed are those who mourn…”
Matthew 5:4;  Matthew 11:28-29 (NRSV)

This morning, we are continuing our look at the Beatitudes that we find at the beginning of the Sermon the Mount – Jesus’ eight keys to the blessed life.  Last week we looked at the first Beatitude:  “Blessed (or happy) are the poor in spirit.”  As you may recall, we were struck by how strange these words sounded to our ears.  Well, the next thing Jesus says is equally as perplexing: “Blessed are they who mourn…”

We are all different in many ways. We come from unique backgrounds and different ethnic origins.  Some of us are well off financially, others not so well-off.  Some have lots of “book learning,” others have practical knowledge that comes from rich life experiences.  Among us are many different talents, skills, interests, and career choices.

As different as we are, there are ways we are all alike.  We share certain basic human needs – physical, emotional, and spiritual. We long for meaningful relationships with others.  And of course, we are all sinners in need of the saving grace of God.

In this Beatitude, Jesus is speaking to a common experience everyone shares.  Grief is a universal experience.  It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of IBM, or a beggar on the streets of Titusville, everyone knows grief and sorrow in life.  As the saying goes, “Into every life, a little rain must fall.”

While grief IS common to us all, we mourn for many different reasons.  Most often our mourning is associated with grief due to the death of a loved one or friend, but we can grieve for countless other reasons: divorce, the loss of a job, failing health, past sins, and more.  What is your grief?  No matter what the source, all grief brings feelings of hopelessness, isolation, fear of the future, and anger at God.

When tragedy and loss come into our lives, we can experience a crisis of faith, causing us to ask lots of questions, especially the question of “Why?”.  Years ago, a Jewish Rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a little book called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People  – the same issue, by the way, raised by the Book of Job in the Bible.  Both books attempt to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of suffering.

Job resolves this question by concluding that human beings can’t comprehend the workings of God, and shouldn’t second-guess God.  The way Kushner answers the question is by pointing out that God is not to be blamed because he isn’t responsible, so we should just learn to trust that God loves us and will care for us.  Unfortunately, neither conclusion is really an adequate answer as to, “Why bad things happen to good people.”

Robert Schuller wrote a book entitled, “The Be-Happy Attitudes.”  In it he says that we are asking the wrong question.  The question, “Why do bad things happen…”  will never yield an answer that satisfies us (Schuler says) – it only provokes argument and debate that calls into question the goodness of God.  It is a mystery God will never reveal in this life.

The question I think we should be asking is not “Why do bad things happen to good people,” but “What happens to good people when bad things happen to them.”  We can answer THAT question because we know from experience the answer.  In fact, that is precisely the question Jesus is answering in this Beatitude:  “When bad things happen to good people,” Jesus is saying, “they will receive comfort from God.”

Last week, we were struck by how odd Jesus’ prescription for happiness sounded.  It’s no different this morning.  “Blessed (or “happy,” as some Bibles translate the word) are, not only the poor in spirit, but those who mourn!”  That doesn’t make sense.  I’ve mourned in my life – and I can’t say I was ever “happy” or felt “blessed.”

Yet Jesus would have us believe that, in the midst of our sorrow and grief, we can know joy!  As David put it in Psalm 30:11, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

So for the rest of our time together this morning, I’d like for us to focus on just how God “turns our mourning into dancing.”

The good news for those who mourn is that we don’t face our grief on our own.  When we have faith in God, he gives us all the resources we need to turn our mourning into dancing.

According to the scriptures, there are at least six things God gives us to help us cope with our grief, each of which begin with the letter “C.”

First of all, God gives us…

1)  Consolation in our Pain.

Our text says that those who mourn will be comforted.  One of the meanings of “comfort” is to “console” or to alleviate grief and our sense of loss.

God understands our grief better than we know.  His heart was broken on Good Friday, when he ‘loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son’ on the cross of Calvary.  As Romans 8:31-32 puts it:  “If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”  Because God shares our grief, we have a special place in his heart.

Psalm 34:18 offers these words of consolation:  “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”

Or, in the words of Sir Thomas Moore:  “Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.”

So the first “C”  – God gives us consolation in our pain.  Secondly, God grants us

2)  Courage for the Future.

We have seen that one meaning of the word comfort is “to console.”  But there is another connotation of the word, “comfort.”  And that is:  “to strengthen or fortify.”

In other words, the Spirit of God gives us the courage to move forward in life without fear.  Psalm 46:1-2 assures us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear…”

No matter what happens to us in this life, God holds our future in the palm of his hand.  As we love to sing in a favorite hymn, “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives all fear is gone, because I know he holds the future;  and life is worth the living just because he lives.”

He gives us courage and assurance. And with that assurance, God grant us

3)  Calm for the Heart.

As you are probably aware from personal experience, grief can often produce a sense of chaos and panic that can cause us distress and despair.

We need to be reminded that at the very beginning of the Old Testament, in the act of creation God’s Spirit hovers over the primordial waters of chaos, and God brings order out of chaos. The New Testament also reminds us that God can bring order out of the chaos of our lives.  In the midst of a storm, Jesus calmed the sea.  So, take heart!  He can calm the turbulence of your life, as well.

In John, chapter 14 (v. 27) Jesus speaks directly to us, when he says, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.   I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  And again, in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

So God gives us consolation, courage, and calm.

God also offers us

4)  Companionship for the Journey.

We need to be reminded, as the song declares, that “when we walk through a storm” we “never walk alone.”

When we walk the lonely path of grief, we are not alone at all.  God walks by our side, and even carries us when we are too weary to take another step.  Like that familiar poem, Footprints, says –  God is our unseen companion, and we can lean on him until we can walk again on our own.

We experience this constant presence and support as the gift of the Holy Spirit, this “companion” – offering consolation and strength in the face of our grief.  Jesus tells us this himself – in John 14:16&18, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter to be with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless.”  And as Jesus departed this earth, his final words to you and me were a reminder of his constant companionship, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat. 28:20).  So, we are not alone in our journey through sorrow.  God is our companion.

Fifth, through our grief, God can give us

5) Compassion for others.

There’s something about experiencing loss in our life that helps our compassion for others grow.  Because we have experienced God’s compassion toward us, we are to turn around and show the same kind of compassion to others.

In John 13:34, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And the Apostle Paul, in Galatians, writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Without God’s grace, the death of a loved one could harden your heart toward God and others.  But once you have known God’s compassion for you in your time of loss, your heart becomes more tender, and you begin to reflect God’s love and compassion onto others in their time of grief.

Grief helps you grow in your compassion.

Which brings us to the sixth and final gift God gives us to cope with our grief – a new

6) Commitment for Ministry.

Finally, scripture challenges us to turn our experience of loss into an asset for the Kingdom of God.

The Bible tells us that “All things work together for good…”  But that doesn’t mean that all things that happen are God’s will, or that bad things are somehow good for us, like bitter medicine – that we should just “grin and bear it.”  No.  It means that, no matter what happens in life, God can bring good out of it.

You may not feel “blessed” by your mourning, but if you will allow him to, God can use your tragic experiences of loss and grief – for his glory.  If you have ever lost someone dear to you, I’d be willing to bet that the person whose comfort and encouragement meant the most to you in your time of grief, was someone who had also lost a loved one – someone who had walked that valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side.

2 Cor. 1:34 says, “Blessed be the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction so thatwe may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”

How might God be calling you to transform your grief into grace for others?  How can you take the “lemons” life has thrown at you, and make lemonade?

I believe this is what Jesus means when he says that those who mourn are “blessed.”  They receive all six “C” – they are blessed with the consolation and strength God offers them, and then find ways to turn their loss into victory.

Art Linkletter was no stranger to tragedy.  His daughter died due to drug addiction, and his son was killed in a car accident.  Art struggled for years with questions and doubts about his faith, constantly asking “Why?”  He didn’t ever get any answer.  But he ultimately came to understand the meaning of this Beatitude of Jesus.  When someone asked, “Art, how do you turn a tragedy into a personal triumph?” this is what he said:

“The most difficult thing to do is admit the tragedy – to accept it.  It is something in your life over which you had no control, and God’s plan for us, as we all know, is more than we can fathom.  It’s part of the pattern of life – life and death. Having once admitted and accepted the deep, deep pain of the wound, then you begin to realize that you have expanded your own capability of loving and caring for others.  Until you are hurt you can never truly understand the hurts of others.  Until you have failed, you cannot truly achieve success.  In my own case, the pain in my life started me on a crusade against drug abuse – trying to help young people and families.”

Art Linkletter never got an answer as to “Why bad things happen…”  He finally stopped asking the unanswerable question.  Instead, he opened himself up to the healing power of God, and discovered the “blessing” in the midst of mourning.  And in the process, he found “happiness” – “blessedness” – in helping others.

Friends, grief is a part of life – and we must all pass through that dark valley. There is no escaping it. But Jesus says that, even in our mourning we may find comfort and peace and purpose.  Through God’s grace, God can turn our tragedy into a personal triumph!  Through our grief, God can bring healing and hope – to our lives, and to others.

Then we will be able to sing, along with the Psalmist, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

So, as Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

All those experiencing a time of mourning are invited to stand, as the pastor shares “A Prayer for Mourners:”

Father of all mercies and God of all consolation,
you pursue us with untiring love
and dispel the shadow of death
with the bright dawn of life.
Give courage to these families in their loss and sorrow.
Be their refuge and strength, O Lord,
reassure them of your continuing love
and lift them from the depths of grief
into the peace and light of your presence.
Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
by dying has destroyed our death,
and by rising, restored our life.
Your Holy Spirit, our comforter,
speaks for us in groans too deep for words.
Come alongside your people,
remind them of your eternal presence
and give them your comfort and strength.


* http://www.prayer-and-prayers.info/funeral-prayers/prayer-for-mourners.htm


#1:  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit…”

The Beatitudes Sermon Series: “The Life God Blesses”

#1:  Blessed are the Poor in Spirit…”

Isaiah 57:14-15 (TEV);  Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20b (PNT – JBPhillips)

Why did you come to worship this morning?  That may seem like a silly question – but it’s not!  Why DID you come to worship today?

People come to church for all sorts of reasons, some of them, not too noble:  Some come out of habit, or because “being seen in church” is good for business. Others, because the weather isn’t good enough to go golfing or fishing.  And there are always those who are here only because their spouse or a parent forced them to come.

All across our community, there are lots of people in worship services who are NOT there for noble reasons – but, of course, none in THIS church!

But I believe that most people who come to worship, come for the right reasons:  they have a desire for fulfillment and meaning in their life – a need for healing and restoration – they are hungry for love and fellowship – they long to experience the joy that seems to elude them.  In short, every one of us has come “looking for happiness,” and we HOPE Jesus is the answer.  Isn’t that really why you are here this morning?

Long ago, another crowd assembled. But, instead of sitting in pews, they gathered on the side of a mountain to hear Jesus preach – We call it:  “The Sermon on the Mount.”

I’m sure they were there on that hillside that day for the same reasons you are here in worship today – Just like you, they were looking for meaning and happiness in their lives, and they hoped that Jesus might be the answer.  Times haven’t changed all that much, have they?  We all long to be happy.

Sometimes I feel like the three couples I heard about one time.  It seems that these three couples went out one evening to treat themselves to a steak dinner.  They arrived at the restaurant where they were given one of those vibrating pagers, and then sent into the bar to wait for their table.

As they waited, a cocktail waitress came up to them and said, “Welcome to Happy Hour,…” and offered to get them a drink.  –  The couples declined.  A few minutes later another waitress came up to take their drink order, and once again they said “No, thank you.”

Then one of the men commented to his friends that their table was probably being delayed on purpose in the hopes that they would order something from the bar first.

Well, it wasn’t long before a third waitress came by and said, “Welcome to Happy Hour…”  At that, one of the wives responded, “Young lady, we’re Methodists, and this is as ‘happy’ as were going to get – so tell them to get us a table!”

If we’re honest, most of us are not as “happy” as we want to be.  Sure, we might “seem” happy to others, but deep down, we know we are not. So, consciously or sub-consciously, we come to church week after week, hoping to learn the secret of happiness.

The crowd that came to hear Jesus that day must have gotten really excited, because when Jesus stood up to speak, one of the very first words out of His mouth was the word “Happy.”  As we read a few moments ago:  “How happy are the humble-minded, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs!”

Of course, that’s not the way we usually quote this verse.  In most of our Bibles, we find the verse translated the way it is printed on the front of the bulletin: “Blessed – blessed are the poor in spirit…”   After all, that is what the word “Beatitude” means – “blessed.”

You know, “blessed” is a word we seldom use.  We may refer to the birth of a baby as a “blessed event,” or, in a eulogy say that the dearly-departed was “blessed with a long life,” but beyond that, we rarely utter the word.   I guess that’s why some translations opt for the word, “Happy.”

The Greek word the Gospel-writer uses here can be translated either “blessed” or “happy.”  But the truth is that the word “happy” just it doesn’t carry the full-richness of the Greek word it is attempting to translate.  “Happiness” can be a very superficial and fleeting emotion. Happiness depends on our circumstances – and when circumstances turn against us, then our “happiness” can disappear!  The Greek word used by Matthew in this passage implies so much more than simple “happiness.”

The Amplified Bible describes the meaning of the Greek word used here this way: it’s the state of being “happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous–with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of (our) outward conditions.”

And, isn’t that the kind of happiness we all are seeking?  We don’t want just to be happy.  We want to experience “life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of our outward conditions.”  What we really want is a” life of blessedness.”

It’s no wonder that, when Jesus launched his sermon with the word “blessed,” he had the rapt attention of his audience.  He was about to give them the secrets to happiness, joy, and fulfillment in life!  You can almost see the crowd lean forward, straining their ears, and standing on their tip-toes in anticipation!

But, you know, I think what they heard next must have disappointed them.  Jesus’ prescription for happiness seems odd, even bizarre – out of sync with life.  The eight beatitudes he outlines sound more like bad news than good news – because they fly in the face of what we have always assumed.

What do you and I assume brings happiness?  Money – Possessions – Power – Prestige – Relationships – Pleasures.  In short, we think our happiness, our “blessedness,” comes from the outside influences in our life.  We believe it’s “who we know” and “what we have” that will make us happy.

But Jesus would have none of that! In giving us these eight Beatitudes, Jesus turns the world’s wisdom on its head!  And, when we stop long-enough to listen to what he actually said, it strikes us as extremely odd, just as it did to those on that hillside that day.

The world says, “Blessed (happy) are the successful, the powerful, the rich, the victors…”  But Jesus says, “Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous) are the poor . . . the grieving . . . the hungry . . . the meek . . . the persecuted!”  Does that sound reasonable to you?  It doesn’t to me!

These Beatitudes have become so familiar to our ears that they have lost their power.  We’ve heard them for so long we have stopped listening. We don’t realize just how shocking and counter-cultural they really are.

With these Beatitudes, Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount by telling us that the way we usually think about trying to achieve happiness – is all wrong.  In fact, He says, the keys that open the door to happiness are exactly the opposite of what we would expect!

And get this – not only are those things the world tells us will bring us happiness going to fail, Jesus is saying that, in fact, they will produce the exact opposite effect from what we expect – disappointment, disillusionment, sorrow, and destruction.

Years ago, there was a popular song that lamented that people are always “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  Well the same can be said for happiness.  Jesus is telling us that we look in all the wrong places for that, too.

This is why we are going to be devoting eight weeks to a sermon series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, considering the type of “life God blesses.”

That “door to our happiness” has eight locks on it, and right here at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us eight keys.  These eight keys are not easy to acquire, but they are well worth the effort.

Jesus promises that, if we take these eight Beatitudes seriously and apply them to our lives, then, by the end of our series, you and I will know the secret to true happiness.  So, let’s look at the first key to happiness:

#1:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Right off the bat, Jesus shocks us.  “Blessed (happy) are those who are – poor.”  Do you believe that?  Go ask your boss to “bless” you by cutting your pay!  Or try sending back your pension or Social Security check!

Could Jesus be talking about “the poor” the way you and I usually think of “the poor?” – those without resources?  “Blessed are the poor?” No, that can’t be right!

“Jesus, you must be crazy!” It doesn’t compute.  Doesn’t everybody KNOW that the rich have it made – that money and possessions are the secret to happiness?  Most of us will do anything to avoid being poor! We’ll resort to lying, cheating, even stealing to avoid the curse of poverty.  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…”  Come on!  He MUST NOT mean what he says here!  Or does he?

For this sermon series, we will primarily be reflecting on the Beatitudes of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospel of Matthew – the version of The Beatitudes we are most familiar with.  But the Beatitudes appear twice in scripture – They also appear in the Gospel of Luke. While these two versions are quite similar, they are not identical – and sometimes the differences alter the meaning somewhat.  So, as we look at this first Beatitude, it is helpful to reflect on the way each Gospel-writer reports it:

According to Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Luke has Jesus say simply, “Blessed are the poor.”  (period). Which is right?  Well, I think both are right.  Let me explain:

Throughout the New Testament there two different Greek words that are translated with the English word, “poor.” One word describes those we might call, “the working poor” – those who struggle day-to-day, working hard, and yet they still have trouble making ends meet.  That’s NOT the word used here.

The other Greek word translated ‘poor’ – the one found in this verse, means, “the grinding poverty of the very poorest – the beggar beaten-down.”  The root of the word means “to crouch or to cower,” as in “a poverty which beats us to our knees.”  If we simply go by the meaning of this Greek word used by both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is saying, “Blessed is the person who is abjectly and complete poverty-stricken – those who are absolutely destitute.”  Blessed are the poorest of the poor.

Is that what Jesus is saying? Certainly, throughout the Gospels we see that Jesus had special compassion on the poor, and often warned about the dangers of being rich.  In Luke, as soon as Jesus completes reciting the eight Beatitudes, Jesus says this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  You may also recall that Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  And so, it would be consistent if Jesus were to begin his teachings with “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”  In fact, that is exactly what Luke tells us Jesus said.

But according to Matthew’s telling, Jesus used the phrase “poor in spirit.”  What on earth does that mean?  And why might he have put those words on the lips of Jesus?

I believe the explanation is made clear when we consider the translation that lies behind the translation!  Let me explain.

You and I read Matthew’s Gospel in English, but Matthew wrote his Gospel in Greek.  As I already mentioned, the Greek word for “poor” here is describing beggars – those who were completely destitute.

But Jesus didn’t preach his sermon in Greek!  Jesus would have preached the Sermon on the Mount in the Aramaic language – the vernacular Hebrew dialect common-people living in Israel at that time spoke.  So, to really understand what Jesus means with this first Beatitude, we have to “reverse-engineer” the translations – from English – to Greek – to Aramaic!  And that is what I believe Matthew is attempting to do when he adds “in Spirit” to the word, “poor.”  (Are you still with me…?)

In Aramaic-Hebrew, what might Jesus have meant?  The Aramaic word for “poor” Jesus probably actually used included connotations that Greek or English cannot easily convey.  Yes, it meant “the poor,” and by extension, “those who are oppressed and down-trodden and humbled by the world”… So far, the meaning is not so different than Greek or English.

But here’s the kicker:  The Aramaic word for “poor” that Jesus actually used that day also implies that, because the poor cannot rely at all on earthly resources, they naturally must place their whole trust – in God alone!  And THAT is why Jesus says they are particularly “blessed!”

Matthew wanted to convey this deeper meaning – and so he uses the phrase “poor – in Spirit.”

Again, this is not to suggest that Luke is mistaken.  It’s clear that God has a special place in his heart for the poor!  As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”  So, yes, Luke is right in his version of this Beatitude.  But Matthew is trying to say more.

Matthew’s Jesus is not telling us that we should all strive to be poor so that we can win God’s favor.  He is warning us that we must not think we can rely on ourselves or on our worldly possessions for our happiness – because they are unreliable.  We don’t have be poor to “place our whole trust in God alone.”  But Jesus is saying that those who are poor have an easier time in placing their trust in God – because they have to!

I like the way William Barclay translates this Beatitude in a way that captures the meaning of what I believe Jesus is saying:  “Blessed is the man who has realized his own utter helplessness and who has put his whole trust in God.”

This first Beatitude is reminding us to be humble in spirit – not think we are self-made men and women who don’t need God.  Jesus cautions us that wealth and possessions can easily become a spiritual anchor around our necks that can weigh us down and get in the way of our relationship with God.

In Matthew 19:16-22, a well-to-do young man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And do you remember how Jesus replied to him?  “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.”  And the young man walked away dejected.

This first Beatitude teaches the same thing:  To “inherit eternal life,” Jesus says, we have to be able to put our whole trust in God.  If our possessions are standing in the way of our relationship with God, then we need to get rid of them – because, according to Jesus, “If you put your ultimate trust in money, you cannot put your trust in God.”  That is how Jesus can declare that the poor are the most blessed of us all!  They are freed to love God completely.

In closing, let me share what Mark Hart has written about what this Beatitude is saying to us.*  He writes:

To be poor in spirit means to acknowledge our deepest human need for God and to grow in that longing and that dependence on a daily basis. It’s only when we realize how badly we need God and how we are nothing without Him that we become worthy of the Kingdom he promises us; when we realize we are the beggars, our gratitude to the Giver (of life) becomes that much greater…


blessed are those who realize their constant need for God over, above and beyond everything else.

Blessed are those not chained to the material and passing pleasures and luxuries of this finite world.

Blessed are those free from anything and everything that would interfere with an ever-growing awe of God’s mercy and love.

Blessed are those who recognize that no matter how their life is going in the eyes of the world, they are successful in heaven when they are faithful on earth.

Blessed are those who need nothing more than God’s love and want nothing more than to share that love with all they encounter. 

And Mark Hart concludes: 

A soul with nothing to lose on earth is a wonderfully dangerous soul, a soul that will lead many to heaven.  Truly blessed are the poor in spirit.

So, in the final analysis, how should we read this Beatitude?  I believe Winston Pendleton got it right when he paraphrased this Beatitude like this:  Here is a test: see if this describes you:

“Happy and content and full of the joy of living are the humble, for they live every day here and now, and they have found the proper relationship between themselves and God.” (repeat)

My friends, are you happy and content, full of the joy of living?  Are you humble of spirit?  Do you live every day in the here and now?  And can you honestly say that you have found the proper relationship between you and God?

If you can honestly say that about your own life, how very blessed – you must be!

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

* Mark Hart   https://lifeteen.com/blog/blessed-the-beggar-the-meaning-of-poor-in-spirit/






Star Search

Star Search

(A Sermon for Epiphany)

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

Well, the Christmas season is officially over. Today, all the decorations at our church will be taken down and packed away for another year, and no doubt, you have done the same at home.  We already are thinking about Valentine’s Day, and Easter, and summer vacations. We are ready to put Christmas behind us and move on.

But then we come to worship this morning and hear the story of the Wise Men and their journey to find the baby Jesus, and we wonder what on earth the preacher was thinking in choosing such a Christmassy theme.

But the truth is that, in the lectionary of recommended scriptures for each Sunday of the church year, this story of the coming of the Wise Men is not a “Christmas” text at all.  It is a story to be read on Epiphany, which always falls on January 6th, a season of the church year that lasts until the first Sunday of Lent, when we begin the journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.

Epiphany is not a very prominent season in the church year – in fact; at Mims UMC, we usually barely mention it.  But since today is the actual day of Epiphany, I decided that this year, it would be good for us to mark Epiphany in our congregation.

Epiphany is overlooked in many churches, primarily because it is not very clearly understood.  According the lectionary of recommended scripture readings, during this season of Epiphany, we are to recall what seems to be a hodgepodge of stories from Jesus’ life:  the coming of the Wise Men, the baptism of Jesus, Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, to name just a few.  What on earth do these diverse passages have in common that they should be thrown together during this season?

Well, the clue is found in the meaning of the word “epiphany.”  What does “epiphany” mean?  In general usage, the word has come to mean “revelation,” as when the light bulb over someone’s head pops on, and they have an “ah-ha!” moment.  And that certainly is related to the meaning of the season of Epiphany.  The word itself is best translated “manifestation.”  In each of the stories of this season, we have “ah-ha!” moments as we get a glimpse of just who this Jesus really is.  Whether it is the insight of the Wise Men in seeking the Christ Child, the declaration by the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism that “This is my beloved Son,” the first time Jesus performs a public miracle, or the disciples witnessing the mountaintop meeting between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – each story reveals the true identity of Jesus.  The season of Epiphany falls just after Christmas because the Wise Men are the first to follow the star that identified Jesus as the Christ.

There used to be a TV show I liked to watch. It was called “Star Search,” sort of the precursor of shows like “American Idol” that we seem to find on every channel today.  Perhaps you remember it.  The “stars” they were searching for were amateur performers who were looking for their “big break” into the entertainment industry.  Our text this morning is about a different kind of “Star Search,” . . .  a star search in which every individual is involved.   We ALL are searching the heavens for a “star,” one beckoning us to follow wherever it leads.

Unfortunately, there are many different “stars” out there that we might choose to follow, most of which lead only to disappointment and despair.  Then there is the “Star of Bethlehem,” the one TRUE star that leads us to hop and joy, because it leads us to Jesus.

What is this story really about?  It’s a story about men from a far-away country who, like the shepherds who heard the singing of the angels, were perceptive enough to recognize the revelation of God when it came to them, and who were open to God’s prompting and leading.  Also like the shepherds of Bethlehem, the Wise Men were willing to put their faith into action: Once they received the revelation from God that the Christ Child had been born, they set out on a journey to find him. And, just as the shepherds had done, the Wise Men knelt before the Christ Child and worshiped him.

But who WERE these “Wise Men from the east?” All of us have our own mental picture of the “Wise Men.”  I suppose, for most of us, that image is one of “The Three Kings.”  On our Christmas cards and in our manger scenes, the Wise Men often have crowns on their heads like kings.  And, of course, one of our favorite carols that we will be singing this morning is “We Three KINGS of Orient Are.”

I’ll never forget when I was about 10 years old.  We were living in Perry, Florida at the time.  That Christmas, we put on a musical Christmas pageant in which I had been chosen (against my will, by the way) to be one of the Three Kings.  It was the first time I ever sang a solo. Walking down the aisle of the church all alone, singing, “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain;  Gold I bring the crown him again….”   I was shaking with stage-fright under my cardboard crown and the oversized bathrobe I wore as a costume.  All I can say is that I’m glad those were the days before video recorders!

We all have our own ideas about who the Wise Men were – many of them mistaken ideas.  WERE they kings?  Probably not.

The word Matthew uses for them is “Magi.” According the Joe Pennel, in his book entitled, The Whisper of Christmas, the magi may have been Zoroastrian priests who probably came from Persia (what we know of as Iran, today).

William Barclay described them as “men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine, and the natural sciences.” Others have described them as fortune-tellers and interpreters of dreams.  Like virtually all people in the ancient world, the Magi believed in astrology.  They believed that IF the order of the heavens was disrupted by an unusual event such as a comet or the appearance of a new star, this marked a major historical event, such as the birth of a new king.

We cannot know for certain what astronomical phenomenon the Magi witnessed, but SOMETHING unusual must have happened – something THEY interpreted to be a sign from God that a new king had entered the world.  They were perceptive enough to notice a new star in the heavens.

But, not only did they SEE the star – they FOLLOWED the star to the Christ Child.  And THAT is why they have been called “Wise.”  For them, their “star-search” was over.

Once they found their way to the house where the Holy Family was staying, they presented Christ with special gifts – gifts which were powerfully symbolic.

You know, I’m glad that the Wise Men didn’t bring the baby Jesus the kind of gifts most of US would think to give a baby. The story would not have nearly as much significance if the Wise Men had presented Jesus with a rattle, a teething ring, and booties.

The power of the story is caught up in the significance of the gifts the DID bring to Jesus:  Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  This morning, I’d like for us to take a few minutes to reflect on the meaning BEHIND the gifts of the Magi.  In the, we can understand something of who this Baby Jesus REALLY is – and also something of what the Christian-life should be like.

The Bible itself doesn’t specify how many Wise Men followed the star, but legend tells us that there were three Wise Men – and even gives us their names:  Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazzar – each bearing a different gift for the Christ Child.

Caspar, so the legend says, was the one to present Jesus with GOLD.

The ancient writer, Seneca, said that no one should ever dare to approach a king without a gift of Gold.  Gold, the “king of metals,” seems to be a proper gift for one who is to be the “King of Kings.”

And, while Jesus WAS a king, he was NOT a king in the worldly sort of way.  His was NOT to be a kingdom ruled by force, but by love.  He would NOT be enthroned in some earthly palace, but rather, in the hearts of men and women.  Those who wish to become citizens of his kingdom must be willing to surrender to his divine authority, and allow him to rule in their hearts and to be the Lord of their lives.

I think Gold is an important gift, NOT because of its value as a precious metal, but because it reminds us that Jesus Christ is our King – and that WE are his subjects.  Therefore, we can never meet Jesus on an equal plain.  We must always meet him on terms of complete submission.

The great British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, always treated his prisoners of war with the greatest respect and courtesy. After one of his naval victories, the admiral of enemy ships that the British had defeated was brought aboard Nelson’s flagship and into his quarters.  Having heard about Nelson’s reputation for courtesy, and thinking that he would take advantage of it, he approached Nelson with his hand out-stretched as if to shake hands with an equal.  Nelson’s hand remained by his side.  “Your sword first,” Nelson said, “and then your hand.”

Before we can know Christ as our personal Savior, we must FIRST submit to him as our Lord and Master.  We must lay our defenses down at his feet in surrender. That is the meaning of Caspar’s offering of Gold – a symbol of tribute laid before the throne of a King.

If the gift of gold was a gift fit for a king, the second gift Jesus received was a gift fit for a priest.

Tradition tells us that Melchior presented the Christ Child with FRANKINCENSE.  Frankincense was a type of incense used by the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God.

We in the Protestant Church have a difficult time understanding the significance of incense.  The aroma of incense is symbolic of the offering of our prayers to God as they ascend to heaven.  In Psalm 141:2 we read, “My prayers rise like incense, my hands like the evening sacrifice.”  The ones who offer these prayers and who burn the incense have always been the priests, both in Jesus’ day, as well as in the liturgical churches of our day.

The function of a “priest” is to open the way to God for humankind.  In fact, the Latin word fro priest is “pontifex,” which literally means “bridge-builder.”  The gift of frankincense, therefore, is to signify that Jesus is to be our “Great High Priest,” who bridges the gap between God and humanity.  The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament reflects this role of Jesus, when the author writes, “But when Christ came as a high priest . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12)

This is what the incarnation of God in Christ is all about.  This is the TRUE meaning of Christmas – that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” building a bridge allowing us to have fellowship with God.

There is a little story called The Parable of the Birdsthat goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was flock of birds that forgot to fly south for the winter.  Now, it was late in December and it was getting awfully cold. God loved those little birds and didn’t want them to freeze, so he sent his only Son to become a bird, and show them the way to a warm barn where they would be saved from the cold.

Most of the birds were leery of this cocky new bird who said he knew the way to safety.  The leaders of the flock felt threatened by this bird – so they killed him.  But some of the flock believed this new bird and were saved from the cold by flying to the warm barn, just as the new bird had directed them.  Sadly, most of the flock refused to believe this bird, and because they were so stubborn, they froze to death.

God sent Jesus to be our High Priest, to build us a bridge to heaven, and to show us the way in from the cold.  This is the meaning of Melchior’s gift of incense to the Christ Child – that this baby is the “missing link” between God and the world.  Not only is he our King, but also, our Great High Priest.

The third gift the Wise Men brought is perhaps the most difficult to understand.  Belchazzar, so the legend goes, brought as his gift, MYRRH.

The reason why this seems such as strange gift is that myrrh was used in the ancient world for preparing dead bodies for burial.  There is nothing in the Christmas stories more poignant than Belchazzar’s gift of myrrh.  Clearly, if foreshadows the passion and death of the One he had traveled so far to worship.

Holman Hunt painted a famous picture of Jesus. It shows Jesus at the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.  Jesus, still a young man, has come to the door to stretch his limbs that had grown cramped as he labored over the carpenter’s work bench.  He stands there in the doorway with arms outstretched.  Behind him, the setting sun throws his shadow on the wall, and it is in the form of a cross.  In the picture we see the figure of his mother, Mary, as she notices the shadow, and sense her fear as she foresees the coming tragedy of Good Friday.

Jesus did NOT come to live a life of comfort and ease, but to enter into the suffering of men and women.  Many people want an “easy” religion. They want the manger without the cross, the glory without the suffering, the joy without the pain, the prize without ever running the race.

There is a wonderful little poem that I came across, that goes like this:

If there is no cross, there is no Christmas.

If we cannot go, even now, unto Golgotha, there is no Christmas – in us.

Myrrh, although a strange gift for a child, was none the less appropriate – for it reminds us that, not ONLY did Jesus come into the world to be our King and to be our High Priest, but he also came as One willing to be our Savior.

So, on this Epiphany Sunday, OUR “star search” comes to an end.  Let us not forget the lessons of the gifts that the Wise Men brought: Let us present unto Christ our GOLD, enthroning Him as King and Lord of our lives.  And let us offer him FRANKINCENSE, inviting him to be our High Priest, thanking him for building for us a bridge to God.  But let us also present him with MYRRH, remembering his willingness to suffer with us and die our death, so that we might live forever with him.

But most of all, let us present him with the gift of our lives, for when all is said and done, that is the only gift Jesus really wants.

Let us pray:

We thank you, O God, for the wisdom of the magi, who experienced an epiphany when they observed that new star in the heavens.  They followed the prompting of your Holy Spirit until they found the Christ Child, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that in fact they were actually worshiping you.  As we come to holy communion this morning, may we experience that same epiphany of your presence among us as we behold your Son in the bread and cup we share.   Amen.

From Humbug to Hallelujah

“From Humbug to Hallelujah”

Series:  The Spirit of Christmas

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20 and John 10:10b (RSV)

“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night…”

On this night of nights, we hear again the wonderful story of shepherds and angels and a new-born baby laid in a manger.  We imagine ourselves as the shepherds, huddled together in the cold night air, being surprised by the blazing light of an angelic choir announcing the birth of Jesus.  Our hearts pound within our chests as we run with the shepherds into the village of Bethlehem to find the Christ-child.  Along with them we marvel at the sight of the Baby King, and kneel beside them as we pay homage.  And finally, we dance with them, praising God for allowing us to witness the birth of our long-awaited Savior.

Yes, for us, there may be no more charming and delightful scene in all the scriptures than this quaint pastoral tableau of the shepherds of Bethlehem.  We feature them on our Christmas cards.  We give them prominent roles in our Christmas pageants.  We sing about them in our Christmas carols.  We have come to put them on a pedestal, because of the central part they play in the Christmas drama.  And because we think so highly of these shepherds, we may unintentionally attribute to them qualities that they may not have possessed.

When you and I think of shepherds, we tend to see them as noble, honorable, simple, hardworking folk – people we should emulate.  Our idealized view of shepherds is reflected in the nursery rhymes we all grew up with:

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And can’t tell where to find them.
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them

Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

And of course, the Old Testament also glorifies shepherds as our role models:  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds; Moses spent much of his life as a shepherd; and David was a shepherd boy, who later wrote, in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  Even Jesus compared himself with a Good Shepherd who searches for a lost sheep, and who is willing to lay down his life for his flock.  It’s no wonder we have such a positive view of shepherds.

But I think we miss the power of the Christmas story if we think of shepherds that way.  By the time Jesus comes on the scene, the role of shepherds in society had drastically changed.  Far from being the paragons of virtue we think them to be, shepherds in Jesus’ day were the dregs of society.  Because of their filthy working conditions and the demands of the job, shepherds were unable to observe all the Jewish purity laws or go to worship in the Temple, so they were perpetually considered “ritually unclean.”  And because they were thought to be shiftless and unreliable, they were not even allowed to give testimony in court.  They were looked down on as low-lifes and drifters, people who were to be shunned and ostracized by decent respectable folks.

You see, unlike the shepherds in the Old Testament, most often shepherds in the New Testament didn’t own the sheep they were watching.  They were hired hands, paid to tend someone else’s flock.  In fact, we have good reason to believe that these particular sheep actually belonged to the Temple in Jerusalem, just five miles away – The lambs these shepherds were being paid to watch were destined to be offered in sacrifice to God on the altar – their blood would be shed to take away the sins of the people.  That could explain why the angels might come to these particular shepherds – the baby in the manger would be a sacrificial Lamb far more precious!

In any case, the shepherds in our story were just one step above day laborers, people who couldn’t get work doing a trade or didn’t have the where-with-all to start their own business.  They worked hard for very little pay, with no hope of advancement.  Being a shepherd was a dead-end job.  They were the “working poor” of the first century, and like the working poor today, they had very little hope of ever improving their lot.  They were desperate and hopeless.  If anyone in Israel needed to hear some “Glad tidings of great joy,” it was these shepherds.

And God didn’t disappoint them!  He sent an angel to announce Good News that would change their lives forever – Good News that still has the power to change lives and give us joy and new hope.

In the classic Christmas story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is also desperate for Good News, even though he failed to see just how hopeless his life had become.  And as the story is told, God didn’t disappoint Ebenezer, either.

Instead of sending a choir of angels, you’ll recall that Scrooge received the visits of three Spirits of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future.  The first two Spirits were pleasant enough, but that final “Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come” was more akin to the Angel of Death than the angels who appear to the lowly shepherds announcing a birth.  But, while this Spirit may have used a very different approach to get Scrooges attention, the result was very much the same:  Scrooge’s life was changed forever as he finally embraced the Christ of Christmas:

VIDEO CLIP  (graveyard scene, George C. Scott version)

In the 10th chapter of John, Jesus summarized the reason he came into the world.  He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The reason the shepherds have become so beloved to us is not who they were – it is who they became after their encounter with Jesus.  They followed the leading of the angels, knelt before the Christ-child, and left the manger rejoicing and praising God for his goodness and grace.  Our last view of them is as they go, dancing and singing into the night, witnessing to others of what God had done in their hearts.  We know they can never be the same again.

The same happened to Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character of Scrooge would not have become so identified with the Christmas Spirit, based on who he was early in the story – he is beloved because of who he became after his encounter with Jesus.  He followed the leading of the Spirits, encountered the Christ of Christmas, and woke up Christmas morning a completely changed man, rejoicing and praising God for God’s goodness and grace.  One of our last views of him is dancing and singing, and witnessing to others of what God had done in his heart.  And people were amazed to see the change that had come over him. We know that Ebenezer can never be the same again.

My friends, that is what Christmas is all about – having our lives transformed by an encounter with Jesus – receiving the abundant life Jesus came to offer us.

And that is why we celebrate Christmas every year – not to observe an ancient custom, not to spend time with family, or get a paid holiday, or go to parties, or give and receive gifts.

We come to the manger year-after-year so we can have an encounter with Jesus that can bring transformation to our lives – that the hope, and peace, and joy, and love of Christ might finally be born in each of our hearts.

Just as Christ was born in the hearts of the shepherds and of Scrooge, so may he be born in your heart and mine, this night.  And may it be said of us what was written of the transformed Ebenezer Scrooge:

“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that truly be said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one!”

May you encounter the Christ this Christmas in such a profound way that he might change all your “humbugs” into “hallelujahs!”