Reading: Matthew 6: 1-6; 16-18
An advertising executive for a well known Cola brand got a massive promotion, with responsibility to promote the drink in Israel. He was really excited about the opportunity but when he arrived he realised that he could not speak either Hebrew or Arabic. So he came up with an idea. He decided to do it with a poster showing just three pictures.
In the first picture a man was lying in the desert, exhausted and thirsty.
In the second he was seen drinking the Cola.
In the third one he was totally refreshed. Like a new man.
He sent his idea back to his bosses in America and they loved it. So they were quite surprised he didn’t sound excited when he rang to report how the campaign was going.
What’s wrong? they asked.
‘The campaign’s been a total disaster’ he replied.
‘Why what’s happened? Are the posters not going up?’
‘Oh no’ he replies, ‘the poster’s are everywhere. We’re on every major billboard in the city.
‘That sounds great. So what’s the problem?’
Well, nobody told me that over here they read right to left!
A lesson in the dangers of not knowing your audience.
That idea of being aware of for whom you are performing is the point of the section we reach this morning, as we continue working through the Sermon on the Mount.
You could say the first verse provides a really good summary of the rest of what we shared.
Make certain you do not perform your religious duties in public so that people will see what you do. If you do these things publically, you will not have any reward from your Father in Heaven.
Those listening would have understood what Jesus meant by ‘religious duties.’ They would have known Jesus was talking about three things.
- Giving to the poor
Jesus goes on to make pretty much the same point, with almost identical words, about each of these religious duties. be careful that you know your audience. Know why you do it, who you do it for.
The word translated ‘perform’ is θεαθῆναι (theathenai). Any thoughts on which English word would have the same root? Theatre! Jesus is saying don’t let your religious duties be an act of theatre.In English we might say ‘when you do something good, don’t make a song and dance about it.’ It’s about putting on a show.
Then in each of the sections which Ruth read for us this morning the same word crops up. ὑποκριταὶ (hypocritai). Which means… hypocrites.
Don’t make a big show of giving to the needy, the way hypocrites do…
When you pray, don’t do it like the hypocrites.
When you fast don’t do it like the hypocrites do…
Probably by the time of Jesus the word hypocrite understood and used much as we would use it. But hypocritai was another word borrowed from the theatre. It was their word for ‘actor.’ In plays they would hold up a mask to cover their face and pretend to be someone else. So, in time, hypocritai came to mean a person who is pretending to be one kind of person, when the truth is they are quite different.
It was said of the Puritans that they lived their lives like they were performing for an audience of one. Sometimes people say a singer or a speaker can be performing to a great big audience but can somehow make you feel like you were the only person in the room. Or they give it everything whether they’re wowing the crowds at Wembley Stadium, or singing for their Gran at a birthday party.
One way of summarising what Jesus is saying here, is to follow the example of the Puritans. When you perform religious duties, do it as if for an audience of one. And know who that audience of one is. Even though much of what we do will be visible in public, live like there is only one person watching.
It’s worth pausing for just a moment to get a sense of the flow in the Sermon. It’s taken months to get this far and it can seem like a series of random, albeit brilliant, ideas or sayings which Jesus somehow strings together. But there is a flow to this.
Jesus starts off with the Beatitudes, or announcements of God’s blessing. Jesus looks out on his first disciples, then onto the larger, very diverse crowd, watching on, listening in, and announces to them that they are blessed, that God is with them.
He then talks about being salt and light, which we’ll come back to in a moment. He then says he wants them to have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees. In fact there are two very different groups that Jesus warns them not to be like. On the one hand there’s the scribes, the Pharisees, the really religious types. People who were admired for their devotion to God. On the other hand there were the pagans. The ones others looked down on. Who even that crowd probably thought ‘I’m better than them.’
So we saw last week Jesus saying ‘so you love those who love you back? So what? Even pagans do that. Surely you can do better than them?’ Later when Jesus talks about prayer he tells them not to ‘babble on like pagans.’
From there Jesus begins to describe what ‘greater righteousness’ looks like in daily life. And there are two parts to that.
There is loving the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…
… and loving your neighbour as yourself.
So Jesus starts with the social or moral side of things. Murder, adultery, divorce, lying and integrity, vengeance and dealing with those who hate you. All sorts of really quite obviously destructive behaviours that it’s healthy to avoid.
Then in chapter 6 Jesus turns his attention to the more obviously God-dy, religious, ‘spiritual’ side of life. He turns away bad or destructive attitudes and actions, to things which at least on the surface seem good. But even these things, warns Jesus, have their dangers.
But even these religious activities cover all of life.
I take you back to my artistic masterpiece which I’ve used a few times. It’s not without it’s faults, but it does show that we’re designed to live in a whole set of relationships. Going clockwise from the top we’re designed to live in relationship with the divine, with other people, with creation itself and with ourselves.
Although the three activities, giving, prayer, fasting might be described as religious, or we might say spiritual, all four of these relationships are part of these three activities.
In giving we serve others.
In prayer we seek God.
In fasting we remember we are reliant on creation. We are nourished and fed from the earth.
There is also an element of disciplining ourselves.
So all of these relationships are covered in these three activities.
A couple of things to say on what Jesus says about these things.
Firstly, nowhere does Jesus say these activities are bad. Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop giving, praying or fasting. Quite the opposite. They are good things. In fact Jesus assumes we will do them.
He doesn’t say if you give to the needy;
if you pray;
if you fast.
It’s when you give to the needy;
when you pray;
when you fast.
In fact more precisely it’s whenever you give to the needy;
whenever you pray;
and whenever you fast!
Jesus assumes these are things we will habitually do.
The evangelical Protestant tradition quite rightly emphasises, or should emphasise grace. That our standing with God is not based on what we have achieved. God loves us just because. Nothing we can do can make God love us more or less.
I firmly believe that. A friend of mine was criticised by folk in his church because he ‘talked too much about grace.’ When he told me I said ‘I want that on my gravestone.’
But that doesn’t mean our relationship with God just happens. Down through the centuries people have used a range of disciplines to help them in their discipleship. Giving, prayer and fasting have been key in that.
They all serve a purpose. Giving helps us remember that all the good things we enjoy come not purely from our own hands, but as a gift from God. Even when we earn the money, who gave us the skills, gifts and strength to do it? In giving we remember that all that we have is a blessing from a generous God, who invites us to share in his blessing by being generous to others.
In prayer we connect with God. We recognise that we’re not all powerful, nor where we meant to be. The universe does not rely on us. We’re reminded that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. And we’re drawn into relationship with the divine. We find our attitudes, priorities and longings become more attuned to those of our creator. We make space to allow ourselves to be drawn ever closer into what God wants for us.
In fasting we become more aware of our dependence on the earth to provide what we need. We’re reminded that what we have comes from the earth. Fasting gives us a chance to name our idolatries. We’re reminded that there are things we rely on too much, that we struggle to do without.
It’s good, it’s healthy to set those things aside for a time. Even just to wait a while for them. It stop us assuming we can just have them when we want them. It stops us becoming like spoilt children, treating the good things of life as a right, rather than a gift.
I hold my hand up and say that fasting is a discipline I’ve neglected. I’ve been challenged about it as I’ve worked through the Sermon.
There is a balance to be struck. We’ve been given a beautiful world to enjoy. Although they had a strong tradition of fasting, Jewish tradition also included the idea that at judgement we will have to account not just for our actions, but for all the good things God gave us to enjoy but that we chose not to!
Yet of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is probably the one that most challenges a part of our culture which needs to be challenged. That part which thinks we should be able to have what we want, how we want it, when we want it.
Might there be something to the idea that a generation which has neglected fasting, a generation which has lost its connection with the idea of what we need coming from the earth; is also a generation which has taken our world for granted and stopped caring for it as we should?
(I don’t throw, I’m merely throwing that out there as a thought that makes sense to me).
So Jesus does not say any of these things are bad. Nor does Jesus say that being noticed doing any of them is bad of itself. Jesus isn’t saying that God stops being interested if you’re ‘rumbled.’ It’s about intent.
Earlier in the sermon Jesus seems to say the complete opposite. When he talks about ‘salt and light’ he says ‘let your shine shine, so that people see your good deeds…
… and glorify your Father in heaven.
And there’s that intent. It’s not about desperately being secretive. It’s about your intent. Are you doing this because you want people to think you’re great? Or are you doing it simply because it’s right, or it’s an opportunity to share with God in making his world more like God would want it?
Jesus isn’t encouraging false modesty. In the church it seems sometimes we’re expected to accept criticism gracefully, but we get really embarrassed about praise. It is good and healthy to be able to take praise and criticism in the spirit in which they were intended.
But Jesus is also aware that good as these practices or disciplines are, they can lend themselves to false motives. In Judaism they had set hours for prayer. They would stop wherever they were and pray. It was good that they could do it. But you could just make sure you were somewhere really public so that you could be seen doing it.
Also there was only one compulsory fast in Judaism, on the Day of Atonement. But some devout Jews chose to fast twice a week. On Mondays and Thursdays. Which were market days. And they would look dishevelled and let everyone see just how good they were and how devoted they were.
But they were doing it for the audience. They were doing it in order to be noticed. They were playing to the crowd. They wanted to be noticed. And judging by what Jesus says, they were.
We too do well to avoid the destructive attitudes, tendencies and behaviours that Jesus outlines in the second half of chapter 5.
But equally even the good stuff we do is not without its dangers. The Old Testament prophets warned about seeming to honour God, when our hearts were far from him. At one stage God even told them he detested their religious life, because it was not reflected in how they lived. It wasn’t drawing them further into relationship with God and his purposes for the world.
It’s the same for us. We can give, even large sums for all sorts of reasons. We can give because we’ve been made to feel guilty and even resent giving. We can give because we want to be seen in a good light. Or we can give because we really want to. We care. It’s a cause close we’re passionate about, that is close to our hearts.
Likewise, have you ever attended a prayer meeting and thought ‘I’m not going to pray now, because so-and-so has prayed and I just sound silly compared with them? Growing up there were men in the church I used to dread praying because they’d go on forever. That may have said more about me than them, to be fair.
I’m certainly not saying we should dumb it down if that is how we are gifted. But sometimes we need to be careful who we are doing it for. I came across a story about a civic service in Boston, USA, after which someone write of a prayer as ‘the finest ever delivered to a Boston audience!’ As Philip Yancey says in his book on prayer one question which has just important as ‘are we connecting with God’ is ‘is God connecting with the real me?’
Likewise helpful as fasting, and indeed any form of sacrifice is, it is possible to be making ourselves out to be real martyrs. To let others know just how reliant on us people are. How we just don’t have time for anything these days as we’re so busy.
It is an exceptionally easy danger to fall into. No-one sets out to do it. We’d be horrified to think that’s what we’re doing. It can start from a good place of wanting to give our best. It can also come from a good place of wanting to set a good example or be a good example.
I mean I take seriously the art of the sermon. I think carefully how I put things together, the words I use, the way I present it. I want to make it informative and challenging, but also interesting, entertaining, perhaps even funny. I see all of that as my act of worship. And it is nice when it is appreciated. It’s no bad thing for me to accept praise.
But it comes down to intent. It would be very easy for it to become all about wanting people to like me. Giving you what you want. and it’s the same for all of us.
But what’s all this about reward? Some are uncomfortable with the very notion of reward. We should surely be doing it out of love. We don’t like to think of having mixed motives.
What about Jesus’ announcement that we’re already blessed? What about grace? What about not earning God’s favour?
Trouble is, Jesus, time and again seems to have no problem using that kind of language. Perhaps we should be wary of trying to be more holy or spiritual than Jesus.
John Stott offers a useful way of understanding this. Some rewards have no direct link with what we do. When you’re a witness to a crime you might get a reward. When you do a job, you get paid.
But there is a different type of reward. One that’s just an natural consequence of what we do. The reward of the lover is the deeper relationship. The reward of the athlete who trains hard is being able to do their best in the big race.
Jesus, he says, is talking about the second type. That in these things the rewards God offers are being drawn into deeper relationship with himself.
There are some things that the more we invest in them, or give ourselves to them, the more they benefit us.
I like Dr Who. Always enjoyed it. But some people really love it. So when new episodes come on there is all sorts of stuff they will spot that I won’t. Same with those of you who love a particular poet, novelist, composer, whatever. The more time and energy you spend on it, the more you give yourself to it, the more you get out of it. And faith is like that. The more we focus our attentions on God the more we are drawn into relationship with God.
But there is another way of looking at this.
God won’t force himself into where he is not wanted. Jesus is telling us if at heart our religious devotion is not really about God, God won’t make it about him. He’ll just politely step away.
Giving, praying, fasting, are all opportunities to be drawn into relationship with God and join him in reshaping his world until it becomes more as he intended.
But they can all be done with mixed motives. If what we really want is the praise of others, of if we really just want to feel good about ourselves, we can have it. Work hard enough at getting noticed and you’ll get it. You chose your audience and they’ll applaud.
But God will not make it all about him. He’ll let you have it and politely step away.
But what’s the good news?
God is not an accountant.
God is not transactional. Jesus isn’t not saying if you do the right things in the right way, you’ll be rewarded. Fail to do them in the right way, you lose.
In all we do we choose our audience. If we want the praise of others, if we want to feel good about ourselves we can achieve that.
But you know what? You’ll be forever chasing it. It is a drug. You’ll only be as good as the last thing that’s noticed. Get it badly wrong and it’ll be a long way back.
But there is a different way. To live as if for an audience of one. To take up the invitation to be drawn deeper into relationship with the divine, to join him in reshaping his world.
Jesus doesn’t specify what the rewards of that will be. The relationship with your creator may be reward enough. Jesus simply asks us to believe that God can be trusted.
When you live for an audience of one you can relax. You don’t have to constantly chase his approval. You don’t need to constantly seek validation, great as that is. You don’t need to measure up. For with this God you are ENOUGH.
He is with you, not because of how good you are, or what you’ve achieved, simply because. So give, pray, fast, sacrifice. They are good things. Good for us and our world. When you live honestly for the audience of one, and that one is God, you don’t have to constantly seek approval. You already have it.
Reading: Matthew 5: 38-48
On November 8 1987, 11 people were killed and 63 others injured when an IRA bomb exploded in the Reading Rooms, near a war memorial, in a town called Enniskillen, as the town prepared for it’s Remembrance Sunday service. It was one of the most shocking events to take place during what were rather politely called the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Retaliation followed. In the following week there were no fewer than 14 gun and bomb attacks aimed at Roman Catholics in Belfast.
Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie was amongst the victims of original bomb, famously forgave those who had planted it. He went on to become a peace campaigner and a Senator in the Republic of Ireland.
A couple of weeks later Leanne, a 16 year old girl from my school, attended a Memorial Service for the victims at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. During a prayer they were asked to join hands and Leanne found herself holding hands with a nun.
It suddenly occurred to her that she didn’t know any Roman Catholics. It wasn’t that she was a bigot. On the whole Protestants and Catholics live in different areas and were, still are, educated at different schools. So it was quite ‘normal.’
But Leanne decided she didn’t want to live that way any more. A few days later she announced to our school assembly that she planned to establish links with a couple of nearby Catholic schools. She was going to begin by inviting them to come and visit our school, for tea and coffee just to meet and see where it takes us. Anyone who wanted to join her was welcome.
It led to several cross community ventures. It even made news in America. I came across this article from a newspaper in Oregon. It’s quite funny reading it, almost 30 years on. Leanne says ‘because we’d never met, we had these ideas about the other side, then when we came together, we found they were just like us.’
It wasn’t universally popular though. To some, Catholics were the enemy. Leanne argued that even if that were true she’d still be called to love them. She couldn’t claim to love them if she never met them.
We’re working our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today we reach what might be considered the high point of the Sermon. The words Femi read for us are amongst the famous, admired, challenged and resented words Jesus ever spoke.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.
If we’re honest we might question whether Jesus words even make sense. Pick any major conflict around our world today and ask how these words sound in the ears of those affected by them. Perhaps we don’t need to go that far. As a pastor I am conscious that I am not always aware of what you experience week by week. I am not always aware of what you have experienced or suffered in life.
This is easier said than done. I know this isn’t easy, for I’m a fellow traveller. Simply being told by your pastor you have to forgive and love your enemies is not always helpful.
Often when people try to point out ‘contradictions’ in the Bible, this is a ‘go to passage.’ The contrast between ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘turning the other cheek.’
So it’s worth pointing out that, as I said a few weeks back, when I talked about Jesus words on anger and lust, this is not a contrast of good and bad. It’s a contrast of good and better.
Jesus begins ‘you have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
And they had heard it said. Several times. You can find variations on these words in at least three different parts of the Old Testament. It was obviously so important it was worth repeating.
Or maybe it was worth repeating because people kept forgetting or found it so difficult.
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ was a major step forward in the ancient world. It was the basis for a legal principle we still use today, that the punishment should fit the crime.
These words were designed to limit violence in society. One of the big problems ancient societies faced was the blood feud. Actually it’s not just ancient societies. We know if someone hurts us, we don’t tend to carefully calculate how much they have hurt us before retaliating, taking great care to ensure we’re equal. You hit me, my instinct is to hit you harder. Then you want to hit me harder again. Round and round we go, the violence and the hurt getting worse each time.
Whole societies can get trapped in the spiral. I started by talking about Northern Ireland. We knew well the pattern of Protestant get’s shot Monday, so two Catholics were shot Tuesday, then another two Protestants on Thursday and so on… Rockets are fired from Gaza, so Israeli planes bomb them, so more rockets are fired… things escalate.
An eye for an eye was designed to stop that.
Also the eye for an eye was never about revenge. It was about justice. That’s important because these words aren’t saying that if someone attacks you, you shouldn’t report it to the police.
It’s just that these words were never intended to be about taking matters into your own hands. It was never meant to give me permission to hit you, if you hit me. It was a guide for those responsible for ensuring that justice was done. That any punishment they received was fair. Not vengeful.
Also, from a very early stage, certainly well before the time of Jesus, it was not applied literally. It was never a case of ‘you punched him, he lost a tooth, so open wide here come then pliers…..’
Rather if someone hurt you, they would have to compensate you financially. An elder, a judge of whoever would seek to work out the penalty according to the type of injury, how much it hurt, the cost of any necessary medical treatment, the loss of time, or income, and any indignity you suffered as a result of the injury.
Jesus doesn’t say that’s bad. Our world would be vastly better if we even managed to live this way. But Jesus is also aware of how difficult it is to stop justice slipping into vengeance. All too often what we think of as justice is actually revenge. Jesus does say there is a better way. A way where we live without vengeance. Without vengeance the spiral doesn’t get the chance to get started.
There are good, practical reasons why Jesus’ words make for wise advice. My old minister Mark Woods has recently published a book called ‘Does the Bible Really Say That?’ It’s a brilliant read. But in a chapter entitled Forgiveness is much harder than we think he writes ‘[S]omeone has said that holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Hatred is no good for us, even when the object of our hatred might richly deserve it. It makes us mean, it makes us sad, and it makes us ill.’
Jesus’ words would certainly have been sound, practical advice for those gathering round, watching on, listening in on the Mount. They were a diverse bunch but one thing they had in common was an enemy. The Romans. In one, possibly two, of the illustrations Jesus uses, which we’ll come to in a moment, it would have been Romans who instantly sprang to mind when they heard them. Retaliating with them wasn’t going to end well. Probably best to listen to Jesus.
But if you leave it there you would be missing the point. Jesus isn’t just dispensing practical wisdom for getting on in life, staying emotionally or physically happy or even self-preservation. Jesus isn’t offering a way that we can ensure we get through life without getting hurt. If he was, it didn’t work for him. Jesus isn’t asking us to pretend that they’re not really that bad, or what they do doesn’t matter.
Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves, our world and other people differently.
To view them all through God’s eyes.
To see them as God sees them.
There was one other thing about the understanding of the words ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ as ancient Israel understood them that was quite revolutionary. Other peoples around them had similar laws. But there was something unique about Israel’s code. In other cultures hurting a peasant wasn’t considered as bad as hurting a noble person. Therefore the punishment would have been different. What made Israel’s different was that everyone was viewed as an equal. They all had equal worth.
That’s quite important for understanding what Jesus says here. Because if you’re bullied or when you are under attack you can feel small and humiliated. Jesus’ words can sound like he’s just telling you to take it. To just slip away and allow them to demean you.
That’s not what is going on in Jesus’ illustrations. Quite the opposite.
Jesus words ‘if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the left one to them’ sound ridiculous. Why keep letting someone hit you? But that’s not how they would have heard it. For those who are lefties, I’m sorry, but Jesus assumes his villain is right-handed. Maybe take heart that it’s the bad guy who’s right-handed. If a right handed person wants to slap you on the right cheek there is only one way they can do it. With the back of the hand.
That kind of blow was designed more to insult than injure. It was only given to inferiors. A master might do it to a slave; or a Roman to a Jew.
Jesus’ words weren’t that they should take the insult lying down. By turning the left cheek to them you may be offering the prefect target for another blow. But they could only hit you with the forehand. Which was how you dealt with an equal! So by turning the left cheek you weren’t allowing them to keep humiliating you. Quite the opposite. You were refusing to be humiliated. You were saying ‘I’m not below you. If you want to keep treating me like this, you’ll have to see me as an equal.’
Then Jesus says ‘if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let them have your cloak as well.’ It sounds quite distant to us, but those listening would have known that if you’d reached that stage, you’d already lost everything else. You were down to the clothes on your back!
The poor only had two garments. An outer and inner one. According to Jewish law, if someone owed a great debt and couldn’t pay it, a creditor could take the outer garment as assurance that the debt would be paid. But they had to return it by nightfall, so the poor man would sleep in it.
It sounds like Jesus is telling them to allow themselves to be humiliated even more. But again those hearing it would have heard differently. They’d have smiled at the thought of someone stripping off and walking away from the court stark naked.
And you know what? The poor naked guy wouldn’t even have been the one who looked bad! That would be the person taking them to court. ‘What sort of person would leave someone like that?’ is what those around them would have thought. They wouldn’t have wanted the respectable sorts to think that way about them. Chances are they’d be better off just leaving it.
Jesus’ third illustration speaks describes a situation with a Roman soldier. Jesus says ‘if you’re forced to carry his pack one mile, take it two.’ Roman Law entitled a soldier to stop you in the street and force you to carry their equipment. We see an example of this at the crucifixion of Jesus, when Simon of Cyrene is made to carry Jesus’ cross. It was a humiliating thing to have someone just order you around like that. Again Jesus seems, to us, to be just saying ‘let them humiliate you.’ But again the truth is quite different.
For they were only allowed to force you to carry it for one mile.
Jesus’ hearers would have known what would happen if, at the end of the first mile, the one who had been forced to carry the pack said ‘don’t worry about it. Let’s keep going!’ They could get into serious trouble if they didn’t stick to the rules. The soldier could end up begging you to put the pack down.
In each case it seems to us like Jesus is telling those who are being humiliated just to take it. But that’s not what’s happening. Each time the aggressor is trying to belittle their victim, to make them feel worthless, to make them feel less than human. Each time Jesus is calling them not to forget their dignity. To refuse to be treated in that way.
But equally Jesus refuses to allow us to look on others as less than human.
Sometimes a mistake people make with these words of Jesus is try to turn them into some sort of new law. Jesus is not particularly interested in rules. He’s more interested in the person we’re becoming.
You could follow his words to the letter and still be no further on. You hit me on the right cheek and I could turn the other cheek. Then I could wait for you to be hit me again before punching you. You could turn the other cheek, allow someone to take the clothes off your back, and run a marathon with a Roman’s backpack on.
You could do all those things and still be filled with hatred, bitterness and resentment.
And that hatred has no place within the plans of God.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t just stop with what we mustn’t do. Jesus hasn’t finished yet. They might have taken the command to love their neighbour as permission to hate their enemy but that was nowhere within their scriptures.
Instead Jesus calls us to love our neighbour and pray for those who persecute us. He links it to the love of a God who sends the same sun and rain on the good and bad alike.
One problem we have with this is that we use the word ‘love’ in lots of ways. I love my family, I love rugby, I love chocolate. We use the same word for all those loves. The Greek of the New Testament had much greater variety of language, with different words for different types of love.
Jesus isn’t telling us to ‘love enemies’ in the same way we love our families. God knows it can be hard to love them at times.
Love is not a feeling. It’s often an act of will. It isn’t easy to seek what’s best for those who would wish us harm. It’s not easy to believe that God wants what is the very best for them as well as us.
We can divide the world into good and bad, right and wrong, us and them. Throughout history we have been very good at trying to sign God up for our team. We want God to see us, our world and others they way we do. But God’s not playing that game. Jesus invites us to see us, our world and others as God does.
We catch a glimpse of this in one of the least likely places in the Bible: the story of Israel capturing the land of Canaan. Joshua is approaching the city of Jericho. He encounters a man or an angel with a sword in his hand. Joshua says ‘are you for us or for our enemies.’ The man says ‘Neither, but as a commander of the army of the Lord I have come.’ Joshua wants to know ‘is God on my side or theirs’ and even then God is refusing to play the game.
One of the things the girl from my school in the story with which I started said makes sense here. She said ‘we has these ideas about them, but discovered they were just like us.’
Faced with conflict it is very easy for us to demonise those who are against us. To see ourselves as somehow different from them, above them, better than them. Jewish commentator Pinchas Lapide says of this passage that Jesus forces us to humanise the one we would hate.
I’ve talked before about my good friend and old spiritual director Derek, whom Julie and I called Daddy 2. I’d meet up with him and he’d ask me how things were going. Often there would be something frustrating me, a situation where I thought someone had wronged me. He would graciously nod and listen to me as I spoke, or sometimes ranted… Then he would say have you thought of this? And see it from their point of view…. He could be so annoying like that. For him it wasn’t really a question of who was wrong or right. He just wanted to shift my perspective. To see me, them, the situation differently.
That’s what Jesus is calling us to. To see us, them and our world differently. To see them as God sees them.
But as I said it’s not always helpful just to have your pastor tell you have to do it.
How do we even begin?
So let me touch this down with a few pointers. Firstly, let’s just be up front and admit it. This is not easy. It’s not something that comes naturally. We can’t just switch it on. It is a process and it takes time.
And it requires intention.
There are times when our enemy is clear and obvious. When someone has wronged us or we feel wronged. In those moments it might begin with resolving not to take revenge.
But that’s not always true. Most of us find it hard to love our enemies because we don’t even know who they are. Most of us spend most of our time drifting mindlessly through life. We don’t stop to take stock of where we are or what is happening. We’re busy and just reacting to what’s going on. We confuse our feelings with what is actually happening. We don’t always notice how what is going on around us is affecting us. And that sense of enmity slowly builds up within us. You can’t love your enemy if you don’t know who they are. You need to name them.
We need to make space to examine our hearts and discover who our enemy might be. We need to take time to name before God how that situation or person makes us feel. And we invite the Spirit to help us and heal us so that even if that person never changes, we won’t seek revenge. We invite the Spirit to help us to see them as God sees them.
That takes time. But God is patient. Jesus knows that will be a battle and he knows it will be painfully slow. He promises that when we start that journey we won’t do it alone, for when we do it he is reshaping us so that we become more and more like Christ.
Reading: Matthew 5: 27-37
John and Davina were the ‘golden couple’ in the church I attended as a teenager. They were young, talented, devoted to Jesus and although still in their early 20s, they were involved in a lot of church outreach. So it seemed a happy occasion when they got married.
Except almost overnight John grew quite miserable. I was quite worried about him. But soon after I left Belfast for university in St Andrews. About a year later, I had a summer job, working nights as a security guard in a factory. My walk to work took me past John’s office. I kept meeting him on his way to his parents’ home. At first I wondered if something was wrong with them, but he told me they were fine.
Eventually he asked if we could meet up and he told me. He was always going to his parents because he had moved back home. The marriage hadn’t worked. He’d known he was making a mistake when they got married, but it was what everyone else wanted and he thought he could make it work.
People often take sides in divorce and separation. This was no exception. There was no shortage of people ready to judge him for leaving. Including in church.
He’d made promises in the sight of God and now he was breaking him. They said.
He was supposed to set an example.
He should have stayed and made it work.
God would have healed their marriage if he’d had more faith.
A few years later he commented to me, and I must say it was without malice, that divorce had since come to the families of every one of those who had been quick to judge him.
My friend Keith is an agnostic married to a devout Roman Catholic. They have two children who are being raised Catholics. They attend mass most weeks. However this is not Keith’s wife’s first marriage. Some years before she met Keith, she divorced a man who drank too much and was violent. Their children are now at the age where they take communion and wonder why they are allowed to receive it, but mummy isn’t…
Debbie was a work colleague. We used to travel on the same train. Her main topic of conversation was her forthcoming wedding. She was really excited. Two years after I started in ministry she e-mailed me and asked if we could meet up. Over lunch she told me how her husband had been cheating on her and fathered a baby with another woman. Then she asked a question which has haunted me ever since. ‘If I divorce him, will I go to hell?’
Today is one of the harder subjects I’ve tackled with you in the three years since you called me to be your pastor. If statistics are to be believed, divorce is something with which we are all acquainted. If you haven’t been through divorce yourself, you’ve probably had family or friends experience it.
Can I be honest and say this subject, perhaps more than almost any other, has not been handled well by churches and Christians? Stories like those with which I started aren’t unusual. Those going through divorce, even through no fault of their own, can feel guilty judged, even isolated by the church. Last week Jeremy spoke of a family member being given horrendous advice by her church about dealing with an abusive husband.
And what makes someone think divorce is so bad that it’s a guaranteed ticket to hell?
In fairness, we mean well. It comes from a good place. The church has traditionally been for the family. That’s no bad thing. When family works well it is a great building block for society.
The Christian idea of marriage is founded on the Bible idea of covenant, of solemn promises and commitment which should not be taken lightly. Wedding ceremonies trace marriage all the way back to Adam and Eve and use phrases like what God has joined together must not be broken.
So seriously does God take marriage that towards the end of the Old Testament in Malachi 2:16, the prophet has God declaring ‘I hate divorce.’
And Jesus’ own words on the subject seem strong and uncompromising… It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of marital unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Seems pretty clear cut. The only grounds for divorce is unfaithfulness, and even then there should be no remarriage. It might feel harsh, but Jesus does call us to high standards. He urges us to have greater righteousness than scribes and Pharisees…
…well it doesn’t sit well with the God Jesus talks about in the rest of the Sermon.
That God is a figure of love and care who knows our needs and cares about them. He’s the God who looks out on that whole mixed rabble, gathered on that hillside, to whom announces ‘God is with you. You are blessed.’
Jesus’ describes how good, loving and caring God our Father is. He says which one of you if he has a son who asks for bread will give him a stone, or if he asks for fish will give him a poisonous snake. His basic point was we know how to care for our children…
… and God loves us, cares for us, wants what is best for us way more than our best efforts.
So bearing that in mind, let me ask you a few questions….
You have a daughter whose partner is violent. She lives in terror of what might happen when he gets home from work. He apologises, but next time he has a drink, or his football team loses, it starts all over again.
You have a son whose wife is verbally abusive. He’s tried everything to reason with her. But it continues. She belittles him at every opportunity, even in front of the children, who are starting to think that’s an ok way to talk to their father. It’s making your son’s life hell and some nights he goes to sleep hoping he doesn’t wake up.
Or your son has a wife with a gambling addiction. He’s done all he can, but she refuses to admit she has a problem. The debts are spiralling, the children are suffering, they’re in danger of losing their home.
They tell you they’re thinking of getting a divorce. Which of you would say ‘but Jesus says you should only divorce if they’ve been unfaithful?
Or your daughter gets pregnant at 17. She marries the father, but he gets bored and leaves her. They divorce in her early 20s. A few years later she meets a man who really loves her, respects her, is good to her and loves her child, whom he’s prepared to raise as his own. Would you say it is wrong for her to remarry?
Or how often have we met folk who have remarried and they have good, healthy, happy marriages. All three of the stories with which I started are about remarriages to wonderful people which are thriving. Is Jesus telling us we’re supposed to somehow think that’s wrong, adulterous even?
So often Jesus is held up as one as who would condemn all of these things. It’s not us. It’s Jesus. It’s in the Bible.
Let me say this. Human relationships are complex.
And they involve real people.
With real feelings.
Simple 2 or 3 line solutions, backed with a couple of verses from scripture are rarely adequate for complex questions and situations.
Worse than that, the way churches and Christians have so often dealt with those going through divorce and/or remarriage speaks of a God who is very different from the God Jesus speaks about in the Sermon. Rather than a heavenly parent who loves us more than even the very best our earthly efforts can manage, that God could learn a thing or two about compassion from us.
And that should cause us to stop and think for a moment.
Ok, you might say, ah Andrew, but God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.
Fair enough, that’s true. But before we go there, it’s at least worth exploring these comments more deeply. People who are in the midst of divorce are hurting enough without us making it worse. The consequences being wrong are extremely damaging and hurtful to quite vulnerable people.
Jesus’ stance on divorce is pretty consistent. Both Mark and Luke have Jesus saying much the same thing. If anything it’s stronger…
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.
Yet clear, unambiguous and obvious as Jesus’ words seem, I truly believe that these are amongst the most misunderstood parts of Jesus’ teaching. And it’s because we have misunderstood him, many have been left with feelings of guilt, shame and rejection because they have been divorced, or they are in a relationship with someone who was divorced, perhaps even 10, 20 years ago. They fear God will be angry with them for it.
Normally I try to avoid too much background. You’re not here for a history lecture. But today it’s really important. There is a background to what is being said here.
Jewish, and indirectly Christian understandings of divorce are based on a passage in Deuteronomy 24. It reads…
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce..
If a man finds something displeasing or indecent in his wife he can divorce her. Notice, it didn’t work the other way round.
The question arose ‘what counts as ‘displeasing’ or ‘indecent?’
Here there was some disagreement. There were two main rabbinical schools at this time. One followed a rabbi called Hillel, the other a rabbi called Shammai.
Shammai was quite strict. He said the only grounds for divorce was marital unfaithfulness. Hillel was rather more liberal in his interpretation. He thought something as minor as a wife burning your dinner could be considered ‘indecent.’
Guess which school was more popular with men? Hillel. Some even went even further. They said if you didn’t think your wife was as pretty as someone else you liked, that was ‘indecent’ and ‘displeasing.’
What about Jesus? Was Jesus more like Hillel or Shammai?
Most of the time what Jesus teaches is much closer to Hillel than Shammai.
Except on divorce. Then Jesus sides with Shammai. Jesus says the only grounds for divorce is marital unfaithfulness.
But that leaves another question… what is marital unfaithfulness?
You might be thinking, Andrew, you know full well what it is. But honestly I’m not doing the whole Bill Clinton ‘how far can you go’ type thing. We hear unfaithfulness and think sexual infidelity. In Jewish thought that was an important part of it. But it was much wider than that.
This was a culture ofarranged marriages. Families tried to find suitable partners for their sons and daughters. When they did, the two families discuss what their expectations of the relationship were. They tried to work out who would be responsible for what, how they would raise children. It could cover all sorts of things, but mainly food, clothing, shelter.
You’ve heard of celebrities and rich people getting pre-nuptial agreements? Well they drew up something similar. It was called a ketubah. It told both parties what was expected of them in the marriage and what they could expect in return.
In Jewish thought ‘marital unfaithfulness’ was breaking your ketubah.
That’s what Jesus is talking about here.
Now you couldn’t just say ‘they’ve broken the ketubah, I’m off.’ There was a process to follow. Some of you might recognise this from other parts of the Gospels.
Firstly you tried to sort it out privately, one-on-one. You took your problem to your husband or wife. Julie might come to me and say ‘Andrew you made these promises and you’re not keeping them. You’re breaking the ketubah and it’s hurting me.’
I have two options, I either accept that, change my ways and we make up. Or I refuse to change and continue as I am.
In that case she might bring in a third party. Her dad, my mum – either way it’ll end badly for me. She will explain the situation and assuming they agree they will say Andrew, when we agreed this marriage you made these promises and you’re breaking them. You’re breaking your ketubah. Again I could accept that, change my ways and make up. Or I could refuse and continue as I am.
If that fails they would bring in the rabbi, or spiritual leader. They would explain the situation and assuming the rabbi agrees they would say Andrew, when we witnessed this marriage you made these promises and you’re breaking them. You’re breaking your ketubah. Again I could accept that, change my ways and make up. Or I could refuse and continue as I am.
In most cases that was the last stage, but sometimes if I still refused to see sense they would send in what was called a Minion. A bunch of toughs who would perhaps use rather different methods to try to get me to change my ways.
If all that failed the injured party would receive a ‘get’ which allow them to divorce. They didn’t have to divorce, but they could divorce. It was allowed, as Jesus says elsewhere ‘because of the hardness of my heart.’ I refused to change. I hadn’t kept my word or promises.
My stubborn refusal to keep my ketubah was marital unfaithfulness.
In this culture it was always the man who divorced the woman. But divorce existed for one reason only.
So that the woman was free to remarry.
In a culture where life was very difficult for an unmarried woman, you couldn’t just keep her hanging on. If you didn’t love your wife, or want your wife you had to release her so that she was free to marry someone who would.
But, Andrew, you say, Jesus says marrying the divorced woman is adultery. It might seem that way, but that’s not quite the point Jesus is making. To understand it, we have to go back to Deuteronomy 24. We’ve stopped too early.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.
Rod marries Jane. They divorce. Then Jane marries Freddy. Then they divorce. What Jesus is saying here is that Rod is not free to marry Jane again.
Jesus is saying to divorce your wife is a serious matter. You better be sure of what you are doing before you do that. Because once you have done it there is no going back. There’s a reason that marriage ended. Now her next marriage has broken down. If you remarry her chances are history will repeat itself. You’re putting her in the position where the ketubah will be broken all over again.
But Andrew, what about the other passages?
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.
Again it seems clear but it needs to be translated well. The New Testament was written in the Greek and the Greek says ‘if you divorce them in order to marry another.’ That’s quite different.
Have you ever seen a relationship where one party wants it to be over, but doesn’t want to end it, so they treat then other person really badly in the hope that they will take responsibility for ending it? Then they can play the injured party. It’s possible that someone can claim they did everything to save their marriage. They might even fool others into thinking that. Jesus is just saying God’s not so easily fooled. God knows your heart.
Jesus isn’t saying the person who’s relationship broke down 5, 10, 15 years ago can’t start again.
Yes, marriage is based on the Biblical idea of covenant. It does involve promises which are very serious and should not be taken lightly. Marriage is something you have to work at. But covenant doesn’t just mean you have to just take whatever is thrown at you.
So no, I never believed that God was going to throw my friend into hell for divorcing her cheating husband. And no, Jesus isn’t condemning the one with the violent or abusive spouse, the one left feeling suicidal, or the one with the spouse with the gambling addiction. Or all sorts of other examples you could bring to me. Nor does Jesus condemn that daughter for taking the chance of fresh start with someone who will love her and her child.
And if Jesus is not condemning them, it’s not our business to do so.
So, with all that in mind how should we live?
Well, firstly let me affirm marriage. As Jesus goes on to say we should take all our promises and commitments seriously. And marriage is no exception. The call of all this is to do what you can to protect your marriage.
But that’s not just true for those who are having difficulties in marriage. It’s for all of us who are married or in committed relationships. Life isn’t easy. Whether it’s 2 or 62 years, we do well to examine our hearts and remember the promises we have made to one another.
Even the best handled divorce is never easy. There might be a sense of relief when it comes through, but no-one is really thinking of divorce as their finest hour. But in a fallen world there will be times when all our best efforts are not enough. When you’ve done all you can to save it and you can’t. When going your separate ways may be the better, more loving option of those open to you – for all concerned.
You might say, Andrew, they should hang on in there and wait for a miracle. You might even give me examples of people who have been there and turned it around. All I’ll say is ‘it’s rarer than we want to believe. It doesn’t always happen. And the damage done not just to the couple but to everyone else around them can be catastrophic.
To those in that position… even if others judge you, God knows the heart. God knows when you have done all you can.
For those who have been through divorce, for whom listening to sermons like this, or reading Jesus’ words will not be easy, hear this. We worship a God of grace, who believes in second chances, and has no desire for you to go through life paralysed by guilt and fear. I doubt you think of your divorce as the high point of your life.
It is good to acknowledge your own mistakes, your own part in that relationship breakdown. It is good to name that, to confess that, to repent of it. That way you will be much less likely to be doomed to making the same mistakes over and over.
It may even at times be appropriate to find ways to heal your relationship with the other party, even if you are not to be together. Often, particularly if there are children involved, you will still have to deal with the, and it is so much better for everyone if that not characterised by hatred and/or a longing for revenge.
But we bring all of that to Jesus that he might lead us onward in a new life. We allow him to help us deal with that and move on with life.
But in all things love should rule.
And for the rest of us…. there is no place for judging. Can I just suggest that the number of people who get married intending to divorce is pretty non-existent. So often we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.
But he’s so nice – yeah, in public.
She’s such a good person – yeah, to you.
But all too often we really don’t know the full story, so let’s not rush to judgment. All too often the reason we don’t know the full story is that someone has the grace not to bring shame on the other party. Maybe they don’t even want their own children to know.
And as a result they just go and they face the judgment of others for doing so. If you’ve been there. If you’ve been hurt or been unfairly judged by those who claim to follow Jesus, can I say one thing.
I am so, so, sorry. We are called to be better than that. You deserved us to be better than that.
Let me give you one final reason why God is not siding with those who would stand in judgment.
We serve a divorced, soon to be remarried God. We serve a divorced God. Twice, in Isaiah 50 and Jeremiah 3, God speaks of issuing Israel with a certificate of divorce and sending them away. The concluding picture of the Bible is of the church prepared as a bride for her husband and of a marriage supper. Sometimes tone is all important. Maybe in Malachi, when God says ‘I hate divorce’ the tone is not one of anger and judgment, but of sympathy of a God who has been there and knows the pain. And because he knows that he can be trusted to bring him all our pain, including the hurt in our relationships, and know his grace and his healing.
Reading: Matthew 5: 17-30
Name that tune?
Yes, it’s Mission: Impossible; one of the most recognisable TV or film theme, whether you’re thinking of the 60s TV series or the more recent films with Tom Cruise.
Each episode started with the hero receiving a message which included the words ‘your mission… should you choose to accept it’, before telling the agent what is expected of them, wrapping up with the words ‘this message will self destruct in five seconds.’
We’re working our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which you’ll find in Matthew 5-7. Jesus is sat on the hillside in Galilee, surrounded by his first few disciples, with a really mixed crowd from all sorts of different places and backgrounds looking on, listening in.
As we pick up the reading, we might say Jesus has just announced their mission, should they choose to accept it.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
Not you could be, you should be or you will be. You are.
You and you only.
You alone are the salt of the earth. You alone are the light of the world.
Then, in what Christian read to us this morning, Jesus starts to explain what being salt and light looks like.
I wonder, as we read those words or hear them, and as we continue through chapter 5, does it feel like an impossible mission?
Did it feel like that to them?
In fact some who write about Jesus claim that their impossibility is precisely the point. We’re supposed to realise we can’t keep this standard. The bar is too high for us. That way we realise we’ll never be good enough and throw ourselves on God’s mercy.
But is that really what Jesus is saying?
And if, somehow, you found that you had kept every word Jesus says here to the letter, does that earn God’s blessing?
Before I go on, I acknowledge that I could be accused of a bit of an imbalance in my treatment of the different bits of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s taken 2 months to get to verse 16. Now I’m covering two bog topics in one go.
And these passages talk about big subjects. Murder, anger, violence, lust, adultery, sex. These are big subjects, even in our own age. Each section of this morning’s reading is worth at least one sermon each. There’s no way I’ll cover all Jesus has to say on any of them. However there is enough in common here to want to avoid covering the same ground twice. That’s why I’m dealing with them together.
The first words in this morning’s reading are interesting. Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. (The law and the prophets was the name first century Jews gave to our Old Testament).
Why do you think Jesus said that?
Why would anyone feel the need to make a statement like that?
Because clearly people thought that’s what Jesus was all about.
That’s what some of them were thinking.
Why would they be thinking that?
Because these people, whom Jesus has just announced as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, well, they weren’t the obvious choice. Jesus had scanned the crowd and pointed out the different types of people who were gathering round. They weren’t the ones who had it all together. Most hadn’t been particularly shiny, salty people so far in their lives. Many of them would barely have been able to hide behind a vague ‘I’ve never done anyone any harm.’ They’d have had trouble believing him.
But Jesus looked on them all, from the godless poor in spirit, to those who face trouble and even persecution for trying to do the right thing and pronounced them all ‘blessed.’ ‘God is with you.’
But having heard that it would have been possible for them to assume that God wasn’t that bothered about how they lived their lives after all. I’m ok as I am. All that stuff from the laws and the warnings from the prophets, I can forget that.
It would have been just as easy for those, like the scribes and the Pharisees, the ones who had taken the Law and Prophets seriously, who had seen that stuff as important to jump to the same conclusions.
But before that thought settles, Jesus warns them he’s not lowering the bar. If anything he’s raising it.
Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Which probably would have come as a shock to all of them! Scribes and Pharisees get bad press in Christian circles. We see them debating with Jesus, getting it wrong, being obsessed with silly rules… But first century Jews wouldn’t recognise our description. Scribes and Pharisees were actually admired. They took scripture seriously, applied it to lives. They were 24/7 Jews.
To say that those Jesus has just described as the salt of the earth and light of the world should have more righteousness than the people they looked up to… well, it takes a bit of a leap.
You might think that was mission: impossible.
But what does Jesus mean?
Well, Jesus goes on to give a series of examples.
He starts most of them with something like ‘you have heard it said’ before quoting something from the Old Testament, before adding ‘but I tell you…’ For example ‘you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I tell you that anyone who looks a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’
What’s going on?
Firstly let me tell you what’s not going on. Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament. He tell them that what they had been told is a lot of rubbish, or that it was wrong or bad.
This is not a good/bad comparison. It’s good/better.
For example, I loved my old walkman. It was good for listening to music on the move. But for all sorts of reasons the i-pod is better.
Something similar is happening here. Jesus isn’t giving them permission to just forget all they’ve been told. Jesus acknowledges it as a good place to begin.
But he takes it further. He adds something better.
A society without murder would be great. But wouldn’t it be better if people didn’t harbour anger or bitterness, or treat others with contempt? If people did that you wouldn’t have to worry about murder.
Jesus is not saying the laws they’d been given were bad and needed replacing. He’s saying they were a good start, but let’s move on from there.
Also, Jesus is not offering us tools for self-justification. Often when people know they’re wrong they’ll point the finger at others and argue that they are really no better. Look what they do. I’m sure I’ve done that too.
Jesus doesn’t say these things so that those who are cheating on their spouse or partner can say ‘well, which of us hasn’t had lustful thoughts?’ If you murder someone, I wouldn’t suggest using ‘who hasn’t been angry or spoken harshly to someone’ as your defence!
Jesus isn’t saying for one moment that murder or adultery don’t matter. Of course they do.
Most importantly, Jesus isn’t creating a new set of harder, stricter laws. He isn’t closing loopholes that people had found in the Old Testament.
And that’s a really important thing for us to hear. Over the last few weeks I’ve been conscious from conversations which I’ve had with a number of you, that some of what I’ve said has stirred up questions or issues in some of you. Today could do the same.
That’s fine. If we allow Jesus’ words to search our hearts, each of us may find ourselves challenged at different points. And that’s no bad thing. I don’t say things to hurt you or annoy you. Much better to ask is the Holy Spirit challenging you and what God might have for you.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with wanting to please God. It’s what any loving relationship is about. But so many of our questions come from the place of what we have to do to keep God on our side. We have a fear that somehow we have or will place ourselves outside the reach of God’s love and blessing.
Don’t ever be discouraged from asking the question. It honestly is a privilege to be asked. It’s what I’m here for. Bear in mind, I won’t always have answers. I’m a fellow traveller on this journey. We walk the College Road together. I’m more than happy to wrestle with those questions…
… because if I’m honest I wrestle with them too.
These words must be heard against the backdrop of all that Jesus has said so far, and all he will continue to say about a God who is a figure of love and care, who notices his children and longs for them to thrive.
That’s the God of the sermon. Jesus isn’t trying to trip us up. He’s not waiting for us to say ‘I’ve never murdered anyone’ so he can say ‘aha, but have you been angry or abusive to someone? Maybe when they cut you up at Northwick Park roundabout?
What Jesus is telling us is that God is more interested in the person you’re becoming than whether you keep a good scorecard. God longs to be at work in you and shape you for the life he has for you both here and in eternity. God longs for you to become someone who will find the kind of life he’s describing ‘heavenly.
Contrary to what many believe, God didn’t just give Israel laws, because bossing them around made him feel good. A few years ago there was a Road Safety campaign with the headline ‘it’s 30 for a reason.’ Jesus is looking behind the law, to discover what God’s intention for us was. Jesus wants us to get behind the letter of the law and see what God wants for us. That’s what fulfil means. To show the full meaning of the law. To put flesh and bones on it. To show us what it looks like.
We can work so hard on the outside, making ourselves ‘nice’ and ‘respectable’ when what God is really interested in is what’s inside.
If we allow God to shape the heart, the actions will follow.
It wasn’t bad that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to please God or live as God intended. But even in our own age we know there is a limit to what law can do for us. We know there’s a big difference between what is legal and what is moral or right.
In recent times years has been outrage at big companies earning massive profits, but paying next to no tax, or company directors paying less tax than their cleaners. Their response was ‘it’s within the law.’
And often they’re right. It is legal. But is it right, or moral? That’s a different question.
But law is a pretty rubbish way to conduct any relationship. I mean, let’s say you’re the parent of a daughter. She brings home a boyfriend. You can tell she’s quite keen on this one. But along the way he asks something like ‘what’s the bare minimum I have to do to keep happy? Well, I say happy, I mean just to stop her nagging me…’
you’ll hardly find yourself on the phone to the relatives saying ‘oh, he’s a real catch. I hope this is the one…’
Law tends take us to the blurry, grey boundary type areas. That’s were law works. Law raises questions like ‘how far can I go, before I’ve broken the law? What line must I not cross? We walk that tightrope and congratulate ourselves if we don’t fall off.
Whereas love works at the opposite end. Love can never do enough.
Jesus is well aware that we can pride ourselves in not messing things up like others. In thinking ‘I’m glad I’m not like him, or her.’ We have radio debates about whether people are born evil or whether circumstances make them that way. We can set ourselves apart from others. We’re not like them. We can condemn them.
Murder is one of those crimes of which we would not like to think of ourselves as capable. Within the church sexual sin and adultery is condemned perhaps like no other. But Jesus says both are just the end product of stuff going on within us, stuff of which we’re all capable. The righteousness greater than the scribes and the Pharisees is not about being able to say I have never done this, or this, or this…
Those commands are important. But actions aren’t primarily where Jesus wants to work in us. Jesus isn’t operating on the level of law. He’s operating on the level of love. Jesus wants to work in our heart. Get that right, the actions will follow.
Jesus doesn’t just want to stop us killing others, though it is a good start. He wants to work in our heart, in our anger.
Jesus’ world distinguished between the anger that flares up, but disappears just as quickly, and anger that lingers, that we nurture, allow to fester. Jesus is talking of the second type, the anger we cling to; that we refuse to let go of. It’s the kind of anger that becomes the lens through which we view people. We cease to see the person and simply associate them with what they did. The kind of anger that wants to see things in terms of us and them. That is quite happy to demonise someone else.
I’m not sure if we really are a more angry generation than others, but perhaps we’re more aware of it. The internet has become a vehicle for people to express all sorts of hate and anger. Words they would never say aloud, but feel able to say from the safety and anonymity of a computer screen. In that virtual world, very real ugly hate and anger which lurks in the heart, suddenly find an expression. And it does so much damage.
Jesus says God doesn’t just want us to avoid killing. If we’re to be salt and light, if we’re to become the people he calls us to be, he wants to work in our heart. To deal with our anger, bitterness, hatred. It’s not that our actions don’t matter. But if we deal with the heart, the actions will take care of themselves.
Jesus does the same with adultery. Again there is a distinction between noticing someone’s beauty and attractiveness and the kind of lingering look that just stores things up for sexual gratification. There’s a kind of look which ceases to see the person and is really only seeing what we would like to be doing with them. Or to them.
Ours is a very sexualised age. It’s easy to fall victim to it. Pornography is a massive industry and the UK is fact becoming one of its leading consumers. You don’t have to be seen renting that DVD or buying that magazine. You can access it without leaving the house. 1 in every 8 internet searches is pornography related.
But adultery is about a whole lot more than who puts what where.
We’ll see this more in a few weeks. But for now I’ll just point out, adultery is about where your heart lies. Where your heart lies your body will follow. It’s not just in the bedroom that someone can take the place of the one you’re supposed to be with. It’s possible to get fixated on someone in real life. To start seeing in someone else everything that your spouse is not.
God wants us to stay out of the wrong beds. But he also wants to work on where our eyes and thoughts are lingering. The responses Jesus advocates were deliberately and jokily extreme. They were never went to be taken literally.
Jesus knew you could cut off numerous parts of your body and still be obsessed with what you would do, if you were only able.
As a very wise man once said to me ‘sex on the brain is the worst place to have it.’
Nonetheless, one of the ways in which we can help God to work in us, is to examine our hearts and recognise patterns in our behaviour. That’s not just true for what Jesus is talking about here. Each of us has different weaknesses. If we’re really honest, most of us know those weaknesses are and what triggers them. It might hinge on who you’re with, where you are, if you’ve had that extra drink, working too hard, staying up too late… whatever.
Spotting those patterns and taking steps to avoid them, can go a long way to stopping sin in our lives, but also allowing God to work in our hearts.
That’s where God really wants to work in us. God really wants to work on who we are becoming. The more that happens, the more often we’ll find the actions take care of themselves.
But the challenge is, will we give him access to the darker corners of our hearts? Are we prepared to face them ourselves?
We may well present the good image on the outside, but if what was going on inside us was presented to the world, would we be so happy?
However, it possible to hear these words and slide into despair.
Really Jesus? If that’s what you require of me, I’ll ever get there.
If this is what it means to be salt and light, count me out. That’s Mission Impossible.
But remember those to whom Jesus spoke these words. Those he pronounced the salt of the earth and light of the world. They were a ragtag, mish-mash, motley crew of good and bad. But Jesus invested his trust in them… and in us. If you struggle to think of yourself as the salt of the earth or light of the world, join every generation of believers ever.
Secondly Jesus doesn’t shine his light on our hearts to condemn us, but to heal us. If you are challenged by any of what’s been said this morning, hear this. God is not out to destroy you. Jesus didn’t highlight these things to show everybody how bad they are. Quite the opposite. It was to draw others, who would otherwise be condemned or shunned back in. That they’re not especially bad or evil. That’s they’re not beyond the reach of grace.
He’s saying ‘if you want to put them beyond the pale, we might have to do that to ourselves.
And nobody wants that.
God created you in love and longs to shape you into the person he created you to be. That involves reaching into the depths of us and transforming us from the inside out. Unless we are prepared to let him go there, to name our darkness for what it is, God can never bring to us what we need.
Yes, that requires repentance. We’ll never gain the life God plans for us, whilst still clinging to those things which will ultimately destroy us. They might be visible and everyone knows about them, or they might be deep within us, well hidden, perhaps forgotten even by us.
But we’re invited to place it all in his hands. To come just as we are. No pretence, barriers down. Whatever we’ve done and wherever we are God’s one desire is to extend mercy and grace. If we’ll let him.
That’s what this table is about. On the night of his arrest Jesus spoke of a new covenant, not like the old one which people broke, but one which was written on the heart. A relationship with grows from the inside us, changing who we are, and shaping what become. Empowering us by his Spirit to live the life he called us to live, not as part of some sort of Mission Impossible, but as a natural progression emerging from the person, the new creation, which by God’s grace we are becoming.
This is what I was supposed to say yesterday. A page of my script, towards was missing, so the sermon as it was preached, was actually a little different.
This also followed an interview with Mary Mensah, from Open Doors and a video of their work in Nigeria.
Reading: Matthew 4: 23 – 5:12
At Baptist Assembly each year there is a ceremony in which ministers who have successfully completed their ‘Newly Accredited Minister Studies’ are welcomed into Fully Accredited Minister status by the wider Baptist family and prayed for. I must admit, when it happened to me in London a few years ago, I found it quite moving. More moving than I imagined it would be.
At the same session BMS World Mission also commission and send out those Mission Workers who have completed their initial preparation and are about to set out to countries, doing all sorts of different jobs, in very different parts of the world.
BMS do their bit slightly differently. They come up with the whole family, and they are very often young families with really small children. They talk about the country they’re going to work in, the work they’ll be doing, the types of challenges they will be facing…
On the one hand it’s all really inspiring. On the other, we ministers feel almost embarrassed and certainly wimp-ish sharing a stage with them. In comparison our concerns seem so trivial.
Or maybe it was just me…
But when I think of that time, it reminds me a little of how I feel when I approach today’s Beatitude, and when I hear folk from organisations like Mary’s, or when I see videos about how difficult others around the world find it, just to follow Jesus.
True, the horrific events in Rouen this week, when Fr Jacques Hamel, an elderly Roman Catholic priest, was brutally murdered at the altar of the church he served, coupled with rather unhelpful newspaper headlines about churches on terror alert, bring Jesus’ words a little closer to home. I did receive some advice on keeping myself safe, though it was very much ‘be alert, but don’t be alarmed!
Even within Western culture, it is not unknown for followers of Jesus to be insulted, lied about, to have their motives questioned. Doing the right thing isn’t always popular. Others can feel challenged or threatened by it. If you look online, almost any time there is a positive story about a faith group seeking to make a difference in their community, look in the comments section just below the story. You won’t have to read too long before nasty, often very unfair comments start to appear.
Chris Mould, chairman of the charity Trussell Trust, who oversee the Foodbank network around the country was once told by a spokesman for a leading secular organisation that they were briefing the government about how Trussell Trust was dangerous and the government should not have anything to do with them. After all what could be more dangerous than feeding hungry people.
But the reality is we are extremely privileged to live in a culture where we have such freedom to worship and express our faith. As we’ve discovered this morning, that isn’t the norm for many Christians around the world and hasn’t been the norm in the last 2000 years.
So, when we turn to this Beatitude it can feel a little more distant than some of the others. It can feel like it’s about them over there, others back then. Yes, we can be inspired by the brave and heroic believers who cling to their faith, despite all the challenges they face.
But it can feel like a beatitude for the super heroes.
Not for the likes of me.
And we can find ourselves asking is Jesus announcing anything to the rest of us?
If you look closely at this beatitude there is something unusual about it. What is it?
There are a couple of things actually. One is that Jesus expands it a little more. This beatitude is a little longer than the others, with a little more explanation.
But the main thing is that it is the first time Jesus doubles up on the promised blessing. The beatitudes started with Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. They conclude with blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
What’s going on?
Has Jesus run out of things to promise?
Is he hoping we might not remember what he started out with?
It’s quite interesting the two groups whom Jesus doubles up on. We might be tempted to think of them as poles apart. The Poor in Spirit; the ‘Godless’ types. Even if it were possible, wouldn’t have many, or indeed any bargaining chips to make a deal with God. They have nothing to commend them.
Then at the other end are the persecuted. Those who stick to doing it right, however hard it gets. You’d think if anyone could earn or merit God’s blessing it’s them.
That’s quite a human way of looking at things. Whether we like to admit it or not, we do at times compare ourselves with others. We do place ourselves somewhere along this scale…. Well, I’m not as good as Julie, but at least I’m not as bad as Andrew!
But there’s another way of viewing this. Maybe we should think of it as Jesus coming round full circle. That wherever we are on here, we are never outside God’s love. The love and the blessing of God surrounds and encompasses them all.
We can want to split the world into good and bad, and want God to see the world in the same way as we do.
But God just isn’t won’t play that game with us.
Last week I talked about being salt and light, and how people will learn about what our God is like by looking at us and how we behave.
We see in the work of Open Doors, Christians facing persecution, but extending their love and help to those outside their faith, including those who are hostile, even to those responsible for their persecution.
And it sends a signal.
Our God is like that.
In a few weeks we’ll see that Jesus says precisely that about his Father. He sends the same sun and rain to good and bad, just and unjust.
But there is another reason why this should come full circle. It’s that these two groups have more in common than they might realise. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake find that they need God every bit as much as those who are poor in Spirit.
Without God and the hope he has placed in them in Jesus they would struggle to keep going, they would wonder whether it is worth it.
Perhaps, from our position of relative privilege, we have a part to play in ensuring that those facing persecution know that God is with them. In our prayers, in our practical giving, in our letter writing, in our advocating the rights of persecuted Christians around the world to our MPs and government.
But there is something in this for each one of us, who have decided to follow Jesus.
We may not face direct persecution, such as Mary has described to us this morning, or David Shosanya witnessed in Nigeria. I pray we never will.
But there will be times when following Jesus is costly. There will be times when doing the right thing, following what Jesus would want us to do is not easy and can make us unpopular and face hostility. In those moments you may feel as far from blessed as it is possible to feel.
Jesus says when you are there, in that position, you will find God waiting to meet you there.
Just as he was waiting to meet you in your sin and shame.
Just as he was there to meet you when it all felt lost.
Just as he was there to meet you when you chose to bear the hurt, rather than seek revenge.
Just as he was there to meet you in your awareness that the world is not as God intended it to be and you hungered and thirsted for it to be different.
When you seem to be anything but blessed, those are the moments that God is waiting to meet you, if you’ll let him.
Again and again our persecuted brothers and sisters find that God is indeed with them.
Again and again we hear stories about how it is under threat and persecution that the church continues to grow, that more and more people are drawn to Jesus.
And it’s with that in mind that Jesus issues the first command in the Sermon on the Mount.
What is the first command in the Sermon?
Jesus isn’t telling us to become masochists. Jesus isn’t telling us to slide into denial. But he is telling us that whatever we face, whoever we are, we are never outside God’s love, we are never beyond God’s reach, God is with us and will not leave us alone.
And understanding that about God is absolutely vital.
And in our heads we might know it.
But grasping it, understanding it, that is the work of a lifetime.
And those are important words to hear. I’m conscious that some of what you’ve heard in the last few weeks has stirred up some stuff in some of you. Much of what we will encounter in the coming weeks is challenging. I imagine that if we do allow Jesus words to search the deepest corners of our hearts, each of us will find ourselves challenged at different points, along the way.
Please don’t ever be discouraged from asking the question. It honestly is a privilege to be asked and it’s what I’m here for. Feel free to ask, because I’m a fellow traveller on this journey. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to please God. It’s what any loving relationship is about. But so many of our questions come from the place of what we have to do to keep God on our side. The fear that somehow we have or will place ourselves outside the reach of God’s love and blessing.
By all means, seek to follow Jesus commands. He said if we loved him we would.
But don’t forget the first one. Rejoice!
And we do that, because all God wants for us is set against the background, or the canvas of blessing.
Nowhere is beyond the reach of his love. His love and blessing encompasses us all.
Whoever we are…
Whether you’re poor in spirit – BLESSED!
Whether you feel consumed by sorrow and mourning – BLESSED!
Whether you be meek – BLESSED!
Whether you hunger and thirst for righteousness – BLESSED!
Whether you are merciful – BLESSED!
Whether you are pure in heart – BLESSED!
Whether you pursue peace with all our hearts- BLESSED!
Whether you face persecution and difficulty because of your faith – BLESSED!
May you, whoever you are, however you’ve come here feel the gaze of Jesus come to rest on you, as it did on those gathered round him in Galilee, and hear him pronounce you blessed.
May you, whoever you are, wherever you fit along this line, come to be aware of both your need for God, and aware that God is not viewing us in the same way.
We don’t need to earn God’s blessing, or persuade God to be on our side. For he is already there.
You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world.
You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world.
Two things about what Jesus said. Well, one about what Jesus did not say.
Jesus didn’t say ‘You should be salt of the earth; you should be the light of the world.’
Jesus didn’t say ‘You could be salt of the earth; you could be the light of the world.’
Jesus didn’t say ‘You would be salt of the earth; you would be the light of the world…. If only you got your act together.’
Jesus didn’t say ‘You will be salt of the earth; you will be the light of the world… at least you will be when I’m done working on you.’
No, Jesus said ‘You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world.’
It doesn’t come across quite so clearly in English, but Jesus is quite emphatic about this. The ‘you’ Jesus uses suggests ‘you and only you’; ‘You alone are the salt of the earth; you alone are the light of the world.’
Which might lead us to ask ‘who is this ‘you’ Jesus is talking about?
Turns out they’re quite a surprising lot. We’ve met them over the last few weeks. Jesus has been preaching and teaching throughout Galilee. He’s called his first few disciples. He has been healing people of all kinds of sickness. He has started to draw crowds from Gentile Syria, from the heavily Greek influenced ten towns across the Jordan, known as the Decapolis. Some are more local, from his native Galilee. Then there are the more conservative, sophisticated types from Judea and Jerusalem.
These groups wouldn’t mix very often. Yet they are all gathered round Jesus.
And Jesus welcomes them all.
When Jesus sees the crowds, he takes his new disciples up a hillside. The crowds follow. Jesus sits down: a sign that he what he is about to say has great importance.
Jesus scans the crowd and then begins by pronouncing God’s blessing on different types of people he can see. We’ve come to know these says as the Beatitudes. Jesus announces that these are the people whom God is with. God is on their side.
Jesus doesn’t tell them why they’re blessed. If we ask that, or ask how we become one of them, we miss the point. They haven’t earned it. This isn’t a list of standards you must achieve, or ‘beautiful attitudes’ to attain before God will bless you.
They’re blessed because… well… they just are.
God’s like that.
God blesses people like them!
If this crowd is culturally, religiously or ethnically diverse, those who are discovering God’s blessing on their lives are a real mish-mash: that’s the technical theologian term! They’re a real motley crew of different types of people.
Some are poor in spirit: Godless types, who, even if it were possible, wouldn’t have many, or indeed any bargaining chips to make a deal with God. They have nothing to commend them.
There are those who are living with mourning and sorrow.
There is the meek; those who felt they were being left behind, they were easily overlooked, who felt the world was getting carved up and someone else was getting their slice.
There are those who recognise that their relations with God, with others, with themselves, with the world are messed up. They long for things to be different, like a starving man longs for food, or a parched woman longs for water.
Some are merciful, and are bearing the cost of hurts done to them, without longing to take revenge, without looking to pass it on, and so multiply the pain, sorrow and suffering of the world.
There are those who are looking to God to rescue his world. They’re prepared to trust God with the hows and whens. Their faith is not solely dependent on what they think God can do for them.
Then there are those are those about whom we’ll hear in the next few weeks, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted because of what is right…
They’re the ones gathered round Jesus.
They are the ‘you’ Jesus is talking about.
They’re not the brightest or the best, certainly by any kind of worldly standard.
They’re not the privileged, or the elite.
Jesus is not speaking to or about the groups who are usually associated with God and his blessing, those whom we think would be best placed to receive God’s blessing; the kind who would claim to speak for God or represent God in the world. Jesus isn’t talking about the temple, the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, those who studied their scriptures to find what they had to do for God to bless them; who thought they had a monopoly on God’s blessing.
No. Jesus looks on that small huddle of new disciples, just starting out on their journey with him. He looks at that mixed rabble watching on, listening in, on whom he has just pronounced God’s surprising blessing and says
YOU are the salt of the earth.
YOU are light of the world.
I wonder… how many believed him…
You see, to call someone the salt of the earth or the light of the world was high praise indeed. There was a saying in the classical world, which combines both of them. They said ‘there is nothing is useful as sun and salt.’ We still call someone whom we really admire ‘the salt of the earth.’
Yet in another sense, salt is not an image that has travelled well into the present age. Salt might be something pretty much every household has, but isn’t something we think much about. When you buy a tub of it, it lasts for a long time. Today we’re even told to avoid having too much salt for health reasons. It might not feel much of a compliment to be compared to salt. Perhaps that’s why, when I was putting together this morning’s service, I could find any number of songs about light, yet couldn’t think of any about salt of the earth.
Yet, the word ‘salt’ has come across to English in some surprising ways. Not least in the term ‘salary.’ The first century Roman writer Pliny spoke of how the term ‘salarium’ (or salary) came from ‘salarius’ which meant salt because in the past soldiers had received their salary in salt. It’s debatable whether that ever actually happened is, but even today in English we talk of someone being ‘worth their salt.’ We mean they are well worth the wage they are paid.
Yet, even though we might not give salt the same value as people who lived all those years ago, but even we know salt, however small and insignificant it makes a difference.
There’s a story in my family which my poor sister has never been allowed to forget. It goes back to the early 1980s when she was at school and she was in a Home Economics class. I’m not sure why it was called ‘Home Economics’, maybe someone can explain that to me afterwards. It was basically cooking and sewing.
Anyway, my sister was making an apple pie and she quite possibly made as bad a blunder as you can. Can anyone guess what she did? She got the salt and sugar mixed up. And she didn’t realise until it was too late. You can imagine how it tasted! In this case the difference was, shall we say, not the greatest, but salt made a difference.
When Jesus speaks of his followers as ‘salt of the earth and light of the world’ he is talking about the influence they have on the world around them.
But how does Jesus envisage we use that influence. Often when people talk about what Jesus meant when he called these people salt, they speak of how salt provides flavour, or salt acts as a preservative. I am sure that’s part of it, but as I was preparing for this, I pieced together a few bits and pieces which suggest it’s even more basic than that. It has the added benefit of linking salt and light.
Rabbis used salt as an image of wisdom. There is one other place in the Bible where salt is used in precisely that way…
Colossians 4: 6
Let your conversation always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how to answer everyone.
In English we have an expression ‘I would take what he or she says with a pinch of salt.’ You’ve heard that expression? What we mean is that when that person is talking to us, we think a bit, use our head, be wise, so that we are not easily fooled. Well, in Colossians Paul is using that same image but in a more positive way. He is saying be both gracious and wise in what you say.
There is another reason to think that Jesus was thinking of wisdom when he spoke about ‘the salt of the earth.’ When Jesus speaks of salt losing its saltiness, the words used literally mean ‘become foolish.’
Light is also associated with wisdom. A few months back when I spoke about how God ‘enlightens’ us, I said it was about God providing us with direction in life. Light helps us see where we are going. It guides us. In a power cut, even a candle can help you find your way to the fuse box. Even in the darkest night the tiny pin pricks of light in the sky can help a navigator plot her course.
One final piece of the jigsaw. Jesus is about to give instruction on so many different areas of life, and about God’s intention for us. At the end of it he says that whoever hears what he says and does it is like who? The wise man who builds his house upon the rock. Whereas the one who hears what he says and does not do it is like…? The foolish man who builds his house on sand.
Jesus looks out at those new disciples, starting out on the journey with him. He looks at that mixed rabble who are looking on and listening in. He pronounces his God-bless-yous on those, many of whom are in God-awful situations, then he announces to them not ‘you could be’, not ‘you should be’, not ‘I wish you were,’ not even ‘one day you will be’; but ‘you are the salt of the earth; you and you alone. You are the light of the world.’ You are the ones being given wisdom about how to live in such a way as to make the world more as God intended.
Let the way you live your life influence those around you to do good.
Let the way you live your life show the difference Jesus makes.
Can you see why they might those few disciples, or that mixed crowd watching on, listening in, might have struggled to believe him?
Could they have been forgiven for looking around to see if there was someone else Jesus was talking about?
Jesus, you clearly know who you’re talking to. You’ve just described them. But what kind of influence can they have in the world?
How can the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers and those who face persecution affect anything?
It sounds great. But this is the real world, Jesus.
Will they not be taken advantage of?
Will they not just be swept away by those who know how to make this world really work?
And that’s before we carry these words forward to our own day and find Jesus saying the same thing to us.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Do we find it any easier to believe him?
The grand narrative of these pages is the story of God’s love for the world, and of his invitation to us to join him in reshaping it so it becomes more and more the way God intended it. Jesus invites us to become part of that. Jesus called himself the light of the world, and he shares that title with us, because we’re invited to share in the same work of redeeming and reshaping God’s world. The way we do it is by being salt and light, making a difference where we are. Thinking through what we know about God and read in scripture and allowing it to shape our lives here and now.
If you’re anything like me, you might be thinking ‘but what can I do?’ Why not go straight for those who have real influence in the world. Those who have the power to shape and change the lives of loads of people.
Not someone like me. What can I do? What influence do I have?
But it’s just not the way God works. To us God’s way might seem really foolish. But the way of Jesus and the way of God is to work through ordinary people, affecting one life at a time.
If we find it surprising, well, we’re not the first. It wasn’t just Jesus opponents or even those closest to him who struggled to understand Jesus. At one stage, from his prison cell, John the Baptist sent a message to Jesus to check that he was who John thought he was. Jesus replied by pointing to what he was doing, before adding ‘Blessed are those who don’t take offence at me.’ Blessed are those who will let me do what God sent me to do, in the way God called me to do it.
But you know, even if the crowd listening to Jesus that day struggled to believe what Jesus was saying, Jesus had more faith in them than they had in themselves.
And he feels the same about us.
If we ever doubt whether God can use us, join the club. You stand in a long line of people who felt the same way. In fact, take heart, it’s pretty much the entry requirement. Very few of those chosen by God in the Bible were the brightest and best by the world’s standards. Very few were the straight A students. Those first few disciples, gathered round Jesus, they weren’t the best of the best. If they had been they’d have already been following another rabbi when Jesus called them; not plying their trade fishing.
Jesus didn’t got straight for the powerful, wise, influential. He didn’t turn to these disciples as a consolation prize, because he couldn’t get the A team! Jesus praised God that he had hidden his wisdom from the wise and learned and revealed it to little children. It wasn’t to be based on what we could achieve on our own steam. If anything the story of scripture was those who thought they could manage it by themselves tended to come unstuck.
To call someone the salt of the earth and the light of the world, shows the high value Jesus placed on them (and placed on us).
But they both say something about the way God wants us to work in the world. They both suggest God is interested in and wants us to be involved in our world. Our whole world.
We live in a world which thinks nothing of behaving differently, or operating with different values in different parts of life. On the whole people will be happy for you to have a faith or believe what you like…
…on your own time. Provided you can check it at the door as you come in. It has a time and place.
Being salt and light defies that kind of thinking. The whole world is God’s and he is interested in the whole lot. God is interested in what we’re doing, wherever we are, whenever. We spend a lot more hours apart and away from church than we do in it and together. Each of us comes into contact with different people and God invites us to be salt and light, to be an influence for good wherever we are.
Salt and light work slightly differently. When you use salt in a recipe the salt disappears into the ingredients, the sauce or whatever. You know it’s there, because you can taste the results. But it’s working beneath the surface.
Sometimes God will use us like that. In the way you just gently raise the tone when the gossip starts. When you quietly help that friend who’s struggling, or you do that job without being asked. You can change the atmosphere in an office, almost without people noticing its happening.
Other times it will be more obvious . People will see the difference you’ve made.
God values both.
But although they might work differently, salt and light both work by being what they are. Jesus doesn’t work through the best of the best. He has a place for each one of us; something each of us can do to be salt and light where we are.
One of the major reasons we think God can’t use us, is because we think we have to become someone else. We look at others and say I could never do that. And God’s saying ‘that’s ok. I don’t want you to be them. I want you to be you!’ Salt and light make a difference, simply by being what they are.
I was told a story a while ago of a mission conference. Groups from different parts of the world were discussing the best way to reach those around them. They spoke about different projects they were involved in, different events they put on…. then one girl from Africa joined in. She said ‘when we want to reach a new village we send a family to live there. When people notice their life and how different it is, they start asking questions and before long there are new Christians in that community.’
We might not use the same model, but God still works in the same way. I’m not saying outreach events or various projects don’t have their place. But still almost everyone who comes to faith will say it started with one person whom they knew. One person being salt and light. One person being what they are. And often it’s not something big.
That’s even more true today, when fewer people know much about the Bible. They’ll learn more about your God from watching you than listening to you. That’s why as one Baptist Regional Minister says we are called to be ‘free samples of Jesus.’
We often say the two topics we shouldn’t talk about are religion and politics. But in my experience, more people are open to talking about God than we think. But you earn that right. For the most part people won’t be that bothered what you know or what you believe. They’re more interested in does it work? The only way they’ll see that, is if they see it in our lives. If we allow God’s wisdom to shape us from within and live it out. If we’re salt and light.
In our choices.
In the way we treat others.
When we’re prepared to make a difference, however small it seems, just by being who we are, who God made us to be.
We don’t need to be the best of the best.
It doesn’t matter whether we believe in ourselves. It’s probably best not to.
If we trust Jesus, we’ll find that Jesus has more faith in us than we have in ourselves.
For Jesus still looks out on diverse groups of people, scattered throughout the world, with all manner of strengths, weaknesses, foibles, hang-ups, brilliance and struggles and pronounces them blessed.
Jesus still looks out on this diverse group of people, with our strengths, weaknesses, foibles, hang-ups, brilliance and struggles and pronounces them announces God is with you.
And because of this.
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Reading: Matthew 5:8 – Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God
This morning I want to begin by showing you a few pictures and asking a question about them. All I’m asking, in the words of a much more famous Ulsterman, the great comedian Roy Walker, is to….
Say what you see…
What word can you see on the screen…. (depends what you focus on. Concentrate on the white bits and you will see the word ‘optical.’ Concentrate on the coloured sections you will see the word ‘illusion.’)
What about this one? What do you see here? Some of you might first see a flower and a butterfly. Others might see a face.
Or what about this one? It’s the corner of a building. But is the corner pointing out towards you, or is it pointing inwards, away from you? Depends which half of the picture you focus on. If you concentrate on the top half, you’re more likely to think it is pointing inwards. If you focus on the bottom half, it will seem to point outwards.
It is possible for two people who look at the same thing and see something entirely different.
In part we see what we are trained to see. I have a passing interest in astronomy. I love looking into a night sky on a clear night, particularly if I’m away from the city and street lights. The stars make an amazing sight. I know a little bit. I can point out a few constellations. From time to time I’ll look to see which planets are currently visible. But someone who has studied astronomy will see so much more. Or a navigator would be able to plot their course across the sea using the light of the stars.
I can wander round an art gallery and find it interesting. But I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you a great piece of art from an ok one, or spot a fake from an original. Often, whether it’s the result of training, ability, experience or whatever, we only see what we are able to see.
But two people can also look at the same thing and see it entirely differently, depending on what they want to see. That debatable decision in the football match. Was it a penalty or not? Did that ball cross the line 50 years ago, or was it a dodgy Russian linesman? It depends which side you support. Is Andy Murray British or Scottish? Well, it depends whether he’s winning or losing, doesn’t it?!
It can be the same when people debate whether or not there is a God. Often I find myself watching a science documentary by someone like Brian Cox or Alice Roberts and be amazed at how God has been at work in creation and in history. Yet often those presenting the programmes are atheists. They would look at the same things and see no need for God. In fact often they can find no place for God. We’re looking at the same thing, but it’s like we’re looking through different lenses. So whilst I can see God in it, they just don’t.
That question… what we can or cannot see… is a large part of what I want to think about this morning.
We’re working through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5-7. Jesus is sat on a Galilean hillside, teaching his first few disciples who are gathered round him. Looking on, and listening in, is a really diverse crowd from Gentile Syria, the Greek-influenced towns across the Jordan, known as the Decapolis, the rural ,quite revolutionary Galilee and the more sophisticated and conservative Jerusalem and Judea region.
Jesus begins with a series of announcements of blessing, which have come to be known as the Beatitudes. There are 8 in Matthew’s Gospel. Today we reach the 6th one.
Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.
The people on whom Jesus announced God’s blessing where quite surprising. One writer describes the beatitudes as Jesus surprising God-bless-yous to people in God-awful situations. Whilst the blessings announced might sound all very well, no-one wants to be poor in spirit or mourning. Jesus isn’t just listing a series of character traits that God is looking for us to develop so that God can bless us. Jesus isn’t saying we should try. You’re either there or you’re not.
But the blessing announced in the sixth beatitude?
Who wouldn’t want in on that?
Who wouldn’t want to see God?
Even the most dedicated unbeliever tells me they would love to be proved wrong. They tell me they’d love to see God or at least have some evidence that God is there. The reason they can’t believe is because they can’t see him.
No, the second half of the beatitude is not a problem. It’s the first part that’s challenging. As Jesus’ eyes scanned that crowd I’m sure any number of those listening were poor in spirit, or in mourning, or longed for right relationships. Hearing that God was with them, that God was on their side, was indeed good news.
But how many pairs of ears do you reckon pricked up when Jesus announced God’s blessing on ‘the pure in heart?’
How many would thought ‘finally, he gets round to talking about me!’?
Maybe you’re all so much better than me, but how many of us would have able to find ourselves amongst them?
Could I say my heart is pure?
It would perhaps be useful to focus for a moment on what Jesus is not saying here. Sometimes people read these God-bless-yous in a very other-worldly way. Yes, it’s tough now, but one fine day… We see phrases like ‘see God’ we can assume Jesus means when we die or go to heaven.
The Bible isn’t completely free of that idea. I John says ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ Or in the very famous I Corinthians 13 Paul speaks of us seeing a pale reflection in a bad mirror, but one day we shall see God face to face.
But that’s not really what Jesus is talking about here. The Sermon on the Mount is more concerned about this life than the next one.
So before we go looking for other-worldly explanations of these words, it might be worth asking ‘are there ways in which we might ‘see God’ here and now?
Are there ways in which we might know God’s presence with us, or discern God at work here and now?
Also a few words about what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say ‘blessed are the pure, full stop.’ Jesus did not say ‘blessed are all those who always make the right moral choices’ or ‘blessed are the perfect.’
He said ‘blessed are the pure in heart‘ and that is slightly different.
But what does it mean?
To us, the heart has to do with love, emotions and the like. On Valentine’s Day or romantic occasions like a wedding we see lots of hearts. When we take a decision we talk about following our head or our heart. Do we decide with cold, hard rational thinking or are we swayed, for good or bad, by our emotions or sentiment?
The Jews, in fact most of their ancient world, had a similar sort of distinction as our head/heart one. It’s just they moved it all a bit further south. The part of the body they associated with emotion or compassion was the bowels.
Popular culture could have been so different. Doris Day might have sung…
If I give my bowels to you, will you handle them with care?
Gene Pitney’s song would have been Something’s gotten hold of my bowels.
Or what about Stevie Wonder…
I just called to say I love you;
and I mean it from the bottom of my bowels
Smooth talking devils, those first century Jews.
To first century Jews the heart was concerned with your thoughts and your motives. Why you did what you did. For example in Proverbs we read ‘a person may think their ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart’; ‘guard your heart, for everything you do springs from it.’ In the Gospels Jesus asks the Pharisees ‘why are you thinking these things in your heart?’
Whereas the word pure was a word that was mainly used for metal that had been totally refined so that there wasn’t the slightest bit of impurity in it.
So when Jesus talks about being pure in heart, he is talking about our motives. He’s not speaking of those who get it right all the time. It’s those who aren’t approaching God with mixed motives, who aren’t coming to God with their own agenda. They’re the ones who Jesus says will really see God.
You see, we can do even the best things without the best motives. We can give generously to a cause, not because we really care about the cause or those we’re helping, but because we want folk to notice and think we’re really good people. I put a lot of effort into preaching and preparation. I hope that most of the time it’s worth and I am doing it because I see it as an act of worship and try to offer God my best. If you appreciate it, please don’t be put off telling me. But do I sometimes slip into hoping someone will be impressed? I think it was John Bunyan who once had someone tell him the sermon he’d preached that morning had been great and he responded ‘I know. The devil told me as I left the pulpit!
If you’d asked the people listening to Jesus on that hillside that day they’d have all told you they were looking for God. Their world was a mess and they wanted God to do something about it. They were a colonised people, under the rule of a pagan power. They had all sorts of beliefs about why God had allowed that to happen. They were looking for God to fixt it. They had all sorts of ideas about what they needed to do to persuade God to help them, from violent revolution to rigid rule-keeping.
And they had very definite ideas of what it would look like when God did step into the picture….
… which is one of the main reasons why when God came amongst them in Jesus they didn’t recognise him. They couldn’t see it. Even those closest to him struggled to understand him.
In fairness, in part it was because weren’t able to see it, much like I am unable to see very much in the night sky or recognise a truly great artistic masterpiece. We can read the Gospels, complete with all the prophecies that the first Christians came to see fulfilled in Jesus and wonder how they could miss what seemed so obvious.
But they just hadn’t been trained to see it. They’d been raised on a very different story of how it would look. It certainly didn’t end up on a cross. So when Jesus starts telling his closest followers that he’s going to be crucified up in Jerusalem, their first response is ‘no way!’ It’s only after Jesus rises from the dead and explains things to them that they begin to understand. And how does the Bible describe that moment? ‘Then their eyes were opened.’
But then again, there is none blinder than those who will not see. One of the saddest verses in the Bible talks of how Jesus came to his own, but he wasn’t recognised. The great tragedy in the Gospel narratives is is that those who should have been best placed to recognise God at work in Jesus were the very people who most opposed to him. They were so convinced of their own rightness that when Jesus wasn’t what they expected they turned against him and refused to recognise that God was at work in him.
Yet are we necessarily that different?
It’s been said that God made us in his image and we have returned the compliment. I take a lot of interest in the historical background of the Bible and trying to understand Jesus as part a first century Jew. But the criticisms so many of the books I read on the subject is that it is all too easy to create a Jesus and a God who fits the picture we want to portray and marginalise or get rid of the bits we find less comfortable and palatable. And at best we see a very partial picture. We miss out on seeing God, because our ideas and our prejudices get in the way.
I think back to Palm Sunday when I spoke of what kind of king Jesus came to be I spoke of how we too can come to Jesus with a whole mix of motives. We can want him for the comfort he brings, or the problem we want him to sort out, for feelings we want to gain, or spiritual experiences we want to have. And, as I said back then, in humility Jesus welcome us as we start from those places and can lead us on. But if we never move on from there, the relationship is destined to lead to disappointment.
How much of our relationship with God is based on a deep rooted belief that God loves us, God knows what’s best for us, that whatever we face we are safe in his hands, and how much is based on what we want God to do for us?
Anyone who has ever tried to take seriously the idea that God is interested in us, and wants to guide us in life, will soon recognise the difficulty in deciding what is God and what is just wishful thinking.
Is it possible that we miss what God is up to, we do not see God, because he is not acting how and when we expect?
Is it possible that we miss what God is doing in our lives, we do not see God, because in reality we are just waiting for him to do what we want?
If the Bible teaches us anything about God, it’s that God often acts in the ways we least expect, through people we least expect. We don’t get to pin him down. When God appears to Moses in the burning bush and Moses asks him his name, what is God’s response? ‘I am what I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be.’
In my experience it is those who are most open to being surprised that are the quickest to notice God at work. They’re the ones who see God.
This sixth beatitude presents us with something of a dilemma. Who wouldn’t want to see God? Would anyone who believes that is remotely possible not want to sense his presence or discern what God’s doing in our lives? I doubt it.
Yet the barrier is at the very core of us, in our heart, our motivations.
And what can we do about that?
As I’ve spent time in the Beatitudes, I’ve come across lots of different attempts to try and link them, to find some sort of logical flow. None of them have really convinced me.
Yet there is something that seems to run through the whole set.
For want of a better word, it’s discontent.
It seems to me that if you are content with the way this world is, if you’re just so pleased with your life and who you are, Jesus isn’t really announcing anything to you. Why would you need him to?
Jesus’ announcements are for those who wish things were different. For those who long to believe for a moment that things could be different; they’re the ones who are open to receive what God can bring to them.
We get a sense of that when Jesus speaks of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. Yes, says Jesus, there’s the guy who can pull out all the right behaviour cards. Fasting, tick, Praying, tick, giving, tick.
Yet it’s the tax collector, the one who lays his own heart bare, who just pleads for grace, who says ‘I know I am a sinner.’ He has the kind of heart that God can work with. Not the one who always seems to get it right, but the one who is willing to admit I’m not what I need to be.
That’s where Jesus wants to get to work on us. That’s the place he wants to reach us.
Jesus says remarkably little about ethics, not because it’s unimportant, but because he longed to deal with our hearts. Get the right, the other stuff will follow.
Last week I made a comment about forgiveness. I said the will to change and the direction we are travelling, is more important as how far we have got along the road.
I think that’s true for faith journey. It’s possible to ‘settle’ in the journey, to stop looking for God to surprise you, to stop expecting to hear God’s voice, to stop expecting to be challenged or to see things differently. Those around you respect you, look up to you, but you’re drifting.
And you’re drifting away.
And you lose the capacity to see God at work.
Then there are those who really messed up. They’ve not got as far along the road as others. And they know it. They would admit that all too often they’re such a bad follower of Jesus.
But they haven’t stopped yet. And they’re still travelling closer and closer to Jesus.
Jesus looking at the core of our being to see not just who we are right now, but are we discontent with it. Are we prepared to seek his help to change it. Because our heart is the one thing we will not be able to deal with alone. We expend so much energy looking better on the outside when what God is looking to do is deal with us from within.
But the moment we discover that we are not what God made us to be, that’s when we begin to see God. When we bring to God all that we are with our preconceptions, mixed motives and say I’ll trust you with all of it; when we ask him to deal with that that we clear the way for our eyes to be opened.
God longs to remake us. To take us into relationship with Christ so that we become a new creation, so that the old is gone and the new is come.
In Ezekiel to a really messed up people God speaks ‘ I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’
There are many things we can manage in our one strength, but a pure heart isn’t one of them. It’s something we can only be given.
Elsewhere, in Jeremiah we encounter another similar promise “The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah… “this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbours, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”
Jesus extends an invitation to each of us to allow God to recreate us from the inside out. To purify our hearts.
And as he does so we discover an ability to see differently. To see God, and his love, in the giving of his Son for us. We’re invited into a different type of relationship with him. One where we can know him and see him. Not just in the next life. We can discern his presence here and now. We can know his direction and be strengthened to follow.
If we will allow Jesus to step into our lives, to allow him to shine his light into our lives and to purify us from the inside out, it will give us a different lens through which to view all of life. We begin to see the wonder and beauty and presence of the God who goes before us in everything, everywhere, at all times.
John Oliver is a British comedian, who has become better known in America where he hosts a TV show which takes a satirical look at some big news stories called Last Week Tonight.
Last month he made the news, following a programme which looked at the subject of ‘debt buyers.’
Companies write off bad debts which they don’t expect to receive. They can use these to reduce their tax bill, as it decreases their profit. But they can also sell this debt to someone else for a tiny fraction of the amount.
John Oliver told stories of how these companies will then very aggressively chase the debt, sometimes even using illegal tactics, and often without checking the nature of the debt, or the accuracy of the information they have been given.
Bear in mind the company to whom this money is owed have already written off the amount. Many of those who owe the money have already been declared bankrupt. And do you know what the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the USA is? Medical debt. And more than half of those affected had insurance.
Oliver showed footage of some of those involved in the industry boasting about what they do to collect debt. He argued that this was an industry which really need more regulation because there was so little control over who was allowed to get involved in this. To prove it, for $50 he set up a debt buying company. Before long he was offered $15m worth of medical debt, belonging to 9000 people, and was offered the chance to buy it for $60,000. Less than half-a-cent per dollar.
He couldn’t believe he was legally allowed to own this debt, so he did what he described as the only decent thing he could do…
…he forgave it.
We’re working our way through the Sermon on the Mount, as found Matthew chapters 5-7. Jesus begins with a series of Beatitudes, or blessing announcements, which he makes right at the start of the sermon. This morning we come to the fifth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
To help unpack this we’re going to use a parable Jesus told about differing approaches to debt and about debt forgiveness. In our Bibles it’s called the parable of the unmerciful servant.
Mercy is a word often associated with forgiveness and that will be the bulk of what I talk about this morning.
But in the Bible mercy has a much wider meaning. Mercy brings together 3 different ideas. The first is compassion. That’s not just feeling sorry for someone, it’s about trying to really understand their situation and how they feel. Charities often try to use pictures of people we would readily identify with, try to make connections between their life and ours, so that it will be easier for us to think ‘what if that was me?’
But mercy is not just about compassion. There’s also an element of power to it. You not only feel sorry about a situation you have the power or the resources to do something about it. If I tell you there are a billion people without drinking water, or 1m families in Britain struggling to feed themselves, we’ll feel powerless to help. The problem will just seem huge. But tell people £2 a month will do this, or a gift of £20 will do that, that is something they can help with. Mercy suddenly becomes feasible again.
The third component of mercy is action. You can feel sorry about something and have the power, or resources to deal with it, but if you don’t actually do anything, nothing merciful has happened.
A good example of these three things brought together is in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan feels sorry for the guy who was beaten up, robbed, and left half dead. He has oil, bandages, a donkey and money. He has resources to do something about it. And he does it.
So when Jesus asks ‘who is the neighbour of the guy on the road?’ the response is not just ‘the one who helped him.’ It’s the one who had ‘mercy.’ He had compassion, and the power and resources to do something about it and he used them.
One area in which we are all likely to encounter the need for mercy or to extend it to someone else is forgiveness. it’s part of sharing life together. Even if we never set out to hurt someone, chances are, however inadvertently, we will.
It would be fair to say that forgiveness is pretty central to the Christian faith. When we pray the Lord’s prayer we say ‘forgive us our trespasses (or sins), as we forgive those who trespass, or sin, against us.’
But forgiveness is not without its problems. For a start, it’s not easy.
But you know although forgiveness is so central it is to the Christian life, it’s amazingly misunderstood. These misunderstandings can make forgiveness even harder.
Some people struggle to forgive because they think it would mean believing that what was done to them was alright really.
And it wasn’t. It hurt.
Forgiving is not saying what they did was ok. If it was ok, there would be no need for forgiveness. It’s not about denying that something was wrong, or that it hurt.
Also forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. People say ‘let’s forgive and forget, it can go back to how it was before’ and that is just not true.
This will sound a horrible thing for a minister to say, but you will meet people who are just toxic or dangerous to be around. For the good of all involved we need to keep ourselves apart from them.
There will be people who will, if you stick around, hurt you in the same way again, and again. One of the less pretty images of the Bible, is in Proverbs 26:11. ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.’
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to re-hire the person who stole from you. You don’t have to go back to the partner who beat or cheated on you. Forgiving does not mean that you need to stick around and let them damage you further.
This ties into another myth about forgiveness. It’s a comment I’ve heard from numerous pulpits. It’s the idea that you can’t forgive someone if they do not repent.
I don’t know if it had anything to do with growing up in a society where terrorism was prevalent, but I have heard it over here too a few times, occasionally from people I otherwise would agree with. To my mind that’s confusing forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation involves two parties. Forgiveness only requires one.
A person may never say sorry for what they did. They may never be sorry for what they did. They may never know they hurt you.
But that does not mean we have to spend our lives carrying around the bitterness. We don’t have to waste our energy having one-sided conversations in our head, where we tell them exactly what we think of them and they’re left speechless. We don’t need to spend our time seeking ways to get revenge. It is within our power to decide whether to cling to it or absorb it.
Also forgiveness does not mean that the normal rules of justice don’t apply and that there are no consequences for their actions. If someone attacks or robs you, it’s not a case of ‘I forgive them, don’t send them to court.’ That’s a whole different issue.
One other thing, forgiveness, as with any part of the Christian life, is more often a process than an instantaneous thing. True forgiveness takes time. Someone wronged us, it hurt and we need to heal.
And when challenged about our need to forgive, we may have carried this around for a long, long time. Forgiveness can involve unlearning a lot of unhelpful, even destructive habits. It might be progress to just stop fantasising about how we can get back at the person who hurt us.
Forgiveness is one area where the will to change and the direction in which we are travelling, is every bit as important as how far we have got along the road.
Christian forgiveness has two dimensions. There is a vertical part involving our relationship with God. But it also has a horizontal element. It involves our relationship with others. So we pray ‘forgive us our sins.’ ‘as we forgive others.’
And there seems to be something of a link between the two. At the end of the parable Jesus makes a rather dark comment. ‘This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you, unless you forgive a brother and sister from your heart.’
That’s not an isolated comment. When Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer he adds that if we forgive others their trespasses, our heavenly father will also forgive us, but if we don’t forgive others their trespasses, neither will our heavenly father forgive us. James writes ‘Judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.’
So we could ask ‘is it a case of if you do well in the area of forgiveness, God will look after you?’
That doesn’t sit very well with what we’ve learned from the other Beatitudes. It would suggest we could somehow earn God’s love and mercy. Thing is, if it’s earned it’s not love or mercy.
So with all that in mind, we turn to the parable in Matthew’s Gospel. The story begins with Peter asking a question. ‘How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?’
Bless him, Peter thinks he’s being generous. If he had asked other rabbis of his day the same question, the most likely answer he would have received was ‘3 times.’ It was based on a saying which occurs a number of times in the book of Amos which says ‘for three sins of such-and-such a place, even for four.’ They suggested that this meant God would forgive us 3 times, but if we crossed the line 4 times judgement would follow.
Peter has been around Jesus long enough to work out that the God Jesus talked about always seemed more generous than he had been led to believe. So when Peter asks this question he doubles what everyone else is saying and then adds one for good measure.
When Jesus corrects him with 77 times, or seventy times 7, he’s not expecting us to keep track. It’s more about keeping it going. If you’re still counting by that point you really should find something better you could be doing with your time. If you’re counting, you’re not forgiving. You’re simply storing up your revenge.
Interestingly, Jesus probably didn’t just randomly think up this story. Around this time Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler in Galilee was summoned to Rome to be quizzed about his management of the province. This was probably the big news story when Jesus told this parable.
The key to understanding this parable is the amounts of money involved.
There are two debts in the story. One owed by the first servant to the king, and the other owed by a second servant to the first.
The first debt, owed by the servant to the king is massive. 10,000 talents. This was 200,000 times the annual average wage. Most of those listening would have needed to work 60 million days to earn that kind of money. The entire tax revenue Rome raised from all Israel was not even 1,000 talents.
You get the jist. If Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal met at an EU summit they would say ‘at least we’re not this guy.’ No-one would ever be able to pay that back.
The other debt if different. A denarius was a day’s wage. So it’s about four months wages. Not a small amount. If somebody owed you that it would matter. If you owed someone that kind of money you may not have it to hand, but if the person to whom you owed it was prepared to wait a little while you could probably eventually pay it back. At the very least it is not unthinkable.
That sets the scene. A king decides to settle his accounts. As is so often the case we’re not told why. This king is a good businessman. He has a ledger, with plusses and minsuses, credits and debits. He knows exactly what he owes and what everyone owes him…
… except that when the books are opened there is one guy who has run up a real eye-popper of a debt. There is no way he will be able to pay it back. So there’s only one thing for it. The king sells him into slavery along with his wife, kids and everything he has to pay off the debt.
And even then it won’t come close.
But the servant falls on his face and pleads with the king ‘sir, have patience with me. I will pay back everything.’ The king is moved with compassion and cancels the huge debt. The servant breathes a sigh of relief as he steps outside.
But then we discover the king is not the only one with a book! Even as he shuts the door he sees another servant and thinks ‘hold on a second that guy owes me 4 months wages.’ He grabs him by the throat and says ‘pay up.’
But the servant falls down and starts pleading have patience with me. I will pay back everything.’
Sound familiar? But no, he hands him over the torturers until the debt is repaid in full.
The other servants see this. They’re really shocked. Maybe talk of what had just happened with the first servant had reached them. So they go and tell the king. The king says ‘why could you not do to him as I had done for you. If that’s the way you want to play it, you can have it.’
And he hands him over to the torturers until he can pay back the unpayable debt.
A couple of questions.
Why does the king cancel the debt?
Because of the plea? Of course not. The king is a businessman. He knows it would take the guy 60 million days to earn that. The king would need to be pretty stupid if that’s the reason. No, it just seems that’s the kind on king he wants to be. That’s the kind of kingdom he wants to run.
Why does the servant think the king has cancelled the debt?
If he thinks it’s because he has managed to persuade the king he could pay back he has a pretty low view of the king. What an idiot, he thought I could repay him.
Whatever the reason he somehow manages to leave the encounter in which his debt is cancelled unchanged.
But another more important question – where does the debt go?
This king had the ledger, with all the plusses and minuses, who knows what he owes and who owes him what. He thinks it might make good business sense, but however long I try to make this guy pay the debt I’ll still be left with it. So effectively the king closes the ledger and tosses it away.
Where does the debt go?
The king takes it on himself.
So Jesus tells a story in which a king could have stuck to his ledgers, his plusses and minsues, debits and credits, but instead he shows mercy. It begins with compassion, he sympathises with the guy before him. He has the power to do something about it. He can close the book, cancel the debt and take the hit. And he acts on that compassion. He closes the book so the servant can live.
Forgiveness when you are wronged costs somebody. Central to the idea of forgiveness is that someone bears the cost of the wound. When we take revenge on someone what we’re saying is that we won’t pay. Someone else will. In fact people literally say ‘I’ll make them pay.’
But the king is not the only person in the story who has his ledgers, his plusses and minuses. Admittedly the figures are lower but the servant also has his ledger.
He faces the same choice. He could have compassion, after all he knows what being in debt feels like. He has the power to do something and act on it. He has the option to close the book and toss it away like the king.
But instead he clings to it.
It’s a question of what kind of kingdom, what kind of world we want.
When the king is told about this he says ‘if you really want to play it by the books, and by how you acted it seems you do, then that is what you can have.’ So he is sent off to the torturers still clinging to the books.
There is a way of life, very much how this world works which is very much based on the books, with it’s plusses and minuses, debits and credits. It’s about keeping track of who’s done what, keeping score, paying back. It feels so right…
…but it really just multiplies pain.
It tortures us. We think we’re making them pay, but we’re still carrying it. The hurt just goes on.
Or there’s another way. One in which we close the books and chuck them away. It’s not painless. Jesus never claimed that. But it’s one in which we say I’ll bear the cost. That way the merry go round of hurt can stop.
That’s the pathway God offers to us in Jesus. The kind of book-keeping idea just doesn’t work in our relationship with God. What can we offer for the plus column that is not already his? One of the Psalmists writes ‘if you God were to mark iniquities who could stand.’ If God were keeping score none of us would last.
Besides how would we measure how bad our sins are?
How would we know when we’ve been good enough?
So God chose another way. He chose to close the books. He chose the path of mercy. In Jesus God chose to see things from our viewpoint, feeling how we feel, trying to think our thoughts. In Jesus God literally stepped into our skin. God took action and put his power at our disposal, as on the cross through the pain and the scorn he said ‘this stops here. I’ll take the cost, I’ll pay the price. This is me closing the books.’ The symbol of the Gospel is the cross, not the scales.
God has given us a choice of the kind of world we want. But God takes the choices we make very seriously. You can’t stand with a foot in both camps. We need to decide whether we’re going to cling to our books, with their plusses and minuses, debits and credits, keeping track on the score. Or do we want to close the books leave behind to that way of life, stop multiplying the hurt.
Jesus isn’t saying if you won’t do this for me, I won’t do that for you. It’s not ‘do this or I will punish you.’ But if we cling to our books, if hold tightly to the bitterness and the need for revenge, our hands won’t be open to receive what God has to give us.
And it will torture you.
In my experience people who refuse to forgive, find it hard to accept it from others and from God. By clinging to what’s been done to them, they make it too difficult to receive forgiveness.
Or to change the metaphor, before we can breathe in the clean air of forgiveness, we need also to breathe out.
The choice of whether we take that breathe, the choice of whether cling to our books or close them and throw them away is still open to us. If you want the books you can have them. You can cling to the torture they inevitably bring.
Or we can close them. We can join God in a different way of living. The way of mercy. It’s by no means pain free. Rather than inflicting the cost on others we are effectively saying ‘I’ll bear the cost of this one.’
But it’s a choice that comes with a promise. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
This week I am greatly indebted to a Rob Bell sermon entitled Tortured by Books.
Reading: Matthew 5: 6
At first glance, the UK would appear to be hungry nation… or at least one that likes to eat. According to the most recent set of figures available, in 2014 UK households spent £94bn on food and drink. That’s about £60 a week per household. The only things on which we spend more are transport, housing (including heat and light), and leisure.
However this doesn’t include alcohol, takeaways or restaurants. Once we include those we spend £198bn. Yes, we certainly appear to be a hungry nation.
Yet dig a little deeper and we might find we’re not as hungry as we think. Estimates suggest we waste anywhere between 15% and 25% of our food. We are top of the EU food waste table…
… or should I say we were. (I leave you for 5 minutes…).
One conservative estimate suggests household food waste, which is about half our food waste, would fill 23m wheelie bins.
One figure suggests we’re a hungry nation, the other suggests we’re not as hungry as we think.
Of course, that’s not the only way we speak of hunger. On Monday you might have been in despair, watching England lose to Iceland at the European Football. So began a debate between football pundits which comes around every second summer.
Why do we not never win these tournaments?
Why do we never do as well as we should?
One argument often offered is that the players live very luxurious, pampered lifestyles. They earn huge sums of money whether they win or lose. So, it’s claimed, fairly or not, it doesn’t really matter to them. We don’t win because we’re not hungry enough. We don’t want it enough.
Ideas of hunger and thirst are at the centre of the announcement of Jesus we are going to focus on this morning.
Before I went on holiday, we started a series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If you want to understand Jesus and what he’s all about these words are a really good place to start.
Jesus takes the disciples up a hillside. A crowd follows. Some from Gentile Syria, others from ten very cosmopolitan towns, heavily influenced by Greek culture, called the Decapolis. Still others from his own native Galilee. There’s also some from the more sophisticated, but conservative Jerusalem and Judea.
So you have Jesus, surrounded by his closest followers with this really mixed rabble, who wouldn’t normally be seen together, all looking on.
Jesus sits down, and begins with a series of announcements which have come to be known the Beatitudes. They all begin with the words ‘Blessed are’, then we’re given a group who are the recipients of this blessing, and the nature of the blessing Jesus announced.
If you want to catch up, you can find previous sermons on the website, or on my blog. Thus far we’re looked at
Today we turn to Jesus’ fourth announcement…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled. (or satisfied).
One problem we might have with this beatitude is because of how we hear one word.
Righteousness, or righteous.
It’s not a word you hear much outside churches. When we do it tends to have another word in front of it.
Self. Self-righteous. People who, for whatever reason think they’re better, or more moral than others.
The last time the word ‘righteous’ was used in a positive way, was probably back when it was followed by the word ‘brothers.’
Righteousness can seem quite a personal thing; about doing all the right things, avoiding bad things and so on. To be fair, that’s not entirely wrong. Personal morals are important.
But it’s only part of what the Bible describes as righteousness. It’s only part of what Jesus is talking about here.
Some of you might remember back last year I did a short sermon series with you called The World in Four Words. If you don’t remember anything I said you might at least vaguely remember this wonderful piece of artwork.
What this is trying to say is that we’re not meant to be an island. The first thing the Bible says is not good is that we should be alone. We are made for relationship. In fact we are made to live in a whole network of relationships.
We are designed to live in relationship with one another.
We’re also made for relationship with God. The big story of the Bible is of God reaching out in love to us, longing for relationship with us.
But this one’s not a relationship of equals. There is an element of accountability here. From a Christian viewpoint, this world is God’s. God has placed his world in our care. We’re stewards of what is his.
Which leads on to the third part. We were meant to live in relationship with creation. God wants us to shape his world, so that it thrives and becomes as he intended it to be.
But we also live in relationship with ourselves. That’s got something to do with knowing our capacity for good and bad, but also knowing that balance between the fact that we are dust and the awareness that we are loved and that we are made in the image of God.
It’s God’s longing and desire for us that all of these relationships are good, healthy, in working order. The Bible has a word for that state of affairs.
In the big, wide Bible story, that’s actually what’s being talked about in the word righteousness. What puts the ‘right’ in righteousness isn’t the idea that I’m right and others are wrong. It’s about being right in relationships, about everything being in its right place.
I’ve spoken before about how the language Jesus uses in the beatitudes is really quite intense. When Jesus speaks about the poor in spirit, the word for poor doesn’t describe someone who’s a bit hard up til payday. It describes those who are absolutely destitute.
When Jesus blesses those who mourn, he’s not talking about how I felt when Northern Ireland were robbed (robbed, I tell you) in the football last weekend against Wales; it’s about being totally inconsolable at losing what you hold most dear.
Well the same is true here. In a couple of places. The word for righteousness would be better translated as ‘complete righteousness’ or ‘all of righteousness.’ It’s about everything in it’s right place. Not just some of these things…
I mean it’s possible to focus all your energy on one part of this picture and ignore the others. Jesus had most trouble with those who concentrated on the upward relationship; with God. They really wanted to please God. They searched out laws to tell them what they should do to get or to keep God on their side. In weeks to come we’ll see all sorts of ways they did this. How they prayed, fasted, gave to the poor. None of them bad things…
…But they didn’t really care much for other people. They looked down on people who didn’t meet their standards. They had part of the picture. They had partial righteousness. Not the whole thing. That’s one reason why later in the series we’ll read Jesus urging us to have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees.
Equally you might be really into justice issues. You care about the earth, you’d never let a non fair-Trade banana cross your threshold, you’d give away your last penny to someone in need… Again, all wonderful things…. but you can be all those things and still have a heart that is just so cold towards God. Or your whole inner life could still be a mess of lack of self-esteem, addictions, whatever.
Or some can be really great at loving folk far away. They’ll throw all the energy into this charity or that cause and everyone speaks of so well of them…
…meanwhile their spouse, kids, those closest to them, maybe their staff are thinking ‘if you only knew what they’re like at home.’ Again it’s partial righteousness. Not the whole thing. Not everything in its right place.
But righteousness isn’t the only intense word in this beatitude. Just as Jesus used the strongest possible words for poor and mourning, so he does the same with hunger and thirst.
Many of the people who heard Jesus speak knew what it was to be really hungry and thirsty. Jesus wasn’t talking about the kind of hunger you can satisfy with a bag of crisps or a sandwich.
Erwin McManus talks about a project in Zambia which fed starving children, who hadn’t eaten properly in a long time. He says you would think having been fed these children would sleep more easily.
But they didn’t. They were frightened if they went to sleep the workers would be gone and there would be no more food. The only way they could get them to sleep was to put a piece of bread in their hands, a promise that there would be bread in the morning.
That’s the kind of hunger and thirst Jesus is talking about.
Which at one level makes this beatitude seem really demanding. And that’s the approach a lot of those who write about this beatitude take. There’s this sense of ‘do you really want to be Godly? I mean, not just partly righteous… totally… How much do you want it? Are you prepared to devote all your energy to it? Do you want it like a starving man craves food?’
Going back to the examples I began with, it gives the sense that if you’re not making it, you’re not trying hard enough, you don’t want it enough. You might think you’re hungry but you’re not really.
So when I looked at how others approached this topic I came across sermon titles like ‘6 ways to develop spiritual hunger.’ For all I know, they might be great. If you want to read them when you get home, be my guest. They’re not hard to find online. But I find myself thinking ‘the only way to be that hungry is to starve.’
It’s also a very narrow definition of righteousness. When you understand righteousness as I described it this morning, we can’t just make everything fall into its right place. It’s isn’t all down to you. Many of these relationships involve other people and try as you might, you can’t force others to behave a certain way.
But the biggest problem with this approach is that falls into the same trap I mentioned at the start of this series when I spoke of how some do a little play on words and call these announcements Be-attitudes, beautiful attitudes that Jesus is looking for in those who follow him.
If Jesus is saying ‘God will bless you, or God will be with you, if you attain these character traits or develop these attitudes’, that’s just law. That’s not Gospel. As I said then, that’s salvation by attitude.
No like mourning and being poor in spirit, you can’t fake this or force yourself to get there.
And you know what? Jesus doesn’t even tell you to try!
You’re either there or you’re not…
…and when you are, Jesus simply announces God is with you, God’s on your side.
And that makes all the difference.
Far from being the most demanding of the beatitudes, this could be amongst the most comforting. Jesus doesn’t say blessed are the righteous, those who always make right choices, who have it all together.
No, it’s those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
If you’re hungry and thirsty for something you don’t have it, you haven’t attained it.
But it is also about where your heart lies. You see whether it’s politics or sport, our news has been constantly reminding us that it’s a results driven world. If you don’t get the result, you’ve got to go.
But into that world this beatitude speaks a different message: that we might be looking at the outward appearances, but God is really interested in the heart.
I mean, have you ever done the right thing, but for the wrong reasons? I know I have. I’ve done stuff not because I wanted to help or because I’m a good guy. I’ve done it but I wanted others to think well of me, because someone might notice I didn’t turn up, or I just wanted to shut someone up, or stop them being my problem.
Or look at it the other way round: have you ever got something horribly wrong, even though your intentions were really good and honourable? Your heart was in the right place? I’ve done that too.
Well this beatitude tells us God is more interested in the desires which drove us than the outcome. When you do the right thing for the wrong reason, others might think you’re great. You might even congratulate yourself. ‘I didn’t want to, but I did it!’ When you get it wrong, but genuinely were trying to get it right, others might judge you, you might even beat yourself up. ‘How could I be so stupid?’
But Jesus announces it’s in that moment that God is with you, that God is on your side. God is not looking at the outward appearance, God is looking at the heart.
And can I suggest… that is good news?
Because we can look at different parts of this network of relationships, our world, our country, our community, our church, our families, even ourselves and recognise that we don’t live in that state of Shalom.
Everything is not in its right place.
And we can long it be different.
We have hungers and thirsts.
The areas that might concern us might be big, global issues, the environment, the refugee crisis, our current political state.
It might be something systemic. You see how a certain group of people are treated and know it’s just not right. And you so want to do something about it.
It might be relationships between people. That marriage in your family you just know is not working and you just wish you knew if there was something you could do to help them sort it. But you’re looking on, feeling helpless.
That friend making really bad, destructive choices, and you can see where it’s all headed; you know it’s just not going to end well.
It might even be within yourself. You know those thought patterns which really drag you down. They don’t help you. You recognise that sin you want to get rid of. You wish it wasn’t part of your life. But you just… keep… falling… back… into it.
Or you have a developer on your doorstep, and that’s never going to be universally popular. You long to be a good neighbour. You really want them to come away with a sense of ‘you know what, they’re not like others… they’re not just out for themselves. They really care about their community and how this pans out.’ But you also have legal, moral and spiritual responsibilities to get particular outcomes. There can be a tension between those two things. You’re asking how does God want this to pan out?
In that, and in fact in all of those things, what are you doing?
You are hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
Thing is, so often the right approach, the right path isn’t clear. God is interested in all of these relationships. They are all part of the Shalom God is seeking. And in part it is in our hands, but it’s not always clear how we get there.
Here’s the best news.
God is not waiting for you to get it right.
God blesses you in the hunger and thirst. God is with you in the tension. God is on your side as you struggle with it. God is with you when you take a step, thinking I’m not sure about this….
Jesus announces nothing to those who think they’ve arrived. Who think they have it all together and couldn’t possibly be wrong. They have no hunger and thirst for things to be different.
When you notice that we do not have Shalom, when you realise things are not as they should be, that everything isn’t in its right place, and long for it to be different, God is with you….
… because God longs for that too.
Sure God is delighted when we make good choices…
… but his blessing is really on the heart. Jesus announces God’s blessing on the absence, not the achievement; on the longing, not the outcome; on the desire not the doing.
That means it’s ok to have days when you really despair, when you feel like doing nothing more than ranting. For often there is good reason to lament. Things are not as we, or God, would long for them to be. We’re recognising that we do not have Shalom, that things are not as they should be, we long for them to be different. We might feel powerless and helpless in the face of it.
But when you’re there Jesus announces, whether we recognise him or not, God is with you, God is on your side.
And God isn’t finished.
Jesus announces that those who hunger and thirst will be satisfied.
There is a sense in which this will be fulfilled when God draws all things together, in the visions of Revelation when God shall wipe every tear from our eyes and bring an end to death, mourning, crying and pain.
But that’s not the full story. We begin to catch glimpses of it here and now. Even now God takes his story forward through the yearnings, the longings, the hungers and thirsts of people. It starts as a disquiet, a yearning in a few, but grows, like a seed into a tree, until it becomes the norm.
People often say we are a society in moral decline. Yet if we brought someone into the present from the past, even 200 years ago, they would be amazed at how we have changed. And believe it or not, often for the better.
Little over 200 years ago, people thought nothing of owning slaves. What started as a yearning amongst a few, often powerless people, gathered momentum until slavery was outlawed. It is seen as unacceptable, something to be punished.
Even in my lifetime we have seen huge changes in areas like gender and race equality.
Have we a long way to go? Yes.
Is that journey straightforward? No. Sadly we do take backward steps along the way. But that doesn’t mean we’re not moving.
But as Martin Luther King once said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
We may not yet be where God would want us; we may still hunger and thirst for more change.
But we’re not where we were.
Not long ago recycling was something a few fanatics did. Now it is the norm, even if for some of you it might be one of the right things you do for the wrong reasons. We care more about our planet. Another feature I noticed from the shopping report I started with is that expenditure on Fair Trade and other ethical foods has gone up 700% since the turn of the century and continued to rise ever faster even through the recession. What starts as a longing, a hunger of the few, is becoming the norm. Our God is going before us, leading us on.
Is the church always at the front of these trends? Sadly no. We’re often behind. But with eyes of faith, we still might see the hand of God, taking the longings, our hungers and thirsts for righteousness and guiding us towards the Shalom he longs for us.
And God is not finished yet. Even if we reach what we long for, God plants new longings, new hungers into the few, guiding us forward towards his Shalom. Maybe all we have to offer God is our hungers and thirsts. Then we’ll discover God was blessing our hungers and longings for righteousness, even when we felt powerless, til that day when he takes all those hungers and thirsts and satisfies them. To that day when he completely fills those who have hungered and thirsted and seen that God was with them. God was on their side, all along.
Luis Carlos de Noronha Cabral da Camara was a wealthy, Portuguese aristocrat. Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but he made the news in 2007 for a very odd reason, after his death. 70 people were contacted to be told they had been named as his beneficiaries. Nothing unusual there, you might think.
But does anyone know what was odd about the people who were contacted? None of them had ever met Luis Carlos. They were chosen at random from a Lisbon telephone directory.
The will was legal. It had been witnessed by two people at a registry office 20 years earlier. Luis Carols had no-one to leave his wealth to. But he felt he had paid enough tax in life, and didn’t want the government getting another penny from him when he was gone.
Some of those chosen were wary about taking the money.
I mean, selected from a phone book?
That can’t be real, can it?
Well, if the thought of being selected at random from a phone book to receive a substantial inheritance seems too good to be true, that might give you a sense of how those who heard the words of Jesus on which we’re going to focus this morning felt when they first heard them.
We’re working our way through the Sermon on the Mount, as found in Matthew 5-7. If we really want to understand Jesus’ message and follow him, we need to take these words seriously.
The Sermon begins with a series of announcements called the Beatitudes. They all begin with the words ‘Blessed are’, then we’re told a group who receive this blessing, then we are told the nature of the blessing Jesus announced.
Each week I’ve spoken of how surprising these announcements of Jesus would have seemed to the crowd listening in to Jesus as he teaches his disciples from that hillside. The kinds of people on whom Jesus announced God’s blessing weren’t the kind of people that most assumed God would bless. They weren’t the ones who made all the right choices and had life sorted.
Today’s beatitude, or blessing, would have been amongst the most surprising of all…
Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the meek….
Let’s be honest. It’s not always easy to believe what Jesus says. But this has got to be one of the hardest things to believe.
Inherit the earth?
‘Jesus, I’d like to believe you. But I’m not sure history agrees with you on this one! I’m not sure that’s how it works.’
We all know who gets the earth. The conquerors get the earth. The rich get the earth. Earlier this year Oxfam reported that the wealth of the richest 1% of people on earth, was greater than the wealth of the other 99%… combined. Surely that’s who gets the earth.
Or maybe it’s the loud,
the ones who are just so sickeningly good at everything,
the ones who are crafty enough to ‘work the system.’
They get the earth.
Not the meek.
Of course, one reason we struggle with this idea is how we interpret the word ‘meek.’ What word comes into our head when we hear ‘meek?’
The meek are seen as the spineless, the submissive, the ineffective.
I’m sometimes told that more men would go to church if we hadn’t allowed Christianity to become so wimpy. Statements like this seem to back that up.
Thing is, I hardly think anyone could seriously accuse Jesus of being a wimp. And if Jesus says it, I think we owe it to him to wrestle with what he meant.
This wasn’t a new idea. Jesus was not the first person to say that the meek would inherit the earth. He wasn’t even the first person in the Bible to say it.
It was in the Psalm we read together this morning.
Psalm 37:11 – The Meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.
The full Psalm is 40 verses long and contains 5 references to inheriting the land and another to an inheritance that will endure forever.
When rabbis in that time wanted to refer to the scriptures their audiences didn’t have access to Bibles. They couldn’t invite people to turn to Psalm 37. Their scriptures weren’t broken down into chapters and verses like ours.
When they wanted to talk about part of their scriptures, they would quote part of the passage. They knew their listeners would know what they were talking about. If I said something was a bit like a lost sheep or a good Samaritan most of you would know the story I’m talking about, even if you don’t know where to find it in a Bible.
Jesus does something like this more than 20 times in the Gospels. The most famous is probably when Jesus is on the cross and he quotes Psalm 22: My God, My God why have you forsaken me? This is another example.
But what is Jesus trying to tell them?
What are they supposed to hear?
Psalm 37 is an odd Psalm. It’s one of the few that’s never addressed to God. Instead it is addressed to those who would seek to live in a way that would please God. And it begins…
Don’t fret, because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who would do wrong.
It’s a Psalm which speaks about how unfair life can be; how it looks like the bad guys always get their way.
But it’s message is that it won’t last.
God is fully aware of what’s going on. God knows what he is doing. You can trust him. You don’t have to do what they do. You don’t have to fight fire with fire. You will be ok.
Why was that important?
If you had asked anyone listening in on what Jesus was saying that day who got the earth, there’d have only been one answer.
Romans get the earth.
The ones who were powerful, strong, well-organised.
The ones who are strong and they know it.
They get the earth.
Not the ordinary Jew. Their land, which was their inheritance; which had been passed down from generation to generation; which they believed was a gift from God; that land was becoming the property of a very small elite who were Roman, were sympathetic to Rome, or colluded with Rome, like tax collectors.
They were the ones getting the earth.
Not the meek.
Sure, they had scriptures full of promises about inheriting the land, but as they looked around, they could see their world getting carved up and their slice getting smaller and smaller.
They were getting squeezed out.
They felt humiliated.
And it’s to that crowd that Jesus says Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth.
Of course that nagging fear that the world is being carved up and we’re not getting our slice isn’t restricted to people living thousands of years ago.
It’s controlled our politics particularly in the last few years.
Both sides of the EU referendum have played on that fear. On the one hand we’re told our sovereignty is being taken from us and handed to some faceless thing called Brussels. On the other hand we’re told the world is changing and we’ll get left behind if we leave.
It’s the same argument. The cake is getting divided and if we don’t watch out someone else will get our share.
In the last few years people have been set against one another. For a while it was those evil public sector workers with their gold-plated pensions. (Must be the only time ‘gold-plated’ has ever been seen as the height of luxury!) No-one was saying how great it would be if that became an aspiration for all pensions. No, it was ‘why should they get that? I’m not getting that.’ They’re getting something I’m not. The world is being carved up and I’m being left out.
Then it was those on benefits. Look at them, curtains closed as I set off for a hard day’s work. They’re obviously lazy. Look at them with all their kids and their Sky TV. Working the system. Probably not even from this country!
What drives all this? The fear that the world is being carved up and we are being squeezed out and left behind.
Others are inheriting the earth.
Or what about these?
‘They wouldn’t say that about Muslims!’
‘They’re more concerned about gay rights than Christian feeling.’
‘This is supposed to be a Christian country.’
Same thing. The world is being divided up and it feels like it’s those who shout loudest, who have the biggest elbows, who can play the system.
They’re getting ahead.
They inherit the earth.
But try to do the right thing? You just get trampled.
Or this next one feels a bit odd when I have just encouraged you to sign up to our Facebook page. Social media can be great, but like so many things it can be used in ways which make us unhappy. It can feel like that class reunion where you’re really only getting the edited highlights, the bits they want you to know, or one of those Christmas letters some families send out. They’re talking about how super their life is, and we compare ourselves to them…
… it’s like the world is being divided up and everyone else is getting their share but you.
So we hear Jesus say the meek will inherit the earth and we think ‘Jesus, I’d love it if that were true. But the world doesn’t really work like that, does it?!’
But that sense of how the world works and how unfair it feels is not something we’ve discovered. It’s been around since long before Jesus said these things. It wasn’t the invention of blues musicians. They were writing songs about this 2500 years ago. Psalm 37 was one of them. Jesus knew how the world worked just as much as you or I do.
So what does he mean?
What is Jesus trying to tell us as he makes this announcement?
It would be helpful to clear up what we do mean by meek. We’ve heard of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Well there is a certain amount of gentleness to the word. But that’s not the main point.
The term ‘meeking’ is used in the training of horses. Horses are big, powerful beasts. The idea that most of us could just hop on a horse and make it do what we want is pretty laughable.
But others can take a horse and can train it to do precisely what they want. The horse is no less powerful. It’s still way more powerful than us.
But it’s strength and power is being channelled in the right way.
That is meekness. It’s about knowing your strength, but using it well.
Believe it or not many of you have been meek recently. How many of you have stopped at a red light?
Could the red light force you to stop?
No. It’s just a bulb behind a bit of coloured glass.
Ok, so some of you might are terrified of breaking the law. You might have too many points on your licence to risk it. But mostly we do it because we recognise our roads work so much better if we stop when our light is red and others do the same. If we didn’t it wouldn’t be long before something terrible happened. People would get killed.
You could drive through every red light, but you don’t. You restrain yourself.
That is meekness.
Just because you can do something does not mean you should. If you live by the principle of ‘I’ll do it because I can’ you will do more harm than good.
Unchecked or unrestrained power is dangerous without character.
There are plenty of examples of this in the Bible. Take Elisha. This is a story very close to my heart. Elisha is about to take over as a prophet from Elijah. (Confusing, yes, but run with me). Elijah asks Elisha what he wants to inherit from his master. Elisha says ‘give me double portion of your spirit.’ Basically he asks for the kind of power Elijah had.
No bad thing.
And he gets it.
But almost immediately Elisha encounters some youngsters who shout at him ‘Oi! Baldy!’
So what does Elisha do? He calls down a curse on them. Two bears come along and maul 42 of them! (You don’t get many sermons on that one, do you?)
So be careful of baldy jokes! I just might think ‘what would Elisha do?’
It’s hardly ‘a go and do likewise’ story. Elisha has the power but not the character to use it.
Samson’s another character like that. Maybe it’s the hair but I always think of Samson as the George Best of the Bible. A flawed genius. Samson had so much power but no self-control and he became so much less than he could have been.
Or David and Bathsheba. Why does he David steal Uriah’s wife, then have Uriah killed? Because he could. It happened when he was at the height of his powers. But he set in motion a whole chain of events which left the rest of his reign in a mess and ultimately broke up his Kingdom.
History might not seem to tell us of the meek inheriting the earth. But it does remind us of numerous people who had it all, but it was never quite enough. They wanted just that little bit more, they over-reached themselves and lost what they already had.
In his recent book Being Human Steve Chalke writes of a conversation with a well-known public figure who spoke of how sad he was that for all the effort spent on trying to get people to be good at their job, so little was spent trying to teach them how to be good humans. They weren’t being taught to pay attention to the character they were developing, the kind of person they were becoming.
Then we wonder how huge scandals happen. Power, talent, ability without character and without restraint can be incredibly dangerous and destructive.
Imagine a world where the meek did inherit the earth.
Imagine those who had power also had the character and the wisdom to use it well.
Imagine they controlled our financial sector.
Imagine that kind of meekness were to be displayed in the EU referendum.
Imagine if that meekness was amongst the first words to spring to mind when we thought of church leaders.
Whilst I’m pointing the finger… Imagine that meekness was amongst the first words to spring to mind when you thought of your pastor.
And why don’t do we do it?
Cos we fear no-one else will.
All around us they’ll have the elbows out, they’ll be grabbing what they can. If we don’t look out for number 1, nobody else will! If we don’t do what everyone else does, we’ll get left behind. The world is getting divided up, and someone else will get our slice.
In effect we’re saying ‘I hear you, Jesus, but I don’t believe you!’
And we might well succeed in protecting our slice of the cake. But even if we do, Jesus has another warning for us. He asks ‘what good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose their own soul?’
I grew up being told that was Jesus warning us about going to hell when we die. But when you read it context it is actually more earthy than that.
You might get what you want, you might inherit the earth..
… but will you be happy with who you become in the process?
As Jesus surveyed the crowd listening in on his teaching, he’d have seen those who felt exactly as we do. Their world was being carved up and given to others. They were losing their slice. To many there was only one solution. Fight back! That’s how you inherit the earth.
In later weeks we’ll see Jesus say ‘you don’t think that’s really going to end well, do you? You’ll get slapped down like the others who have tried.’ Fighting back led to the destruction of Jerusalem 30 something years later. They lost what they had.
That’s why Jesus quotes from Psalm 37. The person who wrote the Psalm had a word for that nagging sense that the world was being carved up and someone else was getting our slice.
Do not fret about those who do evil and seem to get on.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not saying that God doesn’t care about injustice, or we shouldn’t care about fairness. Quite the opposite. We’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when I am back with you.
But let’s put it this way. How many people think they make their best decisions when they panic?
I’m not asking if you thrive under pressure, I mean when you’re in a panic?
Anyone made a decision in a panic then come to regret it?
That’s what fretting is all about. It’s saying when you look around and it seems like the bad guys are getting on and the good guys are getting trampled, don’t be panicked into making bad choices. Don’t let yourself be dragged down to their level.
There is one other dimension to the idea of meekness. The word meek is related to the word we use for fluid, or liquid.
Consider water and ice. If you have a great big block of ice, and you want to put it into a glass, it needs to be the right size or shape to fit in the glass. Whereas water can adapt to the shape of the container.
But the water remains the same. It’s unchanged.
One character who displays this kind of meekness in the Bible well is Daniel. He lives through the destruction of Jerusalem, right through the exile. Kings and Kingdoms come and go, yet Daniel keeps rising to the top, adapting to his surroundings, without compromising his faith, his beliefs and his values.
Aristotle was another who said that being meek was likely to help a person flourish in the long run. He described the meek as those who knew what was really important and what they could hold rather more lightly.
Some people who are so rigid in their faith that they really struggle when anything challenges what they believe. They cling too tightly to stuff that was never really that important. Others of course don’t think anything is important and lose sight of anything that makes them distinctive.
Then there are those who recognise the right time to be flexible and the right time to stand firm and lovingly say ‘no.’
The first Christians sought to be like that as they took the Gospel to their known world. They wrestled with what was essential and what was just their culture. They sought to adapt to their surroundings.
But they also knew when to say no. And that wasn’t easy. Often it meant being isolated, alone, marginalised. At times it felt that the world was being carved up and someone else was getting their slice.
Yet so often the Psalm has turned out to be dead right. So often those who have oppressed them and tried to silence them are long gone, forgotten, discredited, whilst the church in so many of those places survives and grows. The good done in the name of Jesus has proved remarkably enduring.
Who’s inheriting the earth?
Here’s a question worth pondering… People often tell me that Christianity is in decline in our world. To be honest, that’s only true of Western, mainly European Christianity. Is it a coincidence that the one part of our world in which the Christian faith is seriously declining is the one part where it came to the world by force?
But Jesus isn’t saying that the meek are blessed because they know when to be flexible and they’ll be the ones who get on in life. It’s not a simply rule of how the world works. Yes, there will be Daniel’s who experience that. But Jesus knew as much as the rest of us that there would be others who would be elbowed out, who would see their slice of the cake diminish.
They are not blessed because somehow in a changing world they have managed to be meek. But what Jesus is reminding them is that the world will not always work as it does now. He points them towards words like Psalm 37 and says ‘yes, I know how the world works. I know there are times when it feels like the world is being carved up and you are not getting your fair share. I know there are times when you will be tempted to think ‘if that’s what I have to do to get ahead, I will.’
But don’t fret. Words Jesus will use a lot over the course of the sermon are relevant here… you don’t have to be like them. When you do have power, use it well, use it wisely. Don’t allow your anxiety to drive you into choices you regret. Don’t find yourself in the position where you get what you want, but not like who you become in the process.
God knows your situation. He knows what we need. Nothing we bring to God leaves him stumped.
When you feel others are elbowing past you, when you feel you are being left behind, when you feel the world is being carved up and you aren’t getting your slice, in that moment, Jesus announces, God is with you.
God knows exactly what is happening. He knows exactly what he is doing. The earth is his and he knows exactly who inherits it, however surprising, however unlikely it seems to us.