#4: “My God, My God, Why have You Forsaken Me?” Mark 15:33-34 (Psalm 22)

Have you ever gotten separated from a group or someone dear to you, and experienced the panic of being profoundly lost? I’m sure we all have had that experience, either as a child who wandered away from your parents, or as a parent who was somewhere with your children in a large crowd, and suddenly become aware that your child is nowhere to be seen!

Terri and I have had that experience at some time with each of our children, but Joanna is the child we have managed to misplace the most.

One time when we were living in LaBelle, and Joanna, was only four or so. Terri TOLD her that she was stepping out the house for just a moment to put something in our mailbox at the end of our driveway – but Joanna HEARD mom say she was going to the Post Office.

So Joanna decided to take a little walk – by herself – several blocks to the Post Office.

Imagine the panicked phone call I got from Terri when she couldn’t find Joanna anywhere! We sent out search parties to comb the neighborhood, but to no avail.

Finally, a police car drove up with Joanna inside. The Post Office personnel figured out that Joanna was all alone, and had called the police. Fortunately, she was able to direct him as he drove to our house and delivered her into the waiting arms of her mother and father!

Then, MAYBE 15 years ago, our family and Terri’s parents were at Sea World, and it was a day when the park was especially crowded. We were passing through a narrow passageway where there was a steady stream of wall-to-wall people going both directions.

We tried to keep our group together, but when we got to a clearing, we noticed that Joanna was missing. We split up and walked in all directions, but could not find her.

We began to become very concerned, and notified one of the employees, who put out a call for all employees to watch for Joanna. After nearly an hour of anguish, Joanna was located safe and sound, and we were all reunited.

Perhaps there is nothing more agonizing than for a parent to be separated from his or her child, – unless of course – it is the agony a child feels when she is separated from her parents.

If you can identify with that anguish, perhaps you can begin to feel something of how Jesus must have felt on that awful day as he struggled to make sense of what was happening to him.

Just think about it: As the only begotten Son of God, Jesus had never felt separation from his Father. From the dawn of creation – even before time began – Jesus and the Father were one.

Even when he had been born into our sinful world as one of us, Jesus was always in fellowship with the Father. You and I may succumb to the temptation to sin, – but Jesus didn’t. Since Jesus never sinned, he never experienced the agony of being separated from God that comes as a result of sin.

Until that moment. On the cross, Jesus willingly took upon himself the sins of the world, and when he did, our sin blinded his view of the Father – for the very first time, he knew what it felt like to be separated and alone, abandoned by his friends – and even, it seemed, by God himself.

In his book, Thank God Its Friday, William Willimon describes the rupture of the unity of the Trinity that took place as Jesus was suffering and dying in this way:

“The Father is one with the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet the Father, in infinite love, has sent the Son out to the far country to us sinners. Away from the Father in order to be close to those who have abandoned the Father, the Son risks separation from the Father, risks not only abandonment but also dismemberment from his true identity.

“The Son comes very close to us, so close that he bears our sinfulness, bears the brunt of our viciousness. And the Father, who is complete righteousness and holiness, cannot embrace the sin that the Son so recklessly, lovingly bears, so the Father must abandon the Son on the cross because the Father is both love and righteousness. (He continues…)

“Here, in this word from the cross, is the unthinkable: a separation, because of love, in the heart of the fully loving, inseparable Trinity.” 1

Paul described what happened on the cross that day with these words (from 2 Cor. 5:21): “For our sake (God) made (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that, in him, we might become the righteousness of God.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus cried out. – He felt separated from his Father. For one awful moment, he could no longer feel God’s presence, and cried out in agony.

Yet, in spite of everything he had to endure, Jesus never lost his trust in his Father. I think it is easy for us to misinterpret this passage (and it is very common to do so) suggesting that Jesus was in despair – that, in his crying out, he was doubting God’s faithfulness — that he was abandoned by God.

Those who say this (even a few preachers I have heard) haven’t done their homework!

I think the people who misinterpret these words of Jesus from the cross do so because they haven’t taken the time to really consider the whole of the Bible, the full context of the words Jesus utters. Jesus isn’t saying these words in isolation. He is quoting Scripture.

The phrase is actually from Psalm 22, a psalm Jesus no doubt knew by heart – as a boy in synagogue school, he would have had to commit all the psalms to memory. When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is quoting the opening verse of that psalm.

Even though he only spoke one verse, I believe it is safe to assume that Jesus had the entire psalm in mind – just as when we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” we are using scriptural shorthand. Even without reciting the rest of the psalm, the entire Psalm is brought to mind and gives us comfort.

I’ve heard preachers look at this statement from the cross and argue that Jesus was driven to despair. But, if you believe, as I do, that Jesus was thinking of the entire psalm, you will come to a very different conclusion.

This psalm of David is far from despairing. To the contrary, – it is full of confidence in the protection and mercy of God. Listen as I share with you what else this psalm says, and see if it doesn’t give you a different feeling about what Jesus had meant when he spoke from the cross:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

(Do you see how this Psalm might come to Jesus’ mind?)

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame…
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid! ….

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

(Now hear this part!)

For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him….

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.

Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

You see what I mean? I think we may have missed the whole point of Jesus’ words from the cross!

Yes, Jesus felt the agony of being separated from God as he bore the weight of our sins. And we can take comfort that Jesus knows exactly how hopeless our lives are if we are separated from our Father.

But there’s a more positive and hopeful message here. If Jesus means for us to hear the entire Psalm he began to quote, then the message is this: God NEVER forsakes you! Even when your world collapses around you and you FEEL forsaken, know in your heart that God is still there and will see you through.

We hear the words of God himself assuring us of this in the book of Hebrews (13:5), where he says to us: “I will not leave you, nor forsake you.” It may be through dark and anguishing times. It may even be through “the valley of the shadow of death,” But even there, God will never abandon you!

The surprising good news hidden in this anguished cry of Jesus is this: That, in spite of the fact that, in that moment, he may have felt alone in his agony, Jesus was never forsaken by his Father.

God was standing in the wings, allowing the awful drama to play out so that Satan’s grip on the world might be broken once and for all – and you and I might live a new life. And, when you get right down to it, isn’t that the very thing we celebrate on Easter?

So take heart in the hopeful words of the Psalmist, which must have been on the heart of our Lord as he hung on the cross, when he cried out in anguish: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him! …

“For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him….

“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.

“Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.”

Was Jesus forsaken by God? NO!

And God promises never to forsake you, either.

1 Willimon, William. Thank God It’s Friday. Abingdon c. 2006 pp 45-46.

Whatever You Give Up for Lent… Don’t Give Up on – Community Psalm 133; Hebrews 10:23-25 (NLT)

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Good evening! My name is John Gill, and I serve as the pastor of the Mims congregation. What a privilege it is to be here this evening to share a word from the Lord with you.

The theme we pastors agreed upon for our series of services this year is, “What NOT to Give Up On…” In some traditions, on Ash Wednesday, people decide to fast – or “give up” something during Lent. Often it is some decadent pleasure like chocolate, or some vice like smoking. (When I was a child, I vowed to “give up” lima beans for Lent – which was pretty easy, since I detested lima beans!)

Yes, many of us every year decide what we will give up for Lent. But what if we approached Lent a little differently this year? What if the question was not, “What should I give up?” but “What should I NOT give up on?” What if we say to one another, “Whatever you do this Lent, don’t give up on…. _.” How would you fill in that blank? Last Wednesday, Pastor Wayne reminded us not to give up on “Love.” Today, we are reminded never to give up on “Community.”

Community is one of those things that we tend to take for granted. We know that Community is essential to living in our world today. Unless you live off-the-grid, or in the wilderness somewhere, you live in a community, and that community, for better or worse, shapes who we are. As part of living in community, our lives are enriched and find meaning. A healthy community is essential to living a fulfilled life.

As I said, we tend to take community for granted – at least until our community becomes dysfunctional and broken. Only then, once we have lost a sense of healthy community, do we appreciate how important Community is.

I’m afraid we are in one of those moments right now. In my sixty years of living, I cannot recall a time when I was more discouraged about the state of our community-life than I am today. Perhaps you are feeling it, too.

It seems that, in just about every venue of our lives, our communities are in shambles. It’s no secret that our nation today has lost its sense of being a community. People are increasingly polarized, and suspicious of one another. The social fabric that has held our nation together seem to be unraveling – and it appears that we’re not able – or willing – to do anything about it.

And as United Methodists, we have to confess that our faith community also has become infected with the same cancer that is tearing our nation apart. As the recent General Conference has made clear, our United Methodist family no longer has any sense of being in community with one another. Instead of singing “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” it seems we are eager to break up the family by filing for divorce. Yes, it seems that we all have been too quick to “give up on community.”

And that is tragic – for so many reasons. Of course, as a nation we are witnessing the devastating impact polarization is making on our sense of community. That is a terrible state of affairs, and something we urgently need to address, if our nation is to survive. But, this evening, my greater concern is what the loss of a spirit of community is doing to our United Methodist churches, and among our congregations.

We all come from five different congregations, all here in the greater Titusville area. And because each church serves a different community, and perhaps different segments of the community, our views on the issues facing the church will vary. We know that, within this room, there are people of good will and faithfulness to Christ who will come to different conclusions on the issue at hand. But this evening, we’re not here to suggest what view anyone should take, nor to convince others to change their view. My purpose this evening is to ask us to take a step back and consider what we are giving up if we let “community” go.

Why do we need to cherish “community?” Let me suggest four benefits for staying in community:

First of all, being in community allows us to “bear one another’s burdens.”

In Galatians 6:3, Paul writes this: “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.”

We all will face trials and tribulations in life, seasons of life when we confront so many challenges, we wonder if we can go on. Perhaps you are in that season of life right now. The blessing of community is that you don’t have to walk through that dark valley alone – you have your church family to stand by your side, and even hold you up when you think you will fall.

Very often when I’m ministering to a family going through a time when a loved one has passed, someone in the grieving family will say, “I don’t know how I would have gotten through this if it weren’t for my church family.” Or “I don’t know how people who don’t have a church manage to survive.” It is because we belong to a community that when we are in need, our Christian sisters and brothers come to our aid. We are not alone in our troubles. We have a family who is there to share our burden. We benefit from the care of our sisters and brothers, so that when we are strong and they are in need of love and support, we are happy to give it. It is because we are a family, a community of love, that we “bear one another’s burdens.” So, we had better think twice before we “give up on community!”

A second benefit of Community is that it allows us to give encouragement to others.

Again, the words of Paul, this time from 1 Thessalonians 5:11,14: “Encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing… Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone.”

We all need mentors along our spiritual journey. Even the best of us can slip into a time of discouragement, lack of confidence, or confusion about what God would have us do. This is a normal part of our growth in Christ.

When those times come, we need to be surrounded by godly people in our faith community who can “encourage us” and “build us up” so we can be everything God would have us to be. Think back on your own spiritual journey. Who were your encouragers? Who stepped into your life and spoke truth? Who lovingly encouraged you to grow in faith? And who have you encouraged?

When I was struggling with a call to the ministry, there were those who encouraged me to say yes to the call. Of course, there were my parents. But also, a youth leader who saw potential in me and two college professors who gave me encouragement to explore what God’s plan was for my life. I don’t think I would be standing here before you this evening if there hadn’t been “encouragers” in my faith community.

Without a community, where would that encouragement come from? If we were to “let go” of community, who would be there to encourage us when we need encouraging?

The third benefit of Community is that we can “stir up one another to good works.”

As we read from our scripture from Hebrews: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.”

We are clear that we are not saved by good works – we are saved by grace through faith. But, one way we live out our faith is by good works. Of course, as individuals, we can still do “good works” that are motivated by our faith, but we are much more likely to accomplish more when we join with others in our faith community to make a difference for Christ in our world. Often, we don’t know where to begin to put our faith into action. Our community of faith exists in part to give us those opportunities – and to help us to step forward. Being a part of a faith community “stirs up” within us a desire to serve.

I suspect that the vast majority of folks here this evening are among the most active leaders in your congregation. You are the ones who serve on the committees that make the church function. You are those who are engaged in mission and ministry through your church to your community and the world. You are the folks who demonstrate your faith by your actions of love and service. Am I right?

What would happen to your neighborhood and city if we were to give up on our communities of faith? Who would go hungry? What families would suffer? How many elderly would be lonely or forgotten? What children would not hear about Jesus? What homeless would go unsheltered? Whose souls would be lost?

Now you could be doing those things apart from a congregation, I suppose. But I doubt it. It is because you are part of the community of your congregation that you are accomplishing Kingdom work. That’s because, as a community we “stir” one another up for good works. And we find joy in doing it!

Finally, and most importantly, living in a loving faith community is a powerful witness to a broken and fractured world.

We are formed into a loving community by Christ himself. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians (1:10): “I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.”

And, as Jesus tells his disciples in the Upper Room (John 13:34-35): “I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

One of the most profound comments made regarding the early church came from the lips of a man named Aristides, a non-Christian who lived in the second century AD. He was sent by the Emperor Hadrian to spy out those strange creatures known as “Christians.” Having observed the followers of Christ in action, Aristides returned with a report. His immortal words to the emperor have echoed down through the centuries: “Behold! How they love one another.”

Friends, if we Christians can’t find ways to love one another in spite of our differences, what kind of witness is that for the larger community? We sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but all they see when they look at the Church is discord, accusation, suspicion, and hostility – NOT against the world, but against our own sisters and brothers in Christ! It’s no wonder the church today is becoming irrelevant, because we no longer live what we profess to believe! Who can blame the unbelieving world for turning their back on us, and because of our unfaithfulness, turning their backs on Christ?

Friends, community is important in all the ways I have described. We must not give up on community! But if love is missing, there can be no community – and our witness to the world is a sham.

Yes, our sense of community has been shattered – as a nation and as a church – seemingly beyond repair. It’s easy to be despondent. Can a healthy sense of community be restored? Is there a possibility that there could be hope?

Of course, there is. We may be walking through the season of Lent, mournfully reflecting on the mess we have made of the “Beloved Community” God desires us to be, — but Easter is coming! I believe we can hope for a resurrection of our common life together, but only if we can learn to love again.

It’s just as Jesus said: “I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

#3: “Here Is Your Son, Here Is Your Mother” John 19:25-27 (NLT)

As we continue our journey through Lent, we are considering the seven last words that our Lord spoke as he was dying on the cross of Calvary. For the past two sermons, we have reflected on the first two of his utterances which are recorded in Luke’s Gospel: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and his promise to the repentant thief dying next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

This morning, we turn to the third thing Jesus spoke from the cross, the first one that is recorded in John’s gospel. It is perhaps the most poignant scene of all the Passion tableaus. Throughout history, artists, poets, and musicians have competed with each other to try to depict this sacred scene. It is a bitter-sweet moment – an intimate exchange between mother and son, as Jesus offers her one last gesture of love before he dies. It is so intimate; we are almost embarrassed to be eavesdropping on the moment.

Of course, the only reason we have these words of Jesus is because John was there. No doubt John records these words of Jesus because some of them were actually spoken directly to him. John, “the disciple that Jesus loved” as he calls himself, was a key player in the cast of characters in this drama.

John sets the scene by telling us who among Jesus’ followers were present at Calvary to comfort Jesus in his most difficult hour. He names four faithful women who showed their love for Jesus by standing near the cross: Jesus’ mother Mary, his aunt (possibly John’s mother, whose name we know from another place was Salome), another Mary (the wife of Clopas), and a third Mary (Mary Magdalene).

The presence of these four women at the foot of the cross puts the rest of Jesus’ disciples to shame. They were cowardly absent, while these women were faithful to Jesus right to the end. And isn’t that the way it usually is? When you stop to think about it, when it comes to faithfulness, women have been putting us men to shame ever since.1

Isn’t that true? If you go to churches of practically any Christian denomination around the country, you will typically find more women in church sitting at the feet of Jesus than you will men – oftentimes, many more women than men. Thankfully, here in Mims, I think we have an unusually high percentage of outstanding men involved – but even here, the women outnumber us. Guys, the truth is that the ladies in churches tend to outperform us in faithfulness and devotion. In most congregations, it is women who usually get things done – often working behind the scenes. Women are more likely than the men to be spiritually growing (of the 25 or 30 people who attend my Bible Studies, only two are men). And oftentimes it is the woman of the church who demonstrate the most zeal for doing what needs to be done in the church. Let’s be honest, guys – the ladies often put us men to shame!1 We shouldn’t be surprised that, at the cross, the women followers of Jesus outnumbered the men four to one.

But…thankfully we, guys, were not without representation at the cross. Despite the cowardice of all the other men, John is there. He remained faithful and stood as an eyewitness to the horrific scene of Calvary.1 Without him, we would know nothing of this beautiful moment.

As soon as John gives the full cast of characters, it becomes clear that of the six people present, only three are in the spotlight: Jesus, his mother Mary, and John. The drama begins as the eyes of Jesus and his mother meet. And in that moment of longing and pain, our attention is drawn immediately to the chords of love that bonded mother and son.

Indeed, in this exchange of glances, Mary must have felt her heart break as her mind flashed back more than thirty years as she remembered what the old man Simeon prophesied the day she and Joseph brought their baby Jesus to the Temple. Do you recall his words: He looked right at Mary and said, “This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing… And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35) As she stood on Golgotha’s Hill and watched her son writhing in pain, Mary must have felt that sword cutting through her soul.

Who among us can image the agony that Mary must have been experiencing at that moment – to see your beloved son going through such torture, executed as if he were a murderer – and being powerless to do anything about it – not even able to take his dying body into her arms and to wipe the sweat and blood from his brow. It was a mother’s worst nightmare. As we see her weeping, our hearts break for Mary. And we also weep – for ourselves, knowing that it was our sin that nailed our Lord to the cross.

The Roman Catholic Church especially cherishes this moment in Mary’s life. To honor Mary’s grief, some person of faith long ago wrote a poem that has become one of the most treasured devotional writings in Christian history. Composers have offered countless musical settings of the powerful Latin text, trying to capture the anguish of Mary at the Cross, a poem called “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” (which means “The Grieving Mother Standing”). One English translation includes these powerful stanzas:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
she beheld her tender Child
All with scourges rent:

For the sins of His own nation,
saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

Stabat Mater Dolorosa – “The Grieving Mother Standing:” Such anguish Mary must have endured as she took in the awful sight of her baby nailed to a cross – if it had been my child, I would have been so overcome I would have fainted dead-away. I think it’s amazing that Mary was able to stand at all.

That scene would be powerful enough, even without dialog. But then the action begins. Jesus breaks the silence between them, and says to her, “Dear woman, here is your son,” or in more traditional translations, “Woman, behold, your son.”

When Mary first heard those words, I imagine that she must have thought Jesus was referring to himself, that he was saying something like, “Mother, just look at me, your son.” That would have certainly intensified her pain as she was forced to come to grips with the reality of Jesus’ dying.

But that’s not all that Jesus meant. He wasn’t talking about himself – with a nod of his head, Jesus indicated that he was referring to John. And with his next breath, he said to John, “Here is your mother.” And suddenly, Mary realized what Jesus was doing.

You see, Mary was a widow, and as such, she was very vulnerable. In that society, unless a widow had family to provide for her, she would be poverty-stricken, or even become a beggar. Under Jewish customs, it fell to the eldest son to be responsible for her care. As Jesus is nailed to the cross with his lifeblood draining from his body, his first impulse was to fulfill his obligation for the care of his beloved mother. In a final gesture of his love, he entrusted his dear mother to “the disciple whom he loved,” his cousin, John.

Why did Jesus choose John? It’s clear from scripture that Mary had other sons and daughters – they would naturally have stepped up and cared for their mother. Why does Jesus bypass them, and select John?

Well, one possible answer is that John was the only man present at the cuucifixion. Jesus knew he wouldn’t live much longer and John was available, so he got the job. But I think there is a deeper reason. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, none of his brothers or sisters believed that he was the Messiah – they only came to faith after the resurrection. I believe Jesus wanted to entrust his mother to someone who believed in him – and so he picked John, her nephew and the only faithful disciple left. What’s more, certainly Jesus was aware that among all his disciples, only John would avoid martyrdom and live to a ripe old age. And tradition tells us that John was good for his word, caring for Mary until the day she died. Yes, John was the perfect choice.

So what are we to learn from this scripture text? Certainly it speaks of the power of love, especially the bond of love between mothers and their children. And of course it illustrates the important responsibilities each of us have to provide for and care for our parents – to “honor our fathers and mothers” as the Commandments tell us. But is that all John was trying tell us? I think not. I believe that there is something even more profound going on at the foot of the cross. Jesus wasn’t just saying, “John, look after mom when I’m gone,” – Jesus was forming a new one.2 At that moment, Christ was creating a new spiritual family to which all people of faith can belong.

In William Willimon’s book, Thank God It’s Friday, he paints a picture of a Jesus that undermines our usual image of him. As he studied the Gospels, Willimon noticed that Jesus was not a great advocate of “family values,” at least not in the way we think of family values. Let me give you a few examples:

At the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ mother tries to get him to do something about the fact that the wine was running out, and Jesus’ curt response to her – “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (John 2:4 RSV) Not exactly the words a mother longs to hear!

When Jesus was calling his disciples, they abandoned, not only their livelihood (their nets and fishing boats), but left their wives and families, too. One day Jesus called another person to follow him, and that person said he would – but only after he buried his father. Jesus’ response “Let the dead bury the dead; but you follow me.”

And perhaps his most un-family-values teaching of them all: He bluntly said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:35 RSV).2

It’s no wonder that Norman Rockwell didn’t paint pictures of Jesus. Jesus was not pro-family, at least not in the conventional sense.2

I don’t think that Jesus was anti-family. I just think he recognized the weaknesses of relying too much on family for meaning in life. Jesus was a realist. He could see the foibles and limitations of human families.

Don’t get me wrong – families are vital to life. We were not created to be isolated, but God intends for us to live as members of a family. That is why we are born into families to mothers and fathers. Families have been ordained by God to be places where children discover they are loved by parents and others in the family. It’s where they are to learn about God’s love and God’s intention for their lives. And its where we learn how to relate to siblings in healthy ways so that when we move out into the world, we can enter into healthy relationships with others. In other words, our homes are to be training grounds for Godly living. Or they should be.

But unfortunately, the reality is that families are often not all that God intends. Human families can be a great blessing in life, or an awful curse. Many homes are plagued by abuse, hostility, or neglect. Children are born without both parents, or with mothers or fathers that aren’t fit to be parents. Some children are abandoned, thrown away by one or both parents. Too many marriages end in separation and divorce. Homes are devastated by the tragedy of the death of a spouse or parent or child. And often, our most strained and broken relationships in our lives are with those in our own families. No, the family today is often not what God intended. (Maybe you have experienced your family as a mixed blessing, too.)

Even in Jesus’ day, families didn’t live up to God’s ideal. So over and over, Jesus warned people not to rely totally on family to give their life meaning – because families can fail us. Throughout his ministry, Jesus kept reminding people that there is something much more important even than our family relationships – that there is are relationships that are far more reliable and enduring to base our lives on – our relationship with God, and our relationship with others who share our faith.

That, I believe is the deeper meaning of this third word of Jesus from the cross. When Jesus spoke to his mother and called her “woman” (instead of “mother”), I believe he was intentionally distancing himself from her, releasing her so that she could establish a bond of love with John, the only disciple who shared her belief in Christ. Jesus was creating a new family – a family of the faithful – whose bond of divine love would even surpass the love of the best human family.

It could be argued that this is the moment when Jesus established the family of God, his church. At the cross new relationships are formed, new family ties are established. No longer is blood thicker than water. Now, as we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, water becomes thicker than blood. I know that is true for many of us in this room – we are close to some people in our church than we are to many members of our own family! Because of our shared faith, they are our “family!” And no matter what our human families are like, no matter how broken or dysfunctional our natural families are, we belong to a spiritual family built on love, because its foundation is Jesus Christ.

I think that’s what Jesus meant that day earlier in his minister when he was told that his family would like to see him, and Jesus replied: “’Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And then looking around at those who sat about him listening to him teach, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Mark 3:34-35 RSV)

At the foot of the cross, a new family is formed – where strangers become our siblings – people of all races and nations and ethnicities, the young and the old, the rich and the poor – people as different from us ass they can possibly be – become our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, it is at the cross that all other differences fade – in the words of the Apostle Paul, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female. In our diversity, we are molded into one body of Christ. Or as Willimon expresses it, “We who once cared only for those folk who have the same genetic endowment as us, now are made to care for those with whom we have nothing in common – but Jesus.”2

It is as if Jesus were saying to his mother, Mary, and to John, and through them to us: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 12:24 RSV)

Apparently, that was his dying wish.


Prayer:

Holy and righteous Father, make our church your real family as we look, with each other, at the Cross and what it should mean to us. Please make us more unified as we all draw more closely to your Son Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.

1www.popgoshen.net/documents/LentMidweek-LastWords-3.doc

2Willimon, William. Thank God It’s Friday. Abingdon Press. c2006

#2: Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise” Matthew 20:17-23 and Luke 23:32-33,39-43 (JB)

Today, we are focusing on the second of the seven statements Jesus makes while hanging on the cross (the first one, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” was the text for the Ash Wednesday service – that sermon is now available on our website if you missed it).

So, now we turn to the second statement Jesus makes from the cross. Hear this reading from
Luke 23:32-33,39-43 (JB)

Now they were also leading out two others, criminals, to be executed with (Jesus). When they reached the place called The Skull, there they crucified him and the two criminals, one on his right, the other on his left …
… One of the criminals hanging there abused him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us as well.” But the other spoke up and rebuked him. “Have you no fear of God at all?” he said. “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it: we are paying for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He answered him, “In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

As I was meditating on this text for this sermon, I kept trying to dwell on those words Jesus spoke to the repentant thief (after all, this series of sermons is based on the actual words Jesus uttered from the Cross. But no matter how hard I tried, the Holy Spirit kept drawing me, not to the words of Jesus, but the words that describe the crucifixion itself. “They crucified Jesus with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” I just couldn’t shake that mental image – and after more than thirty years of preaching, whenever the Spirit keeps pulling in a different direction than I want to go, I have learned I had better follow!

In the smash Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” which is set during the Revolutionary War, there is a scene in which George Washington is discouraged about how the war is going. This is what Washington sings (raps):
We are outgunned – Outmanned – Outnumbered – Outplanned.
We gotta make an all out stand
(Ayo,) I’m gonna need a right-hand man.

A “right hand man.” That is where the Spirit kept leading me. Why does the story of the crucifixion give us this detail that Jesus was crucified with company – a man on his right and a man on his left? And so I began to reflect on that.

“Right hand man.” That’s a phrase we all are familiar with – we hear it used it in various contexts. Generals, politicians, kings, business executives, football quarterbacks, mob bosses – even pastors . . . actually anyone in a position of power or authority often has a person or two they know they can trust and rely on – someone who is unquestioningly loyal. That person can be trusted to represent the person in authority faithfully, and carry out his or her wishes carefully. They are his or her closest advisors and confidants. Often, the “right hand man” wields tremendous authority behind the scenes. A number of important stories in our Bible feature persons who served as the right hand man to kings, pharaohs and emperors. Often their authority is second only to that of the king. To be a leader’s “right or left-hand man (or woman)” is a high honor, and is a position that would be highly sought.

And right here in our text, as the stage is set for the divine drama to play out, we are told the interesting detail that there are three crosses with Jesus in the center, with criminals to his right hand and his left. As I kept focusing on that mental image of the three crosses, God brought to mind another passage in the Gospels (our secondary scripture for today). In that scene, there is another reference to persons who seek to be on the right and left of Jesus, but in a very different context. What is God trying to tell me?

So, I switched gears and began to study the text from Matthew 20:17-23 (JB):

Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, and on the road he took the Twelve aside by themselves and said to them, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised up again.”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came with her sons to make a request of him, and bowed low; and he said to her, “What is it you want?” She said to him, “Promise that these two sons of mine may sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They replied, “We can.”

He said to them, “Very well; you shall drink my cup, but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.”

This story comes at a pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus. For almost three years, Jesus had been preaching throughout Israel, going from place to place with his disciples teaching and performing miracles. Over and over Jesus kept talking about how God’s kingdom was eminent – that it was even in their very midst! There was building excitement about this “Jesus,” and people were wondering out-loud if he could be the long-awaited Messiah God had promised he would send to overthrow the Roman occupiers and save his people. Jesus was a rock-star!

Apparently, even his closest friends believed they were on the cusp of greatness! In this text, James and John (through their mother, according to Matthew), had decided that in this new kingdom, Jesus would need advisors he could trust – he’d need “a right hand and a left hand man.” And it might as well be her two boys! (What kind of Jewish mother would she be if she didn’t advocate for her sons?)

How disappointed Jesus must have been in his disciples – they had been with him for nearly three years, and they still didn’t understand his teachings about the kingdom. By their request, James and John exposed their ignorance – or at least their confusion – about what Jesus meant.

Did you notice how the story unfolded? The text begins with Jesus explaining that they were now beginning their journey to Jerusalem – and he tells them precisely what will happen to him there. No sooner did he finish saying this, then he is approached by James and John (and their mom), who ask that they be granted the most privileged places in King Jesus’ royal court! Talk about chutzpah! And how does Jesus reply?

“You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They replied, “We can.” He said to them, “Very well; you shall drink my cup, but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.”

They don’t know what they are asking… The truth is that Jesus’ coronation as King will take place, not on a throne, but on a cross. There will be “a right and a left hand man,” but they will also hang on crosses, along-side Jesus. As the old hymn goes: “Are ye able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?”

Jesus had asked James and John point-blank if they were prepared to take the places reserved on his right and his left, – but they don’t get it. They foolishly said they were. But when they got to Jerusalem and the tragic events of Holy Week began to unfold, they lost their nerve.

You see, the disciples had been attracted to Jesus for many reasons, I’m sure – mostly for noble reasons. But even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals a far less noble reason they were willing to drop everything to follow Jesus. They were convinced that Jesus was their ticket to glory! They wanted to hitch their wagon to a rising star! If Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would finally liberate the Jewish nation and reestablish the monarchy in Israel, they wanted to be on the ground floor – they wanted a front-row seat to this glorious victory – they wanted places of honor and power in the new administration (regime).

There is something unseemly about the naked-ambition we see in the disciples, particularly in James and John. They all followed Jesus because they saw him as the ultimate winner. They wanted to share in his Glory. They jockeyed to become his right-hand and left-hand men.

But things didn’t go according to their plans. The fabric of their dreams began to unravel. Jesus was looking less and less like a winner, and more and more like a loser.

Which raises an important question for all of us to consider. Why do you follow Jesus? Are you a “fair-weather disciple? Are you and I like James and John, eager to follow him, hoping for a share of his glory, but willing to fail him when following him becomes hard? Jesus asks us the same question he asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” “Are ye able… to be crucified with me?” Are you willing to be Jesus’ “right hand man,” even if it means you must suffer and die with him? Hard questions for us to ponder this Lenten Season.

That is what I heard God say to me through this passage from Matthew. Only then did he allow me to focus on the tableau of the three cross we find in Luke.

As I reflected on the details of this story of Jesus’ crucifixion, I was struck by how different the attitudes of the two other condemned men were from one another. Both had broken Roman law, both were justly condemned, and both seemed to be aware of Jesus’ reputation. And yet their comments revealed the character of each man in ways that couldn’t have been more different.

Let’s think about the first criminal to speak. It seems to me that the one who taunted Jesus may have been a zealot. The reason I say that is that we know there was a simmering insurrection against the Romans going on during this period in history. There was an underground army of those ready to use any means to throw off the yoke of Rome. As you can imagine, the Romans took any threat to their authority very seriously. These zealots were considered terrorists by the Romans, but many of the Jewish people considered them patriots and freedom-fighters. And that explains why the crowds, the zealots, and even some of the disciples had placed so much hope in Jesus.

“Are you not the Messiah: Save yourself and us!” Those word could sound like a statement of faith in Jesus. But it’s clear from the way the other criminal rebukes him that we know the words were spoken sarcastically. In fact, if you read the whole text, you would see that the first man is simply echoing the taunting of the crowd and others who are ridiculing Jesus. That first criminal to speak-up sounds to me like a man who felt betrayed by Jesus. He had bet his life on Jesus being a winner – but now it was clear Jesus was a loser. How foolish he had been to think Jesus would bring the kingdom!

Then we hear from the “Good Thief.” The reason the church has described him as “Good” is because of what we can learn from him about repentance and faith. He understood the true nature of the kingdom of God – a kingdom not won by the sword, but a kingdom won by a cross. If we follow the Good Thief’s example, you and I can also receive entrance into God’s kingdom, and know his glory. What can the Good Thief teach us?1

The first lesson we learn from him is that, if we are to hope to gain entrance into the kingdom, we must recognize that we are sinners, unworthy to stand before a holy God.

This man hanging on a cross next to Jesus understood that he was a sinner who had wasted his life. At this late moment, there was nothing he could do fix his life or to “earn” salvation – It was too late to begin going to church, or to tithe, or to do good deeds. His life had been filled with one bad choice after another, a lifetime of deliberate sinning. And because of that, he knew he was morally corrupt, and spiritually dead.

In Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul writes, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” This man dying next to Jesus knew he was lost. Left to our own devices, so are we. We need someone and something greater than our sin to make us alive so that we can respond to Jesus’ offer of eternal paradise.

The Second lesson is that we need to be converted.

The process of being transformed from a dead sinner into a living child of God is beautifully portrayed in the thief’s conversion experience. This unnamed criminal leaves a lasting legacy of how any person receives forgiveness of sin and inherits eternal life.

It starts with admitting our sin. In the words of the Good Thief, “You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it ” The sad reality is that many people are unwilling to admit their sin before a holy God. Only by admitting our sin, or as the Bible says “confessing” our sin, can you receive forgiveness.

After we admit our sin, we must acknowledge Jesus’s supremacy. The Good Thief rebukes the other thief and declares that Jesus has done nothing wrong. This repentant thief understands that Jesus is the King of kings. He understands what Jesus’ disciples and so many of the religious leaders failed to grasp, that Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom. It wasn’t until after the resurrection of Jesus that the disciples finally “get” what Jesus was talking about. They begin to preach that, unless we acknowledge the lordship of Christ, we cannot enter into eternal paradise.

So first we confess our sin, then acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and finally, we need to ask for salvation. He humbly asks for Jesus to, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

In America, the Gospel has been proclaimed so widely that the large majority of people have sufficient knowledge about the claims of Christ. They understand that Jesus is the holy Son of God who gave His life for the sins of the world. Some would openly admit their sinful condition, but they have never asked Jesus to be their Savior. They are unwilling to turn from their sin in repentance. Instead, they choose to willingly reject Christ until they are “ready.” But then, they wait – until it’s too late.

That day on a hill called “The Skull,” a repentant thief became the “right hand man” of Jesus – he understood what James and John, and the thief on the opposite side of Jesus failed to understand. The kingdom of God Jesus came to bring is not to be limited to this world – it is a spiritual kingdom – for this world and the next.

And only those who approach the crucified Savior with humility and faith can hope to enter into the Paradise of God, to dwell with Jesus for all eternity.

My friend, which of the two thieves crucified with Jesus are you? One thief is right now walking with Jesus in the Paradise of God. The other one is not.

The good thief was saved from his sin and entered eternal paradise because he admitted his sin, acknowledged the supremacy of Christ, and asked for salvation.

Friend, what Jesus did for this thief, He will do for you.

1 https://www.lifeway.com/en/articles/sermon-easter-promise-of-paradise-luke-23
The points and some text in the sermon following the 1 is from a sermon by Dr. Steve Andrews is senior pastor Alabaster Baptist Church, Alabaster, Alabama. Dr. Andrews gave permission by email 3/7/19 to freely use whatever material from his sermon as I found helpful, “as the Lord leads.” I thank him.

Prayer reflection:

I must needs go home by the way of the cross,
There’s no other way but this;
I shall ne’er get sight of the gates of light,
If the way of the cross I miss.

Chorus:
The way of the cross leads home, (leads home,)
The way of the cross leads home; (leads home;)
It is sweet to know as I onward go,
The way of cross leads home.

(Hymn writer Jesse Pounds)

1: “Father, Forgive Them…” Luke 23: 33-34

Words are so fascinating, especially as they intersect with our lives. Words have a way of defining our lives, even long after our deaths. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is indelibly etched in our minds, and defines for all time who the civil rights leader was. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” is forever identified with John F. Kennedy. Even in our own families, certain words and phrases conjure up memories of a loved one long gone. The words we speak can say a lot about who we are.

But, of all the words we utter in our lives, often it is the final words we speak before our deaths that can reveal the most about us – sometimes exposing our weaknesses, at other times revealing profound wisdom and insight. But all the time – dying words are remembered and cherished. Here are just a few examples:

When a priest was attending the dying comedian Charlie Chaplin at his bedside, he said “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Chaplin is reported to have replied “Why Not? After all, it belongs to him.”

Before Lady Nancy Astor passed away, she woke up long enough to see all her family standing around her bed. Her final words: “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”

As Voltaire lay on his deathbed, he was encouraged to renounce Satan. His dying words? “Now, now, my good man, this is no time to make enemies.”

As the famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova, neared the end, she told those caring for her, “Get my swan costume ready.”

When the great Groucho Marx was told he was near death, he quipped: “Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!”

As the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, took his final breath, he said, “The best of all is: God is with us.”

Unfortunately, not all of us can be so cleaver or wise as we face our dying. The Mexican revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, is reported as saying, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

Yes, when we know a loved one is dying, we take special note of everything he or she says. We keep vigil by the bed so we won’t miss a word that might pass from their lips. As they struggle to form the words, we lean in close to try to make out what they are attempting to say. We instinctively know that every word they speak is important and precious.

This evening, we are beginning a seven week sermon series in which we will be considering the final words spoken by the most important person to ever walk this planet. As Jesus hung on the cross of Calvary, scripture records seven final utterances that, in many ways, sum up his life and ministry.

These – Jesus’ parting words to the world and to us – inspire and challenge us. As his “last will and testament,” we lean forward to listen carefully to his words and take them to heart. They are important and precious.

So, beginning this morning, and continuing each weekend through the season of Lent, we will take each statement of Jesus from the cross one at a time, draw close, and listen for what our Savior was dying to tell us.

This evening, we are considering the first words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

If you had just been flogged to within an inch of your life, forced to drag your own cross to the place of your execution, and then felt the spikes driven through your hands and feet, what do you suppose your first words might be? I dare say, we couldn’t repeat them in worship, or in polite company! I’d like to think I’d be a magnanimous as Jesus was, but I rather doubt it. I imagine that I would let loose with blood-curdling screams and language that would make a sailor blush (not that I know any of those kind of words, mind you!).

That’s how you and I would probably react. But not Jesus. Scripture records Jesus first words as a prayer.

Now, after I screamed and cursed a blue streak, it might actually have occurred to me that I ought to pray. But what would I pray for? What would you pray for? I might pray a prayer of vengeance like some of the ones we find in the Book of Psalms, calling on the righteous anger of God to punish those who have caused my suffering. Or I might pray for a miracle, that somehow God would come rescue me, that I might continue to live. Or maybe I would be resigned to my dying, and pray that God would at least ease my pain and allow me to die quickly.

But does Jesus pray for any of those things? No, Jesus’ prayer is not self-serving at all. Even at this most extreme moment of his life, when we might actually forgive him for lashing out in agony or anger, Jesus refuses to do so. Instead his prayer is for others. And not just for any old “others” – Jesus is praying for “them.” “Father, forgive them…”

Jesus pleads with God to offer forgiveness – to the very people who brought about his crucifixion! From the cross, as Jesus’ blood has begun to flow – the very blood shed that brings forgiveness of sins, Jesus offers a prayer of intercession on behalf his tormenters.

You see, Jesus came as the Suffering Servant foretold by the Prophet Isaiah – that God would send One to suffer for our redemption, that we might receive forgiveness from our sins. In the words of Isaiah: “He poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Is. 53:12 NRSV)

Jesus’ first impulse on the cross was to pray for his transgressors. It’s is one of the most remarkable moments in all scripture, because with his words, spoken at the very moment he, the Lamb of God, is being sacrificed for the sin of the world, Jesus is verbalizing the miracle taking place. Forgiveness though his blood is available for all, even for “them.”

But, then the question arises: “Who is them?” Who is Jesus including in this petition?

Was Jesus looking down on the soldiers who had bloody hands, gambling for his clothing? Was he praying for “them?”

What about the Roman officials who ordered his execution? They gave the command – the soldiers were only doing as they were told.

Did Jesus’ prayer include those Jewish leaders who conspired to have him killed? Was he asking God to forgive them, too?

Maybe Jesus had in mind the fickle crowd. The same people who cheered as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday cried “Crucify Him” on Friday.

Is it possible that he had Judas and Peter in mind – Judas who had betrayed him and Peter who had denied knowing him. Could the grace of God extend to them?

And what about the rest of the disciples. All but John deserted him in his hour of need. Could they be included in the “them” of Jesus’ prayer?

Who was the “them?” All of the above, I believe. In his prayer Jesus prays “Father, forgive them.” But he doesn’t stop there, does he. He says, “forgive them (why?), for they know not what they do.”

I’ve always thought that was a strange thing for Jesus to pray. It makes sense for Jesus to ask God to forgive those who have done him harm – but this second phrase seems odd, indeed. What did Jesus mean by excusing the sin of his tormenters by saying “for they know not what they do?” That’s patently untrue. (Now, don’t get too upset – I’m not calling Jesus a liar.) It just doesn’t make sense.

Of course, they knew what they did! The soldiers weren’t in a trance when they were pounding spikes into the body of Jesus. The Romans officials and Jewish leaders had very carefully conspired to have Jesus put to death. The crowd wasn’t sleepwalking when they demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. And all the disciples were very aware of how they had failed Jesus. They knew precisely what they were doing – each one sinned against Jesus deliberately.

Then what did Jesus mean, “for they know not what they do?”

John MacArthur, in his book, The Murder of Jesus, explains it this way: “The phrase, ‘for they do not know what they do’ does not suggest that they were unaware that they were sinning. Ignorance does not absolve anyone from sin. These people were behaving wickedly, and they knew it. Most were fully aware of the fact of their wrongdoing… Their ignorance itself was inexcusable, and it certainly did not absolve them of guilt for what they were doing. But they were ignorant of the enormity of their crime. They were blinded to the full reality that they were crucifying God the Son.” 1

Or as Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians (2:8), “Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.”

In fact, you could make the case that those who were guilty actually believed they were doing what was right, or at least that they were choosing between the lesser of two evils – the soldiers were only doing their job, the Roman officials were trying to keep the peace, the Jewish leaders were attempting to guard the purity of Judaism, the crowds were obediently following the instruction of their religious leaders. Even Judas believed his betrayal of Jesus would force Jesus to call down angelic armies to bring in God’s Kingdom.

Because they didn’t recognize who Jesus really was, they only could see their own selfish agendas. They were blind to the fact that God’s Kingdom was in their midst.

In his book, From the Cross: The Seven Last Words, Gaius Atkins makes this astute observation: “Because (Jesus) is crucified for a cause worth the whole of life, he knows how stupid they are who think they can end his cause by ending him, how there are issues no nails can fasten to any cross.”2

They were more than sinners – they were fools. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. Jesus was aware of their shortsightedness and stupidity, and so he asked God to have mercy on them for their foolishness. He asked God to forgive them.

But that brings us to another question raised by this first word from the cross: Are there any conditions placed on this forgiveness? Or is Jesus offering a blanket amnesty for all those who participated in his crucifixion in any way?

There are those who say yes – that because of their ignorance and stupidity, all those who sinned against Jesus get a pass.

But I don’t know if I agree with that view, because it runs counter to everything else we find in scripture about grace and forgiveness. Yes God’s forgiveness is offered to all, but it must be claimed through repentance. As John MacArthur put it, “It is important to understand that Jesus’ plea for his killers’ forgiveness did not guarantee the immediate and unconditional forgiveness of everyone who participated in the crucifixion. He was interceding on behalf of all who would repent and turn to Him as Lord and Savior. His prayer was that when they finally realized the enormity of what they had done and sought the heavenly Father’s forgiveness for their sin, He would not hold the murder of His beloved Son against them.”1

And if we look at the rest of the Biblical story we see that God answered Jesus’ prayer in miraculous ways: One of the criminals dying next to Jesus comes to faith and is granted entrance into heaven; one of the Roman soldiers who participated in crucifying Jesus is converted and proclaims Jesus as the Son of God; weeks later, the Jerusalem crowd that called for Jesus’ death heard a sermon by Peter, and 3,000 came to faith; In the Book of Acts, chapter 6, we are told that even a great number of the temple priests confessed Jesus as Lord. And the disciples who had each in their own way deserted Jesus were restored as followers as the risen Christ appeared to them and commissioned them to be his Apostles to the world.

Yes, Jesus’ prayer was answered in a powerful way. He asked God to forgive “them” – and God did! The good news is that God is eager to forgive and restore repentant sinners – even those who are guilty of murdering the Son of God! Now that’s amazing grace!

But you know what? When Jesus was praying that God would forgive “them,” I don’t believe he was only speaking about those who were players in the Passion drama. I believe that the “them” reaches down the centuries to each one of us, who has conspired against, betrayed, deserted, and denied Jesus – in small and big ways – every day. You and I continue to crucify Jesus. We have his blood on our hands, and stand in need of God’s forgiveness, just as much as those who participated in killing Jesus.

As the second verse of one of the great Lenten hymns of the church so powerfully states it:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee!

The good news is that Jesus continues to plead our case before God, that we might receive forgiveness through his blood. As it is written in the Book of Hebrews (7:25): “(Christ, our Great High Priest) is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

I am so thankful that Jesus was thinking of you and me as he offered his prayer from the cross – and that even right now at this very moment he continues to be our Advocate before God. In spite of our selfishness, our shortsightedness, and our stupidity, you and I can receive forgiveness when we confess our sins and claim the power of the blood of Christ in our lives.

1 The Murder of Jesus, by John MacArthur (a major source for much of this sermon).

2 From the Cross: The Seven Last Words, by Gaius Glenn Atkins. Harper c 1937

#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.”