Sermon on the Mount XX: Fruit

wolf-in-sheeps-clothingReading: Matthew 7: 13-23

A woman was driving through a town centre and she has this guy driving far too close to her. He’s right up on her bumper. You know the sort. They think the Highway Code doesn’t apply to them. (For all I know you might be that person!)  

As they approach a set of traffic lights, the lights turn amber. The woman reckons if she put the foot down she might just make it through before the lights turn red. But it’s around the time of the school rush. A child might dash in front of her car, so she doesn’t take any risks.

Well, those 30-40 seconds at the lights were obviously very important to the guy behind. He starts shouting about the ‘stupid woman’ up front. He’s tooting his horn, he’s shouting obscenities, he’s making hand gestures which don’t involve all his fingers.

Suddenly there’s a tap on his window and he looks up into the face of a police officer. The officer ordered him out of the car. He put handcuffs on him. He took him to the police station, where he was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell.

All of which had him completely bewildered. Fair enough, he had hardly displayed model behaviour, but surely this was a bit over the top.

A couple of hours later, a police sergeant approached the cell and opened the door. The guy was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with his possessions. He said, “I’m very sorry for my mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, gesturing at the woman in front, and swearing like a trooper…

…That was when I noticed the chrome-plated fish symbol on your boot, saying you’re a Christian. So I assumed that whoever have driving that car couldn’t possibly own it. I thought it must be stolen.”

What was being proclaimed on the outside of the car, wasn’t matched by what was going on inside.

We’re approaching the end of our time in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus brings the Sermon to a close, he calls on us to consider how we respond to his teaching. He challenges us about how we will live in the light of what he’s been saying.

Jesus concludes with 3 pictures. The first is the gate. There is a broad gate through which lots of people pass, only to find they have taken a destructive path. But there’s also a narrow gate, Jesus says, which leads to life. Thing is, Jesus says, only a few find that one.

The second picture is fruit. Jesus warns us to be careful about who we allow to lead us. Who you will allow to inform you, or shape your faith? Take care whom you follow, whom you look to for direction. Then he says ‘by their fruits you will know them. If they are good, they will bear good fruit, if they are bad they will bear bad fruit.

We’ll come more to this later, but it’s not immediately obvious what this fruit might look like. But what Jesus says next is challenging. Particularly for people like me, who assume positions of spiritual responsibility. Quite often I’m at conferences and I’m told ‘God must be really in this, just look at the results…’ But Jesus says ‘be careful. There will be those who have done amazing things: prophesied, cast out demons, performed miracles. They’ve done it all in my name.’ Yet, Jesus says, when everything is laid bare he was never in it.

The final picture is the house. There’s a wise man who builds his house on the rock. But there’s also a foolish man who builds his house on sand. Both face the same storms, rains, whatever. But the wise man’s house stand’s firm, whilst the foolish man’s house comes down with a crash. The wise man Jesus says is the one who hears his words, and lives them out. The foolish man is one who hears what he says but does not do it.

Three images. Gate, Fruit and House.

But these are not three totally disconnected pictures. Nor are they three ways in which Jesus says the same thing. There is a flow to these three pictures.

The scene for the gate is the wider world. It’s about the world or the culture we live in and our place within it. The warning of the gate is that it’s easy just to drift through life without really thinking, or questioning what you’ve been told. It’s possible to be sucked into what everyone is doing without giving it a second thought.

It seems to make so much sense. Everyone’s doing it!

But Jesus says it’s dangerous. You need to be careful. Seek out the narrow gate. Don’t just drift with the crowd.

The scene for the ‘fruit’ picture is the church, or faith community. Jesus is speaking about prophets, disciples, and those who act in his name. There is something about watching our own walk with God in these words, but primarily Jesus is warning us about to whom we listen. There will be those who assume or are appointed to leadership roles. They can seek to guide you.

They may be good and Godly.

But they might not.  

Even the good ones won’t always be right.

At times they might drift further and further into error. And they take people with them. And the consequences can be catastrophic. So, Jesus says, be careful about to whom you listen.

Then there is the house. That’s about our own lives. It’s about taking personal responsibility for how we live and the choices we make.

Yes, we’ll be influenced by all sorts of things around us. Society might be sweeping us in one direction. Leaders might try to direct us down a particular path.

But Jesus tells us in the end there is only one person responsible for the choice you make.

You.

Answers like ‘but so-and-so said it was ok’ or ‘everyone else was doing it’ just won’t cut it.

Ultimately the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount is ‘will you not only hear what Jesus says, but do it?’ Each of us has to answer that question for ourselves. We are accountable for our own choices.

One word links those three pictures.

Intention.

Sometimes I think because we talk so much about grace (or should talk so much about grace) we can get this sense that the life God wants us to live will just happen naturally. We don’t really have to think about it.

Over the last few months we’ve covered a vast range of subjects. Murder, anger, adultery, lust, divorce, honesty, revenge, charity, prayer, wealth, worry, judging others, trusting God…

Two things can be said about the kind of life Jesus offers. One is that this kind of life is not easy. Week in, week out, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been challenged by what Jesus has said.

The other is that is runs far more against what we have been brought up to believe, or what our instincts tell us, than we realise. It’s no wonder the very first summary we have of Jesus’ preaching is ‘the kingdom of God has come near. Repent.’ Turn around. Change direction. Embrace the life God has for you. Allow God to shape you into the person he created you to be.

We don’t just drift into the life Jesus is describing.

Left to our own devices this is not the path we’ll choose.

It requires resolve. We must choose our course and direct ourselves toward the life God wants for us.

This is true of pretty much everything else in life. If you want to achieve anything it takes a certain amount of intentional thinking. It involves making choices; saying yes to some things and no to others.

We reveal what we truly want by the choices we make.

In the last few weeks Andy Murray has finally reached the top of the tennis rankings. It’s an amazing achievement. I never thought I would say that about a British tennis player.

There is no doubt he has great ability. But what I admire most about him is how hard he works at it, how he makes the most of that ability. Achieving the top in anything requires a single-mindedness that enables you to say no to one way of life, that you might say yes to another.

Along the way he faced the same cultural pressures as everyone else. He faced the temptation do what everyone else is doing. Why makes these sacrifice? Being as good as he can be, has meant he has sometimes had to choose the harder route. Not partying when others were. Training hard when others would have preferred not to bother. Achieving greatness involves choosing the narrow gate. That’s why so few really make it.

Then there will be those who will seem so plausible, but who would perhaps be encouraging him to bend the rules, maybe persuade him to take the performance enhancing drugs. How many athletes have fallen for that one.

And those coaches will sound so persuasive. It take wisdom to know who to listen to.

But at the end of the day there is no point blaming the dodgy coach or the friends who were bad influences if they don’t make it. Their own choices determine whether they fulfil their potential.

So it is with the life Jesus calls us to live. Jesus says you will face the pressure to be just like anyone else. You will need to be alert to those cultural pressures. Jesus warns us to take care about to whom you will listen. Not everything that claims to be from God, is from God. Not everything that looks like it comes from God, really does come from God.

We’ll look at the Gate and the House in a couple of weeks. Today I want to focus the rest of my attention on the fruit. Be careful who you listen to.

Israel had no shortage of false prophets in their history. They were often very successful. Often more successful (at least at their time) than those whose works have survived down into our present day.

Take Jeremiah. When Jerusalem fell and the leaders were carried off into exile in Babylon, there were those who were saying ‘don’t worry, it’s won’t last. God wouldn’t let bad guys hold us down for long.’

Jeremiah, on the other hand, told them to settle down, plant gardens, build houses. Pray for the prosperity of the city into which they were in exile. For if Babylon prospered, they too would prosper.’ In short he was telling them that it was going to go on for some time.

Who was more popular? The one who promised the quick fix, or the one who said we were in this for a long time?

The quick fix guys were more popular.

But it was Jeremiah who was ultimately proved right.

I come across Jesus’ words about ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ fairly frequently. Thankfully it is not people saying this about me (at least to my face). But I typed the words ‘false prophets’ into Google to help me with part of this sermon and got over 3,000,000 suggested web pages. Often it turns out that a false prophet is basically anyone who does not meet the high standard of their accuser’s theology. Most of it is fairly graceless in my experience.

But we do need to be careful about who we allow to lead us, to guide us, to direct our thinking. And we need to take responsibility for it.

But it’s also possible to just delegate all our thinking about God to others. Maybe the professionally trained sort. That’s not what being a disciple, or apprentice, of Jesus is all about. If we are to discover the life Jesus calls us to live, we need to think it through for ourselves.

This idea of being alert about to whom we listen and testing what we hear comes right through the New Testament. In Acts 17, when Paul begins preaching in the town of Berea, the people of the town are described as noble for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. They didn’t just take Paul’s word for it, they checked it out.

Some people feel insulted if you question them. Not Paul. He told people to ‘test everything.’ Paul is not alone in this. In I John, the apostle John encourages his hearers ‘do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are truly from God.’

When someone says something, and I include myself in that, check it out and see if it matches up to what we know about God.

But against what measure are we to test them?

Part of our problem is that we can get distracted by what we see as success.

That church that trebled in size over the last few years.

Where all sorts of exciting things have been happening week in, week out.

I have met a number of people who have said that the reason their churches are, say, growing numerically, is because they preach the truth. They say those churches and denominations which are struggling, it’s because they’ve turned aside from the truth and God’s through with them.

But what about those who preach the same Gospel without the same result?

In the Bible false prophets were good at gaining followers.

People will happily surround themselves with teachers tell them what they want to hear.

I need to be very wary of what I say here because I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I am not dismissing any other church, preacher, whatever. I’m just saying that grace is rarely as straightforward as we’d like it to be.

That’s why we need to be awake, to intentionally consider what’s laid before us. Is it or isn’t it of God? Those who come to Jesus at the last and hear those words ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers’ clearly anticipated that they were going to be commended and were shocked to find otherwise. They had spoken well and performed great miracles. They had done some amazing things. So clearly the fruit by which we can know them that Jesus is speaking of is not to be found in what we call the spectacular.

The fruit Jesus is speaking of is to be found in the more bread and butter exercising of faith in daily life. Like the story with which we started about the tailgating driver, is what is going on inside matching what is being declared on the outside. Does what they preach match up to what Jesus teaches and do their lives match up?

That is a massive challenge to folk like me. Paul could urge his followers to imitate his life. Could I with confidence encourage you to do the same? I hope I live what I believe. But I won’t lie to you. Sometimes my wife could be forgiven for thinking ‘that smiley-jokey bloke up there looks very like the grump that left my house this morning!’

But more seriously, how often do our lives match up to what we say we believe. That’s the kind of fruit Jesus is looking for in our lives. Do we truly believe the life Jesus has been talking about is a better way to live? Do our lives reflect that?

Are there signs of a gardener at work in our lives?

Fruit takes time to blossom and ripen.

That’s why growing in faith in best done within a local faith community. There are plenty of great writers and preachers out there, and they have their place. We can certainly test what they teach against the Bible, but we’re very limited in discovering whether they live up to it. It’s much easier to observe and follow someone you know than someone who’s written a book or is on a TV channel, or has a popular podcast.

The kind of intention Jesus speaks of which we need for this life does take resolve. It is so much easier to go along with the crowd. But those ads which say pick a number of people can’t be wrong… say ‘But 50,000 people can’t be wrong?

They can.

It takes resolve to go against the crowd. It takes courage.

But in this journey it takes company. We need others to walk with us to help discern the truth in what we hear and when our disagreements arise simply just don’t like what they’ve said. We also need wisdom to discern when it matters and to help us be gracious in disagreement.

Which can seem like an impossible task, but for three things.

Jesus seemed to believe it was possible. Remember who Jesus is speaking to…

…that diverse crowd gathering round, watching on, listening in… from Gentile Syria, the ten Greek influenced towns called the Decapolis, from Jesus’ own native Galilee through to the more conservative Jerusalem and Judea…

…they weren’t amazed at Jesus’ idealism, or question how practical this all was. They were amazed at his authority.

Jesus didn’t just think it was possible for some superhuman, super-Goddy few. If you’re tempted to think that way, remember those to whom Jesus was talking and the list of people on whom Jesus pronounced God’s blessing. It wasn’t the good and the great, those who had it all together. If anything, it was those who thought they’d arrived that Jesus had nothing to announce.

Jesus looked out on that crowd, who were a right mix of good and bad and told them they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They might have struggled to believe it. But Jesus had more faith in them than they had in themselves. It was them to whom Jesus announced you are blessed. God was with them. God was on their side.

And that, I would suggest is the key.

God is with them.

They don’t do it alone.

And neither do we.

That’s why we need the Holy Spirit amongst us. For He is the one who can bring to mind those things we have learned and have come to believe. It’s the Spirit at work in us and amongst us who can guide us onto the right paths. It’s through the Spirit that we are drawn ever closer to the life God has planned for us. It’s the Spirit in us and amongst us that helps us discern those who would guide us in right paths. And as we saw two weeks ago, it’s that Spirit that Jesus has promised to those who Keep Asking, Keep Seeking and Keep Knocking.

It’s that Spirit at work in us, producing the fruit.

It’s that Spirit that guides us on the road towards the life God intends for us. But we must co-operate with it. Fruit needs to be cultivated. We have choices to make.

We need to be intentional because culture will seek to drag us in one direction, and not everything that claims to be of God will be.

But ultimately we will be accountable for ourselves.

It’s a life that is easily missed. We need the word, we need the Spirit and we need resolve, courage and each other to help us.

But it is not just possible. It’s a life Jesus promised to all who would truly seek it.

Sermon on the Mount XIX: Ask, Seek, Knock

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Reading: Matthew 7: 7-12

I have a confession for you.

I really don’t find it easy asking for things. Some people are really good at it. I just feel uncomfortable, particularly when I’m asking for money.

That’s why I used to hate Christian Aid week. Years ago my church were involved in a Christian Aid, which involved dropping envelopes through people’s doors, then going round to collect them later in the week.

I would do anything to avoid getting involved. In my last year there I had managed to avoid it until  the start of Christian Aid week. That was when I discovered that there was only one road in the entire village had not been covered.

My street.

Actually it was worse than that. At one stage my street was covered but the guy who was to do it was called away on business.

To cut a long story short, I caved in and did it. Nothing against Christian Aid: they do a great work. I just did not want to knock on my neighbours’ doors and ask them for money. I was seriously tempted to get a bunch of fivers and stuff the envelopes myself. Yes, it might have looked suspicious. Yes it would have been expensive.

But part of me still thinks it would have been worth it.

We’re continuing our time in The Sermon on the Mount. In recent weeks we’ve covered some tough ground. Murder, adultery, oaths, challenges about what we treasure and value. Last week was about judging others.

So on one level today’s might offer some light relief.

          Ask and it shall be given to you

          Seek and you shall find

          Knock and the door shall be opened to you…

Yet in different ways this passage turns out to be just as tough.

When we read words like these, what thoughts spring to mind?

 Something like this?

A passage like this is just so open to abuse, is it not? Flick through religious broadcasting channels and there is no shortage of the stuff. It might not be something quite so luxurious as a Mercedes Benz or a colour TV or as trivial as the next round. It might be something that is genuinely important.

Even if the precise words are never spoken, in the back of our mind is there ever that sense of ‘God, if you really love me, prove it. Sort this out for me.’

Trouble is you don’t have to follow Jesus very long before you realise that there will be stuff that you pray for that doesn’t work out the way you want it.

When I approach these words I admit I feel a strong urge to put boundaries on this. Had I been around Jesus at that time I might have been tempted to say ‘Jesus, you might want to go easy on that ask, seek, knock bit. You are aware how people are likely to hear it, aren’t you?’ Like the small print at the bottom of the ad I want to highlight the terms and conditions that apply.

Actually, it is quite possible that I wouldn’t be the first to do that. It may be a tradition which goes all the way back to the New Testament itself. Matthew is not the only Gospel to include these words of Jesus. In Luke 11 Jesus says something very, but not entirely, similar. ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’ But he ends its slightly differently. If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In Matthew it is simply ‘good gifts.’

In Luke it is the Holy Spirit.

It’s possible that Jesus said something similar on more than one occasion. I say the same things to you often enough. But it’s possible that even at that early stage in the Christian history, as they pieced together the apostles’ teaching about Jesus, there was that sense of ‘maybe we had better just put that little bit of clarification on what Jesus meant here. Better make sure they know what it is they are allowed or are supposed to ask for.’

But in Matthew, Jesus makes no attempt to tell us what we can ask, seek, knock for.

His invitation is exceptionally broad.

His promises are unconditional.

Jesus just encourages them to have the same confidence in God which he had. He encourages them to expect a response when they pray.

That’s because of the God Jesus describes in the Sermon. We’ve seen that the God Jesus speaks about is not a God you need to get ‘on your side’ or ‘in his good books.’ Pagan Gods might be like that, but not our God. Ours is a loving, caring father, already favourably disposed to you, already noticing and listening. You don’t have to waste your life on worry, because you are in the care of that God. We do not have to spend our time marking ourselves against others, or judging others, for this God sees everything, he’s got it all under control.

A key characteristic of the God Jesus describes throughout the Sermon on the Mount is generosity. It is against that background and within that flow that Jesus invites us to ask, seek, and knock.

When I hear these I worry about the abuse his words might receive. But Jesus it seems would rather risk being asked for the wrong thing than put us off asking for the right things.

Why is it that we don’t like to ask?

Is it that we don’t want to sound selfish?

Or is it that we think God’s got better things to do with his time?

Dave Allen used to joke that he reckoned God preferred atheists…

…because they were not always asking him for stuff.

Recently I was chatting with a lovely Christian lady and at one stage in our conversation she pointed upwards and half-jokingly stated ‘I think he gets sick of listening to me!’

That doesn’t sound like Jesus’ God. For him, asking is the most natural thing we can do.

It’s what children are supposed to do with their parents.

Far from God thinking ‘oh no, not him again’ maybe our refusal to ask hurts and puzzles God more.

I am going to put up a sentence on the screen and I want you to fill in the blank. James _________ lives with his parents.

For how many people is the first word to pop into their heads ‘still’?

The actual word is happily.

This is James. He’s not even 18 months old.

We live in a culture which values independence so highly. And that’s not entirely bad. But it can become a disease. For a lot of people, if you need someone you’re a loser.

You might question whether we really don’t like to ask. But listen to how we do ask people for something.

What kind of language to do we use?

‘I’m really sorry to ask but.’

‘I wouldn’t normally ask, but’

 Or ‘I hate to ask you but…’

Hate? Is that really that good a use of the word? By all means hate racism or poverty or injustice. But asking for something?

Yes, I am aware that there are those who can constantly make demands of us and it can be wearing, but when it really matters and when we really care, we want to be asked, we would much prefer to be asked. Actually people feel hurt or unwanted when they are not asked.

Imagine I am away and whilst I am away, late one evening Julie contacts me and tells me she’s feeling very ill and needs to call out the doctor. Say on the following Sunday I stand up here and tell you all about it, how I was really worried, how I just so wanted there to be someone there with her checking she was ok, saying if only there was someone I could have called.

How many people here would be thinking ‘well you could have asked me?’ I know some of you well enough that you’d tell me off for not doing it.

Occasionally if I have had to travel somewhere, quite a few of you have said ‘you don’t have to do go by train. If that happens again, give me a ring.

Ask me.

We might hate asking, but experience should tell us that when it matters, we prefer to be asked.

Asking connects us. Straightforward asking is something that has the power to bring people closer together. So many relationships are formed because people have shared in a task. One asked the other. They’ve been brought together.

Not asking can be a real source of tension. Ever been in one of those scenarios where there is tension in the air and when you get to the bottom of it it’s because you didn’t do something that you hadn’t been asked to do and didn’t know it had needed to be done in the first place? And you certainly didn’t know that they thought you should have known and they think you should have done it? I’ve been on both sides of that.

That extends into our relationship with God. Jewish rabbis had a great saying ‘a man might be annoyed by being worried by the requests of his friends, but with God all the time a man puts his needs and requests before him, God loves him all the more.’

God likes to be asked.

Unspoken requests can be so dangerous.

Asking is healthy, human behaviour between ourselves.

How much more so between us and the kind of generous God Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount?

Last Tuesday I had a really great, sacred time in here during our morning prayers. What made it special was that we had a number of adults with learning disabilities. If you really want to pray as Jesus tells us to do, don’t watch me.

Listen to them.

They have no problem asking God for what really matters to them. They get it.

Whereas me? I’m worried, certainly in public about what people might think about my asking.

Without caveat Jesus invites us to ask, seek, knock, to bring our requests to God. Not just once, but continuously. The words for ask, seek and knock are words suggest we

keep asking,

keep seeking,

keep knocking.

We’re encouraged to bring those requests to God confident that he won’t mock us.

That’s not to say we always get what we want. Good parents don’t give their children everything they ask for.

There are times when we don’t really know what we’re asking for. There are times when getting what we want might not be the best for us. Gifts which seem so good can become a curse. Like the story of Midas where he asks that everything he touch be turned to gold, it might sound like a good thing, but it made his life impossible. The moral of most stories about genies and the three wishes is ‘be careful what you ask for.’

There is something of that in what Jesus says. By the shore in Galilee there were any number of round limestone stones that looked exactly like loaves of bread. But if you were hungry, however they looked you couldn’t eat them. The term translated serpent is most likely an eel, which though technically a fish was something a good Jew would not eat because it was not kosher. There was also a type of scorpion that when it folded up could look exactly like an egg.

There are things which look exactly like what we want or need, but if they were given to us would do us little or no good, and might even harm us. Part of God’s loving care is that he knows our end from our beginning, he knows what is best for us and what it will take to get us there. And he will, if we trust him. So by all means, Jesus says, bring your requests to God.

Bring them seriously.

Do it persistently.

But know that God is sovereign. He knows what is best for us and wants what is ultimately for our good.

But as we move towards a let me tie up some of the difference between Matthew and Luke in this regard. Jesus has delivered some hard instruction. On anger, lust, violence, revenge, enemies, how we do good, commands about storing up treasures in heaven, living a life of trust rather than worry, not judging others.

Sometimes as a preacher you come to passage and wonder whether you’re ready to preach that. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, that’s been pretty much a weekly experience for me.

Even the seemingly nice promises that come with the words to ask, seek and knock prove challenging when I realise how so often I just don’t do it.

In short, if Jesus is describing the life God wants me to live, the life God created me to live, there is one thing I can say with absolute certainty about it – it’s not easy.

But this passage is a turning point. For in what remains, Jesus will challenge us about how we respond to all that he has said. There will be those who try to find ways around what Jesus says. But Jesus says the wise will be those who hear it and live it out.

Yet so much of Jesus teaching runs so much counter to what we have been brought up to do, or how we want to behave. Even if I do accept that the life God has for me, the life I was created to live, if I accept that is best for me, where can I find the strength to live it? That’s why Jesus says at this particular point ‘ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.’ It’s why Jesus can say with confidence that everyone who asks receives, those who seek find, to those who knock it shall be opened.’

If this is the life he calls us to live, that he created us to live, surely a good, generous God who won’t mock us won’t leave us powerless to live it. He’ll empower us for it if this is the life we want. And if this is the life we want, we’ll ask for it.

What he really wants us to ask for is the will and the strength to live the kind of life he’s been describing in these three chapters and which we have been looking at these last few months. Regardless of what else we might think it’s appropriate to ask God for, surely the strength to live that kind of life is the kinf good gift he wants to give us. If we want that kind of life we need the Holy spirit at work in us. So maybe Matthew and Luke’s passages marry better than it at first appears.

But Jesus does not limit himself in today’s reading when he invites us to ask, seek and knock. For whilst we might worry about the abuse these words might receive, Jesus is more concerned that we stop asking. Asking is a sign of a healthy relationship. Silence in a relationship is deadly. Even if all we are doing is asking, hey, at least we’re talking.

We might be more concerned about asking for the wrong thing, but for Jesus a greater problem is when we stop asking for the right things. That need not just be fine moral qualities, but for the things we need day by day. Not asking is more dangerous. For then we risk forgetting that all good things come from God. Asking reminds us that all good things are indeed a gift.

The God Jesus spoke of is just as concerned with what we need as we are. Jesus told us to call him father, so let’s not think of him as a bureaucrat or dictator who hasn’t got time for our trivial and irrelevant concerns. Let’s not assume that God’s too busy for us. Yes we can turn on the news and see war in one place, famine in another, earthquake in yet another, and that’s without mentioning Donald Trump…

That doesn’t stop God having all the time in the world to listen to us. He does not consider our prayers pestering him. He has all the time in the world for us. When he says he’s got time, space and love to spare for us, let’s take him at his word and keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking, confident that the God who receives our prayers is not only listening, but welcomes them.

Sermon on the Mount XVIII: Judging, Specks, Logs, Pigs and Pearls

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Reading: Matthew 7: 1-6

What comes into your head when you hear the word ‘judge’ or ‘judging’?

Maybe you think Saturday night telly. Whether you love X Factor or prefer Strictly, both have panels of judges. On Strictly this year you’ve even got judges judging a judge!

Which would normally seem weird. But that’s also been happening outside the TV studios. This week some of our top judges made the news and found themselves being judged…

…for making sure stuff is done legally…

…which, forgive me…

…this might sound overly simplistic…

… I thought that was what we paid them to do.

Some of our media have tried to judge the judges, to discredit them, to claim they have no right to make that ruling. They’re not fit to take that decision.

Well, the theme of today’s passage from The Sermon on the Mount is judging. Today we have one of the most-quoted, yet often misused parts of Jesus teaching.

Fairly or not, Christians can have a reputation for being judgmental people. Sometimes, if we’re honest it is deserved.

But all too often I’ve seen Jesus’ words used by people who know they have done wrong, but are trying to deflect attention away from what they’ve done, onto the one challenging them. ‘Jesus says you can’t judge me…’ 

…when justifying ourselves was never the intention.

Nevertheless Jesus does indeed say those words.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

Thing is, we use the word ‘judge’ in lots of different ways. So we need to know what Jesus meant?

Normally to do this, we would go back and look at the Greek word that’s used in the New Testament and see what that meant.

Unfortunately, this time that’s not very helpful. Just as we use the same word to describe a few different things, so did they.

The word used for judge is κρίνω (krino). It is used in the New Testament in different ways…

Take for example Titus 3:12: Travel at certain times of year was difficult, due to the weather. Paul, as an experienced traveller, was weighing up if the weather would remain calm long enough for him to safely make his journey. He decided it wouldn’t. Paul says I have decided to spend winter here. The Greek verb for ‘decide’ is κρίνω.

That’s one use of κρίνω Sometimes we have to use our judgment to decide which course of action to take.

Do we take that job or stay where we are?

Who will I vote for?

When I was writing this I got a text from Beny. I had asked if there was any sign of little baby Bujenita. Beny said they were still waiting for him to decide!

More seriously, when we face temptation we have to decide whether we will do the right thing or not.

Is Jesus saying we shouldn’t make those kinds of judgments?

No, of course not.

Most of the rest of the Sermon is precisely about how we make those judgments. Jesus called those listening on that hillside to ‘a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.’ That means they would have to take decisions not just in terms of what was good or bad, but sometimes between good and better.

Even within this section, when Jesus talks about pigs, pearls and dogs, he is telling us to make decisions about how we deal with different types of people. Which requires us to make certain types of judgments about whom we are dealing with.

Before the end of the sermon Jesus will be telling them to make decisions about gates they pass through, to distinguish between good and bad prophets, between different foundations on which they can build their life. Jesus was telling them to decide, to use their judgment. He said we need that kind of κρίνω.

Another place κρίνω appears is in John 18:31. Jesus has been arrested. Pilate doesn’t want to get involved. He tries to get the Jewish leaders to deal with Jesus. He says ‘take him yourselves and try (or judge) him according to your own law.’

κρίνω is used for judgments made in a courtroom. For this reason some of the early Baptists believed Christians should not get involved in the state justice system, certainly not as judges.

Is Jesus telling us to do away with the court system?

No, of course not.

But there is another way in which κρίνω is used. κρίνω appears (twice) in John 7:24. Jesus is debating with the Jewish authorities and says ‘stop judging (κρίνω) by external standards, but judge (κρίνω) by true standards.’

Or again in I Corinthians 4: 4- 5. The apostle Paul is writing here too… The Lord is the one who passes judgment on me. So you should not pass judgment on anyone before the right time comes. Final judgment must wait until the Lord comes; he will bring to light the dark secrets and expose the hidden purposes of people’s minds.

Again the word for judgment is κρίνω.

That’s what Jesus is talking about here. It’s like that story in the Old Testament where Samuel is sent to Jesse to anoint one of his sons to the next king of Israel. One by one, handsome, strong Poldark-lookalikes are brought before him and Samuel thinks ‘this has got to be the one.‘ But he’s told he’s judging by outward appearances, but God is looking at the heart.

This type of judging is about what we do, when we look at something about a person or something they have done and make value judgments about what they’re like as a person.

The Corinthians passage says something very important. This particular type of judging. There’s only one judgment that really matters. This type of judging…

…it’s actually God’s job.

Jesus is talking here about that moment when you hear something about a person and think ‘typical… that’s just what they’re like’ or ‘what do you expect from someone like that.’

Most of us have got moments in our past that we’re not exactly proud about. Stuff we got wrong. We know it was wrong; we truly regret it; if we had the chance to do it differently we would.

We wouldn’t want it to define who we are.

That’s what’s judging does. It defines others by their worst moments.

Or it might not even be something they have done.

It might be the colour of your skin…

It might be because you’re young…

… or old…

It might be your religion…

…your political persuasion…

…your gender…

…your sexuality…

…how you dress…

It’s that moment when you’re ready to think the worst of someone because of something you know about them.

Or it’s that moment when you look at someone else and feel, even just for a moment, that you are better than them, because you would never do that.

It’s in that moment that we’re taking something we can see, something on the outside and claiming that we can accurately read what’s going on inside, that we can see through to their motives, their purposes, their hearts.

Jesus says ‘don’t go there.’

Cos in that moment we’re playing the part of God.

In that moment we are trying to do God’s job.

And that isn’t ours to do.

And we’re not very good at it.

There are several good reasons why we are not very good at it.

Firstly, we never know the full facts about a person, or the situation they are in. It is really easy to condemn someone when we don’t face the same temptations as them.

There was a rabbi who lived in the period just before Jesus’ ministry called Hillel. You might remember I mentioned him when we were talking about divorce. He once said ‘do not judge a man until you yourself have come into his circumstances or situation.’

In recent weeks I’ve spoken about temptations being individual. Stuff I struggle with, wouldn’t bother you. The same is true the other way round.

Sometimes the difference between us and someone we would condemn is not desire, but opportunity. I might say I’d never sign for Tottenham even if they played me a million pounds a week. But you know what? I’ve a hunch that’ll never be put to the test.

A few years ago there was that whole scandal about MPs fiddling expenses by flipping homes or whatever. I’m not saying that was ok. But there’s no point in me congratulating myself for not doing that. I’ve never been in the position to do it. Who knows what you or I would do in their position? We might like to think we’d do differently, but we can’t be sure.

Also, don’t underestimate the impact your upbringing can have. Something I have discovered in ministry is that there are aspects of my upbringing for which I should be really grateful. There were aspects of handling money and income that to me were basic common sense, I discovered others didn’t know. Not because I was better than them. They just didn’t have anyone teach them.  

William Barclay has wise words to say about this… ‘if we realised what some people have to go through, so far from condemning them, we would be amazed that they have succeeded in being as good as they are.’

Nor do we know their destiny. Although this kind of judgment is God’s job, rather than ours, God is rather more reluctant than us do it. God waits til we reach the end of our story before he does it.

What makes us think we can do it quicker?

Another reason why we are not up to the job of judging is that, however hard we try, we struggle to be impartial in our judgements. If you doubt that have a look at the different outcomes which different groups in our society experience from our justice system. That’s a problem as old as civilisation itself. When the Greeks had a particularly difficult or important trial, they held it in the dark, so they would not see the accused and wouldn’t be influenced by anything but the facts of the case.

We don’t look at things objectively because how we see it is affected by stuff that’s happened to us in the past, sometimes without us even realising it.

But equally we aren’t even always able to live up to the standards we set for others. We can be harsh critics, from the safety of never having to prove ourselves.

If you doubt that, go and sit in the crowd at a football match, and listen to what they say about the players and the ref. (Or you could have sat in my house on Friday night during the first half of the Ulster rugby match).

I remember watching a match a number of years ago between the mighty Doncaster Rovers and Stevenage Borough. These two teams weren’t even in the league at this point. It was a dreadful game. It finished 0-0 and they were both lucky to score nil. But I remember after another missed pass, with the crowd getting on their backs, and my friend commented ‘3000 people in here seem to think they would have played that pass better than him… makes you wonder why he’s down there and we’re up here.’

Finally it’s a highly unsuccessful thing to do. In our better moments we might say it’s about trying to get them to see the error of their ways. But in truth, shame is a highly ineffective motivator. It’s very rare for them to say ‘gosh, you’re right!’ If anything it makes them more defensive. It drives them further away.

And it doesn’t really work for us either. From experience, those times in my life when I have been judgmental? They’re not moments I look back on with any great fondness. They’re not my happiest memories. In fact, I have never met a person who is judgmental whom I would describe as happy.

Jesus isn’t saying you should suspend judgment about what is right or wrong. Nor, if you are called to do jury service should you refuse to find someone guilty. Jesus is warning us against setting ourselves against others; deciding we are better than them. Remember, if you decide you’re a better person than someone else because you haven’t done what they’ve done, or wouldn’t do what they do, there might be something in your life which is causing them to think the same way about you.

Jesus is warning us against taking on a job for which we’re not qualified. We don’t know all the facts, we don’t always realise all the baggage we’re bringing into our judgments and, if we’re really honest we all have moments where we don’t live up to our own standards anyway.

In short Let God take care of that. He’s so much better at it.

When we judge and take the place of God, we’re doing a job we’re not qualified to do…

…and not doing what we can.

…Which is deal with our own lives.

Jesus Galilean audience would have howled with laughter as he spoke of someone with a great big beam in their eye, looking at someone with a speck of sawdust in theirs and saying ‘mate, do you not think you should sort that thing in your eye?’

Jesus is saying to put our own house in order before you start sorting out others. In part that’s because the things we are most likely to strongly condemn in others, are things we don’t like about ourselves, things we don’t like to acknowledge within us.

But there is something more than that. When we search our own hearts honestly, we find that we too stand in need of mercy, grace, forgiveness and patience. Not just those we would readily condemn.

Jesus doesn’t say you will never be in the position to help others. Jesus issues the moral equivalent of the airline safety instruction where you are told to sort your own oxygen supply or lifejacket first.

Jesus says deal first with the beam in your own eye, then you’ll be able to see clearly to help remove the speck in the other’s eye.

Why does Jesus say that? Because self-examination helps us to realise not just what needs to change in our own hearts, and how deep-rooted and difficult it is to deal with. When you realise that you become so much more sensitive and able to productively help others face their challenges. You’re more likely to understand their point of view. So you’re more likely to be understanding and graceful in helping them.

But also your experience of having been there and come out the other side means you have something to offer in terms of I’ve been there, I get it, have you thought of this…

Jesus suggests it is possible to reach that place. But really very few make it…

…Because there is no shortcut to reaching that place. You need to have done your own inner work. You need to be searching your own heart. Only those prepared to that and have done the inner work who can help others in healthy, restorative ways. They approach things not as a judge or adversary, but like a doctor providing medical attention. And they do it aware that they stand as much in need of grace as those they seek to help.

They can do it, because they have been prepared to deal with the beam in their own eye. So they see clearly to help others.

But even then that might not be enough. Jesus finishes this section with an odd saying…

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

Now clearly Jesus, if you feel you had to say it, it must have been an issue. I mean, anger and lust, loving enemies, hypocrisy, attitudes to wealth, worrying, judging… thus far the Sermon on the Mount has made challenging reading. But throwing pearls at pigs? I think I can rest easy on that one.

Here is the main Bible I use. It has become a bit tatty in the 10 or 11 years since I bought it. But it’s honestly not because I’ve been using it as a teaser toy with a dog.

Does anyone here own a pearl necklace, earrings or anything like that. You don’t have to be wearing it. You don’t have to be wearing it. Anyone?

Be honest. You’re amongst friends. We’ve all heard the sermon. We won’t judge you. But have you ever been on a farm, walked past a pig sty, and felt an urge to throw your pearls at them? Anyone?

As commands go this must go down as one of the easier ones to obey. Telling someone not to throw pearls at pigs is a bit like ordering me to eat chocolate.

Unless it’s about something else. I suspect it is.

 

Actually it’s not that far removed from us. In English we sometimes talk about pearls of wisdom. First century Jews talked about pearls in the same way. 

Have you ever been in a position where you are trying to persuade somebody to do something. You wonder why you bother. They are not listening to a word you said. Then along comes someone else. They recommend the exact same thing. And it’s like the wisest thing they’ve ever heard. When they tell you about it, there’s almost a tone of ‘I don’t know why you never suggested that!’

Sometimes people are just not ready to receive what you have to give them. Your dog doesn’t know your top of the range jimmy Choo shoes from the George as Asda. It’s liable to chew both. A pig will not discern a pearl from a peanut.

Sometimes I’m grateful to be Baptist rather than Church of England. When Baptists have disagreements we don’t normally end up fighting about it on Newsnight. Which isn’t the place for it. They don’t really get all the issues that are discussed.

Some arguments are not worth having. Often there is no real desire to explore. We don’t have enough common ground to discuss well.

Some of you have family who grew up in the faith. They might even followed Jesus for a while. But now they seem distant from, perhaps even hostile to it. You so long to get them to see it.

It might not even be a faith matter. It’s just someone you see on a destructive path and you’re desperately trying to stop them, but everything you try just makes it seem worse.

Sometimes they are just not ready to receive it.

But that doesn’t mean they never will.

Just as Jesus tells us we can entrust judgment to God, so there are times we have to entrust others to God. There are times to speak up, but there are times to leave it. Sometimes desperately trying to get them to see it only pushes them further away.

It takes some wisdom to see that. It doesn’t mean you give up. You can continue to show Jesus in how you live. You can be available when they offer the right moment. The wisdom you long to bring might take root at a later date. Perhaps from an entirely different, unexpected source.

It takes faith to entrust others to God. But at this table we’re reminded that the God to whom we entrust them loves them even more than we do. So there’s no need to judge and no need to try to force others to see our way. Be Christlike. Be available and be willing to share the hope Christ has put within you. God knows what he is doing. We can entrust all that is precious to his hands.

Sermon on the Mount XVII: Let the Birds and Flowers Be Your Teachers

stressed-stress-relax

Reading: Matthew 6: 24-34

A Peanuts cartoon springs to mind when I read the words of Jesus which we shared this morning. Charlie Brown is leaning on a wall, with his friend Linus. Linus says ‘I guess it’s wrong to be always worrying about tomorrow. Maybe we should only think about today.’ Charlie Brown responds, ‘No, that’s giving up…

… I’m still hoping that yesterday will get better.’

You don’t need a Biblical Studies degree to work out the main theme of this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Six times in the space of these 10, 11 verses, variations on the word ‘worry’ appears. There is also a reference to what pagans are ‘concerned’ about, and what we should be ‘concerned’ about. So you won’t be surprised that the topic for this morning is ‘worry.’

However distant we may feel from the events of the Bible, some things about us remain the same. You only have to look at modern advertising to see our concerns are the same. Every day we are bombarded by advertising, all of it telling us our lives are incomplete because we don’t have this…

The vast majority of these advertisements are about what?

How you look, what you can eat, what you can drink and what you can wear. That, and how you can get more money so you can look, eat and drink better and wear better clothes, or how to protect the things you’ve got…

Jesus does not say these things are unimportant. Nor does he suggest we shouldn’t care about them at all. As I said last week, sometimes Christians can lose sight of the fact that God has given us a good world to enjoy. We can become quite anti-stuff.

And yet, as CS Lewis once remarked, in the purest sense of the term, Christianity is the most materialistic religion in the world. Our God likes stuff. He made it. We are physical, as well as spiritual beings. At the centre of our faith is the idea of incarnation. God becomes flesh.

God filled our world with life and beauty in awesome varieties. If you’ve ever looked at marine fish, you’ll see that God fills our world with the most vibrant beauty and colour; often in places where there is no-one apart from God to appreciate it. God likes his world.

Jesus had a reputation for loving a party. He loved eating and drinking. And as for clothes, well, his own can’t have been too bad. At the cross, the soldiers who crucified Jesus thought his tunic was too good to divide up and started gambling for it.

So Jesus doesn’t say these things do not matter, or that we don’t need them. He just says our Heavenly Father knows we need them.

But I tread carefully with this particular passage. As someone who has suffered from, and still wrestles with, anxiety, I am very aware of how these words can be used less than compassionately. You risk leaving people feeling more burdened than when you started. It can leave you with just one more thing to worry about!

Simply being told ‘don’t worry, trust God’ is not always helpful. I find myself thinking ‘what do you think I’m trying to do?’

Equally I find myself asking would Jesus have said these things to those being evicted from camps in Calais, or under siege in Aleppo last week. I’m with the writer Scott McKnight who reckons Jesus would have had different things to say to those in such situations.

Nonetheless, as we noted last week, most of those listening to Jesus on that hillside, earned just about enough to live day by day. They were the ones Jesus warned about storing up treasure in heaven or trying to serve God and money. And what I said about last week’s passage remains as true in this section. If Jesus said that to them, how much more would he say it to us?

Nonetheless, life is full of opportunities to worry. Our word ‘psychiatrist’ comes from the Greek word for ‘life.’ Worry is big part of modern life. They say the more common something is in a society, the more words they’ll have to describe it. For example, it’s said that Eskimos*  have more than 50 words for snow.

With that in mind, I had a quick look in my thesaurus. It’s by no means the best thesaurus in the world. It’s the kind you can pick up in a bargain book shop for a few pounds. But even there I found 19 alternative words for anxious, and 28 for worry.

Not all stress is bad. A certain amount can push us to achieve stuff we never thought we could manage. What I am talking about here is the kind of anxiety which sucks the joy out of life.

I imagine even the most laid back of us worry sometimes. Can any of us really say we have gone through the last week, month, or let’s be really optimistic, year without worrying, even just for a moment, about something?

Yet, although we all worry, what we worry about is very individual. I’ve said similar things about temptation and sin. But it’s also true of worry. Ever notice how two people can face the same situation and one be absolutely terrified and the other perfectly calm?

I’m pretty sure that things I worry about, which would keep me awake at night, would not be an issue for some of you. And I’m sure that some of the things you worry about would not bother me one little bit.

Also time can have a big influence on how much we worry and what we worry about. Worries can seem so much bigger at night than they do in the morning. I might lie awake at night wondering how I am ever going to manage to do this, or how I’ll ever be able to do that, then wake up wondering what the fuss was all about. Some adults read diaries they kept as a teenager and laugh at things which worried them.

That tells us something very important. The worry, or calmness with which we face our circumstances, comes not from the circumstances themselves. It’s come from within us. And that is what Jesus is talking about here.

But all worries have something in common. Worry doesn’t solve the problem. I have never yet met anyone who has convinced me that worry works for them. In fact, it gets in the way. Worry is proven to affect our judgment and limit our decision-making ability. Worry has a habit of placing our attention on what is beyond our power and away from what is in our control.

In our more rational moments we know worrying is pretty useless. Our fears are often liars. The biggest troubles we face are often those that never come. Which means we often worry for no good reason. Even if what we fear does happen, will it have helped us to worry about it beforehand? No. We’ll worry about it then too. So we’ll have worried twice, rather than once. Jesus is surely right when he says each day has enough troubles of its own.

Not only can worry be unhelpful. It can be harmful.

There is some dispute over precisely what Jesus says here. Some translations have Jesus speaking about adding to our height. Others, like our church Bibles, have Jesus talk about adding even the shortest amount of time to our life by worrying. Either way, Jesus is right.

Worry will not expand your life. It will shrink it. It’ll cause you to pass up opportunities or close down possibilities you might otherwise have taken.

And worry cannot lengthen your life. But it can shorten it. The worry that wears out the mind, wears out the body along with it. When our mind is stressed or unhappy, this is reflected in the level of tension in our bodies, which in turn may develop into ill health.

Thing is, we know all this. I’m not telling you anything radical or new. Yet, so often, the longest journey is from the head to the heart. We know it, but we find it harder to believe it, to accept it, to live out what we know.

Where does Jesus say this worry comes from?

And how does Jesus recommend that we deal with it?

Well, for Jesus, worry starts in failing to appreciate who God is.

Jesus has a gentle nickname for his disciples which occurs several times in the Gospels, mainly in Matthew. It’s Oligopistoi. Little faiths. Jesus says our worries stem from lacking confidence in God, or awareness of the type of God we have.

Jesus take this a little further towards the end of the reading. ‘Don’t start worrying about where your food, drink and clothing are coming from. The pagans are concerned about that sort of stuff, but your Father knows you need them.’

Jesus says our worries come from not recognising that our God is not like theirs. The pagan gods of the time were impersonal. You never knew where you stood with them. You had to try to persuade them to pay attention to you.

But it’s not just pagans who can have a mixed up idea of what God is like. In his book Things Hidden Richard Rohr writes that for most of human history God has not been a likeable character. When God shows up, even in the Bible, it is not automatically considered good news. That’s why so many big religious experiences begin with the words ‘don’t be afraid!’

The words ‘God is Love’ are amongst the best-loved words in the Bible. But they were amongst the last words of the Bible to be written. It took us that long to get there. It took the guy who wrote it to live to an old age to grasp it.

We might claim to believe that God loves us and is interested in us and in our world. But there is that part of us that thinks ‘that’s too good to be true.’ So we sometimes act as if God winds up the world, sets it going. But after that we’re on our own.

You don’t have to know me that well to discover that delegation is something that doesn’t come easily to me. Not always. There are some things I hate and others I know I’m utterly useless. Stuff like DIY. I can delegate that.

But other stuff I do find hard to delegate. In part I don’t like to impose on others. It’s also partly arrogance. Others might not do it as well as me. What I really mean is that they wouldn’t so it the same way as me.

Anxiety works a bit like that. In worry we’re saying ‘God you’ve told me that you know what I need and I can trust you to take care of it. But I just don’t think you’d do it as well as me. I don’t think you’d do a good enough job.’

Because we are ‘little faiths’, we lose sight of the kind of God we have. We think it’s all down to us and we don’t delegate to God what he has offered and even promised to do. In fact often we’re not delegating to God what only God can do.

But how can we correct it? How does Jesus say we can deal with our worry?

Consider the birds of the air, says Jesus. They do not sow or reap a harvest and store food. Yet your Father takes care of them. Look at the wild flowers and how they grow. They don’t work and make clothes, yet look how beautiful they are. If God looks after birds and flowers, how much more so will he look after you.

What does Jesus mean?

What is he telling us to do?

The word look at the birds is ἐμβλέψατε.

The word for looking at the flowers is καταμάθετε.

These two words don’t just mean have a quick look at. They are both very strong words.

They suggest focussing.

Really look at this.

Watch carefully.

See clearly.

Observe.

Look intently.

It’s about looking at them with a view to thinking, what can I learn from that?

Let the birds and the flowers be your teacher, says Jesus.

We might say ‘meditate’ on them.

2016, for me, will go down as the year when I discovered strength that comes from meditation. I’m still taking baby steps, but my general direction is right. I couldn’t let this passage go by without mentioning this, because this passage is THE Bible passage which witnesses to mindfulness and meditation.

Sometimes Christians hear words like meditation and mindfulness and are a little suspicious. It sounds like Eastern Mysticism, Buddhism or something like that. That’s not what I’m talking about.

But it is easy to go through life rather mindlessly. You are in a mad rush to get out in the morning, and barely notice how your coffee tastes. We perform many of the tasks we do each day mindlessly. That’s not saying we’re not thinking. If anything, we can’t stop thinking. We’re turning over stuff we need to do, we’re reliving that argument we had yesterday. We’re just not thinking about what we’re doing now.

We develop thought patterns, which left to themselves are often negative and unhelpful…

…and they go unchallenged.

Mindfulness and meditation is about pausing for a moment, breathing, to break up the mental chatter that is going on in our heads…

… and create space to allow another voice to speak.

One which challenges those thought patterns. One which can bring a sense of perspective and balance to our thinking.

A lot of modern thinking is finally catching up with Jesus on this point. It only took 2000 years.

In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington, offers an image which really makes sense to me. She talks about ‘the obnoxious roommate in your head.’ She says our worst enemies would not speak to us the way we often speak to ourselves. The obnoxious roommate likes to put us down, to play on our worries and insecurities. The obnoxious roommate needs to be evicted. You wouldn’t live with anyone else who spoke to you like that. She speaks about how by meditating on the words ‘the blessings already are’ and some words from Julian of Norwich… ‘all shall be well and all manner of all things shall be well’ she helps to silence the obnoxious flatmate.

She also refers to work by a neuropsychologist called Dr Rick Hanson. Hanson says ‘the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. But it’s relatively poor at doing the same thing with positive experiences. To fight this, he explains, we need to install the positive experiences, taking the extra 10, 20 seconds to heighten the installation into the neural structure. In other words we need to take time to wonder at the world around us, feel gratitude for the good in our lives, and overcome our natural bias for focussing on the negative. In order for it to take, to become part of us, we need to slow down and let wonder do its job, at its own pace.

We notice the trials and struggles that come in life more than the good. The good can be drowned out by the next bit of bad news. By pausing, giving thanks or appreciating the good that comes our way, we give it the space to become every bit as much a part of our thinking as the bad.

The same is true of those experiences we’ve had when God has been close to us. Life will try to snatch them away, we need to take time to reflect on the good God has done in our lives, rather than allow it to be washed away. When we do that, we are building something we can turn to, next time anxiety threatens.

Another writer, Malcolm Gladwell, talks about how real insight and even genius comes from the ability to sift through what is front of us, throw out the stuff that’s irrelevant and focus on the important. But we can all do it. It turns out our unconscious mind is better at doing this than our conscious mind.

From a Christian perspective, the purpose of meditation is to allow another voice to speak, to challenge that obnoxious roommate in our head. When we feel all alone, or are tempted to think God doesn’t care about it, the purpose of meditation is to remind that obnoxious roommate that whatever he or she says, we are precious, we are enough. Just like the smallest part of creation, we are held in God’s loving care. We are constantly in God’s mind and we are safe in God’s hands.

Jesus encourages us to fix our attention on the birds and the flowers.

To watch and observe.

To look intently.

To meditate on them.

To pause, slow down, allow our brain to build the structure it needs.

To allow wonder to do its job at its own pace.

To sift through the thoughts that constantly rush round our minds, too see through those fears which lie to us, to see through to the truth about the world we live in and the God who sustains it.

Jesus is not telling us to avoid ordinary, prudent, forward thinking. He is not saying just sit back and wait for God to do anything. One of the ways in which God provides for us is in the skills, talents, abilities we possess. But at the same time we are invited to observe that not everything hinges on us. God never stops working on his care for you.

Consider the birds of the air, says Jesus. No animal works harder than the average sparrow. But their provision is found in partnership with their creator.

Consider the flowers of the field, says Jesus. Solomon was the prime example of the man who had all the world had to offer him and the worldly wisdom to work it to his advantage. Yet, says Jesus, even he couldn’t manage what God achieves for some flowers that are here for a few minutes, before being used as cooking fuel.

In meditation we allow the voice of Spirit to speak to us and say ‘what makes you think that he can do it for flowers and birds, but can’t do it for you, with whom he longs to spend eternity?’

It’s from that understanding that Jesus invites us to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.

In the past I may have looked at that as a kind of ‘put God first, make certain you’re living right, and God will take care of you.’ But I’m not sure that’s what Jesus wanted to them to hear.

We are invited to live in an atmosphere, and awareness, of unremitting love. Of course that will affect how we behave. We will seek God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. But not out of a grudging sense of duty. It begins with an awareness of the kind of abba God we have, who is not only sovereign but invites us to throw the full weight of our anxieties onto him, knowing we are his personal concern.

One last piece of science which backs up what Jesus says. A couple of weeks ago I talked about oxytocin, or the love hormone. Some of you were running around hugging one another, claiming you were topping up your oxytocin. But I talked about how prayer and meditation release oxytocin into our bodies.

In our bodies Oxytocin is in a battle with another hormone. Cortisol. It’s our stress hormone. Oxytocin keeps cortisol in check. Which explains why prayer and meditation can help in the battle against stress and anxiety. But in our bodies we have a chemical example of something the Bible describes – love casting out fear!

Isaiah puts it, ‘you will keep in perfect peace, those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you. Not that they will be automatically peaceful, but that he will keep them there.

When we set our minds on God, when we meditate on him, we give the Holy Spirit space to speak and breathe peace into us. We give space to allow the voice which tells us to worry to be challenged by the whisper that we are loved.

I say all this,

but admit I don’t find it easy. And I hear you when say I’m too busy. I draw your attention to one last but of wisdom. This time from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. ‘No-one in our time finds it surprising if someone gives careful daily attention to their body, but people would be outraged if they gave the same attention to their soul.’

The journey from head to heart can indeed be slow. It does take time. It does take effort and discipline. It can be very much two steps forward, one step back… on a good day.

But God is patient.

And the journey is worth it.

We will battle with worry and anxiety. Belief may not come easy to us. But there is a difference between stubborn unbelief that insists on going our own way, and refuses to see things differently, and a belief that falters.

I often take heart in the guy who comes to Jesus and says ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’ Because all faith is a journey towards what God wants us to be. And God is more patient with us, than we are with ourselves.

God never promised us a life without trouble. When we commit to following Jesus we will still experience it. After all, we follow a crucified Messiah. But each day will bring enough trouble of its own. But we are invited into relationship with him. If we pause, take time, reflect and meditate on the world around us; if we are prepared to allow the birds and the flowers be our teachers., he can take our sense of helplessness and anxiety and breath a whisper of peace to the obnoxious housemate in your head, reminding us we are held in endless, detailed, loving care of an abba father, whose perfect love can cast our fear.

* https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there-really-are-50-eskimo-words-for-snow/2013/01/14/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html I did check on the use of the word eskimo. I understand it is derogatory in Canada in Greenland, but not elsewhere.

 

Sermon on the Mount XVI: Treasure in Heaven

treasurescartoon

Reading: Matthew 6: 19-24: I Timothy 6: 17-19

When I was growing up my mother always told me there were two things which were impolite to ask someone – ages and wages. Today I am afraid I am breaking my mother’s rule.

And I’m not about to ask anyone how old they are.

Don’t worry I have no plans to invite anyone up here to tell us how much they earn either!

But Churches can be very reluctant to talk about money and giving. We’re wary of that feeling, which may or may not be fair, that the church is always after your money.

Jesus didn’t share this reluctance. Jesus talked a lot about money. Given how much energy Christians have spent arguing about subjects on which Jesus said little, sometimes even nothing, it’s perhaps surprising we don’t talk about money more…

… though there might be a reason for that!

John Wesley once remarked ‘the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet.’ Martin Luther went even further. He said ‘every man needs two conversions. The first is of his heart, the second is of his wallet.’

Last week, when we looked at the Lord’s Prayer, I said in the space of a few short sentences, Jesus outlined what parts of life interest our abba, Father God.

The answer was… all of it.

In today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount we see that includes money!

Today’s reading breaks down into three smaller sections…

In the first Jesus tells those gathered round listening to him on that hillside, not to focus their attentions on storing up for themselves ‘treasures on earth.’

Such treasures, Jesus warns, are fleeting.

They’re harder to control than we think.

They don’t last.

They can disappear or even be taken from us.

Rather he says store up treasures in heaven. These can’t be taken away.

To treasure things is very much part of what it means to be human. The things we treasure might not be anything to do with wealth and money. They can be very personal. They might not be worth very much to anyone but us.

BUGB General Secretary, Lynn Green, wrote about a recent visit she made to one of ‘Jungle’ refugee camps in Calais, which was about to be cleared. The most powerful image of her trip showed a child’s doll hanging from a tree. The doll wasn’t valuable. But most of us I’m sure would appreciate just how horrible losing something like that would be.

How much more so, when it is one of the few things you have left in the world?

It’s not just ‘things’ people treasure. Some treasure their relationships, their reputation, their standing within a community…

But if we have any doubt what Jesus is talking about here, he clears it up in the third part of this morning’s reading…

v24 – you cannot serve God and money.

In between we get what, at first, seems an odd comment, which doesn’t seem to fit. Jesus warns us to watch what we are taking in with our eyes. What our eyes take in can fill our lives with either light or darkness.

To best unpack what Jesus is saying, we’ll take each section in turn.

But before I begin, a word about what I’m not talking about…

When I hear phrases like Treasure in Heaven, I’m reminded of an episode of The Vicar of Dibley. The Vicar, Geraldine Granger, asks one of the other characters Owen Newitt to help her carry her shopping into the house. He asks ‘what’s in it for me?’ to which she responds ‘eternal salvation?’ He responds ‘have you anything less nebulous?’ and settles for a chocolate hobnob.

Treasure in Heaven. It can feel quite ‘pie in the sky, when you die.’

I don’t want to under-emphasise that part of the Christian hope. But Jesus’ primary focus in the rest of The Sermon on the Mount is on how we live this life.

What we do here and now matters.

This section is no different. As we read on, we’ll see that Jesus talks about how our approach to wealth and money affects the kind of person we become.

Also, in this passage Jesus does not condemn wealth of itself. Nor does the Bible discourage us to be wise with money. The Bible does not say it is wrong or foolish to prepare for the future. In Proverbs we read ‘The good leave an inheritance for their children’s children.’ Paul uses the example of a good household and tells the Corinthians that ‘children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.’

No, Jesus discusses our priorities rather than the bare numbers on our bank statements. This is not just about how much we have, but how we view and use what we have been given, or which has been entrusted to us.

There are rich people who are kind and generous and there are rich people who are greedy, miserly and obsessed with stuff.

But equally there are also poor people who are kind and generous and poor people who are greedy, miserly and obsessed with stuff.

So the point is not to make anyone who has been blessed financially feel guilty. It’s about what’s in the heart, rather than in the bank.

However… before we breathe too easily. Preparing for today I came across a prayer from a theologian called William Boice…

Dear Lord, I have been re-reading the record of the Rich Young Ruler and his obviously wrong choice. But it has set me thinking. No matter how much wealth he had, he could not ride in a car, have any surgery, turn on a light, buy penicillin, hear a pipe organ, watch TV, wash dishes in running water, type a letter, mow a lawn, fly in an airplane, sleep on an innerspring mattress or talk on the phone… If he was rich, what am I?

Ok, he lived in a different time. And I hate such comparisons, because whenever someone says ‘there’s no real poverty in this country’, sorry, however true or false that might be, such comments rarely come from a good, charitable place.

Nonetheless, if you are going to eat today, have clothes on your back, have a roof over your head and a bed to sleep on, you are richer than 3/4 of the world’s population.

If you have spare money, in bank, wallet or even in a jar or piggy bank at home. Congratulations. You are amongst the richest 10% in the world.

Most of the people gathered round Jesus, listening to him talk about wealth, earned just about enough to live day by day. A few days without work could spell disaster for them.

Such were the people Jesus warned about storing up treasures on earth.

They are the ones he warned about being trapped by wealth.

How much more might he say the same to us?

Jesus uses some examples from his own day. Valuable assets in this time were clothing and grain. The wealthy would invest in fine clothes. We see this a couple of times in the Old Testament. In II Kings 5, Gehazi, a servant of Elisha, fools Naaman, a soldier who had just received healing from Elisha, into giving him some fine clothes. In Joshua, when they win the battle of Jericho, they are told not to take anything from the city. But one Israelite, called Achan, disobeys the order. One of the things which attracts him is a set of clothes. In a farming society, such as Galilee, grain could also be a valuable commodity.

Both clothing and grain were valuable assets. But they were also vulnerable assets. Moths could get at the clothes. Vermin could get into the barn and eat your grain. Some translations of this passage talk about vermin, rather than rust. But it is the same basic idea.

Even what was stored at home was far from safe. Houses were built of mud. It was not unknown for thieves to break in by cutting a whole in the wall!

Of course, occasionally we’re aware that Jesus is right when he tells us not to rely on wealth for our security. We know some assets don’t hold their value. Cars can lose thousands in value as soon as they leave the showroom. Those who watch Top Gear will have seen them do silly challenges in cars which once cost huge sums of money, but now cost less than a second hand Mondeo.

Of course, I doubt anyone ever bought a supercar thinking it would provide them with financial security in their old age.

But even things widely believed to be secure can be vulnerable. Any advert which encourages us to invest out money will contain, even in very small print, the warning that investment values can go down as well as up.

I have a friend who likes to bet on sporting events. A number of years ago he told me that his online betting account was earning him more money than the endowment policy he had taken out to pay off his mortgage. That said, his wife was far from convinced it would make a good investment strategy.

Even if we do manage to make a profit, or even if no-one does steal them, we can’t take them with us.

Jesus warns us not to place our trust or hope in what we own and have. When we do, we are placing a burden on them that they cannot bear. It is not the nature of things to be any more than transitory. Time and circumstance can take them all from us. We bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out.

The only thing you get to keep is you.

But what does Jesus mean by laying up ‘treasures in heaven?’

Paul makes it a bit more solid in our reading from I Timothy this morning…

Command those who are rich in the things of this life not to be proud, but to place their hope, not in such an uncertain thing as riches, but in God, who generously gives us everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share with others. In this way they will store up for themselves a treasure which will be a solid foundation for the future.

Do good.

Be rich in good deeds.

Be generous.

Be willing to share.

How do we view what we possess?

Do we consider it a gift from God?

Or do we guard it jealously as ‘ours’?

How does your relationship with Jesus affect how you handle money?

How are your priorities different from other people?

In what ways do we use what we have ‘to do good?’

Would people describe you and ‘generous’ or ‘willing to share?’

This is not just about the numbers, or even the percentage.

It’s about the heart.

I mean the Old Testament had commands about tithing, or giving 10% of your income to God. Yet in Matthew 23 Jesus challenged those who obeyed that command. He said ‘fair enough you give 10% of everything, right down to your spices.’ But there is this sense of it being worked out to the penny. Giving is good, important, a fundamental part of discipleship. But we can give, possibly even give large sums of money, and still be grudging and miserly about it.

Let me be honest. I can only speak for myself. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I can think of times when I have given to someone, or to a charity, because I felt I had to. I was guilt-tripped into giving. I just wanted to get the person off my back, or off my doorstep.

In II Corinthians, Paul describes a better way of giving.

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

Notice that. God entrusts what we have to us, precisely so we can be ‘generous’, ‘willing to share’ and ‘rich in good deeds.’

And Jesus gives us another reason…

… It’s better for us.

It’s simply a better way to live.

Jesus says ‘the eyes are like a lamp for the body. If your eyes are sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eyes are no good, your body will be in darkness. So if the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be!’

It’s an odd saying. How does this link with what has gone before?

The words for ‘sound’ and ‘no good’ normally have a particular meaning. The word for sound is ἁπλοῦς (haplous) which means generous. The word for no good is πονηρός, which means miserly.

Jesus says there are two ways of looking at the world. One with generosity. If we look at the world that way we become outward focussed and see clearly.

Or we can be miserly and grudging in how we look at the world. If we do that, our eyes will be clouded over by greed, what we want, thinking more and more of ourselves, and we’ll stop seeing clearly.

There is an old Jewish parable about a man who was very wealthy, but also very unhappy. He couldn’t understand it. He could not understand it. He could have anything he wanted, yet he was still miserable. So he went to see the rabbi and explained his problem.

The rabbi took him to a window and asked him what he could see.

‘I see men, women and children.’ he replied. The rabbi then led him to a mirror and asked him what he could see now.

‘I see myself’ he replied.

The rabbi responded ‘in the window there is glass, and in the mirror is glass. But the mirror is covered with a little silver and when the silver is added, you cease to see others – only yourself.’

A wise person once said wealth is like drinking salt water. The more you drink, the thirstier you become. Every day we are bombarded with adverts and each of them has the same message. No matter how much you have, it’s not enough. You need this

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of focussing on what you lack and lose sight of what you do have. We can look at others and what they have, and rather than feel pleased for them, we can start asking ‘why can’t I have that?’ Envy, jealousy, greed, they all cloud how we look out on the world. They leave us constantly discontent. It’s like a darkness that fills our soul.

Jesus doesn’t call us to be generous simply because it’ll keep God happy. It’s not even just because God is generous and wants us to become more like him. Those things are true, I’m sure. But there is a more basic reason than that.

It’s good for us.

By now you know me well enough to know that I’m not into ‘prosperity Gospel’ type teaching. But equally, nor do I believe it is wrong to be wealthy or to enjoy ‘the good things of life.’ Paul tells us God gives us everything for our enjoyment.

Money can be a good, powerful servant.

But it’s a terrible master.

It will always leave you discontented.

One of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years was Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%. It was about the lives of the richest 1% of people in Britain. He says ‘those at the bottom of the top 1%, often feel relatively poor, but they need not, if only they were to look down at the other 99%, to see how much they have, compared to everyone else.

With wealth or money as a master, there will always be one more thing you need to be happy. We weren’t designed to serve money, or any other created thing for that matter. We were designed to find our meaning and value in relationship with God. There is a peace, a shalom, to found in using what God has entrusted in us in a Godly way; in doing good, being rich in good deeds, being generous and willing to share. When we do that, we are functioning as we were meant to.

We might find it hard to agree with Jesus when he says we can’t serve two masters. Some of you do several jobs just to make ends meet. You may do projects for several different clients. You keep them all happy.

But Jesus isn’t talking about employment. He’s using the images of slavery. When a slave was bought by someone they had no rights of their own. They had no time to serve others.

Jesus says you can’t be owned by more than one master. They’ll make conflicting demands and you’ll have to make a choice.

On this point, perhaps more than any other, Jesus contradicts everything our culture has taught us to believe. You can’t serve God and money, because each will want us to make different choices.

And perhaps more than anything else, our choice on treasures in heaven, or treasures on earth reveals whom we truly worship.

That’s a battle we all face. I suspect we always will. Some will feel guilty spending anything on themselves, when God has given us good things to enjoy.

However, knowing that does not diminish the call of Jesus to use what we have in a Godly way.

At times I am aware of that struggle within me.

Am I using what I have to do good?

Am I rich in good deeds?

Am I generous and willing to share?

Do I always get that right?

No.

But I believe that so long as we wrestle with it, God knows the heart and honours the struggle. It’s when it stops mattering we have to worry.

With wealth or money as a master you will never be good enough. You’ll always need one more thing.

With God as your master, you’re reminded that you are precious and valued in his sight.

You are enough.

So there is no need to be grasping. God will meet us in our needs.

So we are free to do good

We are free to be rich in good works

We are free to be generous and willing to share.

When we lay hold of that freedom, we are laying hold of the life for which God truly called us. We may not enjoy all the treasures that earth could afford us. But what we offer in Christ is never lost. We are heirs to an inheritance that nothing will ever spoil or fade.

 

Sermon on the Mount XV: Bread, Trespassing and Deliverance from Evil

Reading: Matthew 6: 5-15

There’s a story told about a town in Texas where a pub chain applied for a huge extension to one of their pubs which was close to a local church. The church, which was strongly opposed to alcohol, tried to persuade the council to block the building of the new pub, but the council granted the pub chain permission. So the church started holding all night prayer meetings, asking for God to intervene.

Then, one night, about a week before the pub was due to open there was a storm. The new pub was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground.

The pub chain then sought compensation from local church, claiming they were responsible.

The church strongly denied it and the case ended up in court.

As the judge looked over the paperwork he commented ‘I’m not sure what way this case is going to go. But on the face of it, we seem to have a pub owner who believes in the power of prayer…

… and a church which doesn’t!

I’m pretty sure that story is not true, but it’s a good parable about the tensions we have with prayer. Most people of faith would claim that prayer is important, and would say they believe in the power of prayer.

But those who do pray soon discover that prayer can be really mysterious. We don’t always recognise when prayers have been answered, partly because the answer is not what we expect.

Sometimes when they are answered in the way we asked, we are stunned. One of my favourite stories in the New Testament is about a woman called Rhoda. It’s in Acts. Peter has been arrested, he is in prison and the church prays for his release.

An angel comes down and helps Peter out of prison. But when he goes to the house where the church are gathered in prayer, Rhoda doesn’t open the door to him and the rest of them tell her she was crazy. They leave Peter out on the street and he has to persuade them it’s really him. They were praying for something to happen, but when it did, they didn’t believe it.

That’s just so true to life!

Do we expect God to be interested in our prayers?

What sort of things do we expect God to be interested in?

These questions have been with us for as long as there has been prayer, which is pretty much for as long as there has been humans. They’re amongst the questions Jesus addresses when he introduces what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer during The Sermon on the Mount.

Last week I concentrated on the first half of the Lord’s Prayer. In particular I spoke about the God to whom we pray. When Jesus says ‘Our Father’ his word for ‘father’ is abba. It’s a very personal, intimate title. It suggests a God who is good, kind, interested. Yes, he is sovereign and worthy of our reverence. But he is also one whom we can approach with confidence.

Jesus contrasts prayer to abba with prayer to the impersonal gods of the pagan world. I gave you some examples of the kind of prayers Jesus was talking about. These gods had to be coaxed, persuaded, flattered, pestered to get them to pay attention. The best you could hope for from gods like that, was to do enough to get them on your side and help you out once in a while. In verse 8 of our reading this morning Jesus says ‘do not be like them.’

Why? Because we don’t need to be like them. The God whom we approach in prayer is not like that. The abba God of whom Jesus speaks loves us, cares for us, and already looks on us with favour, blessing and generosity. This God committed to his world. This God has plans for his world. He longs for his world to thrive and flourish.

That understanding of who God is, that God is one whom we can approach with both reverence and intimacy, forms the basis of everything that follows in the Lord’s prayer.

It’s because we have a God like that, we can pray

hallowed be your name;

your kingdom come;

your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Last week, I concluded with the thought that when we pray ‘hallowed be your name’ we are recognising that the world is not as God intended, and we call on him to fulfil his promises and purposes for the world.

It’s with that understanding of God that Jesus invites us to entrust ourselves into his hands, knowing that his longings for us are good.

That understanding also influences the questions of ‘for what should we pray.’ In a few brief phrases in the second half of the Lord’s prayer we discover what areas of life we are invited to bring to God, the parts of life in which an abba God is interested.

And in short the answer is ‘all of it.’

Just over three years ago, when I came here to preach with a view, I know… all those who were around then still remember every word of it, I preached on the story of Jesus turning water into wine, under the title of No Job Too Small. We can separate life into the stuff we feel we should be able to handle ourselves, and the kind of ‘God-sized’ projects. The big stuff it’s ok to ask God’s help with.

Jesus knows nothing of that kind of separation. The second half of the Lord’s prayer speaks to basic, every day needs, pressures, battles. I mean what can be more basic than bread?

In those few short phrases we are invited to bring all of life to God.

We’re invited to bring our past, our present and our future.

Give us today our daily bread. Give us what we need for today. We invite God into this present moment. We acknowledge his presence, his love and his care for us in this moment, accepting that all that is good in our lives comes from him.

It sounds very simple, but very few of us really manage to do that, maybe even fewer manage to do it for a sustained period. The present moment is all we truly have. The past is gone and the future is not guaranteed. Yet very few of us manage to live in the present moment. If you doubt that, think back to that breathing exercise with which I started.

How easy was it just to focus on your breathing?

Did your mind start to wander?

Did you have to keep pulling your attention back to your breathing?

The present moment is all we have, but  two things stop us appreciating it.

The past and the future.

More precisely regrets about the past and fears for the future.

In the Lord’s prayer Jesus invites us to place both our past and our future into his hands. We pray forgive us our trespasses and we are invited to bring him the regrets of the past.

And we pray don’t bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from evil. We acknowledge that the future will have its difficulties. We acknowledge that sooner or later trouble will come, and if we rely entirely on our own resources we might not have what it takes to meet those challenges.

We’re invited to bring our past and our future and entrust them into the hands of the abba God, who loves us, cares for us, looks on us with favour, blessing and generosity. Who has all we need to bring us through it. And in whose hands we are secure.

I won’t expand further on that right now. We’ll return to that subject again in a couple of weeks.

But for the rest of my time this morning, I want to show you how, in a few short sentences, Jesus deals with every aspect of life, by returning yet again to my artistic masterpiece, which I’ve used a few times with you.

Broken 5

When I first saw this I never thought I’d use it. But it’s amazing how useful I have found it.

We are made for relationship. In fact we are made to live in a whole network of relationships.

We are created to live in relationship with one another. The very first thing that the Bible says is ‘not good’ in creation is that we should be alone.

We are created to live in relationship with God, our creator.

We live in relationship with creation. From a Christian viewpoint, ‘the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it.’ God has placed his world in our care. We’re stewards of what is God’s. 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.

God’s longing and desire is that all of these relationships are in healthy, working order. The Hebrews had a word for that state of affairs. Shalom.

And Shalom, as it happens, is a good, single word description of what we pray for when we pray

hallowed be your name;

your kingdom come;

your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And shalom is also a good, single word description of what we pray for in the second half of the Lord’s Prayer.

In a few short sentences we see that God is interested in all of this. This whole network of relationships.

We’re invited to bring this whole network of relationships in which we exist, all of life, into the presence of God.

Each line relates to God in some way. But each also concerns at least one of the other relationships.

When we pray Give us this day out daily bread, we acknowledge that all good things come from God. We name God as our creator and sustainer.

But we also recognize that our dependence on the earth to provide what we need to survive. We who live in the city can easily forget that potatoes don’t grow in Tesco or Waitrose. The mere presence of light and electricity has disconnected us from most of the rhythms of life. Technology, communication and travel means that we can get so many things all year round, which even in my lifetime would only have been available at certain times of year.

So in many ways we become disconnected from the seasons. We can be so used to getting what we want, when we want it, and take it for granted, we lose sight of how dependent we are on creation. Without it, we are incapable of providing even our most basic needs. It’s as we care for the world as God intended that the earth provides for our needs.

Praying as Jesus taught us helps us regain some of that sense of perspective. In prayer we bring our relationship with creation to God.

When we pray Give us this day our daily bread, we recognize that even our most basic needs are provided in partnership with God and with the world he has given us. Yet our generation, perhaps more than any other, is aware of the dangers of not caring for the earth, as resources we take for granted become ever more scarce. And so in prayer we’re asking that our relationship with God’s creation be healthy. We asking for Shalom in that relationship.

But even as our needs are provided for, we are aware that this is not true for everyone. So many in our world don’t have even the basic necessities of life. Often things we take for granted are provided at the expense of others.

So notice, we don’t pray Give ME today MY daily bread. It’s Give US today OUR daily bread. This also says something about our relationship with others. Is the way we handle the good world God has given us help the whole world to thrive… or just us.

You could also add that these words include our relationship with ourselves. For we know that our relationship with something even as basic as food can be unhealthy. For example out attitudes to food have led to an obesity epidemic with all sorts of health issues associated with that. But that is a subject for another day.

To honestly pray as Jesus prayed, to say Give us this day our daily bread challenges us about our relationship with creation and what we do with all that God has given us.

But we don’t end there. Jesus then moves on to Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Our church Bibles asks for forgiveness for ‘the wrong that we have done’. Others use the word ‘debt.’

Which begs the question what is the debt? To whom is it owed?

It’s when we fail to give God what is due to him. Anytime we don’t live in such a way as God’s name is hallowed, and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. In that way all sin is against God.

And so, when we think of forgiveness, we may be most inclined to think in terms of the vertical relationship. Our relationship with God.

Notice Jesus assumes we’re going to need forgiveness. we all need it. If we think we don’t we’re either entirely un-self-conscious or we are kidding ourselves. Bear in mind early Christians would pray this prayer 3 times a day and would pray these same words each time.

When we pray these words we are reminded that we need forgiveness. But more importantly we’re reminded that God is not just our creator and sustainer, but also our Redeemer. Yes, we sin, and may even fail again and again, in the same way, time after time. But that doesn’t stop God loving us and inviting us back into relationship with him. We’re invited to bring that relationship with God to him, not so he will forgive us, but so we know it.

But this also involves our relationship with others. For often when we’ve done wrong, it has involved hurt for others. God’s longing is for shalom not just in our relationship with him, but also in our relationships with others.

Nothing will stand in our way of relating to God and each other if we are unrepentant about what we have done, or if we cling to what others have done to us. And they are linked. Those who refuse to forgive will most often find it hard to truly receive forgiveness.

I spent quite a long time on forgiveness, what that means and doesn’t mean a while back when we looked at Blessed are the Merciful.

But when we pray forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we bring our relationship with God and each other into his presence and ask him to bring God’s healing and shalom to those relationships.

But when we ask ‘lead us not into temptation’ or ‘trial’, ‘but deliver us from evil’ we turn our attention towards ourselves. The words ‘testing’ or ‘trial’ are probably better than temptation, for the Bible tells us that God will not tempt us to do wrong.

Whatever word we use, there is something that is true of all of them.

It’s really individual.

Some things are a temptation to me that wouldn’t bother you at all. There are some things you would struggle with that I might say ‘can’t see the attraction myself.’ It is very individual.

It’s worth bearing that in mind when we are ready to condemn somebody and saying ‘I would never do what they do.’ For there may be stuff in your life that causes them to think the same way about you!

But equally it might have nothing to do with sin. In life trouble is inevitable. All of us at times struggle in life. We face trials. All of us face things in life from which we long to be rescued.

When we pray lead us not to the time of trial, but deliver us from evil, we’ re admitting that there is stuff that life throws at us, and if we rely entirely on our own strength and abilities we may not make it through. We are asking that our trials don’t become so deep that we are tempted to turn from God.

Being tested is not necessarily bad. It can make us stronger.

But it is ok not to want to be tested.

Jesus himself in Gethsemane prayed to be spared the trial of the cross.

It is ok to pray to avoid it.

But even as we pray those words, God might take us through the trial, rather than round it. It was true for Jesus, at times it will be true for us. The tragedy all too often, faced with the trial, so many decide God either doesn’t exist and doesn’t care for them after all, and give up on God. And they turn their back on the ultimate source of strength.

When we pray these words we are asking the God who is our Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer to be our Strength and our Accompanier. God hasn’t promised that we won’t struggle, but that he will be with us in all things, that he will provide us with the strength to endure, and if we’ll let him, he will lead us from the destructive choices we might make.

God may answer that prayer in different ways. He may bring alongside us those who have been there to remind us we’re not alone. In turn God may use your trial to be that source of strength to someone else. He use a passing comment from the person you least expect it. You may find peace or strength you never knew you had, and never be able to explain it.

In these and so many ways, recognised and unrecognised, God has promised he will be with us, he will not leave us alone when trial come. And if we trust him, even when we cannot see the way forward, he will in his way, in his time, lead us through. He will deliver us. We are secure in the hands of abba. A God who is not indifferent and distant from us, but who loves us, longs to relate to us, who longs for what is best for us and our world.

And there is no part of our lives in which he has no interest. He longs to healing to our past, care for the present, and offer for hope for our future.

In a mere 57 words in Greek, Jesus brings all of life under the loving care of God. The whole network of relationships in which we live. With others, with our world, with ourselves…

… and in all of it, with God himself.

This God, whom we often describe as a Trinity, offers his whole self to us in that relationship. Through God the Father he is our Creator and Sustainer; In Jesus, the Son he becomes our Redeemer; and through the Holy Spirit God accompanies and strengthens us in the trials ahead.

Pray Lord’s Prayer as it appears in Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy (Page 296)

Dear Father always near us,

may your name be treasured and loved,

may your rule be completed in us

may your will be done here on earth

just the way it is done in heaven.

Give us today the things we need today,

and forgive us our sins and impositions on you

as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us.

Please don’t put us through trials,

but deliver us from everything bad.

Because you are the one in charge,

and you have all the power,

and the glory too is all yours

forever

which is just the way we want it!

 

Sermon on the Mount XIV: Hallowed be Thy Name

h1-how-long

Reading: Matthew 6: 5-15

A cargo ship was out at sea one night when a great storm blew up. Steadily the storm grew worse, so that the waves were coming up over the side of the ship. They started to bail out the water, but the water kept coming in faster than they could get it out. The captain realised it was no good. The ship was going to sink.

So he shouted out, ‘is there anyone here who knows how to pray?’

One of the crew stepped forward and said ‘yes, sir. I do!’

‘That’s good’ said the captain. ‘You pray. The rest of us will take the life jackets. We’re one short.’

Prayer.

Every faith has some sort of prayer.

Most people of faith will say prayer is important, vital even. Remote tribes make offerings to pray for food, rain, health, children, victory in battle. Devout Muslims stop whatever they are doing, 5 times a day, to pray. Outside Buddhist temples in Nepal, priests turn large prayer wheels, and with each rotation a prayer is sent to heaven. Some Buddhists download these prayers onto their computer hard drives which rotate over 5000 times a minute. (Source: Philip Yancey; Prayer: Does It Make A Difference?)

Why do we do it?

Does it make any difference?

All sorts of research has been done on whether prayer ‘works’; whether it makes any difference to the situation we pray about, or to those who do the praying. Mostly it is hard to reach any real conclusion. It’s hard to prove. It remains a matter of faith.

I heard about one piece of research quite recently which interested me. It was by a neuro-economist called Paul Zak. A few years ago he made a presentation at a TED conference. TED stands for Technology, Education and Design, and the TED group organise conferences at which some of the great thinkers of our age get to talk about what they have been working on. Paul Zak presented a TED talk called ‘Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin.’

Oxytocin is a hormone in our body which is linked to happiness. People who release Oxytocin tend to be happier. It turns out the easiest way to release Oxytocin is by having a hug. Zak recommends 8 hugs a day.

But there is another activity which releases oxytocin into our brain and bloodstream: Prayer.

Which is interesting because we might say prayer is like being held in a spiritual embrace. (My source for this was Brian Draper; Soulfulness)

More people pray than we might think. Some might not really think of it as praying. You’re in a rush, you can’t find the car keys and you’re saying ‘oh, where are they? let me find them…’

Who are you talking to?

are you talking to yourself…?

…or praying for help?

Hundreds of millions of people use social media… twitter, facebook and the like. Many of you might think it’s an enormous waste of time. Maybe it is. But I’d suggest that in many ways it’s like prayer for a secular age. People are sending their thoughts out there, hoping someone listens or cares…

…which makes it more like prayer than we might like to admit.

Because although believers might claim prayer is important, and might even feel guilty about how little they do it, those who try to take it seriously will, if they’re honest, admit it’s not easy. Yes, there are times when we do feel a closeness to God, when we feel we are making a difference, when we even feel that sense of being embraced by God.

But often, maybe more often, prayer can be really frustrating. You pray for help day after day and things don’t improve. It can feel like you’re talking to yourself, or that your prayers just hit the ceiling and come back. We can feel ‘is anyone listening? Does anyone care?’

Or is that just me?

If you ever find yourself thinking that way, as we return to the Sermon on the Mount, we discover that we are not alone. Those questions are not new. Those questions and anxieties have been with us for as long as humans have prayed.

In this morning’s reading Jesus introduces what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the prayer Jesus gives to his disciples and to the really diverse crowd watching on, listening in. It’s one of the very few parts of worship which we can directly trace all the way back to Jesus himself.

When Jesus gives them this prayer, he contrasts his approach to the prayers of pagans. Jesus tells them ‘when you pray, don’t babble on like pagans, who think that their god will hear them because they’ve have prayed for a long time. You have a God, or a Father, who knows what you need before you ask him…’

Now Jesus isn’t against long prayers. In the Gospels, Jesus prays for three hours in Gethsemane. On other occasions we read of Jesus praying all night.

Nor is Jesus opposed to praying the same thing over and over. The Jewish tradition in which Jesus was raised made a lot of use of set prayers. Jesus prayed the same thing over and over in Gethsemane. When he gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer in Luke it seems clear that he did intend them to recite these words. Early Christian sources suggest that followers of Jesus were commanded to recite this the Lord’s prayer three times of day.

So what is Jesus talking about?

We can see something of this by looking at some other prayers from the ancient world. Take this one, prayed to Egyptian God Amun-Ra.

          Hail to thee, Amun-Ra,

          Lord of the thrones of the earth,

          the oldest existence, ancient of heavens,

          support of all things; Chief of the gods,

          lord of truth, father of the gods,

          maker of men and beast and herbs;

          maker of all things above and below …

          Lord of wisdom, lord of mercy;

          most loving opener of every eye …

That’s just the introduction!

What’s going on there?

Well, suppose I’m stood at the door at the end of the service. Someone comes up to me and says ‘Andrew, that was the finest sermon I ever heard. Not that I’m surprised because I’ve always said your sermons are up there with the writings of St Paul. And can I say you’re looking really handsome today. That suit shows just what a hunk you are. And those bits of grey in your sideburns? They make you look really distinguished….

If that happens, I’ll probably start thinking one of two things…

What do you want?

Or what have you done?

That’s what’s going on here. If you want something from the God, you want them to know you appreciate them. Pay them lots of compliments. Let them know how great they are. That’s how the ancient Gods worked.

If something goes well you want them to know how grateful you are. If you don’t let them know, they might not help you next time. You want them to be aware that you know just how fantastic they are. It wouldn’t do to have Amun Ra thinking ‘I’m not just maker of men and beasts, you know. I also make herbs. Mrs Smith also praised me for making spices!’ Amun Ra might get upset.

If you’ve done something bad, you want to get them back on your side. Or if something has gone wrong, you might think you have somehow offended them. You might not even know what it is…

That’s when you get prayers like this, from the 3rd Century BC, to the god Jupiter Grabovius

          Jupiter Grabovius,

          if on the Fisian mount fire has arisen,

          or if in the nation of Iguvium

          the owed preparations have been omitted,

          let it be as if they had been made.”

          “Jupiter Grabovius, if in your sacrifice

          there has been any flaw, any defect,

          any ritual violation, any fraud, any error,

          if in your sacrifice there is a flaw,

          either seen or unseen … “

At the heart of these prayers are questions like

how do I get the god’s attention?

How do I know the god is listening?

How do I know that god is smiling on me?

How do I know if I’ve done enough to tell them how great they are?

If they’re angry with me, do they know how sorry I am?

Are the god and I ok?

How do I know the god will help me, or give me what I want?

So they piled the phrases up. Prayers went on and on.

It wasn’t just pagan prayers that worked that way. There are examples of Jewish prayers where God is described in 14 different ways as an introduction. One rabbi said ‘whoever is long in prayer is heard.’

In contrast to that Jesus says; when you pray you don’t need to do all that. Just pray ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by your name…’

Then he offer the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really simple and direct. It covers a lot of ground, very briefly. God is recognised as a loving heavenly Father. His name is hallowed, his kingdom extended, his will is done, our needs supplied, our sins forgiven and trial is overcome… all in 66 words in your church Bible. 57 in Greek. The version he teaches the disciples in Luke’s Gospel is even shorter.

And I’m taking 2 weeks to talk about it. Next week I’ll talk about bread, tresspasses, deliverance. Today I’m concentrating on the first half.

How can Jesus pray so differently? It’s because of the kind of God to whom we pray.

You don’t have to go far to find the reason. It’s there in the very first phrase. Our Father.

Jesus can encourage us to pray differently than the pagans because the God Jesus speaks of, the God revealed in Jesus is different. Jesus speaks of the prayers of the pagans and says ‘do not be like them. We don’t have to be like them, because our God is not like theirs.

Some people get quite worried about using the image of Father for God. The term comes with baggage. Some people didn’t grow up in a happy home. Some didn’t know their fathers, some had bad experience of their fathers.

I’m not certain there is any way you could describe God which everyone would find helpful. But to those gathered round listening to Jesus, the word father wouldn’t have instantly given them warm, fluffy feelings either. I do hear what those who struggle with the term Father are saying.

But I would prefer to allow the idea of God’s fatherhood to challenge, stretch and rebuke the failures in our practice, rather than ditch the term Jesus most consistently uses to describe God and encourages us to use.

Besides the word Jesus uses is abba. A very personal, intimate, title. It was a word which suggested that the Father in question was good, kind could be trusted. He was one who could be approached in confidence.

This God is not like those in the pagan prayers about whom Jesus spoke; who may or may not be interested in those who pray to them; who may or may not want to help. Those gods might need to be coaxed, battered, flattered and pestered to get them to pay attention. The same is not true of a God who is approached with a name like abba.

The God of whom Jesus spoke wants us to live in intimate, trusting relationship with him. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that prayer releases the same hormones in us as being embraced, for that’s exactly how abba God longs to relate to us. The God revealed in Jesus is concerned about the things we care about. He invites us to bring our needs and concerns to him.

But equally we’re reminded that such a God is not our cosmic butler or fix it man. He is Our Father, not My Father. His concern and love extends to his whole world; not just us.

And Our Father is in heaven. He is sovereign, over and above us. God is not a computer we program to do our bidding. His role is not to organise the world according to our whims. Faith and trust won’t mean that we avoid the darker side of life.

Everything that follows in the prayer depends on that understanding of God as Our abba in Heaven.

If gods are impersonal and not particularly bothered one way or the other about us, the best you can hope for is that you can do enough to get them on your side to help you out once in a while.

But the God we are invited to approach as abba is not like that. A point we’ve kept coming back to week after week, since we started with the very first beatitude is that this God looks on us, however we come to him and pronounces us ‘blessed.’ However we approach him we find the God revealed in Jesus loves us, this God is for us, this God is on our side.

And we need that, because the Lord’s prayer doesn’t just challenge our views of God. It challenges us about why we pray and what we pray about. In prayer, before anything else we commit ourselves in the hands and care of abba God. Rather than cutting straight to what we need from God, the first half of the prayer is about God, his name, his glory, his will.

No-one could have reverence for an impersonal, amoral God who really doesn’t care. We might fear them, but not reverence them.

But because we know this God looks on us with favour, with blessing, with generosity, because we know that the God revealed to us in Jesus loves his world, has plans for his world, longs for his world to flourish that’s why we can pray

hallowed be your name;

your kingdom come;

your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Sometimes people think of faith or prayer is running from reality, that we’re trying to get some kind of superman in the sky to sort out our problems. We’d be better off doing something.

But the theologian Karl Barth had a different view. He said ‘to clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.’

If we pray as Jesus taught us, we name and confront the fact that our lives and our world are not as a good, loving God intended. And we join in the longing for them to be made new.

It’s easy for our prayer to be overly polite. There is a sense in which prayer should be shaking our fists at all that is wrong in the world and crying ‘how long?’ Far more of our Psalms are given over to that sort of prayer than the praise the Lord stuff.

Some of my prayers haven’t been polite this week. If you look in the prayer requests in the order of service you will work out why. As I sat with those involved, my heart broke for them. I would have done anything to put it right.

I felt useless and I was angry.

Yet somewhere deep within me was still this sense that pain and love I felt for them but the merest flicker of the love God had for them. 

Prayer is a vote of no confidence in our own ability to heal it ourselves. But it’s also an acknowledgment that we don’t have to. For in abba we approach a God who knows, loves and cares about his world even more than we do. In prayer we approach a god who is not only able to rescue and heal his world. But he is also a god who has promised to do so.

To pray hallowed be thy name is to call on God to make good on his promises. To pray hallowed be your name has implications for how we live. It challenges us about whether our lives reflect the truth that this world is God’s and he is its true Lord.

But these words are primarily an appeal for God to act so that his world becomes as he intended. To pray ‘hallowed be your name’ is to pray ‘how long, O Lord.’ The world is not as you intended. How long?

And it’s not concerned with somewhere else, some time else. It’s about a God who is interested in this world, here and now. We pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done here, on earth, as it is in heaven.

We can’t pray that honestly, unless we are prepared to allow it to happen in our own lives. We can’t pray these words, then live as we like. But we don’t pray those words in defeated surrender or resentment. It’s not case of ‘well there’s nothing I can do about it. You might as well have your way, God.’

No we are invited to say them  in love and trust to an abba God, who longs to hold his world in everlasting embrace. We are approaching with confidence a God who loves his world, longs for it to flourish, who cares for us and the world even more than we do and whose longings for the world are the best.

And has promised to make it so.

When we come to this table we are reminded just how much love the god revealed in Jesus has for his world. How committed he was to healing our world and restoring us to relationship with him. When we come with our questions and our doubts, when we come wondering how we can ever mend, how the tears can ever be wiped away, we’re invited to look to the cross and the table and be reminded how much we are loved; then to turn our eyes to the empty tomb and remember that nowhere will we be beyond his reach; nowhere will we be beyond hope. For we have a God who loves us and cares for us; who has plans for his world when his name will be hallowed in all the earth, when this earth and heaven come together. We come in trust because we are approaching a God described as abba, who loves us and longs for him and longs to hold us in the deepest embrace and in his hands we are secure.

Because we have this god, the god revealed in Jesus, the God who is abba father, we can pray hallowed be your name. your kingdom come, your will be done.

Sermon on the Mount XIII: For an Audience of One

audience-of-one

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
  • Prayer
  • Fasting

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.

Broken 5

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.

Sermon on the Mount XII: Vengeance and Enemies

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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.

Sermon on the Mount XI: Jesus and Divorce

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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…

Except…

…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.