Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on the Mount’

Of Gates & Fruit – SOTM Series (13)

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Part 1 – Setting the Stage

Part 2 – Beatitudes (1)

Part 3 – Beatitudes (2)

Part 4 – Salt & Light/Law

Part 5 – Murder/Adultery/Divorce

Part 6 – Oaths, Eyes & Enemies

Part 7 – Hiding In Plain Sight

Part 8 – The Lord’s Prayer (1)

Part 9 – The Lord’s Prayer (2)

Part 10 – Fasting

Part 11 – Don’t Worry, Be Righteous

Part 12 – Judging Others

Part 13 – Ask, Seek, Knock

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13,14

Once again, Jesus is pointing out to His listeners that follow Him is a singular choice- you either follow or you do not.  There is no third (or any other) option.  There is one Master and one path of obedience.  But what is this path?  Is the narrow path about doctrine?  Is it about developing an idealistic life ethic?  Of course these aspects are present, but this is not what Jesus is primarily calling us to.  He calls us to an uncompromising fidelity of love.  It is the single-minded faithfulness of a lover.

It many ways, a straight and narrow path is the easiest kind of path to follow.  The way is clear and direct.  Conversely, a wide and meandering path can leave much room for error.  It reminds me of the men who were canoeing down the southern end of the Mississippi River during flood season.  They were sure they were following the flow of the river until the floated past a mailbox and a stop sign.  The path had spilled so wide that it had not clear direction at all.

The straight and narrow is not difficult because it offers an impossible ethic to live out (for Jesus constantly leaves room for grace in the face of mistakes), but rather it is difficult because of what it costs.  Have you ever stood on the high board of the high dive at an Olympic sized pool?  Jumping off that height is simple- you just take the step.  Yet for most of us, we are crippled by uncertainty, fear and anxiety.  It is reminiscent of G.K. Chesterton’s words: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried”.  This is so because the narrow gate is the gate of the Cross of Christ, where everything is left behind and we embrace death in order to find resurrection life.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Matthew 7:15-20

Jesus makes it clear that, as we seek to follow Him in obedience to how He calls us to live, there will be those who will seek to mislead us.  Unlike the cartoonish villains of pop culture, these false teachers will appear to one of us.  While their appearance will be that of a fellow believer of Christ, their hearts will have the intentions of a wolf.  Again, in this Jesus is reminding us that it is the heart that is the source of our character.

However, He also reaffirms that out of the heart our real natures will be made evident in our lives.  Just like a tree can be known by the nature of fruit it produces, so too does the fruit of our lives give evidence of what kind of person we are.  Fruit is the outward product of the inward nature.  But what are these fruit?  What are we to look for?  In the Sermon on the Mount we learn what such fruit is, especially in the Beatitudes.  In Matthew 12:32-34, we learn that our words are the fruit borne of our hearts.  In John 15, Jesus makes it clear that good fruit that is born from Christ within us will be characterized by sacrificial and selfless love.  Later, in Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

All of these things together represent the fruit that we should look for in peoples lives.  However, like fruit that takes time to grow and come into maturity, we must not too quickly rush to judge people (remember this?), allowing instead for their fruit mature and become evident.  Jesus is not giving us license to become heresy-hunter or truth-police.  We must be careful and vigilant, but also patient and humble.  Only God can truly judge.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Matthew 7:21-23

In these words, Jesus is again call us into the tension between right belief and right action.  He puts neither orthodoxy nor orthopraxy ahead of the other, but makes it clear that true obedience to Him will be reflect in both.  However, even when we believe right doctrine and live righteous lives, this is not enough.  Yes, we must confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts, but this is not suggesting allegiance to a moral, ethical or religious system, but rather to devotion to the very real God- Father, Son and Spirit.  God must know us, be in real, active and dynamic relationship with us.  He is a very present God who will not be satisfied by the most fervent devotion to His ideals.  He wants us to love and worship Him.

Of course, this will produce belief and righteous living.  However, Jesus makes it explicitly clear in the equivalent verses in Luke: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).  We must do what He says.  True belief- like truth- is fully manifested when it is incarnated.  Jesus is that incarnation and, as His Body, we are to be incarnational expressions of our beliefs.  We are not saved by our works, but faith without works is no faith at all.

This devotion must touch every part of our lives, both public and private.  No time or place is exempt from this radical call to absolute obedience.  It is the one path, the one gate, the one and only way.  It is Jesus Christ.

Judging Others – SOTM Series (12)

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Part 1 – Setting the Stage

Part 2 – Beatitudes (1)

Part 3 – Beatitudes (2)

Part 4 – Salt & Light/Law

Part 5 – Murder/Adultery/Divorce

Part 6 – Oaths, Eyes & Enemies

Part 7 – Hiding In Plain Sight

Part 8 – The Lord’s Prayer (1)

Part 9 – The Lord’s Prayer (2)

Part 10 – Fasting

Part 11 – Don’t Worry, Be Righteous

Having blogged for several years around topics of faith and theology, there is a phenomenon that occurs quite regularly that at the same time saddens me and amuses me.  Someone posts a particularly harsh critique of another person (or groups) theology.  That person/group respond by challenging them not to judge (sometimes quoting today’s text).  The critic responds that, when the critiqued tell them (the critic) that they are judging, by in turn are doing the judging.  The endless argument ensues about who is actually judging and who is actually “speaking truth in love”.  Usually neither party is doing the latter, but it still illustrates the often sticky reality of this portion of Jesus teaching.

“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.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

As we have seen in the previous two chapters of the Sermon (Matthew 5 & 6), the righteousness Jesus is describing is His righteousness.  There is no merit in our own righteousness beyond that which is the reflected righteousness of Christ.  And we can only reflect that insofar as we are in loving and obedient relationship to Him.  Therefore, if the righteousness is not ours to boast, then who are we to judge others?  Why do we continually do so anyway?

There are many motivations that inspire us to judge.  Some do so in an attempt to boost their own moral position, to distract from our own failure to live up to the expectations of Christ, and to undermine someone we have identified as a threat, an enemy or a proponent of “bad theology”.  Some motivations are not so negative.  Some judge to root our legitimate sin, to expose corruption or to correct blatant moral and/or doctrinal failing.  Surely these issues need to be addressed?  Jesus is not suggesting that the legitimate concerns need be ignored.  Far from it!  Rather, He reminding us that, if we believe ourselves worthy of the role of judge, we are blinded to the reality of our own sin, brokenness and equal need of forgiveness.

Stanley Hauerwas writes:

“The disciples are not to judge because any judgment that needs to be made has been made.  For those who follow Jesus as if they can, on their own, determine what is good and what is evil is to betray the work of Christ.  Therefore, the appropriate stance for the acknowledgement of evil is the confession of sin.  We quite literally cannot see clearly unless we have been trained to see ‘the log that is in [our] eye’.  But it is not possible for us to see what in our eye because the eye cannot see itself.  That is why we are able to see ourselves only through the vision made possible by Jesus- a vision made possible by our participation in a community of forgiveness that allows us to name our sins”

Just prior to this portion of the teaching, Jesus said: “”The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness”.  Just as the single-minded devotion to Christ and His Kingdom is compromised by anxiety and attention on material wealth and stability, so to is it compromised when we seek to become the “morality police” for everyone else.  Why?  Because His Kingdom and His righteousness are defined quite clearly- to love God and love others.  Judging is left to the only one more qualified, the God of infinite grace and mercy.

Again, Jesus is not suggesting that we turn a blind eye towards sin.  Too many of us use this Scripture to avoid or reject necessary correction from the community of faith.  Rather it is the heart and the context of that correction that distinguishes it from judgment.  First, repeated the ever present theme of the Sermon, Jesus is pointing to the motivation of the heart.  We are not to judge out of anger, self-righteousness or impatience, but to correct with love, grace and patience.  Second, as Hauerwas makes clear, this correction is an expression of love born out of a genuine community of faith, where relationship with God and each other is our foundation.

Like the blog wars mentioned above, when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the endless cycle of judgment, we are ultimately treated the same way as we treat others.  The standard by which we treat others is the standard by which we will be judged.  The ramifications of this truth are staggering.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6)

Perhaps it is through over-familiarity with Scripture, but most people hardly pause at these words of Jesus.  And yet, when you consider them, they are incredibly harsh.  The loving Jesus of grace and mercy are referring to people as dogs and pigs?  What could He mean by this?

Jesus knew that, rather than judging people, we were to extend to them what we ourselves received.  That is, the undeserved grace of the Gospel, both actively proclaimed and demonstrated by His people to a watching world.  He also knew, however, that the fact that we do not judge (and instead love) was no guarantee that we would be well received.  Even in the face of generosity, hospitality, love, peace and grace, some will reject us, even scorn us and cast us out.  How then are we to respond?

Again, the temptation to judge would be most present (and seemingly, most justified).  Jesus makes it clear that we are not to do so, but rather to move on (Matt. 10:15).  However, when we see this verse in the context of the wider teaching on judgment, we realize that He is not calling these Gospel-resistant people dogs and swine. which would be a very harsh judgment in itself.  Rather, He is confronting us (again) with our own self-righteousness.  It is we who make the Gospel worthy only of dogs and pigs in our refusal to “shake the dust from our feet” and move on.

The very difficult tension between judgment and loving correction is not easy to navigate.  The complexity of correction and discipline in the church is very, very difficult.  Jesus is not laying out a comprehensive teaching on these topics in this passage, but rather reminding us that, in all things, we must serve in full humility and grace.  These must be the guiding lights when engaging these more complex issues.

Don’t Worry, Be Righteous – SOTM Series Part 11

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

(While Laura is preaching in this section this week, as she didn’t want to blog her notes, I thought I would put mine up anyway.  Peace!)

Part 1 – Setting the Stage

Part 2 – Beatitudes (1)

Part 3 – Beatitudes (2)

Part 4 – Salt & Light/Law

Part 5 – Murder/Adultery/Divorce

Part 6 – Oaths, Eyes & Enemies

Part 7 – Hiding In Plain Sight

Part 8 – The Lord’s Prayer (1)

Part 9 – The Lord’s Prayer (2)

Part 10 – Fasting

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

With the foundation of the Lord’s Prayer in place, teaching us the priority of the Kingdom in our lives, we learn that even our “daily bread” is secondary to such devotion.  From there Jesus reminded us to fast with pure hearts and motives, a discipline that reinforces not only the selfish longing of our hearts and bodies, but also the importance of its denial in the face of God’s vocation for us.  And it is here that Jesus addresses the inevitable tension these teachings build in our hearts and lives.

It might be easy to read the Scripture above as a warning against greed and materialism.  While there is surely that caution present in His words, Jesus is talking about much more than this.  After all, He does not deny our need for material provision nor that wealth itself is inherently evil.  Rather, He warns us against storing it up, words that would have reminded His listeners of the daily provision of manna (see Part 9 of this series).

Are we therefore forbidden to be responsible with our money through saving?  I don’t believe so, as Scripture affirms the wisdom of preparing for meager times (such as the ant who stores up for winter).  Rather, Jesus looks to our hearts, the motives which drive us to save, leaving no room for selfishness.  However, we must be careful to recognize the two faces of this takes.  While most of us are aware of the dangers of greed, we too often miss the danger of fear.  It is equally as dangerous to store up wealth out of a lack of faith that God will provide as it is from selfish greed.  Here lies a difficult tension, one that requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the accountability of the community of faith.

When we understand this, we realize that the danger is not simply in the quantity of wealth we accumulate (though Jesus does warn us of the dangers to our heart that come with great wealth), but rather the condition and motivation of our hearts that shape our actions.  In this way, even a lack of material wealth can be a justification for fear or selfishness, placing all under the same standard.  Our hearts must be first and only with Christ.

Yet Jesus doesn’t reject our desires for treasures, instead promising us His treasures in Heaven.  What are these treasures?  Jesus is not clear, but I cannot help but think back to the blessings of the Beatitudes.  Far greater than any earthly treasure, Jesus opens up to us the blessings of His Kingdom.  What greater treasure could we seek?

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!  No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Matthew 6:22-24

For the Jews of Jesus time, the eyes represented the central access point to the heart.  It was through our eyes that all we see and understand is taken in, allowing us to function properly and effectively in the world around us.  Having two very close friends who are blind, I am well aware of the costly reality of their condition.  While impressively adapted to the limitations of their sight, they know that they are still just that- real limitations that present real challenges.

In this way, Jesus is reminding us of our need for single-minded devotion on Christ and His Kingdom.  Any other focus blinds us from what really matters, crippling our capacity to function in all other functions of life and faith- not absolutely, but primarily.  In other words, Jesus is saying that when greed or mistrust leads us to focus on our material wealth and/or financial security, we inevitably lose sight of our true priority, thus stepping into darkness.

By saying this, Jesus is making this clarity of vision the single priority of His teaching.  He is pulling no punches with the reality that it is a binary choice- either you are in light or in darkness; either you serve God or Mammon/money.  There is no room for degrees when it comes to devotion to ones master.  In a world where we may have several bosses, we fail to understand the uncompromising nature of a slaves devotion to his/her master.  We are to be absolutely subject to our King and His Kingdom, leaving no room for compromise.

This raises some very difficult questions for us.  Are we, in any way, living our lives and faiths in ways that accommodate materialism along with faith, even if in a subordinate position?  Are we serving Mammon at all?  If so, Jesus indicates that our devotion to Him is completely compromised.  Few teachings of Christ are so explicit as this.  It is a choice.  It is a choice that requires immediate response and tangible changes.  Lord have mercy.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6:25-27

It is in these words that it becomes clear that Jesus is not primarily focusing on greed.  The emphasis on greed has too often been a way for us to by-pass the harder implications of this teaching.  However, in addition to the fact that, relative to most of the world, we are indeed very wealthy, we see here that Jesus is talking about the worry, uncertainty and fear that lead us to store up wealth.  The Jews faced the risk of having what little security they had taken from them by the occupying Romans, so their desire to store up wealth is understandable.  Yet Jesus saw that such storing would (and did) limit their ability and willingness to extend hospitality, charity and generosity.  And yet Jesus still makes it clear that to do so, even in these circumstances, was a violation of their devotion to God.  How much more, than, is our own storing up of wealth and security a compromise?

Jesus is not putting forth a “health & wealth” theology.  It does not exempt us from having to work (and work hard) for our provision.  Neither does it mean we are excused from our mandate to give and share what we have.  Above all, it is not a promise that we will never experience trying times where things are lean.  Rather than a law to be obeyed and through which we receive an immediate, material reward, it is about the the eternal fruit of obedience to the law of love and grace.  It is a promise that we need to worry or be anxious about anything.

As the unlikely people of the Beatitudes, we are call live in eager and trusting expectation of our King and of His Kingdom.  Rather than living in fear and uncertainty, we can instead live in single-minded devotion to serving our King and building His Kingdom, knowing that as we do so, He will provide for our every need (not whim).  Even death cannot rob us that promise, thus liberating us from the uncertainty and fear that drive us to selfishness.

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:28-34

The beauty of this passage is summed up so eloquently here.  While we live with the uncompromising devotion of a slave to their Master, that Master treats us, not as slaves, but as His beloved children.  The bird and the flowers, while created by Him, are not His children, yet He provides for them in every way.  How much more can we trust that He will meet our needs?  This is the hope that banishes the fear, allowing us to embrace this seemingly reckless devotion to serving God and building His Kingdom.  It is this very hope that the Kingdom offers to all of creation.

Like in the priorities of the Lord’s Prayer, we are again called to make His Kingdom our priority, even before our own well-being- not out of self-destructive neglect, but out of radical trust and obedience to our Father-King.  And the nature of this King and His Kingdom?  This has been the constant message through the Sermon on the Mount, even reflected in His temptation in the wilderness.  In addition to seek first His Kingdom, we are commanded to seek also His righteousness.  What is this righteousness?

This word “righteousness”, as we have seen previously, is better understood as justice.  In addition to being call to live for His Kingdom, established in and through the community of faith, the Church, we are also called to champion justice in a world shattered by injustice.  It is here that our role as ambassadors of the Kingdom propel us out of the context of our faith communities and actively into the wider world for which Christ came to save.  This is the justice we are blessed for hungering and thirsting after.  It is also the justice for which we can expect to be persecuted for.  It is in seeking both His Kingdom and His justice that we see what it means to be both salt and light to the world.

We are called to believe the Gospel in our hearts and minds.  We are called to proclaim the Gospel in our words and deeds.  We are called to obey the Gospel at all costs and without compromise.  This is what it means to seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.  Then, when we do this, all the other details of life and provision will be given to us by God.  Therefore, crucify any worry that robs us of our single-minded devotion to Christ.

Fasting – SOTM Series (10)

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Part 1 – Setting the Stage

Part 2 – Beatitudes (1)

Part 3 – Beatitudes (2)

Part 4 – Salt & Light/Law

Part 5 – Murder/Adultery/Divorce

Part 6 – Oaths, Eyes & Enemies

Part 7 – Hiding In Plain Sight

Part 8 – The Lord’s Prayer (1)

Part 9 – The Lord’s Prayer (2)

Fasting was a practice that St. Francis and his followers were well acquainted with.  In part out of self-denial, in part out of repentance for their sins and in part because they gave what little they had to those in need, fasting was a very regular reality.  When Francis became better known, he would often be invited into the homes of wealthy merchants and nobleman.  When rich food was placed before him, the humble saint would slip ashes into his food to dull the taste.  Why would he do this?  What did Francis think this would accomplish?

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18

Moments before stating these words, Jesus had said: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (6:1)  He went on to explain three ways where this was critical to embrace- our generosity (giving to the poor), our prayer life (in contrast to actors & pagans) and then, here, in our fasting.

The Jews were very familiar with fasting.  In addition to the 3 required national fasts- on the Day of Atonement, at the New Year and for Tisha B’Av- many practiced personal, voluntary fasts twice a week (every Monday and Thursday).  These latter weekly fasts were commonly (and openly) practiced by the Pharisees.  Fasting was normal and expected.  Because Jesus said “When you fast…” it is clear that He is affirming the discipline, just as He did with giving and prayer.  While the latter two, for the most part, are familiar and commonly practiced by most Christians today, fasting remains a far more rare and unpracticed discipline.

True and acceptable fasting is a response to God, not an effort to increase our “spiritual status”, especially not for the recognition of others.  The outward act is necessary, but it is only acceptable insofar as is the genuine fruit of a changed heart.  It is a discipline of obedience and submission to God, making His Lordship central to practice.  When we fast (or do any act of Christian service or devotion), we must be mindful of our motivations and intentions.  We must put to death any desire for public affirmation, even if we fear they’ll assume we are impious for not seeing it.  Otherwise we are serving another master, defying the King to whom we are sworn to serve.  This theme is repeated again and again throughout the Sermon on the Mount.

When Jesus told them to put oil in their hair and wash their faces while fasting, He was going against a longer history and tradition (such as the use of sackcloth and ashes in certain kinds of penitent fasts).  He was not intending to reject or devalue these traditions, but was demonstrating how critical it was for His followers to fast in ways that were acceptable to God.  The rewarding life of the Beatitudes cannot be fulfilled otherwise.  The price is too high!  In this light, we see that Jesus in not simply placing a burden of strict obedience on his followers, but is lovingly warning them of what they risk should allow compromise.

Proper fasting will not kill us.  Yet, when we are faced with this discipline, our bodies resist in powerful ways.  It is uncomfortable and dis-empowering.  It reminds us in painfully real ways of the true discomfort and cost of true obedience to Christ.  As powerfully as our bodies resist this, so too our hearts and minds work over time to conceive of short-cuts, excuses or exemptions that would lighten the cost.  We are too busy, have other health concerns, are not bound by legalism- the list goes on.  In a culture of such indulgence and wealth, this discipline is essential precisely because it is so particularly painful to us.

It is at the table of our Lord, in communion, that fasting takes on its deepest meaning.  Christ alone is the Bread of Life, relieving the deepest of hungers.  The passing fulfillment of food, wealth and power can blind us of our absolute hunger for that true Bread.  Fasting strips us of the pretense that we what we have is enough, that it is even possessed apart from the grace and provision of God.  We need Him for life in every sense and in every way.


Christ, You are the Bread of Life.  None else can satisfy.

Lord, we take this moment of silence to consider anything & everything in our lives that has filled any cravings, longings or needs that are apart from you.  We name them to You, repent of them & carry them to the Cross.  Lord, have mercy.

Jesus Christ, by eating this Bread we declare that you are enough.  You alone can give satisfy all that we need.  We are Yours.

And so, as we eat this Bread, we do so in full submission to You.

Jesus Christ, You are the Fountain of Life.  The terrible cost of your spilled blood quenches any & every thirst.  Any temptations, expectations & rights are empty apart from You.  In this moment of silence, we name them, repent of them & carry them to the Cross.  Christ, have mercy.

Jesus, by drinking from this Cup we declare that you are all we need.  Only You can quench the burning desires of our hearts.  We are Yours.

And so, as we drink from the Cup, we do so in full submission to You.

Thank you, Lord, for the undeserved gift of grace and love, in which we become the willing slaves of Your will, yet humbled to be called sons & daughters of God.

All this we do and pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer (2) – SOTM Series (9)

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Part 1 – Setting the Stage

Part 2 – Beatitudes (1)

Part 3 – Beatitudes (2)

Part 4 – Salt & Light/Law

Part 5 – Murder/Adultery/Divorce

Part 6 – Oaths, Eyes & Enemies

Part 7 – Hiding In Plain Sight

Part 8 – The Lord’s Prayer (1)

Having established that in prayer, as in life, the priorities of God must be first and foremost for all believers- even before the basic sustenance of life- we discover that God is both Lord and Father, wanting to provide for our every need.

“Give us today our daily bread”

This simple sentence has baffled Christians for centuries, largely due to the use of Greek word that seems to appear nowhere else in Scripture or other Greek texts.  The writer, it seems, coined a term (yes, pun intended).  While we cannot get into the fascinating debates around the word “daily”, the general topic of the debate is very telling.  Is Jesus teaching us to ask only for the “bread” we need for each day as we face it?  The bread for the day ahead?  Just enough to survive or enough to be comfortable?

What is interesting is that, in this prayer, the request for our bread is the only explicit request for material provision.  This led many early theologians to suggest that Jesus was not speaking of actual food, but rather the Bread of Life, Himself, a foreshadow to the broken bread of the Lord’s Table.  While this might be a secondary interpretation, the later references to God’s provision at the end of Matthew 6 suggest that Jesus was primarily responding to the provision of actual food.  This affirmation of our physical selves- its care and sustenance- is critical in our understanding of God’s provision for us.

Again, drawing from the rest of Matthew 6, Jesus seems to be suggesting that the provision He offers is day to day.  While perhaps not explicitly a 24 hour period, the deeper meaning is that Jesus wants us to trust His provision, freeing us focus on Him (as opposed to storing up for our own survival) and on generosity and hospitality to others (as opposed letting our needs excuse us from charity).  This is a practical affirmation and commitment to living our the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbours.  We can embrace this trust because He is our loving Father (Matthew 7:11).

Jesus also teaches us to prayer for “our” bread.  As His Body, even as we ask for our basic provision, we ask for all.  As we learned in the previous post, this prayer transcended the loyalties of family and race.  Our new loyalty is primarily to God and those who we now call brother and sister through His adoption of us.  Even after placing God’s priorities first, we are still taught to put aside self-interest for the great good of God and His people.  Consider what this means to the money you make from your job.  Despite the work we do to earn it, we recognize that God is the provider of all things, therefore even that is subject to the teachings of this prayer.  How do we spend, save, give?

As a collective prayer for His provision, we also see that we are not to be ashamed of our need nor proud of our wealth.  We must live together in such a way that those in need can ask without shame and those with plenty take no pride or even ownership, for all they have is God’s provision to His people.  This cannot and should not be enforced, as this must be voluntary act of free will, inspired by genuine love and familial devotion, not moral, legal or social obligation.  However, it should be our ideal.  How do we do this without being taken advantage of?  What does it mean to affirm the ideal, correct mistakes, yet refuse to enforce?  These and other questions are difficult, often the very reason Christians drifted from this kind of commonality.  However, they must be explored, tested and tried.

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…  For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Then, like today, people understood the power and bondage the came with debt.  However, unlike today, the penalty for failing to pay your debts was much higher, often resulting in forced servitude and/or imprisonment.  This was further underlined by the fact that usury- lending with interest- was forbidden to the Jews.  Today, debt is a way of life, taught to be acceptable, normal, even expected.  Yet, such debt forces us to make choices that limit our ability to submit to the priorities of God and His Kingdom.

Jesus is obviously talking about more than just monetary debt, likening sin and its bondage to that of debt.  Yet He also uses this word, I think, in order to demonstrate that sin is as tangible as debt (and may actually include actual debt), forcing us to look past private moral failings and examine the whole of our lives.  Without question, debt itself is seriously critiqued in this phrase and should therefore be among the first of the things we examine as Christians as we seek to truly and actively repent of the debts of sin.

It is also very telling to note the sequence of action in this sentence.  We ask for forgiveness, having already extended the same forgiveness to those in our debt.  Does this mean that God’s forgiveness is conditional?  It is not that God is offering a transaction to us- that if we forgive others, He will forgive us.  Rather, He is saying that to be forgiven by God requires genuine repentance and the truly repentant would not- could not withhold the grace that they themselves expected or received.  Not only that, but just as Christian died for us while we were still in our sin, so to must we learn to extend forgiveness to others even before they ask for it.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Does God willfully or negligently lead us into temptation?  Since Scripture teaches that God will never cause us temptation, why would we pray for something already promised to us?  Some suggest that we should never take for granted the promises of God and therefore, even when we know He will not do this, we should still ask.  Others believe that rather than temptation, it is times of intentional testing that we are being asked to be spared from.  Both of these seem unlikely, given that the sentence goes on to ask for deliverance from our the evil one, who is Satan.

Rather, Jesus is teaching us to acknowledge our inability to stand against the enemy on our own strength or righteousness.  The enemy cannot be defeated without the intervention of the God on whom we are fully dependent.  The provision of that deliverance can take many forms, including the intervention of His people.  We must therefore look to those things in our lives that we are seeking to overcome alone and bring them to God and His people with trust and humility.

This prayer cannot be prayed without looking at the way we live our lives, individually and together as the Church.  The lines of this prayer presuppose a level of commitment and change already in place.  Jesus, therefore, is cautioning us against insincerity and hypocrisy in our prayers, especially in this most wonderful and demanding prayer.

Lord God in whom we are united as one Body, one family, sister & brother,
May Your name be made holy by Your Word & by the witness of us, Your people.
May Your Kingdom be established here and now,
May Your will be our first & most immediate priority, just as it is to the angels above.
Provide for us the essentials for life together and obedience to You.
Let the gift of Your undeserved grace for us overflow from us onto those who have wronged us.
Lead us on Your path, away from the empty promises & hidden snares of temptation.
Rescue us from every scheme of sin & darkness which would take us from that path.
For you are King, this is Your Kingdom and we are Your citizens & servants.
All we are, all we have & all we will do is by Your power and for Your glory alone,
In the past, in the present and in the future.
Amen+

The Lord’s Prayer (1) – SOTM Series 8

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Part 1 – Setting the Stage

Part 2 – Beatitudes (1)

Part 3 – Beatitudes (2)

Part 4 – Salt & Light/Law

Part 5 – Murder/Adultery/Divorce

Part 6 – Oaths, Eyes & Enemies

Part 7 – Hiding In Plain Sight

With the Advent and Christmas season behind us, Little Flowers Community is returning to our study on the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM).  The next two Sundays has us exploring the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:5-10).  As I began to prepare my notes for the first Sunday it became immediately clear that two weeks does not allow even a fraction of the time needed to dive into the powerful text.  As a community, we may return to it in more detail later this year.  This week we are looking at only part of the prayer.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

While the word “hypocrite” is meaningful for us today, when Jesus used the word, it would have had a more immediate connection to its root meaning- that is the Greek actors of the day.  Jesus was making it clear that the “quality” of ones prayers were not measured by the eloquence or sophistication.  We should not pray in ways that we think people want us to pray, nor is the depth of our faith measured by the theological words one uses.  Rather, prayer was genuine insofar as it was sincerely about God alone.

If God the Father already knows what we need, why then should we pray at all?  Clearly we are not informing God or even coercing God.  Instead, prayer is a declaration of our dependence on Him, an act of submission to the Lordship of Christ.  Further, it is the exercise of the authority given to us by God, authority in heaven and on earth.  Do our prayers move God?  I believe they do, but the complexities of what that means & how that works is topic enough for another time.  Ultimately, prayer is not about convincing God that our priorities are right, but rather that we must be orienting our hearts and lives around His priorities.  This is made clear in how Jesus goes on to teach us to pray:

“This, then, is how you should pray: ” ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

While this prayer is in many ways very (and importantly) unique, Jesus is not creating this prayer out of thin air.  The Jewish people of His day prayed regularly several times throughout the day, most often using formal prayers, both privately and collectively.  The prayer Jesus teaches us here uses many of the same phrases and emphases as these other prayers.  This is important to note because Jesus was not rejecting the traditions and liturgies of His people, but reorienting them to their intended focus.  In many ways, Jesus is significantly celebrating the learned, shared and formal prayers of His Jewish heritage.

However, the prayer also significantly unique.  Unlike the typical prayers of the Jews, it did not identify God as the God of Israel (i.e. “God of Abraham, Isaac…), but rather He taught us to address God as “Our Father”.  The word Jesus used was the Aramaic equivalent of our “Daddy” or “Papa”.  While still a title of authority and respect, it was one of intimacy and love.  Further, it did not limit His Fatherhood to just the Jews, but made it universal.  This was further reinforced by the use of Aramaic in the prayer.  For the Jews, Hebrew was the sacred language, thus used for prayer.  By calling God Abba (expanding the focus for Israel to all peoples) and using Aramaic (ultimately saying that there was no longer a sacred language or that all languages were ultimately sacred), Jesus was shifting prayer into the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that His people would be a blessing to all nations.  This is a foreshadow of Pentecost!

As an important aside, it is also in this universal understanding of God’s Fatherhood over all people that we must then orient our lives in relationship to each other.  No longer do religious, traditional or even familial loyalties take priority in how we live.  Now all women and men are our sisters and brothers.  Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He said He would set families against each other (Matthew 10)? Or when He said “Who is my mother?  Brothers?” (Matthew 12).  Is it that now, our primary loyal is to our Father, then to His children?  And so, whenever our other loyalties conflict with this, it is to our heavenly Father’s family that we must give privilege?  These are important and difficult questions to ask.

The opening lines of this prayer are by no means semantic embellishment, designed to butter God up until we got to the important things, such as our needs.  Far from it!  Rather, the order reflects where our priorities must be in prayer and all of life.  It is with God first and foremost that our priorities lie.  “Our Father, who is in heaven” is not a declaration of His location, but a powerfully contrasting statement of His authority.  He is both our loving, intimate Abba, yet also the powerful and unequaled King.  “Hallowed be Your name” would better be translated, “May your name be made holy”, which every Jew listening knew (in part) came about by how they, His chosen people, reflected His holiness in their lives.  “Your Kingdom come” demands an active submission to His Lordship, working through the power and direction of the Holy Spirit to establish that Kingdom.  “Your will be done” is a declaration of our duty to discern and obey, individually and collectively, His will (which, with the prior reference to the Kingdom is clearly more than just living moral lives).  And finally, “on earth as it is in heaven” is a foreshadow of the completion of His work, when the new heavens and the new earth come together in the great Resurrection of all Creation for His glory.

It is only then, after such powerful and all consuming submission is declared, that our other needs for sustenance, forgiveness and deliverance are made.  To be a Christians, sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ, completely and unwaveringly submitted to His Lordship, means that His holiness, His Kingdom and His will must be, without even one exception, the priority of our lives.  All else MUST be secondary.  And there is not reason to do otherwise, for as our Father, He will meet all our needs.  Jesus reinforces this emphasis later in Matthew 6:33, calling us to seek first His Kingdom and righteousness, knowing that all the other things will be given to us by Him when (and if) they are needed.

Teach us to pray, Lord Jesus.

Lord God in whom we are united as one Body, one family, sister & brother,
May Your name be made holy by Your Word & by the witness of us, Your people.
May Your Kingdom be established here and now,
May Your will be our first & most immediate priority, just as it is to the angels above.
Provide for us the essentials for life together and obedience to You.
Let the gift of Your undeserved grace for us overflow from us onto those who have wronged us.
Lead us on Your path, away from the empty promises & hidden snares of temptation.
Rescue us from every scheme of sin & darkness which would take us from that path.
For you are King, this is Your Kingdom and we are Your citizens & servants.
All we are, all we have & all we will do is by Your power and for Your glory alone,
In the past, in the present and in the future.
Amen+

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