Tuesday, February 19, 2019

EmmDev 2019-02-19 [Sermon on the Mount] The Dock and the Bench

The Dock and the Bench

As we move into chapter seven, Matthew's Sermon on the Mount touches on the area of relationships - to others, to evil people, to our Father, to false prophets and to those who claim to walk with God.

Our section today is about judging others and is one of the most often quoted and misunderstood passages. John Stott notes that the Russian author Leo Tolstoy used these verses to justify his idea that all legal courts were wrong. While most people would affirm the need for a justice system, these verses are often quoted by a society that promotes a "hyper-tolerance" that will allow and accept any behaviour (short of actual crime) under the banner of "judge not lest ye be judged" (and these verses are almost always quoted in King James' English).

The irony is that Jesus Himself refutes this kind of hyper-tolerance in the rest of the chapter: He urges us not to throw our pearl before swine and dogs and he warns about false prophets and those who claim to be "tight" with God. So He is not averse to recognising evil, falsehood and deception.

So how do we understand Jesus' instruction about not judging?
I think the key lies in answering the question "How would I like a healthy and just society to treat me? (Especially if I am behaving destructively)" If I had made a mistake and caused pain, I would hope that society would give me the benefit of the doubt and a chance to try again. If I were addicted to my destructive behaviours, my sincere hope is that society would do what it could to prevent me from causing further pain and help me change my ways - but I would want them to do this with grace and justice.

When I don't treat people the way that I want to be treated then I am a hypocrite. And this hypocrisy goes further... Jesus powerfully illustrates this with the image of the speck and the plank: the truth is that many of us judge with a double standard - we are harsher to and more critical of others than we are of ourselves.

We'd be better off standing close to others and seeing ourselves in them and treating them as we'd like to be treated in a just and caring society than standing at a distance wanting to assume that we know better.

John Stott helpfully uses the language of the courtroom when he says that those who want to sit on the bench (the place of the One and Only Righteous Judge) will find themselves in the dock (the place of the accused)...

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.      (Matthew7:1-5)

Friday, February 15, 2019

EmmDev 2019-02-15 [Sermon on the Mount] Perspectives on Worry (Part 2)

Perspectives on Worry (Part 2)

We saw yesterday that we can be too full of care about possessions, the future, clothes and food.

Jesus uses some beautiful images and powerful arguments to remind us that we can "trust an unknown future to a known God" (This is one of Corrie Ten Boom's favourite sayings - Corrie and her family hid Jewish refugees from the Nazis and she was eventually captured and thrown into a Nazi concentration camp. There in the camp she lived by faith day by day, keeping her faith and love even through the horrors of her situation):

  1. Life is more important than its fuel and a body is more important than the clothes we hang on it. So often we get this sequence wrong, we put food and clothes before the gift of life and body. The former (food and clothes) are functional, whereas the latter are a Gift. We can make and earn food and clothes, but we can't make or earn life or a body.
  2. The birds of the air live day to day - they're not lazy - they 'forage' for each day's food, but they don't stress about the distant future and yet they are provided for by our Father who feeds them daily.
  3. As much as we stress about things, we aren't actually in control. We can't even extend our lives by an hour.
  4. Flowers and grass are given a beauty that far surpasses our best efforts and yet these are temporary whereas we are known and loved by God.
  5. Pagans (those who don't believe in or know God) run after the cares of the earth whereas we can be confident in the goodness of our heavenly Father who knows best what we need. When we marinate in "merimnate" (Worry/Anxiety/Stress) we're behaving like those who have no God to believe in. Martin Luther who we recognise as one of the giants of the Reformation, although positive by nature, could be prone to dark bouts of depression and worry. On one occasion even a holiday and retreat couldn't shift the darkness. His wife, Katherine, took matters into her own hands... Martin walked into the lounge to find Katherine and all the children dressed in black looking very mournful. When he asked who had died she answered: "Have you not heard that God is dead? My husband, Martin Luther, would never be in such a state of mind if he had a living God to trust in." It is said that Martin burst out laughing and his depression lifted.
  6. People talk about a hierarchy of needs (Maslow talked about a pyramid starting at the bottom with the basic needs of hunger, thirst and shelter moving upward to more esoteric needs.) But there also needs to be an inverted pyramid of priority. The tip on which this pyramid stands is the will and purpose of God for our lives. From this all else will flow.
  7. Life should be taken one day at a time. This doesn't mean that we mustn't plan, but we are being invited to live in today and plan for tomorrow, instead of dreading tomorrow and missing today.

Read our passage for today to identify these images and arguments. Which of them impact your most?

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
28 "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.      (Matthew6:25-34)

EmmDev 2019-02-14 [Sermon on the Mount] Perspectives on Worry (Part 1)

Perspectives on Worry (Part 1)

In the wake of Jesus' three warnings on possession obsession we now shift over to the problem of worry and anxiety. (The "therefore" that connects this section to the previous one is very clear.) There is a logical connection between possessions and worry: Studies have shown that levels of stress and anxiety are often lower among those who have less and higher among those who have more. (Having more "stuff" means we have to safeguard and maintain it.)

William Barclay does a useful analysis of the Greek word Jesus uses for "worry"... The word "merimnate" indicates debilitating stress and anxiety. He quotes examples of this word from secular letters we have from that time:

  • A wife admits that she couldn't sleep because of her anxiety for news of her husband.
  • A mother writes to her son, indicating that his health and well-being had become the complete focus of her prayers and anxiety.
  • The poet, Anacreon, admits that he had to drink wine to make his anxiety go to sleep.

There is a difference between responsible living and paralysing worry. There is a difference between having butterflies in the stomach over a meeting or deadline and living with a constant nagging fear. There is a difference between saving for a "rainy day" and obsessing over the future.

There is a middle point between being careFULL and careLESS. Anxiety comes from being so full of cares about tomorrow, the day after and things that we cannot control, that we lose our health, contentment and spirituality - becoming dominated by the cares of the world. The opposite extreme is also problematic: If we empty ourselves of care for ourselves, our ability work and care for others, then we live irresponsible lives, squandering God's gift of Life.

When we "marinate" ourselves in "merimnate" (Worry/Anxiety/Stress) it is extremely bad for our faith, for our well-being and for our relationships. Even those who believe in God can succumb to anxiety.

Jesus is clear: This is something we have to fight.
Tomorrow we'll look at the reasons not to worry and tools we can use to combat anxiety, but for now take a moment read our passage imagining Him looking lovingly into your eyes, speaking gently but urgently...

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
28 "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.      (Matthew6:25-34)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

EmmDev 2019-02-13 [Sermon on the Mount] Got to serve Somebody

Got to serve Somebody

In Graeco-Roman times, a slave served his/her master. They weren't employed from 9-5, they were owned and entirely at the disposal of the one who was their owner and master.

Today's passage is about loyalty to God or to Mammon. ("Mammon" has its roots in the OT, and referred to material possessions and accumulations - our "stuff")

Sadly, there are many people today who are possessed by their possessions, instead of owning some "stuff", and this is what Jesus is driving at. If we are going to be devoted to God, then it means we consider ourselves owned by Him and fully available to His service. It means we are in His service full-time and completely. There's no such thing as office hours or limitations defined by our "contract of employment." We can't claim overtime or danger-pay when we have to go outside our "job description" because the only "job description" or "contract" we ever have with God is: "Whatever You ask, whenever You want it."

When our loyalties are divided we become conflicted people. When there is an audience of more than One, we end up confused not knowing who to hate, love, despise or devote ourselves to. We are not designed for divided loyalties. This does not mean that we have to get rid of all our "stuff" - unless our "stuff" owns us. The rich young ruler in Mt 19 was possessed by his possessions - Jesus had to insist he sell it all - it was the only way to set him free.

In our last three passages Jesus is particularly concerned about material possessions - the "stuff of earth".

  • In His illustration about Treasure in Heaven, He is pointing our Longings away from earthly stuff.
  • In talking out our eyes being lamps and windows, He is asking us to make the generosity the Locus of our attention.
  • In today's passage He is asking to give our Loyalty to God and God alone

We play best if we play for an audience of One.

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.      (Matthew6:24)

EmmDev 2019-02-12 [Sermon on the Mount] Lamplight


Our reading for today is best understood in its context. The section just before has been about storing up treasure in heaven instead of chasing after temporary material treasures. The section just after today's reading is about choosing between two masters: God or Mammon (Mammon means money or material gain.)

Jesus talks about the eye being the lamp of the body. Many translate this image to mean that the eye is the window of the soul and that the window must be clean/sound/good rather than dirty/unsound/bad. But the image and the context demand that we dig a little deeper...

A window on a house is a passive thing, it can't change its view. If our eyes are windows, the windows are on a head with a neck that swivels. The view that the windows have is determined by the angle of the neck. Imagine walking with a lamp in the dark... The chances are pretty good that we will walk where the lamp is pointed. We don't tend to shine the light in one direction while we walk in another. We must combine the idea of lamp and a window...

Jesus has already asked us to focus on heavenly treasure rather than earthly gain. Next He will ask us to make a conscious choice: God or Mammon. In today's middle section he is asking us where we will shine our lamp, because that's where we will walk and soon we will be filled with whatever we have focused on.

It's also interesting to note that the Greek word for "good" is "haplous" which can mean good, sound or generous. So too, the Greek word for "bad" means evil, grudging or stingy.

So, in our context of treasures in heaven and God vs Mammon. This section on the eyes is asking us, not only to keep our windows clean, but to point our windows (our headlights) in the direction of generosity and kindness rather than being grudging and stingy.

"The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!      (Matthew6:22-23)

EmmDev 2019-02-08 [Sermon on the Mount] Treasure


We can't take our "stuff" with us... Have you ever seen a hearse towing a Venter Trailer? The pyramids were the graves of the Pharoahs and they are filled with treasures that were buried with the rulers that had died. All that remains of the rulers are their remains and the treasures were unused until they were plundered or discovered in recent times.

We can't take our "stuff" with us... The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it like this:"For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune."

Jesus' take on "stuff" is that it decays and is vulnerable to theft. It will not go the distance of eternity and it will cost us a lot in maintenance and security if we try to hang on to it all.

It must be held loosely.

Real treasure goes to eternity and I believe this treasure takes three forms:

  1. Our character: Paul tells the Philippians that: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion on the day that Christ returns." This good work is our sanctification (becoming holy) which is best described as becoming more like Jesus. We're not earning credits or merit badges, we're not stacking up good deeds but we are to become more patient, more kind, more faithful, more self-controlled. When we're bearing fruit, we're growing in love and we're reflecting Jesus.
  2. Our gratitude and worship: In his beautiful hymn John Newton suggests: "When we've been there 10,000 years... we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun." One of the profound things we need to begin to learn while we're on earth is the attitude of gratitude -- a heart of worship.
  3. People: We can't take "stuff" with us, but by sharing God's amazing love with those around us, we can lead them to know Him and give their hearts to him.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."      (Matthew6:19-21)

EmmDev 2019-02-07 [Sermon on the Mount] Discretion... in fasting

Discretion... in fasting

In Jesus' time, the Jewish fasting days were Mondays and Thursdays. These were market days and those who fasted on those days often made a big show of it. William Barclay indicates that some even whitened their faces so that they looked pale and gaunt from their fasting.

Fasting was considered an act of mourning for loss or a show of penitence or regret for sin. It was seen as a way of preparing one's heart for God to work in one's life. When a loved one or the nation was in trouble, people would fast for them. But this beautiful and helpful sacrificial act of devotion towards God became a shallow public show of fake piety that Jesus rejected outright - "They have received their reward in full!" (Hunger pains are all they'll get for all their dramatics!)

So what is fasting?
It is withhold oneself from food, a luxury or a perceived essential (like the media) for a period of time to clarify our focus on God and set ourselves free from being bogged down by the "stuff" in our lives. (Today it's not common to fast out of penitence, but even if we do regret our brokenness, we are also assured of forgiveness.)

Fasting can be beneficial:

  1. Sensible fasting from food or hectic busyness can be healthy.
  2. Fasting can often free up time that can be used for devotion or service..
  3. It can set us free from the tyranny of "stuff". I know of people who have fasted from social media over Lent and have discovered how addicted they were and how much they'd lost touch with those in front of them.
  4. Fasting can cause us to appreciate things we take for granted.
  5. Fasting simplifies our lives and focuses us on God.

Jesus' advice for fasting is clear:

  • Don't make it public. In fact, make it a secret.
  • Don't make much of the sacrifice, make much of the joy and privilege. (Anointing with oil and washing were preparations for joyful festivals) Your fasting should be about bringing you closer to God, so what's to be sad about?

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.      (Matthew6:16-18)

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

EmmDev 2019-02-06 [Sermon on the Mount] Discretion... in prayer

Discretion... in prayer

Prayer can be a difficult exercise! When it comes to private prayer, we struggle with discipline, distraction and disconnection. When it comes to public prayer the pitfalls lie in pride and hypocrisy. For all forms of prayer there is the danger of wordiness and the failure to let go...

Jesus offers some incredible advice around prayer. Again, discretion is the key word. When it comes to prayer we should be discreet...
Here are His key points:

1. When people pray in public, there is a real temptation to put on a show for others to see. Some people use big words and clerical language. Others pray with power and authority, often ordering the devil around, and, if you listen carefully, they're ordering God around too... Others talk to God really casually as though to convey incredible closeness to God but the familiarity means that they have domesticated God and have Him safe in a box. But it's all false and Jesus warns that their reward is their own hot air.

2. True prayer begins in solitude, behind closed doors with no-one watching. This is because true prayer is a leap of faith into the presence of the One who is other side (the "Conversation Partner") of our conversation. When we pray in public we are not taking that leap... because there is an audience for our performance. When there is no audience, our belief that there is a Conversation Partner who engages us is at its most sincere.

3. Prayer should be simple. Shakespeare loved using soliloquies (a complex speech where the main speaker speaks to himself and the audience, showing what is in his head and heart.) The truth is that each of us has a tendency towards soliloquy when we pray. But we get caught up in the luxury of explaining ourselves to the One who both knows and loves us fully. The Lord's Prayer is a stark reminder that God is familiar with the details and He doesn't need us to colour it all in. It's the simple trust and not the verbiage and grammar that counts.

4. Brokenness is a particularly important dynamic to prayer: brokenness in others and in ourselves. Real, sincere and honest prayer must deal with the pain we experience and cause. Brokenness is best handled by forgiveness. When we forgive others it is a continuation of the stream of the forgiveness we have received. When we don't forgive, it means that we haven't really experienced the freedom of being forgiven. Then our prayers haven't really connected to the One who invites us to cast our burdens onto Him. It's about letting go...

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 This, then, is how you should pray:
" Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. '

14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.      (Matthew6:5-15)

EmmDev 2019-02-05 [Sermon on the Mount] Discretion... in giving

Discretion... in giving

In the next few verses Jesus will radically re-examine three pillars of Jewish piety: Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting. He taught that it is possible to do these three very good things in a way that results in them having no real value. For each of these three practices, Jesus warns that those who have done these things for "public honour" have received their reward in full.

So discretion is advised in giving, praying and fasting.
We start with giving...

There are many reasons to give charitably (almsgiving):
(I've ranged them from best to worst)
- We can give, because we feel compelled by Love
- We can give because the need is great.
- We can give to soothe our consciences.
- We can give because it feels good. (They talk about the "giver's high.")
- We can give for others to see and admire us.

It is this last motive that Jesus is particularly concerned about. When we give to be noticed and admired it can be very dangerous for our overall spiritual well-being. This is particularly true in our age of digital photography and social media. Today we are quick to take and post selfies as we minister to "those in need." But did we get the permission of the "person in need" to be portrayed as the "victim" while we, the "benefactor" in the photo, are made to look good, kind and saintlike?

I think we all have had to deal with the compulsive urge we feel to tell others about a kind things we have done. But Jesus would as go as far as saying that the desire to been seen as "good and saintly" can easily negate any positive impact we may have had. If we give to boost our ego then that is all that will happen.

Jesus would advocate utmost discretion when we give to others. It's almost unthinkable that the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing, but Jesus uses this kind of hyperbole to emphasise the need for us to avoid recognition and the "spotlight" at all costs when we give charitably.

Lloyd C Douglas (a Lutheran Minister) wrote a novel called "Magnificent Obsession" about a wealthy playboy whose life is transformed by reading a journal of a doctor and philanthropist who deliberately lived his life by the principle of giving in secret. (In fact, the doctor is described as being almost fanatical about the secrecy of his giving.) As the young (and somewhat arrogant and conceited) playboy implemented this practice it had a profound effect on his life.

When it comes to giving, be discreet.

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.      (Matthew6:1-4)

Friday, February 1, 2019

EmmDev 2019-02-01 [Sermon on the Mount] Perfect?


Yesterday we considered the very challenging call to love. We saw that love may not discriminate, that it should be content to be unrequited and be offered to those who haven't earned it. It can be as simple as greeting a stranger and as challenging as praying earnestly for one who hurts us.

Love is to be offered to our enemies, those who persecute us and those who are strangers to us. In fact, we shouldn't ask "who" because the answer is always "anybody and everybody".

But it was the reason that was given for love that was most challenging: Not because it feels good or even because the need is great, but because it's in our spiritual genes: because we are children and heirs of God.

The passage ends with what many find to be a most discouraging phrase:
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
If you're anything like me, your response will be: "But that's just not fair! I'm not God and I'm not perfect. How can He expect this of me?" So what do we do with this difficult phrase?

Two important insights:

  1. The Greek word that Jesus uses for "perfect" is teleios. This is a fascinating word. When we looks at the nuances of its meaning and uses, we find that the word can mean "completion", "destination", "purpose", "maturity", "fulfilment", "whole" and "accomplish".
  2. The other thing that we must be sure to do is to consider this phrase in the context of what Jesus has just been speaking about, and that is love for others. If we take this phrase out of context we make it say something different.

It might be best to translate this last sentence like this: "The love you have for others, especially for enemies and strangers, should grow and mature and be fulfilled inside of you until you have reached the destination of loving people the way God does."

This sentence is not about moral or legal perfection - it is about love reaching the destination in us and that destination is that we are children of God - we love like He does.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.      (Matthew5:43-48)