Friday, January 25, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-25 [Sermon on the Mount] Words, Oaths and Intentions

Words, Oaths and Intentions

In times of corruption and dishonest gain, truth is in short supply. When trust levels are low, people resort to demanding or making oaths.
Jesus has some lessons to teach us:
Firstly, in the Old Testament, oaths were made to people or to God. Oaths made to God in the temple were considered more binding then oaths made to others in the marketplace or home. Jesus rejected this practice.
The other concern around oaths were that people invoked God as their witness or "accountability partner." Because God's name was considered holy, it was felt that this holiness would "rub off" on their promises, making them look and sound more believable. Essentially people were abusing the Lord's name for their own purposes. This, it could be argued, was blasphemy.
So, to avoid outright blasphemy, people would swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem or their own heads. Jesus argued that these were actually all just indirect references to God who is the Owner and Sustainer of all.
So, according to Jesus, vows and oaths are not necessary. Instead, we should use our words plainly and truthfully - yes means yes and no means no. If you think about it, if you need to strengthen your words with a vow or an oath, you're actually admitting that your day to day language is not trustworthy.
Jesus would want us to understand that all of life is holy. Whether we are in the temple or the market place, our words should be truthful and binding. If we need to use a vow, then we are actually abusing God's name and we are being manipulative.

"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.      (Matthew5:33-37)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-24 [Sermon on the Mount] On Marriage and Divorce (2)

On Marriage and Divorce (2)

Yesterday we considered the state of marriage in Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures. What was evident was that woman were not respected, that divorce was too easy, promiscuity was huge problem and consequently the ideal of marriage had been tarnished.

Today we still face the horror of the abuse of women. Divorce rates are high. Being faithful to one spouse has been disparaged. We too need to heed the call of Jesus to a higher ideal.

If you turn to Matthew 19, Jesus expands on the ideal of marriage. He takes marriage back to the Garden of Eden. He uses Adam and Eve as the cornerstone or blueprint of marriage. (We might argue that Adam and Eve were alone in the garden and so it was easy to be faithful! That may be so, but it doesn't change the fact that this is what was intended.)

Moses introduced the idea of a 'certificate of divorce' to acknowledge the tough reality that some decisions aren't always a clear right vs wrong or good vs evil. Some marriages can become so destructive and toxic that divorce is the lesser of two evils.

The problem is that this was the "thin edge of the wedge."
Moses allowed for divorce on the basis of a husband becoming 'displeased' with his wife because of indecency (which is interpreted by most scholars as adultery/infidelity). Unfortunately "displeasing" was separated from "indecency" and so divorce for petty reasons became the order of the day.

Jesus does not forbid divorce in this text, but He brings us back to a higher standard than that of society around us. Not only should we think very hard before we divorce but we should also think very hard about remarrying or about marrying a divorcee.

But we must be sensitive here. Our task is neither to condone or condemn. God created the institution of marriage in the Garden of Eden for Adam's good, because God saw that Adam was lonely. The guidelines, ideals and laws provided in the Scriptures are not meant to be restrictive but to protect the precious bond of marriage and the family that would grow from it.

In the pastoral context, we must do everything possible to prepare couples for marriage and when couples are in trouble we should do our best to repair marriages. But when there is abuse, addiction or some other pathology that cannot be repaired (after genuine efforts have been made) then divorce may be the lesser of two evils.

We should never condone divorce, our hearts should always break when a marriage fails.
Equally so, we should not condemn but rather help people to heal.

"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.      (Matthew5:31-32)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-23 [Sermon on the Mount] On Marriage and Divorce (1)

On Marriage and Divorce (1)

William Barclay takes a fascinating approach to Jesus' comments on marriage. He points out that in the three major societal cultures impacting on Jesus' hearers, the institution of marriage was at its lowest ebb.

The Jews held marriage and family in high regard, but woman were treated as objects rather than equal partners in marriage. This led to the situation that a husband could write his wife a divorce decree for something as frivalous as putting too much salt in his food.

As far as the Greeks went, Demosthenes (a Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens) said "We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation and wives for the purpose of having children legitimately." Faithfulness was not a value at all.

Initially the Romans had a very high view of family. The Roman home was central to life and the mother was the visible and honoured matron of the home. Faithfulness to one's spouse was considered important and a virtue. Unfortunately, although the Roman armies conquered Greece, Greek morals defeated Rome. The Roman view of family and marriage degenerated into the self-and-pleasure-focused way of the Greeks. This situation manifested in two sad ways: Firstly, when women wanted to achieve prominence, they did so by going from being married to one prominent man after another. Secondly, marriage became such an undesirable institution that young people had to be enticed into marriage for the sake of procreation. (As such, special taxes were levied on unmarrieds and they were prevented from inheriting so that more young people would get married).

Jesus' pronouncement on marriage addressed some of the failings of the cultures of the day. The Jews were reminded that woman could not simply be discarded for any reason. To the Romans and Greeks came the reminder that faithfulness in both men and women was the ideal and that men who chose "trophy wives" who were getting divorced for trivial reasons would themselves be considered guilty. Significantly, the idea of a man marrying a woman whose husband had trivially issued her a 'certificate of divorce' and thereby becoming guilty of adultery was a clear indication that, in the eyes of God, they were not released from their vows.

With a few simply words, Jesus significantly raises the bar on marriage. His comments were vitally important in the light of the chaos in the "cultural soup" of society.

(Tomorrow we'll wrestle with implications of this passage for us today...)

"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.      (Matthew5:31-32)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-17 [Sermon on the Mount] Legalism? (Part 2)

Legalism? (Part 2)

Yesterday we saw how the crowd must have, at first, been depressed when Jesus started talking about the Law saying "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."

They would have said to themselves: "Here we go... another lecture on how bad we are..." So, I can only imagine their delight when the finger-pointers (the Pharisees) were also indicted. If I were in the crowd that day, I would have leaned in to what Jesus was saying, just because He was indicating very clearly that the finger-pointers weren't any better than me.

What comes next would be depressing if we don't take to heart what we referred to yesterday: Jesus is changing the landscape completely: The Law is not external, but internal.

And so Jesus offers us some examples:

  1. The physical act of murder (not manslaughter or self-defence) starts when we store up hatred in our hearts. The word "Raca" was Aramaic and it was dismissive and contemptuous in the extreme (It could roughly be translated as "Empty head".) We can witness a murder and indict the murderer, but only the individual can curate the attitudes of hatred in our own hearts. Law is internal.
  2. When we are standing in front of the altar to make an offering, our gift is worthless if we have broken relationships in our lives. Loving God means caring about what God cares about and God cares about people. The tithe or offering that we bring is merely a symbol of our love, respect and worship - but the real gift we give is ourselves and if we are not in good relationship with those God cares about, then this needs fixing.
  3. Jesus third example seems out of place: He urged the crowd to settle with someone who was taking them to court, otherwise they would end up in prison. At first glance this looks like we're back to the old "big stick" interpretation of the Law - "do right or get zapped". When we reflect on it though, Jesus is still saying the same thing: "If you're on the way to court, then there has already been a string of conflicts. If you let conflict fester, it will drag you on a path that ends up in the courts where no one really wins.
  4. Adultery doesn't begin with the physical act, but with unchecked desires and a dissatisfaction with self and others that causes us to treat precious people as sources of satisfaction rather than individuals to be treasured.

When it comes to Jesus, His approach to the Law is always "inside out". He's much more concerned about what goes on inside us.

Pay careful and prayerful attention to some of your inside attitudes today...

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.' 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 "Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny
27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.      (Matthew5:21-28)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-16 [Sermon on the Mount] Legalism? (Part 1)

Legalism? (Part 1)

Legalism, Grace and Hypocrisy are hot potatoes for believers and also for those who are sceptical of Christianity. (Or should that be skeptical?)

Jesus teaches us three important things in this passage:

  1. To the crowds (considered the "unwashed masses" by the Pharisees) Jesus would emphasise the Law. Initially this might have sounded depressing to the crowds because the Pharisees made a big and complicated show of observing laws and by-laws and for the average wage-earning hand-to-mouth crowd this was unattainable.
    But, as we will see tomorrow, Jesus moves Law from external to internal and this gives us a hint at the real issue. The Law is not a set of hoops to jump through, but a revelation of God's purity and righteousness and also His care for us. Jesus made it clear, for example, that we weren't made for the Sabbath, but that the Sabbath was made for us.

  2. To the crowd's delight, Jesus would point out that the Pharisees, who made an ornate show of law-abiding, were not "making it." For all their arguing, posturing and "majoring on minors", they generated more heat than light. Similarly and sadly, to those on the outside, Christians often seem to be like those who argue over the spelling of s(c/k)eptical!

    The problem with the Pharisees was that the law was external, the Law had become their god (note the small "g") instead of being a signpost to God.

  3. Very often we play Grace and Law off as enemies. We argue that we should avoid legalism, and, if legalism means obeying the law for the sake of the law, then I would agree. But, while grace means that I don't earn righteousness by being law-abiding, grace means that the righteousness that God works inside me through my rebirth and new creation in Jesus, should spill from the "inside" to the "outside". The prophet Jeremiah longed for the day when God's law would be "inside" us - written on our hearts.

We'll take this further tomorrow...

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew5:17-20)

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-15 [Sermon on the Mount] Salt and Light

Salt and Light

In New Testament times salt served three main purposes:
- It provided flavour
- It preserved
- It purified

We take light for granted. At night these days we have so much light that the astronomers are talking about light pollution! In New Testament times light was a luxury that was very much appreciated and valued. Imagine the traveller for whom the journey from one town to the next took longer than planned... When it was getting dark, the lights of the city in the distance would be a very welcome sight!

We are called to be salt and light. We need to preserve Christlike values and attitudes and we need to purify ourselves so that what people see in us is attractive and that they can honestly say that life is better (more flavourful) when we are around.

Commentators explain that salt "lost its saltiness" when it was mixed ("diluted") with similar looking gypsum particles in the marketplace, to make a little salt (which was valuable) go a long way. When we "dilute" the influence of Christ in our lives, we lose our saltiness.

Isn't it sad that Christians are often seen as the opposite of the 'spice of life'? Instead of being people who appreciate, love and celebrate life, many Christians are characterised as dull party-poopers and wet-blankets. Our lives should bring hope and fullness to those around us. People's days should be better because of their contact with us. This is what bringing flavour to people's lives is about.

And if we are salty enough, people will become thirsty for Christ who is the Water of Life.

"You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavour, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honour to your Father in heaven.      (Matthew5:13-16)

Friday, January 11, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-10 [Sermon on the Mount] Subversive


Jesus is talking to the gathered crowd which is made up of a broad spectrum of society who have started following Him because of the miracles and healings He has been doing.

And He starts with the word: "Makarioi -- Blessed, fortunate, happy."
What do you think of when you think of the word "Blessed"?
What does it mean someone says: "Well! I'm blessed" ?

  • That it's going well.
  • That my family is well.
  • My business is well.
  • My health is good....
So basically... to be blessed is prosperity....

The people of the day would have agreed with you...
They thought that blessedness had to do with financial and material and physical security.
And, put the other way round: If you were healthy, wealthy and secure -- you were blessed by God -- God was with you...
And, if not, then God wasn't with you...

Job's Comforters had the same circumstance-based theology... In their minds, Job's diminishing circumstances proved that he had fallen out of favour with God.

But how did the crowd hear it?
If you looked at the crowds that were there that day -- there would have been many there who felt that that they were not prosperous.
When Jesus starts with the word "blessed are"... they would have expected words like "the holy, the perfect, the successful, the prosperous."
And they would expect to be shut out, once again by the divides of class, wealth, fortune and structure.

But let's look at Jesus unexpected list of the blessed:
- the poor in spirit - those who are dependent
- the mourning - who have suffered loss
- the meek - who have resisted the temptation to go the route of power
- the righteousness-hungry - who long for something better
- the merciful - give kindness where it is not deserved
- the pure - untainted
- the peacemaking - there is always a cost
- the persecuted and insulted ones.

This is incredibly subversive! Jesus is calling the poor, the sick, the downtrodden and the struggling blessed! To be subversive is to overthrow or undermine a government, political or religious system by working from within.
Jesus is dynamiting preconceived ideas and calcified theologies.

What's even more interesting is what He promises them:

  • To the poor - God's Kingdom is Yours;
  • the mourning - God will comfort you;
  • the meek - You will inherit the earth (you will fulfil God's purposes);
  • those who hunger and thirst - your hunger will be filled;
  • those who are merciful - you will receive mercy;
  • the pure in heart - you'll see God;
  • the peace-makers - you'll be recognised as God's children
  • the persecuted ones - you'll be certain of your heavenly citizenship.

So the kingdom of God is inaugurated with these powerful words:
The people who least expect it discover that they are blessed - that God's face is turned toward them!
At the very start of His teaching Jesus makes it clear: He has not come for those who have it all together, but for those who struggle and strain. Blessing has nothing to do with circumstances and everything to do with God's care for those in these tough circumstances.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn,for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.       (Matthew5:3-11)

EmmDev 2019-01-11 [Sermon on the Mount] The Price

The Price

Yesterday we saw how Jesus used the idea of blessing to completely transform people's picture of God.

His next point of emphasis is sobering...
"Blessed are you when people when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."

The other "Blessed" sayings are in the third-person - they are described with "the" and "those": Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those that mourn... but this "blessed" is is in the second person "you" (or, better put, "youse" or "y'all") which makes it more personal. He's applying it directly to those who hear His words. (Preaching is a powerful if not dangerous thing!)

A new picture of God, broken out of the stereotypes of privilege and prosperity, is a cage-rattler. If God is not only the God of the privileged and the prosperous, but especially the God of the poor, the downtrodden, the knocked down and the righteousness-hungry, then it means that those who know and love this God will be found among the the ones He is with - the "least of these".

This is an uncomfortable picture for the comfortable. (Someone once said that Jesus came to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable).

Throughout His ministry Jesus was misrepresented, misjudged and ultimately mistreated by the comfortable. A new picture of God will cause us to behave differently and re-evaluate our value systems. People won't always understand when we leave behind the trappings of comfort and wealth to serve uncomfortably.

When this happens, we need to dwell, not on what is done to us, but on the fact that we're in the company of the prophets and saints that have gone before us.

And ultimately we're in His company too...

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

EmmDev 2019-01-09 [Sermon on the Mount] A Sermon for us...

A Sermon for us...

Greetings and Blessings for the new year!
I hope you had a blessed Christmas and that you will be God-guided and God-strengthened in 2019!

For the next couple of weeks we'll be looking at the Sermon on the Mount. As many of us have spent a bit of time thinking about the new year and how we want to approach it, I am hopeful that Jesus' insights recounted in Matthew 5,6 & 7 will give us great insights.
Most commentators argue that the "Sermon on the Mount" is actually a compilation of a number of sermons. There was definitely a sermon (if not a few) that took place on the hillside of the Sea of Galilee, but it wasn't all the material we find in ch.6,7,8 (there's just too much material to absorb in one sitting). The understanding is that Matthew collected the core teachings of Jesus and used the context of the Galilee hillside to present them.

The Sermon on the Mount is often described as a masterpiece that showcases Jesus' preaching and teaching. These descriptions create an expectation of poetic beauty and sublime comfort for the original hearers (and for us as readers), but a close reading of these three chapters gives us cause to use different words... like "controversial", "unsettling" and "revolutionary"...

In these "hallowed" chapters, Jesus will tell us:
- that the poor, mourning, and righteousness-hungry are Blessed
- that it is not only murder -- but hating people that is problematic,
- it not just adultery -- but looking,
- that salt that can lose saltiness ("Seems unlikely but tragic"),
- that lights can be put under bushels ("But who would do that?"),
- that we must love our enemies ("And carry their backpacks 2 miles??"),
- that prayers should be short ("Take that you Pharisees!")
- and giving should be done in private ("Really?"
- and more!

There is a subversive note to the Sermon on the Mount (especially in the so-called "Beatitudes" - more on that tomorrow) but for today, I want to highlight two other thoughts...

Firstly, Matthew records the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Jesus' busy time in Galilee. Our reading gives a picture of an itinerant preacher who is actively connecting to and involved in the "knitty gritty" of people's lives: He's teaching in synagogues. He's healing the sick. He's driving out evil spirits. He's travelling from town to town.

The second thought is about Jesus' posture of teaching. He does not stand and preach as we with our 21st century lenses expect... instead He sits down. Sitting down to teach was the habit of the Rabbis at the time. It was a recognised posture indicating authority and calling listeners to pay careful attention.
At the start of a new year there are some beautiful thoughts to glean from this passage:
  1. Jesus' teaching comes out of His deep involvement in our humanity. His preaching is not ivory tower theory, but rooted in the practice of complex and messy life.
  2. Matthew tells us that Jesus taught in the synagogues, but now He takes preaching (and the authority of the Rabbi) to the hillsides of Galilee. His audience is now not only the comfortable synagogue attender, but also those on the roads and pathways of daily life.
  3. People listened to Him. The crowds gathered to hear His teachings and Matthew collected these together at the beginning of his gospel to give us the heart of the 'Kingdom' that Jesus proclaimed. We would do well, especially at the start of the year, to pay attention to these core teachings.
My prayer is that we would walk this year with the One who knows us and finds us where we are... If we pay attention to Him, we'll find peace.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them      (Matthew4:23-5:2)