Monday, October 25, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Christ Alone

Preached Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 59:1-21; Colossians 1:15-23; John 14:1-14

I am old enough to remember a time long ago when, if you asked a person whether they were a Christian, some people would actually say, “Of course I am. I’m an American.” This seems like an odd answer nowadays; and there was never actually a time in our history when it was possible for this to be true; but it was a surprisingly common answer, once upon a time.

Even nowadays, I suppose it is possible to ask someone if he or she is a Christian, and he or she might say, “Of course I am. I go to church.” But there is the old preacher’s joke that says being in church doesn’t make you into a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you into a car. The joke tells the truth.

There is a well known Democratic politician who was raised a Methodist, and who is reported to have said, long ago, that she didn’t know how anybody could be a Republican and still be a Christian. (I won’t tell you who that was, from the pulpit.)

This helps us get at the phrase, “Christ alone”. Can there be anything, beside Christ, that makes us Christian: where we were born, where we spend our Sunday mornings, or the particular church we belong to, or something we have done.

“Christ alone” is the answer to a question, but what is the question? There may be a lot of ways of putting the question. How can I be saved? How can I be born again? How can I be born from above? How can I have a relationship with God? How can I be a new person, or a new creation? How can I stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution? How can I be part of a better world? How can I find forgiveness? What is the way to the Father’s house? How can I come home?

The answer is “Christ alone”. Or Jesus put it like this, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6)

“Christ alone” is a phrase that comes down to us from five hundred years ago, during the period of history called “The Reformation”. There are five phrases that have come down to us from that time which all contain the word “alone”. They are scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone.

These phrases came into use as a way of correcting certain abuses and mistakes and wrong directions that had been taken by the church during the chaos of the middle ages. We still experience enough chaos as God’s people in this world to need these phrases. We are thinking about them as a kind of system of anchors put out in different directions around a ship in a storm to hold it safe.

We can see how these anchors work together as a team to keep us centered in our life as Christians, to keep us from distorting the priorities of the Christian life. Faith alone reminds us of the importance of living with a deep trust in God so that we can act courageously and pray confidently. But sometimes we can distort the role that faith plays in living and praying. The principles of “Scripture alone” and “Christ alone” help us understand the nature of faith. For instance, in the scriptures, Jesus does not say, “Your faith in me is the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Our faith is almost an extension of ourselves. It is a part of what we think and do. But “the way, the truth, and the life” have nothing to do with us, except as an invitation and as a gift that we receive through Christ. Christ is greater than our faith because he is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:20). Christ is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:12). Faith is a gift from beyond our self. Faith is a gift from God (not self-generated, not something we work out). (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Our knowledge and our understanding of Christ is not “the way, the truth and the life” (although this is a part of our love for him). Christ alone means that everything we need is in Christ and not in us. When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but by me,” he is not warning us about the quality, or the direction, or even the content of our faith, or our understanding. He means that he is assuming responsibility over us. It is the same thing that he meant when he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:16)

All of this comes from the context of Jesus saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1) Why is he telling us not to be troubled or afraid? It is because he is giving us a promise. Saying that our life with God is by “Christ alone” is not a threat, but a promise. It is the promise of Jesus that our life with God is in good hands, in the very best hands, in hands that have been pierced with nails for us.

Isn’t it funny how we make these words mean exactly the opposite? We make them into a solemn warning; as if we really wanted to be afraid, and for others to be afraid as well; as if we wanted a religion of caution and fear instead of a religion of freedom and love. Christ alone is an important anchor indeed.

In my summer between third and fourth grade I went to a Y.M.C.A. camp for a week. At one point during the week they cleaned out the swimming pool and they started to refill it. The water came into the pool from openings in the sides of the pool that made huge jets of water. It was really powerful and impressive.

I know this because I was in the pool at the time. The camp opened the pool for all the campers while they were filling it. It seemed huge. It was probably an Olympic sized pool; and here it was, full of kids playing in the jets of water.

The only problem with this was that, as the water filled the pool, the level of the water got deeper without everyone noticing this. I didn’t notice, and (suddenly) I got in over my head. Another kid who obviously had lifeguard experience saw that I was in trouble. He grabbed me and started pulling on me in order to save me.

And what did I do? I fought him with all my might. Who did he think he was, thinking that I was in trouble (although I was). I was so mad that I was a real brat to him.
That’s how this world is; the world we are part of. And we really are part and parcel of it.

A pedestrian got hit by a car and a passerby ran up to the man lying in the street and put his coat under his head (maybe he shouldn’t have, but this is an old joke), and he asked the man, “Are you comfortable sir?” and the man lying on the street said, “I make a decent living, thank you.”

Everybody is doing just fine, thank you, and has no need of what we offer. People will tell us that there is no need for any special way, or truth, or life. And Christians, by and large, are just the same; we certainly don’t need any special help, thank you.

Well I can go around saying that I’m not perfect (which comes as a surprise to no one). And when I say it I am probably thinking what a wonderful thing it is that I am so self-aware, and honest, and humble. But just try to tell me one of the ways that I am not perfect, and advise me on a plan of action for just how to make the necessary changes, and see how I react.

And, by the way, do you want to know what is really wrong with you?

It is because our hearts are shaped this way that our only true hope is Christ alone.
Isaiah gives us an example in his book. “For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of snakes and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, and snake is hatched.” (Isaiah 59:4-5)

It sounds extreme; that world of long ago. But we see and hear this same world in the news every day. But the most surprising thing about Isaiah’s message is that he is not speaking to the heathens. Isaiah is speaking to God’s people. This is the church of his day, full of people who do not know their own heart. If we want to find ourselves in the Bible, we must see that this is where we are. This is us.

There is a Disney cartoon program called “Phineas and Ferb” in which there is an evil scientist named Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz who is always plotting to take over the world and spread his evil plans. But he fails every time. In one episode his evil mentor encourages him by saying, “Heinz, you don’t have to conquer the world in order to spread evil. You can do it through all the little things you say and do every day.” And that is what we do.

If we kept an exact record of every thought and feeling that passed through our minds, every second of the day, we would be ashamed to read it. If we thought that other people could see our thoughts and feelings at every passing second, just by looking at us. We would all hide.

A five year old knows lots about injustice and evil from both sides; and we become experts as we grow up. We receive more wounds and we become more insensitive as we grow up. Only we would do almost anything to avoid having anyone see through us.

The world we live in has not been working well for a long, long time. The world that so alarms us is the way it is because it is full of human beings just like us. Welcome to the human race!

And yet, the world as it is doesn’t want a way, or a truth, or a life that it can’t devise for itself. The original humans, in the form of Adam and Eve, wanted to be self-governing. They wanted a life that they could devise for themselves. What we have is the result.

The world as it is doesn’t want to admit it needs such a way, a truth, or a life from beyond itself. The world as it is says that our growing scientific knowledge means that we don’t have to look for ways and answers from beyond this world any more. But the more our world advances in knowledge and technology, the more violent, and destructive, and unjust, and outrageous it becomes.

In the face of this, do you know that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life? Chesterton once said that it is not true that the Christian way has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and left untried.

Isaiah says, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him and his own righteousness sustained him.” (Isaiah 59:14-16)

God himself took up the cause. God did for this world what it could not do for itself. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves.

God’s arm reached down into our world to do the work of salvation. Now God doesn’t have an arm like ours with bones, and muscles, and sinews; but God has strength within himself. God has the ability to use his strength to do his work. This arm, this strength, is Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh, God as a human being, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Jesus is what the Isaiah meant when he said, “his own arm worked salvation for him.” “Christ alone” is the equivalent of saying “God alone”. Paul describes this when he writes, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” And this makes the world mad. It even makes some people who profess to be Christians mad; because it seems arrogant and exclusive.
Christians have acted arrogantly. We have acted in ways to exclude others as if we were better than them. The cure is to look at what Jesus is saying and where he is saying it.

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9) One of the things that Jesus is telling us, and the whole world, is that God is not exclusive. God wants to be known, and loved. God wants to be present.

There is a house for God and us together. It is the Father’s house. We are made to be together. As Paul said, God wants “to reconcile all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:20)

The world says it wants to see all religions as equal. The problem with this is that they are so different in the essence of what they teach about the nature of the world, and of God, and of how we find our purpose. They are so different that if they are all equal they must all be very far away from the way, the truth, and the life.

If no one in the world is close and everyone is far, then it seems that the reality of the universe must be that God, if there is a God, must be very far away. God must be very difficult to know, and must be very uninterested in reaching out to us, or else he is unable to reach out to us. And we are on our own.

Jesus tells us that “the way, the truth, and the life” of God is not distant. It is close. It has a face that cannot be mistaken for another. It has a voice distinct from all other voices. It has hands and fingerprints that are absolutely unique. “The way, the truth, and the life” is approachable and knowable. It is found in Jesus, in Christ alone.

Is this arrogant? It could be. But where has the way, the truth, and the life been? Where is it going?

It has taken off its clothes, and rapped itself in a towel, and become a foot washer. Jesus and his disciples, at the moment where we read about them in John, have just finished the Passover feast, and Jesus has just finished washing the disciples’ feet, every one of them; even the feet of Judas Iscariot the betrayer.

This is not an arrogant truth; not for Jesus and not for us. And Jesus has told us to do likewise. Jesus has told us that the world will know that we are his disciples if we are foot-washers, and if we are a servant people who know how to love others. (John 13:1-17)

And Jesus is on his way to the cross with a vengeance, in order to destroy his enemies. But the enemies of Jesus are not people. They are the sources of evil in this world: injustice, unrighteousness, lies, hypocrisy, violence, abuse, willful blindness, heartlessness.

Jesus fights against these enemies on the cross. And he conquers them within us when he claims us there on that cross. This is “the way, the truth, and the life” he has been talking about. This is how the Lord’s “own arm worked salvation for him” This is how, “He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.” (Isaiah 59:17)

The cross was his vengeance on sin. The cross is the picture of zeal in the extreme. Who else would go so far as the Lord has gone, in patience, and humility, and blood, and pain?

This is servanthood; sacrificial, redemptive love. It is no sin to say that this is the only genuine and hopeful way. It is not arrogant to claim some special status for love, even though love will never stay on its pedestal.

Jesus washed our feet to make us servants. Servant is the most that we can call anyone to be, when we would help them know the way, the truth, and the life. We call them to be servants like us; servants like Jesus. You can’t be arrogant and do this.
When the church (the people of God) lives like this, no one will call us arrogant any more. Or, if they do, no one else will believe them.

God himself is not proud. In the modern world, where the Christian faith is more and more out of favor, we may find a new blessing in losing our pride. We will not be the top. We will not be the leaders. We will be the bottom. We will be foot washers. We will be people of the cross.

When such a time finally comes, it may seem to us that all we have left is Christ; and Christ alone. This is what all other faithful disciples have found; those who have gone before us. This is the common state of God’s people in the world: having Christ alone.

The truth is that each and every one of us will come to some time and place in which we will seem to have Christ alone. Our first instinct will be to think that we are alone, when we have only Christ. But then we will find that this is not true. We will find that, when we have Christ alone, we have everything we really need because of him.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Scripture Alone

Preached Sunday, October 17

“Anchors for the Storm: Scripture Alone”

Scripture Readings: Psalm 19; 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5; John 5:24-47

Many years ago, the great author G.K. Chesterton and some other writers were brought together for an interview. Among the many questions, they were asked what book they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. One said he would want “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”. Another said he would want the Bible. Chesterton spoke up and said, “I would choose “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Ship Building”.

Chesterton knew that his life on that deserted island should be driven by a single guiding purpose. If he had access to one book on that island, he would want it to be a book that matched that driving purpose.

We have been designed and given life, in this world, by God, for a purpose, and God has designed and given life to a book, in this world, that matches our purpose. We call that book the Bible, or the Scriptures.

The name Bible means book. Scriptures means the things that have been written down and brought together for this purpose, in this book. (Actually the scriptures form a one volume library-full of books.)

The message of the scriptures, the message of the story they contain, tells us that the God who made us, and who made all things, is a God who loves relationships. It tells us that this God takes delight in the presence of love and faithfulness in these relationships.

Psalm nineteen tells us that this God designed his creation to be capable of speaking for him. He made it to communicate his joy to those who heard it speak for him. “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” (Psalm 19:4-5) The same Psalm also tells us that God has ways (God has patterns) and that he wants these ways to be our ways (and patterns) too. It tells us that when God’s ways are our ways it is life-giving to us: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” (19:7)

The word law here is the Hebrew word Torah, which applies to the first five books of the Scriptures. Even though it is generally translated as “law”, Torah doesn’t mean law in the sense of rules and regulations. It means ways, and patterns, and the teachings about those things.

The Book of Genesis, with its account of creation, and with its account of the Lord calling people to be his beloved people, starting with old man Abraham and old lady Sarah, is a book that shows us the ways, and patterns, and teachings of God. The events described in the laws of Genesis are the ways of God, and they are told to us in such a way as to give us a living experience of God that will revive the life within us. God’s way of creation and calling people to faith are told to us in such a manner that will give us joy. It is told in a way that will give us light to see great things, and take us out of ourselves and into the light of God’s love.

Moses was the first of God’s people who were commanded to write things down (Exodus 17:14), and so the five first and oldest books of the Bible have been called the books of Moses. Moses was commanded to write things down so that God’s ways would be remembered; so that people in the future could meet and experience God through what had been written. In reading what God had done, they could meet the Lord and live.

Jesus told his hearers about the purpose of the scriptures. He told them: “You study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:39-40, 46-47)

Now this Sunday, and in the weeks ahead, we are going to look at five guiding phrases from about five hundred years ago, from the age we call the Reformation.
These historical phrases do not come down to us as a set. They weren’t dreamed up all at once. They weren’t all designed to meet one great issue. But they all serve a similar purpose. I imagine these guiding phrases to be like different anchors dropped from a boat at various times.

The funny thing about each of these phrases is that each has the word “alone”. These phrases are: scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone. They are five things that serve alone. How can all five things together be alone?

Ancient ships often carried several anchors as a protection during storms. When the storm winds were shifting and constantly changing direction, multiple anchors, set in multiple directions, would hold the ship steady as the wind changed. First it was the anchor from the bow that held them. Then it was the anchor from the stern. Each anchor brought its own support as the storm changed direction around the ship.

Our own struggles and challenges can come from any direction. These anchors hold us and keep us from being driven by the storm. They hold us from different directions safely in the center of the purpose for which God has designed our lives. Each anchor holds us in our proper relationship with God in Christ.

We are creatures of God; children of God. But there is a drive within our nature to be rebels, to assert our independence from God.

There is a drive within our nature to achieve a kind of mastery, to make a false picture of ourselves, to make ourselves the one we really worship (as if life were all about us). This drive makes us seek to set ourselves up as a god for others (so that they will bend themselves to what we want). As impossible as it may seem, we even want to be in charge of God himself, because we find God’s independence so frustrating.

Each of these anchors holds us safe in the relationship where God alone is God, and we are always safe in our real identity as creatures and children of God who are secure in our real God related lives.

The heart of the scriptures is a relationship with God in Christ. Paul says this to Timothy: “From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15)

The Scriptures are inspired for the purpose of shaping our lives for that relationship with Jesus, because we are all going to see Jesus. And Paul says this, as he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom…” (2 Timothy 4:1)

One of the dangers is that we will be subtly tempted to change the good news of the Gospel of Jesus into a set of facts, and into a field of knowledge. We are tempted to see the Bible as a textbook of information about the Lord. We are even tempted to see the Bible as a textbook about other subjects that are of interest to us. We stop meeting the personal Jesus in the scriptures and we compensate by absorbing facts and ideas.

Some people make it seem like a hard thing to master the facts of the Bible, and they may try to boss others around on the basis of their special knowledge, or they might try to pull others down who seem to know less of the facts and less able to quote from book, chapter, and verse.

Others are tempted to give up, because they know they will never catch up. Those who give up will either follow those who have all the answers, or else they will go away.

Jesus confronted those who denied him because they built up authority over others through their technical expertise in the information of the scriptures. They thought that this mastery would give them life, or make them larger than life. In reality the experts used their mastery of facts as an escape from being prepared and shaped for a life-giving relationship with the Father and the Son.

We have a God who loves relationships. We have a God who created us for these relationships. We have a God who (when we tried to set up our lives on our own authority, and ruined the world as a consequence)…we have a God who came down in Jesus to live and die for us, who overcame the power of death for us to unite us to himself in a way that depends on him from first to last.

And since this God gave us the scriptures as the place where we can meet him and live, we want to be sure that we do truly meet him. We want to come to the scriptures so we can come face to face with him and really know him.

But we want to never settle on loving merely what we know about Christ. We want to go beyond the things we know so that we can love the Christ we know. There is just a difference. Knowledge is great, but love will beat knowledge every time.

When I was a child, I wanted attention. But, more than that, I wanted to draw attention. I wanted to earn attention.

I didn’t want to earn it by getting in trouble because I wanted people to like me and admire me. I found that some of the ways that other kids attracted and earned attention did not come easily for me. Athletic skill did not seem to come easily, but skills in information and knowledge did.

And so I decided to become brilliant. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Plenty of kids wanted to be great. They wanted to be athletes like Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas and nobody thought the worse of them because of this.

So I wanted to be brilliant. I read, and I read, and I read. I browsed through dictionaries. I sifted through encyclopedias. When I was ten, I had loads of books on history, and archeology, and technology, and science. I had a telescope. I had a microscope. I loved this.

I neglected my school work because it got in the way of acquiring knowledge. I might only be getting a C in a class, but I could answer all the teacher’s questions. This felt good. I achieved mastery.

But I can tell you that there was no real life in this. Knowledge is great, but love beats knowledge every time. The experts in the scriptures, who achieved mastery through their study and their knowledge, possessed the scriptures. They possessed them, but in the process they lost the God of the scriptures. They lost Christ. Some of the most seemingly biblical Christians possess the scriptures, but they may have very little of Christ beyond the joy of the facts.

Where this happens, you can see it either in the woodenness of the discipline of their lives; or in the condition-making of their ties with others or in their acceptance of others. The Jesus that lives in them does not welcome sinners. The Jesus that lives in them is not a very redemptive Jesus. They have romanced the Bible itself, and its authority, thinking that in doing so they have romanced the Jesus of the Bible. But they have made a mistake.

When we say that scripture alone is an anchor of the Christian life and can hold us safe in any storm we mean the scriptures as Jesus saw them. The scriptures are the true and honest portrait of Jesus.

When I go to an art museum I love to look at the portraits of people from long ago. In the best portraits the people in them look ready to laugh. They look ready to step out of the frame and talk to you, or else run their sword through you.
The Bible is the best portrait of all. By the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus does step out of the frame; and he speaks to you, and challenges you, and offers his salvation to you: his infinite and everlasting friendship and lordship.

We say that scripture alone is an anchor for any storm because it offers the whole Jesus. The scriptures don’t just give us the words of Jesus. They give us the work of Jesus. They give us the body and blood of Jesus.

Even the Old Testament, Jesus said, is a place where we can get the whole reality of him. In the Gospel of Luke, after the resurrection, Jesus meets his disciples and we read this: ‘He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ (Luke 24:25-27)

We are tempted to love only a part of Jesus, and not the whole Jesus. There are parts of Jesus we don’t understand. There are parts we may not like. There are parts we are afraid of. There are mysteries about Jesus (about exactly who he really is) that confuse us. There is the talk about sin and forgiveness that we may resist. We are tempted to construct a Jesus after our own image, and in our own likeness; a Jesus built to our own specifications.

Scripture may be misinterpreted, and abused, and forced into boxes of someone else’s making, or of our own imagination. Scripture alone saves us from the distortions, and the oversimplifications, and the additions, and the subtractions of those who claim to have authority when, all the while, they are only reaching for mastery. Scripture alone protects us from our own temptations to be the master, to be the one in control, and to create a truth of our own invention.

Just because scripture may be misused doesn’t make it imperfect, because many perfect things can be misused. Love itself can be misused. The innocence of another person can be abused.

Scripture, though, in all its strange, confusing perfection is simply there, like a person you may not want to look at too closely for fear that they might look back at you. Scripture is like a person you don’t want to talk to about anything personal, because you are afraid of what they might say. Scripture is like a brother or sister or an old friend who knows you too well to let you pretend to be something you aren’t, or let you retell an old story in your own favor.

Our relation with scripture alone is like the relationships within a marriage or family where you never stop learning about another person. It is hard in the sense that you never fully get to the bottom of the other person. After a life-time together, that person will still amaze you and confound you. But this difficulty is not the hardship try to make of it. This difficulty is a sign of the blessing of a living, growing relationship. Our relationship with the Bible is like that.

If there was someone who was always trying to come between the two of you, in order to explain the real message of the one you loved; if there was someone who claimed some kind of authority to speak to you on their behalf; you would know that something was very wrong. Something was either fishy about them, or you were missing something pretty important. This is why we want a direct relationship with God through the Bible. We want a relationship with God where we can say, “Scripture alone.”

Scripture alone can be trusted to give you God in his fullness, just as he is. Scripture alone can be trusted to show you yourself, just as you are; and to show you your true self, as God wants you to be, and how he plans to get you there.

We can meet God in nature, and in the lives of those around us, but the scriptures show us the living portrait of God in Christ. It shows us a portrait of God in the manger, and in the carpenter shop, and along the road, and on the cross, and coming out of the empty tomb.

Scripture shows us a God who has come to give us a new life in a way that no landscape, and no sun or moon or stars, and no other human being can give you. Here, in the scriptures alone, God Himself gives us something we need. He gives us himself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Showing the Kingdom to the World

Preached Sunday, October 3

Scripture Readings: 1 Peter 3:8-18a; Matthew 5:1-16

Why are we here?
I mean: why has the Lord gathered us and called us together? But not just in this building on Sunday mornings: why has God made us belong to each other?

There is an old Presbyterian list of reasons called “The Great Ends (or purposes) of the Church.” One reason on that list is: the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.

Now the kingdom of heaven is the same thing as the kingdom of God (at least because heaven is, sort of, the “capital” or center of the kingdom of God). And yet “capital” is completely the wrong idea, too. The kingdom of God is not like a nation and its government. The kingdom of God is nothing like what you would find in Olympia, or Washington, D.C., or London, or Tokyo.

In the Book of Revelation it says: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Revelation 11:15) But this does not mean that there will be a world government in the kingdom of God. It means that the Lord will rule everywhere. It means that everything will be different.

For the people in the Bible, a kingdom was not an organization, or an institution. A kingdom was a king’s responsibility and authority. The relation of an ancient king to his kingdom was like the relationship of a farmer to his farm, or a homeowner to his or her house and yard and garden. It was the thing they took care of. It belonged to them; and (even more than that) they belonged to it.

A good king would have a plan and priorities, and he would see to it that these were carried out. A good king would make improvements where they were needed. A wise king would repair what needed fixing. A wise king made things work.

The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is something we enter where God makes things work. We do not enter by crossing a line on the map or a page on the calendar. When we enter, we cross over the line of God’s ownership. We come under God’s rule.

When we come into God’s kingdom, God has a free hand to manage us, to fix us, to improve us, to remodel us, to cultivate us, to do his plan of rotations and cycles upon us: like summer fallow to wheat, seedtime to harvest.

Now it is important to realize that the church is not the kingdom of God. The church is the exhibition, the demonstration, of the kingdom of God. God has called us together, gathered us together, to show how his kingdom works; to show how he does things, if only we will let him.

I have a satellite dish for my TV reception and it gives me access to lots of channels. There is a channel available to me called the Home and Garden Network which shows what creative homeowners and gardeners do with what is theirs. Actually, I never watch that channel. But one of God’s reasons for the Church is to be something like his own Home and Garden Channel: the place to show what he does with what is his (assuming we let him do what he wants with us).

Or the church is like an experimental farm, or field, or a test plot. Farmers visit these places to see whether the experts are really as smart as they claim to be.

In Matthew we read from the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This sermon, this message, describes what the kingdom of God looks like when people enter in. Verses 3 through 10 give us what we call “The Beatitudes”. Beatitude means blessing, or happiness, or goodness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” On Jesus’ lips, these blessings describe the goodness of being in a place in life where God can really work; where God can truly rule as king (if we let him).

In these eight beatitudes, the first and the last refer directly to the kingdom of heaven, and that sort of encloses all of the other beatitudes into the description of God’s kingdom-work. They are like the top and bottom slice of bread in a sandwich that holds the whole thing together. The beatitudes are “a kingdom of God sandwich” that gives you the basic flavors of the whole kingdom.

I am going to read each of the beatitudes over again; and then, after each one, I will read a paraphrase of from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message. I hope this will help us think more clearly how each one of the beatitudes describes God’s kingdom at work.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the paraphrase it says: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” In the paraphrase it says: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The paraphrase says: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The paraphrase says: “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” But we could read it as: “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’ you find yourselves cared for.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” But we could read it as: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Or we could read it as: “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” In the paraphrase it says: “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”

The beatitudes show us the kingdom of God because they show us where, in our own lives, God finds the greatest freedom to work. Places in life where we are most aware of our spiritual poverty, hunger, and thirst are the places where we are the neediest. There we are the most ready for God to work and for God to bring us deeper into his love and power. Where God works with the greatest freedom; there is our greatest hope. Those are the parts of our lives where we have the most to hope for from the work of God.

These places are very odd. They are supposed to be about happiness and goodness, and yet they are completely different from what we would expect happiness and goodness to be: spiritual poverty, meekness, hunger, and thirst. These are completely different from where we expect to find happiness.

The happiness of the kingdom of God is like the happiness of salt.
There are a lot of things we can put on our food to make it taste better; things like spices and herbs, or oils, or dressings, or sauces, or butter, or bits of bacon or egg. But these are actually food, themselves. They come from plants and animals.

Salt doesn’t. Salt is something completely different from food; but it flavors food and preserves it.

We are the salt of the earth when we let God make us, in some way, completely different from the earth; but in a way that fits. In the same way, we are the light of the world when we let God make us different from the darkness of the world, in a way that blesses the world and gives it a better taste.

How does God make us different? Some Christians used to make themselves different by the things they didn’t do: like not dancing, or not going to movies, or not playing cards. But God’s difference makes us different in a completely different way.

For instance something in human nature makes us happy when we judge other people and think how stupid, or bad, or incompetent they are, and how much better than them we are.

But Jesus way is completely different. Jesus says don’t judge. Which does not mean don’t think about what is right or wrong, but it means don’t be self-righteous. Don’t go around thinking you are better than others.

God’s different happiness means not going around looking down on others. This makes us completely different.

Something in human nature makes us happy when we get even with other people. But the happiness of God is completely different, because the happiness of God teaches us to forgive others.

Some Christians try to make themselves completely different by becoming a doormat to others, but God’s happiness is completely different. God’s way of happiness is found in standing up for what is right and not giving up, but truly forgiving the wrongs others do against you.

This is what God does. This is why God came down from heaven in Jesus to die for the sins of the world: to offer something completely different.

The Sermon on the Mount describes the kingdom of God in a way that would make us completely different from what we see in the news, and from most of the entertainment on TV, and from what we read in the papers or see on the internet. It would make us a blessing, if we listened and entered in.

We could say, “And now for something completely different!”

The world is always ready to notice something completely different. If you are completely different, the world will respond. People will laugh at you, or put you down, or try to stop you or hurt you.

Or else they will like what they see, or see what they are missing, and want it. Perhaps they will even ask you about it. Peter says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

The older translations describe this hope as “the hope that is in you,” and I think that is best. Hope is not something we “have”. There is an old way of seeing things (as old as the Bible) that sees us actually living in Christ, and Christ truly living in us and bringing his hope along with him.

We never own hope. We never generate hope for ourselves. Hope is Jesus in you, Christ in you.

Jesus is also the light of the world, but he gives us the honor of shining for him. We hope to be a light in this world because the Lord is the light within us.

We hope to be something completely different in this world, and bring a better taste to it because we have found something completely different from what this world can offer. We have found something that brings us joy in the very same life we share with others.

We have found Jesus. We have been found by Jesus, and Jesus has gathered us together to be his presence in this world. We are called to be the presence in this world of something from beyond this world, something completely different, and yet something that belongs here.

The Lord’s Supper is like this. We know we live in need of something from beyond this world, and it comes to us in the form of something completely different; in simple bread and wine (well, grape juice).

Often this world thinks it needs something that has been tried over and over again; like a great leader, or a sound policy, or a foolproof system; a power that will set things right from the outside by regulation. But the secret of the kingdom of God is a servant who dies for the sins and evils of this world, and changes human lives from within, one at a time.

Jesus is this something completely different, completely surprising, and he gives us this meal as a way to receive him, and enter in. When we enter, then we can go out and show the answer to what the whole world needs to see. We can go out as Jesus’ light of the world and Jesus’ salt of the earth.