Monday, August 29, 2011
While in Ethiopia, my wife and I researched what will be a mission trip for our church in 2012. We also adopted a little girl. Now our family is 5, not 4. And the jump up, adding another child, has been overwhelming. Merone is wonderful precious, beautiful. I love her.
Finally, now, August is here and life is settling down. Igor is back in school. Henry starts preschool next week. Merone is feeling more at home.
And I am finally getting back to this blog. I guess if I were a true writer, I would have been putting down my feelings, reflecting on everything along the way. There certainly was enough material. But, I was too caught up in life to pause to write about it. That's why I am not writing more now. I am going to finish up my September newsletter column and then I am walking home to see my family and meet Igor when he gets off the bus.
And that's it.
This morning we will engage in prayer together – an act of prayer in which God equips us for something very specific. This is something history has proved over and over cannot be accomplished without God’s help.
There are many forms of prayer. Last week, as a church, we knelt at these steps and silently prayed for big issues in the world – wars, economy, justice. We laid the heaviest of burdens at the cross of Christ. Our prayers were intercessions, coming before God on behalf of others.
This morning our prayer is for ourselves. The guidance into prayer will happen right where we are with no coming forward. This prayer is internal. We’re asking God to a mighty work in our hearts so we can be ready through spiritual preparation and relational and Biblical equipping to go out into the world in Jesus’ name.
Last week we came forward and prayed for others. This week, we remain seated and pray for ourselves, that God would fill us and ready us to show his love.
Why would I say history has shown that our specific task is so difficult it can only be realized with God’s help? Those who reject God can love – they love their families, their children. They might have a passion like fighting hunger. What is so contrary to human nature that humans cannot do it on our own? Jesus made a point of saying even evil people feed their children and care for their families. Humans are capable of love.
But what about love of enemy?
Our scripture for today, Romans 12: do not repay anyone evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
Overcome evil with good.
How hard is this? I have talked about this in church before. On more than one occasion, many times, following a worship service in which I repeated the Biblical teaching to love the enemy I had people approach me afterward. The conversation goes like this …
I know the Bible says we are supposed to love our enemies, but I don’t want to. I had friends who were in the Pentagon and died in the terrorist attack.
My nephew had his arm blown off while serving in Iraq. No Pastor, don’t tell me to love my enemies.
I have the consolation of responding, it’s not me; it is the Bible. Paul in Romans says we have to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and pray for those who persecute (Matthew 5). If a wounded, angry church member rebels against the New Testament teaching of love of neighbor, the rebellion is not against the preacher. The rebellion is against God.
We cannot reject the portions of Jesus’ teaching we don’t like. We can – God gives us the freedom to do so. But, we reject Jesus at our own peril, and I don’t mean in terms of Heaven and Hell. The best possible life we can have on this earth is the life lived on Jesus’ terms; the life lived as an apprentice of Jesus. To say, well, I don’t like this teaching of his, or that teaching, I’ll pick and choose what I like and don’t like is a way of denying that Jesus is Lord. When we decide to reject the harder teachings, we deny that He knows what’s best for us.
We are all-in with Jesus or we aren’t in with Him at all. To be all-in with Jesus is to accept and believe in His teaching that we are to love our enemies.
Once we accept it and believe it, then we need help and for that help we turn to prayer. We will only accomplish love of enemy when our hearts are changed to the point that no matter how heinous the injury the enemy has inflicted, we see the enemy as Jesus sees the enemy. Jesus re-creates our hearts, and our inner thought life simply is not defined by what the enemy does. The enemy could positively hateful and cruel and petty and prejudiced, but that doesn’t color our view. The love of Jesus – his cross, his forgiveness, his welcome of the lowest of the low, his compassion for the very ones who crucified him; this is what shapes our inner mind. Whatever actions we take and words we say begin in our inner thought life. So it is in the inner thought life that love of enemy begins.
In sighting past examples of worshipers who openly rejected my sermons on love of enemy, I specifically alluded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country and the seemingly unending conflicts with Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In these cases, the enemy would be the Muslim extremist who fights the United States of America.
Many here don’t feel seething enemy-type animosity toward Muslims. For many, the enemy is someone else. Maybe an abusive father. Maybe an unwanted in-law. Maybe, and to me this seems ridiculous, a member of particular political party. Who in your life is the enemy? It could be a bully at school. It could be a boss who makes life hell. It could be someone who feels differently than you about a major issue – war, death penalty or some other issue.
Impossible as it may seem, I am basically neutral concerning the late Jerry Falwell. I disagreed with some of his theology, some of his politics, and some of his methods. There were also times when I agreed with him. I didn’t see him as hero or villain. Others did. When Falwell, a true believer in Jesus Christ, died, well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens said, “It’s too bad there’s no Hell for him to burn in.” I believe there is a Hell, and I don’t think Falwell is in it. But man, what vitriol from Hitchens. You really have to see someone as a hated enemy to wish they would burn in Hell.
Do you have an enemy who riles you up that much? (Perhaps, really pause here to make people get that person in mind. This sermon is personal, and it should be!) Jesus says if you want to follow him, you must pray for that enemy. Paul says if that enemy is hungry to feed him.
Furthermore, says the Apostle, when we love our enemies and, get this, serve our enemies, we heap burning coals on their heads. Don’t be tempted! Paul is not saying, in some unidentifiable mystical way that if we love and serve the enemy now, in the afterlife, they’ll have heads on fire like the old Athlete’s foot commercials. When Paul says we are to leave vengeance to God, it does not mean, God’s going to get them. We love the enemy, then God smites the enemy.
No. That would not involve the transformation of our hearts, just a delayed revenge on the enemy. Instead of me hurting my enemy, God will do it for me. No. That’s not why Paul says serving the enemy would heap burning coals on his head. That’s not why Paul says to leave vengeance to God.
Paul says those things because God can handle the whole vengeance issue much better than me or you. In fact, God’s handling of it is what equips us to follow the command he’s given that we do not have the ability to follow on our own power.
Here’s what I mean. In verse 19, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:35. “’Vengeance is mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Our understanding of God’s vengeance is what God did in Jesus Christ. Instead of sending a flood to drown out his rebellious creation, instead of sending an invading army to take his rebellious sinful people into exile, God became one of us, sending his son, Jesus, God in human flesh.
Wrath is God’s, and he just holds on to it. All who sin are enemies of God, including us. Maybe you have an enemy and no matter what the preacher says or Paul the Apostle says or Jesus says, you are going to hold onto your hate of enemy. The reality is you and I are every bit as sinful as the enemies we hate. Thus we are enemies against God – because of our sins. But, unlike us, God does not react to our sinfulness with hatred. He sends Jesus to suffer the punishment of sins and to show us what love really is. Jesus shows what forgiveness accomplishes.
God says, “Vengeance is mine, but I am not going to use it. I am going to forgive instead. I am going to love. I am going to give my son out of love because I don’t people, sinful though they are, punished. I want them saved for eternity because I love them.” God feels that way about you. God feels that way about the terrorists who flew the planes on 9/11. God feels that way about the 8th grader who is bullied and the other 8th graders who are doing the bullying.
We do not accept evil whether the evil is among school kids or nations, family members or neighbors. Wars are sometimes fought. Sometimes we are in situations where we have to defend ourselves, in conversations, in relationships, sometimes in courtrooms, and sometimes in violent conflict. But, we do not demonize the other. Even when the other wounds us. Even when the wound is deep. Even when the wounding feels like betrayal and hatred bubbles up in us. We conquer it in the same way God conquered sin, by looking to Jesus who loved with a perfect love those who wounded him worst of all.
In the world in which I grew up, the Soviet Union was the enemy. Today it is universally acknowledged that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth. That was not so in the 1980’s. Back then, if there was all-out war between America and Russia, no one knew who would win. I don’t know that I harbored hatred in my heart for Russia, but I certainly thought of Russia as the enemy. In popular movies like Red Dawn, Rock IV, and many of the James Bond movies, Russia was depicted as where “the bad guys” comes from. Cold. Unfeeling. Grey. Unhappy. I never could have imagined then that of all the nations on earth, I would, at 41 years old, have a deep, deep love of all things Russian. But then I went to Russia and adopted a Russian child and Russia, my enemy, has since occupied a place of deep love in my heart.
This morning as a church, we pray for God to move us so that we can love the enemy and feed his hunger and pray for his well-being. God led me to adopt, What will God do in you, what invasive work of the Holy Spirit will occur, to reshape your heart so that the enemy who riles becomes the one you love?
Our communal prayer this morning is that God would equip us to love the enemy. You might not want to. I think of a pastor in Ethiopia who was brutally murdered by Muslims because he dared evangelize – the very work Jesus commanded. I don’t want to love those brutes who hurt this man of God. Love the enemy? God calls us to this. If we trust Jesus, then we trust that the best lives we can live are lives in which we, paradoxically by conventional wisdom, love our enemies. So we plead with God to make us able to love and bless the enemy.
We begin in silent prayer, seeing our enemy in our minds and asking God to shape our hearts so we can love the enemy. Prayer leads into a change of heart.
After our silent prayer, we will take communion together. Our taking of the bread and the cup continues the prayer. As we said, our sins cut us off from God just as our enemies sins cut them off from God. In this, we are the same as our enemies. The only hope against sin is the grace of God that we have in Jesus Christ, and that grace is represented at the communion table, in the cup and in the bread. In Christ, we have salvation. In him, we move from being enemies of God to being sons and daughters of God. In Jesus, our enemies also become sons and daughters of God.
So, think of the enemy you hate so much, you don’t want to love him or her – ever. In our time of silent prayer, see that person’ face. Ask God to fill you with divine love for that person.
After our silent prayer, in your spirit, invite that enemy to sit with you at the communion table. Together, you and your enemy take the bread and drink the cup. In this time of prayer, receive from God the power to love.
My wife Candy is a news-junkie. If I go for too long looking only at ESPN.com, I’ll miss some major story and Candy will say, “Don’t you know what’s going on?” I’ll say, “Of course! My beloved Detroit Tigers are still in first place.”
“No,” she says, “The Tsunami.”
“What Tsunami?” I reply.
That’s rare. Usually I glance at any number of online sites – CNN.com; the New York Times online; Reuters. Maybe you go online or use a mobile app for news. Maybe you watch TV. But what does the news have to do with prayer?
Last week, one of the main points was turning to God in all interactions with people, in relationships and run-ins with strangers. But interpersonal meetings aren’t the only in-take we have. Media writes it message on brains. We need God to help us process the things we read. Also, we pray because our prayers impact the world.
As I write this, I look at the main page of The New York Times website. There is a story about a presidential candidate. In 2012, our country will vote on our top elected office. How should I, as a Christ-follower vote? There is a story about the economic woes in Europe. How does that relate to the United States? We have had our own struggles. Do I know people who have lost jobs? How does God want me to respond to this news about the wealthy “1st world,” struggling as we are? Reading the news should drive me to prayer. I want God to inform and shape my own response to the world.
Also, I need to do my part. Revelation 8:3, John in heaven sees an altar and on it are the prayers of all the saints (Revelation 8:3). My prayer, your prayers – our prayers go up before God who hears and responds. I don’t know how to connect my specific prayer to God’s specific response. It is a mystery. But I am sure God hears our prayers and acts on them, and I am equally sure there is a negative consequence when we fail to pray. Of course, God is the sustainer and he won’t fail for absence of our prayers. But our prayers make a difference. Consider the Gospel of Matthew, 7:7. Jesus says to his followers, “Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find; knock, and the doors will be opened.” When I read the news, what am I to ask? What difference will my prayer make in the world? None if I don’t pray at all.
Whether it is NPR or Fox news, as responsible Christians and responsible citizens we need to be informed. As devoted Christ-followers, we pray over the news. The amazing happens when we do that. God speaks. The Holy Spirit speaks to us when we pray as we watch the news.
Moreover, as we pray prayers of intercession, we participate with God as God is involved in the events that are happening in the lives of people all over the world. In ways only known to God, our prayers make a difference.
In this process, justice is a core issue. When disasters hit, it seems the poor are always hit hardest. In Eastern Africa right, people are starving to death, but not all people. The poor suffer. Not the government; not the leaders of the extremist group Al Shabib. The poor. That’s a justice issue and we read about it daily in the news. In Syria, people crying for democracy are killed by government tanks. That’s a justice issue. Unemployment is on the rise in our country. That’s a justice issue. We can quickly flip over to the sports page. But God is more interested in the news that is dark.
- So in our reading do we go where God is or where it is more comfortable, less invasive on our conscience?
- As we flip through websites, do we spend time following God’s lead, concerned about injustice and how antithetical it is to the kingdom as God is concerned about injustice, or do we spend time getting our fantasy teams ready for the upcoming football season?
How we answer these questions is a commentary on our prayers lives and the condition of the relationship we have with God.
If we know God then we know God does not tolerate such inequity. God allows free will, humans with free will sin large and sin often, sins at the societal level lead to widespread suffering, but that does not mean God is indifferent, passive, or incapable of intervention. We read of the Lord’s servant, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Is. 42:4). I believe Jesus fulfilled the role of the suffering servant described in Isaiah. He himself in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6).
Isaiah 51, also about God’s servant, elaborates God’s response to bad news. This prophecy came against the backdrop of God’s people having turned away from the plan he had for them. The Chosen People consistently turned from God to idolatry as they envied powerful neighboring kingdoms. Eventually the northern Kingdom of Jews, Israel, was assimilated into Assyria. Judah, the Southern Kingdom was taken into exile in Babylon. This is 6th century BC. Isaiah is speaking to a people who fear that God has given them up and that their only future is slavery. God’s response is one of promise.
I read from Isaiah 51 in the New Revised Standard Version. Listen to the same passage in a couple of other translations.
Here is Isaiah 51 in the Amplified Bible
4Listen to Me [the Lord], O My people, and give ear to Me, O My nation; for a [divine] law will go forth from Me, and I will establish My justice for a light to the peoples.
5My rightness and justice are near, My salvation is going forth, and My arms shall rule the peoples; the islands shall wait for and expect Me, and on My arm shall they trust and wait with hope.
6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall be dissolved and vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner [like gnats]. But My salvation shall be forever, and My rightness and justice [and faithfully fulfilled promise] shall not be abolished.(A)
And here is Isaiah 51 in The Message, which I know many of you read regularly.
Pay attention, my people.
Listen to me, nations.
Revelation flows from me.
My decisions light up the world.
My deliverance arrives on the run,
my salvation right on time.
I'll bring justice to the peoples.
Even faraway islands will look to me
and take hope in my saving power.
Look up at the skies,
ponder the earth under your feet.
The skies will fade out like smoke,
the earth will wear out like work pants,
and the people will die off like flies.
But my salvation will last forever,
my setting-things-right will never be obsolete.
In our times of prayer, we can pray Isaiah’s poetry. When we listen to NPR or read Newsweek, we recall Isaiah and Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. Our memory and our faith that and our attentiveness to the Holy Spirit leads to the time spent consuming media as a time spent with God.
I have here The News & Observer from Wednesday. (You’ll have to imagine my cup of coffee and kitchen table.)
The center story above the fold is titled “Without bones, no murder trial.” The story is compelling. A man told his friend he needed help disposing of a corpse. The friend told police and he was nabbed. They ID’ed the dead woman, a mentally handicapped woman, and her family was notified. The district attorney determined the suspect, a man from Mebane, had shot the woman who lived in Durham. It seemed straightforward until the deceased woman’s family requested her remains. The district attorney turned the remains over before the case had been decided. The relatives had her cremated. When the defense attorney wanted the remains re-examined but the remains were gone. The judge dismissed the trial. The suspect goes free.
It’s a justice issue.
Now remember, we read the news because it is our responsibility as Christians and as citizens to be informed. We pray as we read because God will speak to us and form our spirits in this way as surely as he will when we attend a small group or worship on Sunday morning or read the Bible. We also pray because God listens to our prayers, and when the church prays, it impacts the course of events in the world.
In this case, how do we feel about the suspect? He must be guilty! It’s outrage! No don’t answer too quickly. It certainly is an outrage if a murderer goes free, and that may have happened. But this is not a time for quick answers. It’s a time for prayer.
Jesus said to love your enemies (Mt. 5:44). This man is not my enemy, but if he is a murderer, then he’s an enemy of the common good; an enemy to us all. He needs Jesus. Furthermore, I need to love him in spite of what he’s done. I can’t do it unless Jesus helps me. If, with a lot of help from the Lord, I can find it in me to love this guy and I give that love, I am becoming more like Christ. Remember, the words we read in Isaiah 51 were first given to a guilty community, a community who God allowed to be exiled because they had turn away from Him. Even with their guilt, God in his grace says, “My salvation will be forever” (Is. 51:6e). So by looking at this man in the orange jump suit and praying until God takes me from he’s a worthless criminal to he’s a man I am called to love just as Jesus love me, a sinner, I grow and God fills me. He fills me because I have opened myself to him in prayer.
Continuing in the story, I think of the woman’s sister who is also pictured, weeping on the stand as she testifies. She thinks her sister’s killer is now going scott-free and her own attempt to honor her sister through a dignified burial may have played a part in this convoluted affair. I must stop and pray for this broken woman. I don’t know how, but it will make a difference in her life, which right now is very broken as the article made clear. My holding her up in prayer will help her.
I must also pray for the system. We want guilty people put in jail. That’s justice. We want the accused to have a fair trial with all the evidence in tact. That’s justice. We want everyone in the system – judge, defense, prosecutors, and law enforcement to work together. Only when they are in concert with one another will justice happen. I am reminded I need to pray for lawyers and judges, for policemen and prison guards. I need to pray for all of these and this story reminds me of my calling to intercede before God on behalf of my community. In all seriousness, just spending with one story in the newspaper can be a thoroughly involved spiritual exercise with impact on daily life.
Another story, this one on page 3A, is about taxes. One of the richest men in America believes our federal government should raise taxes. He says, “My friends [other billionaires] and I have been coddled by a billionaire-friendly congress long enough.” Furthermore, he claims because of tax loopholes that he knows of millionaires who pay less in taxes than their secretaries.
What a powerful opportunity for prayer! How the rich are taxed verses how the poor are taxed – this is a justice issue. In a nation with rising unemployment and a growing gap between the extremes of wealthy and impoverished and a shrinking middle class, this is a justice issue. What our government does with the taxes collected – it’s a justice issue and one we must pay attention to. Of course, officials the story are named involved. Depending on whether you lean democrat or republican, the mere mention of our President’s name may make you smile or make your blood boil.
How do you feel about the president? Stop! What does God say? We’re supposed to love the one in the white house and pray for God to guide and protect him. We can criticize, but in humility and love. As we ponder and digest this story, we do so slowly, asking the Lord to go to work in our hearts.
Isaiah 51:4 says the Lord’s justice, which is packed full with amazing grace, will be a light to the people. This story about taxes leads me to pray for the wellbeing of our nation and to pray for my own contribution to greater good both as a hardworking American and even more as a praying Christian. I am also led to pray for the souls of those who so are rich, their money prevents them from seeing God; and also to pray for the provision for those who are so poor that even with the assistance the receive, they still have many months where they have to a couple days without eating so they keep the lights turned on.
Obviously one story could drive a person to pray for an hour, and that would be alright. Clicking onto the news site or flipping on the radio for news, we have to be discerning. Maybe we offer brief, 15-second prayers in many stories, and then set one aside and come back to later for deep, lengthy, involved prayer. Our prayer is to be never separated from our intake of news and media. In fact, our prayer life is to define how we digest the news we take in. God is a God of justice, and when we read the news, with hearts full of God’s passionate love, we seek His justice.
As we close this morning, I want everyone here to recall one story from this past week. We will have a time of silent meditation. During this time, you are invited to come to the steps and briefly lift up to God some aspect of the news story or the current issue that’s on your heart. It could be the U.S. economy, next year’s elections, the fighting in Afghanistan or Libya or Syria, or something local. School starts soon; joblessness has hit our own state and our some in our church. Once we begin our silent prayer, everyone should be coming, kneeling at the steps, and praying for an issue God has laid on your heart.
After everyone has prayed we will join together in saying the Lord’s prayer.
Then we will sing a song of response in which you are invited to seek out one of our pastors if you have a specific prayer concern or would like someone to pray with you. Heather and Jonathan will be at the back and I’ll be here. Through silence, through coming forward to pray for justice (an issue of justice of particular importance to you), through praying together the prayer Jesus taught, and through singing and responding, this is a time we as the family of God pray.
What a question! I don’t remember anything particular from the kids’ responses. I am more interested in how we, Christ-followers at HillSong Church, deal with this question.
I ran errands: post office, bank, grocery store. It took 90 minutes. Great! In that time, in those places, when did I express my faith in Jesus? When, where, and how, did I live out my life as one who is walking with Him?
I woke up. I did my morning walk, 2½ miles in 45 minutes. I got my kids’ breakfast ready. I kissed my wife goodbye. And, 2 hours after I woke up, I was on my way to work. OK, in that time, how I did represent Jesus and express His gospel in my interactions, in my words and my behavior.
There was nothing super spiritual! We just went skiing.
I just went in and mailed a package.
I just did my walk and saw the same joggers and dog walkers and commuters I see every day. What do you mean, how did I live my Christianity?
Failure to see Jesus in our ordinary places, our everyday experiences, and we fail to understand the fullness and the reality of him coming, him teaching, him dying, and him rising to resurrected life. Faith is only real and Jesus only matters when faith is applied where we live and we see Him and interact with Him and He impacts our approach to others in our daily lives.
Some words I am afraid to use in church – holiness; righteousness; purity. We wouldn’t normally comment on the holiness of the waitress. Man, she filled my coffee just right, to the perfect spot in the cup. I asked for ½ cup, and that’s what she gave. It wasn’t a third and it was not 5/8. Perfect – a righteous waitress.
Oh the mechanic who fixed my car; he was holy. He did the job right and my car has run like new for a year now, and it’s going on 6 years old. Yes, that large man with greasy hands is a holy man. The work he does shows it.
Sounds pretty silly. Holiness and righteousness seem like churchy words and we leave them at church. And does purity have any meaning beyond a young woman who has not had sex or a clean snowfall that has not been disturbed?
Purity, righteousness, and holiness are wonderful words and should describe the character of all who claim they are Christians, Christ-followers. We are called to holiness in life – throughout life, even in the daily, mundane places of life. Especially there. The kids on the ski trip or the post office run or the home life from wake-up to out the door … in these places we express the holiness we are called to.
Richard Foster writes in Streams of Living Water, “Holiness is the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It means being ‘response-able,’ able to respond appropriately to the demands of life.”[i] The Gospel of Jesus determines what is appropriate.
We may be tempted to comb through the Gospels for rules about appropriateness. When is a divorce Biblically appropriate? When is it appropriate for me to use physical force in a situation? What does Jesus say is appropriate and is a witness to my faith when I am in my role on the job, in friendships, in encounters with people at the mall, in my role as a student … etc? This can be helpful and the scripture does offer guidance in the situations of our lives. But there is also an important caution. We miss the mark if we turn the Bible into a rules book or a reference manual. That’s what was taking place in the event recorded in Matthew 15.
Again, from Richard Foster:
Holiness is not rules and regulations. Elaborate lists of dos and don’ts miss the point of a life hidden with God in Christ. …
Holiness is sustained attention to the heart, the source of all action. It concerns itself with the core personality, the wellspring of behavior. It focuses upon … the transformation of [the heart].
Holiness is not otherworldliness.
Holiness is world-affirming. The holy life is found smack in the middle of everyday life. We discover it while being freely and joyfully in the world without ever being of the world. Holiness sees the sacred in all things. It is integrative, synoptic, Incarnational.[ii]
In Matthew 15, tension arises as leaders in the community, experts in Torah law, see in the Bible a rule book. Jesus sees the rules as a means for opening the way to relationship with God.
The controversy kicks off when the Pharisees and scribes travel from Jerusalem all the way to Galilee in the North. There they confront Jesus. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat” (15:2). This infuriates Jesus because the Pharisees worry more about keeping the rules than helping people make their way to God.
According to scholar Robert Mounce,
The tradition of the elders was a body of oral literature that grew out of a desire to expound the written law and apply it to new circumstances. … The Pharisees considered this [oral tradition] to be as binding as the written law itself [the law Moses received at Sinai]. The Sadducees rejected it, and [everyday folks] ignored it. The washing before eating had to do with ceremonial uncleanness, not hygiene. Leviticus 11-15 treats the subject of unclean foods. From the Jewish point of view, people became unclean by contact with any sort of “unclean” object or person. To ensure purity, people would go through a rather elaborate ritual of purification before they ate.[iii]
Jesus’ disciples skipped the ritual. They didn’t follow the rules the Pharisees were sure mattered. For their part, the Pharisees wanted holiness. They wanted to be right in God’s eyes. They wanted this more than anything. So, they worked hard at it. Furthermore, theirs was a communal mindset more than an individual one. Not only did they want to be clean and thus be righteous. They wanted everyone in Israel to follow suit.
The problem the Pharisees had was the same problem you and I have – a heart problem. No amount of work or religious effort or ritual-keeping will drive the sin out of our hearts. As long as the sin remains, we may appear clean, but inside, we are corrupted. We are fallen people. Made in the image of God, very good, we have fallen and have turned to the ways of self-worship which leads to all types of destruction in our lives. The Pharisees were fallen, the disciples were fallen, and we are fallen.
A further problem of the Pharisees is they did not understand the way out of their predicament. They knew about sin. They thought the answer was in their own ability to get things right. Actually, the answer lies in having a life that near to God. When our lives are marked by a love relationship with the Heavenly Father, then the sin has been driven out and we are near that holiness he has called us to live out. We are able in all things in life to “do what needs to be done” as Foster says. We are able because God makes us able and we are responsive to God.
In the back and forth with the Pharisees, Jesus breaks with tradition. He re-interprets truth when he says, “It is not what goes into the mouth (food held by unwashed hands) that defiles a person. It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (15:11). “What comes out of the mouth” – words that reveal the content of a sinful heart. A question everyone could ask daily, if he or she truly wanted to live as a Christ-follower, would be, “Will my words today reveal a corrupt heart, or the life of someone who is so near to God that Jesus is seen in me?”
How would our lives look if we took that question seriously and took that question to God all the time?
“Will my words today reveal a corrupt heart, or will my words reveal the life of someone who is so near to God that Jesus is seen in me?”
How will our lives look if we don’t pray this question?
Jesus answers. The disciples were terribly concerned. “Do you know the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said” (v.12)? Umm, yes, Jesus knew that. We could ask the same thing. “Jesus, do you know that if we strive for holy living by consulting God in prayer all the time and then doing what we know God wants us to do … do you know that if we do that our lives will look very, very different than those who are materialistic, self-serving products of the 21st century consumerist age?” Umm, yes, Jesus knows.
He said of the Pharisees they were blind guides, guiding blind people. All would end up in a pit. If we follow the popular trends of our day especially in terms of ethical decisions, morals, and our treatment of people – if we do it the way everyone does it – if we live for the sake of being popular and serving our own selves, then we are blind and are following the guidance of the blind. We will not end up living the abundant life of unsurpassed joy Jesus promised. We might end up rich and in possession of a lot of cool things; we might not. But if we ignore God and follow after the trends of our day, we end up in a pit. We fall and cannot get up.
Jesus says, “Out of the heart comes evil intentions,” and the evil born in our sins and the sins of those around us is what corrupts us, dragging us far, far from our Heavenly Father.
Rejecting the way of the Pharisees, holiness achieved by makings rules and then following the rule, Jesus shows a better way. It begins with his presence – God became man. At Mount Sinai, God gave the law to show us how to be in relationship with God. In Jesus, God gives himself. The law was only ever intended to help human beings into a relationship with God. Jesus accomplishes what the law could not. He makes us holy – right in God’s eyes. It only happens, though, when we are near to him. We have to be near to Jesus to live rightly. Without that relationship, a relationship we are conscious of and attentive to throughout every day, we cannot be holy. God calls us to be holy.
How then do we do it? We’ve already said that Jesus rejected a religion of rules. We don’t want to ignore that by listing our “to dos” for spiritual formation this week. We cannot will ourselves to holiness. Jesus had said out of the heart comes evil – murder, adultery, fornication, theft, dishonesty, wicked maligning speech. It all proceeds from your heart and mine. So how do we respond when someone asks, “At the McDonalds after the ski trip, or in conversation with your family when you got up this morning, or when you first got into work, how did your live your Christianity?
There’s much to say that will go unsaid this morning. We must discuss death to self. We must discuss forgiveness. We must go over spiritual disciplines and the role they play in spiritual formation. We cannot hit all these highly important topics this morning. This August, I believe God wants HillSong Church, the people of the church, to go deep in our prayer lives. How do we take the first step on the walk to holy living? We take a step in our relationship with Jesus. We decide we will deepen our prayer lives.
More specifically, we decide we will take everything in our lives to God in prayer. We decide we will turn to the Holy Spirit and we will ask God to show us how to listen to and how to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Really, there’s nothing we can do to become holy. God is the one who makes us holy. What we can do is turn to Jesus.
The rich man came and asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus responded, “Sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come and follow me.” Jesus is not rejecting wealth per se. But for that man, wealth made it impossible for him to be present with God and open to God. He had to remove the impediment and then stay near Jesus. Many times, Jesus healed someone, they begged to follow him, and he did not allow it but instead sent them to the priest to show they had been healed. But for this rich man, Jesus insisted he divest himself of everything and be with Jesus.
That’s it for us this morning! Listen to the great 19th century South African Pastor, Andrew Murray:
Nothing but the knowledge of God as the holy one will make us holy. How are we to obtain that knowledge of God unless we go to him alone in the place of prayer? It is utterly impossible unless we take time and allow the holiness of God to reveal itself to us. How can anyone on earth obtain intimate knowledge of another if he does not associate with that person and remain under that one’s influence? And how can God himself [make us holy] if we do not take time to be brought under the power of the glory of his holiness? … No man can make progress in holiness who is not often and long alone with God.”[iv]
When we develop a life of prayer, we’ll understand what holiness is because we will know God. We’ll be prepared when someone asks, “In your dinner out at Breadman’s Restaurant, how did you live out your faith in Christ?” We can say how because our faith permeates everything. We don’t try to be holy in our relationships. We try to be completely open and completely honest with the Lord, and we involve Him in every minute aspect of our lives. In doing that, we open our hearts and he goes to work on us. He makes us new so that when we interact with people, they see Him in us. There are many things we do to get to that point. It starts with prayer and is sustained by God as we continually go to him in prayer.
We pray for holiness. We ask for it. Praying in all things and in all circumstances, developing a conversational relationship in which we lean on God in everything and put God first in everything, He makes us righteous, holy, right before him and in our dealings with people. The first step is toward Jesus in prayer.
I think today, as a parent of young kids, most of my fears have to do with them. I fear bad things happening to them. But, my home life is mostly lived at their level. I don’t need to fear the things that scare a 9-year-old. I have different perspective.
Things were different when I was 23. I was in the National Guard. We were only weekend warriors and back then, national guardsmen weren’t often called to actual combat duty. But, with the rise of Operation Desert Shield in Iraq in 1992, and the Desert Storm, the possibility of mobilization was there. So we trained with some seriousness.
One of the things infantrymen did was rappel. Either out of a helicopter or out of building, we’d lower ourselves down a rope and into battle. I never rappelled in an actual training exercise, but we practiced on the training tower and one side had no wall, just a skid that simulated a helicopter skid. You drop into open air.
I had many successful rappels. But on one occasion, I let the height of the tower get into my head, and I was just shaking. Well, you can’t do that. Infantrymen are full of machismo. You’re supposed to be a tough guy up there, and I’m shaking like a leaf, and the lieutenant running the tower can see my fear. I am just praying the other privates down on the ground aren’t as aware of it because I don’t want to hear their ribbing afterwards. In my head, I am cursing myself at my fear, but I cannot shake it.
Do you ever have fears like that? It’s not comfortable, but bring to mind your fears. What produces anxiety or dread? It could heights or speaking in public, or maybe swimming in deep water. Some people are deathly afraid of dogs. Perhaps your fear is not a phobia, but something else. Maybe you fear unemployment. Many in our church have had to face the threat of joblessness or the reality of it. The bills add up to a number that far exceeds what’s coming in and the savings are depleting fast. It can be scary.
Maybe your fear is disease – cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease or something else. You fear getting a life-threatening disease, or fear has a hold of you because you’ve been diagnosed.
Fear is real and is a force in life. Some fears are foreboding – the dark clouds of a storm rolling in slowly, unstoppable. Some fears are immediate – a prowler is behind the house and you’re home alone. Your heart begins pounding and you feel like you cannot move, like your body weighs 500 lbs. Fear must be dealt with.
Can fear lead us to prayer? Can prayer prepare us for fear?
In Matthew 14, Jesus is alone in the mountains, praying. What’s he saying to God? We don’t know. All Matthew gives us is that Jesus was alone in the mountains in prayer while the disciples were in a boat at sea. I am glad we don’t know the conversation Jesus had with his Heavenly Father that night. That should remain between the Father and the Son. I firmly believe those prayer sessions prepared Jesus as much I believe prayer prepares us for what comes in life. Jesus was mobbed by people who needed healing; Jesus confronted emissaries of Satan, demons from Hell; and Jesus did some serious sparring with the best legal minds in Israel. He needed special spiritual preparation and his prayer time was crucial.
While we don’t face the same trials he did, we come up against obstacles in life, we are tested in life, and we are tempted. To over come the impediments, pass the tests, and resist the invitations of Satan and turn away friends who would entice us into sin, we need to be ready. Prayer is where we prepare for what comes in life. Jesus sets the example by making it a priority to be alone with God.
Meanwhile the disciples were on the sea, and they sailed into a storm and the storm whipped up their fears. Pastor and author John Kilinger says his friends took a boat ride on the Sea Galilee. This was probably in the 1980’s, nearly 2000 years after the events of Jesus’ life. When they left the port, the skies were sunny, but once they were out to sea, a storm blew in. It was so violent, the people in the boat were hurled about, from one side of the boat to the other. The frantic captain radioed to have helicopters ready in case of a capsizing.[i]
The disciples had no radios and there were no helicopters to call. Yeah, they were terrified. They thought this was it. And there he was, a ghost of storms past, a sailor who had ridden the water before them and sunk down to the murky depths. This specter from the grave was coming to call them, an angel of death. And he did call, but not to tell them this was the end.
“Take heart, it is I,” Jesus said (14:27). At that moment, the storm did not let up one bit. The boat was still being tossed by angry waves. Thunder roared threats from the sky, and lightning crashed with intimidating fierceness. Could the disciples get beyond the calamity around them and beyond their fears of the sea and fears of demons? Could they see Jesus in the storm? Fears are real and powerful. In the middle of our fear, can we see Jesus and hear him?
I read about Texas Ranger and Major Baseballer Josh Hamelton. He’s the reigning American League Most Valuable Player. Last year he had 100 runs batted in, 32 home runs, and his average was .359. If he had not missed 30 or so games, he might have threatened to lead in each of those categories, the Triple Crown. If you don’t know baseball, the Triple Crown happens about once every 50 years.
As you might guess, Hamelton was a phenom right out of high school, but he was originally drafted by Texas. He was drafted by Tampa. In minors, he got injured. So he was alone, extremely young, a millionaire and with time on his hands.
He started hanging out at a tattoo parlor which led to partying which led to alcohol and a cocaine addiction. The 6’ 4”, 230-lb stud withered away to 180 lbs, a shell of a man living from one fix to the next. He was out of the game for 4 years.
One night, he woke in a trailer surrounded by passed out junkies. He did not know where he was. He made his way to his grandmother’s house, but with an ultimatum. Get right with God and quit drugs or get out. His goals were simple, but impossibly difficult. He needed to turn back to God, fix his marriage, and leave drugs and alcohol behind. Rehabbing his life, he found his way into a youth baseball academy in Florida. There he did janitorial work, but also took his turns in the batting cage and it was clear he could still hit. The Tampa Rays gave him one more chance, and a couple of trades and a couple of years later, he was MVP with the Rangers.
In his story, something jumps out at me. Hamelton had become a Christian in his teens, but he didn’t develop a prayer life. He believed, but then the success and subsequent fall into drugs took him far from God. When his grandmother both took him and confronted him, he, for the first time, began to pray. I wonder if anyone here has been a Christians for a long, maybe years, but has never developed a prayer life. You believe, but don’t talk to God and listen to God and lean on God in tough times. You don’t rely on God when facing your fears.
Josh Hamelton continues in the middle of a brew, roaring cauldron. His recovery and journey of faith has not taken him out of the storm. When Jesus walked to the disciples on the water, the storm didn’t stop. The very thing that produced their fears did not go away. The storm was still there. They were still way out to sea. But now, they realized Jesus was with them in the storm.
Major league baseball players have groupies – some autograph seekers, but also many attractive young women who would love to hook up with a millionaire athlete. They play 82 road games in a dozen cities around the country. Temptations are everywhere. When Hamelton is on the road, he has to have the minibar from his hotel room and the television turned off. His addiction so potent that he cannot carry any cash on him; he might use it on drugs. Last year, he not only one the MVP. He led the Rangers to the World Series. Winning the American League, the team would celebrate as champions do – with Champaign flowing. He could not be around that. He’s got a believing wife, a team chaplain, teammates who are Christians – they all come together as the presence of Christ guiding this superstar, this fragile, broken human through the storm, past his fears. And he prays.[ii]
What difference will prayer make when I am confronted by my worse fears?
Jesus walked on the water in the storm to the disciples. Verse 24 says they were battered by the waves. The Greek word ‘battered’ also means ‘tortured.’ Fear and torture go together to break a person and they were broken. But he said to them, “Take heart, it is I.” The Greek is ‘ego eimi.’ “I am.” Matthew’s readers would immediately see that this is what God said when Moses asked God’s name. God appeared in the burning bush, and Moses wanted to know God’s name. God said, “I am.” Jesus said, “I am.”
Lest we make this sound too simple, remember one disciple needed more. “Lord if it is you,” said Peter, “Command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28). Jesus did not make a big deal of the fact that he had already said, “I Am,” and that now Peter wanted more proof. Jesus did not scold Peter’s skepticism in the storm. Faith is hard to hold onto especially when the world around us – sin, Satan, temptation, death – conspires to make us forget God and reject Jesus. I don’t know if the 11 disciples in the boat were more faithful because they accepted it when Jesus said, “I Am;” or, if Peter was more faithful because he stepped. I suppose we could read it either way. Jesus showed up in the middle of their fears, in the middle of their storm, and He will show up in the middle of our fears and the middle of our storm because he loves us.
“Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” “Come.” Peter walked on water. He then came to the startling realization that Jesus was with him, but the storm wasn’t over. Feeling the gale force winds, he took his eyes off Jesus and sunk like the rock that he was. “Lord, save me,” he cried, and Matthew tells us Jesus immediately pulled him out of the water. Once they were on the boat, the disciples all worshiped him, which is the appropriate thing to do when one is with God.
Sometimes God plucks us out of the disaster, but sometimes God uses the disaster to do His work in us. Note that I did not say God causes the disaster – the car accident or the hurricane or the cancer or the divorce. I steadfastly do not believe God brings calamity just to make a point. I think God is always trying to grow us and love us, but sometimes we don’t pay attention until everything else is taken away or our fears are so pronounces everything else moves to the background.
Fear drove Peter to pray, “Lord, save me.” Fear led the baseball player to become a praying Christian. I am not sure what your fears are or how they impact your life. I am sure you have fears. I am sure your fears have an affect on you – we all have them and each one of us is impacted.
This morning I want us to hear the Gospel writer Matthew. He’s written his Gospel to help churches and to bolster the faith of believers. He wants us to meet Jesus. He wrote so we will hear Jesus say to us, in our trembling hearts, in our struggles, anxieties, and doubts, ““Take heart.” Jesus is saying to you and to me right now, “Take heart, I am here. I love you. I will walk with you.” Our fears are here too. The things that get to us are still on the prowl. But Jesus is walking alongside, carrying us when need be. And if we hear, “Take heart, I am here,” and upon hearing it, if we pray, Jesus will begin going to work in us. We’ll become people who are made new. And we won’t see the storm in the same way. We’ll see, but with Jesus coloring our vision, we’ll realize He is bigger than the storm and with Him, we have perfect Hope.