The prison of unforgiveness…

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Matthew 5:21 (Jesus said) “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Jesus tells the story of a person who avoids reconciliation, who continues to hold a grudge/anger against someone while at the same time going to the temple to make an offering to God. V.22 tells us doing this will make that person liable to judgment.

While we tend to read things like this metaphorically, there is a literal truth Jesus reveals. Fact is that when we withhold forgiveness from others, despite having been forgiven everything by God through Jesus Christ, we become trapped in a prison of our own making. Unforgiveness produces bitterness in the heart, encourages the remembrance of the wrong done to us, can even impair our ability to be in relationship with people who have nothing to do with the offense in question. We are “thrown into prison” on the inside. Unforgiveness results in death, not life.

Heavenly Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

Sermon on the Mount…

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Matthew 5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

This passage is referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount”, one of the most famous passages in all of scripture. Chapter 4 of Matthew tells us Jesus had been teaching, preaching, and healing people – Jews and non-Jew alike. He’s quite the rock star by this time and large crowds are following him. So he goes up on a mountain to speak the words above.

As he looks at the crowd of people who does he see? Was it the wealthy? The powerful? Those in command? I don’t think so. I expect the people gathered were the sorts of persons he mentions in the sermon: the poor, the meek, those suffering from injustice, and so on. They are on the margins. They are the kinds of people desperate enough to leave everything and follow Jesus because, honestly, they have little to lose. Then we pick up a new section beginning with v.13.

Jesus teaches about his followers being “salt” and “light” to those around them. What I find interesting is that Jesus chooses these people to be his messengers to the world: the nobodies, the dropouts, the people born on the wrong side of the tracks. They weren’t “qualified” in any normal sense, but they were his chosen anyway. And it worked. So it is with you and me brothers and sisters. We are called to be ambassadors for Jesus – in spite of all our shortcomings. It’s simply God’s way, so take comfort in that. Lord let it be so. Amen.

 

Immediately they left…

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Matthew 4:18 As (Jesus) walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

I’m struck today by the immediacy of the disciples response to Jesus’ invitation. In the cases of both sets of brothers we are told they “immediately” left their nets/boat/family to follow Jesus. My initial inclination is to perceive this response as demonstrating remarkable faith, but the more I think about it the more complicated things appear.

One of the commandments is “honor your father and mother”. These disciples would have certainly left father, mother, siblings, spouse, children. Their departure would likely have created some hardship for their families. How does that square with the commandment?

Of course, the invitation was no ordinary invitation. It was an invitation to follow the very Son of God. It’s also clear that Jesus had particular charisma to draw people to himself, people with “ears to hear”. It’s another instance in which Jesus’ teaching/action defied convention.

Lord Jesus, teach us to follow you when you call. Amen.

Nailed it!

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Genesis 6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD. 

God was the creator of people whose “every inclination… was only evil continually”. So God decides on a do-over resulting in a great flood in which the only survivors are Noah and his family. Brutal, but… oh well. God is God. Yet I’m not sure the subsequent generations of people were any better. People sinned then and people sin now. It was only in Jesus that God nailed it. Of course, Jesus was both human and divine so…

When you are disturbed do not sin…

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Psalm 4:4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. 5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.

If you’re new to reading this blog you may not know that I read several passages each morning and then write about the one that speaks most to me on that day. There is a psalm, an Old Testament reading, then a New Testament reading. Somedays, like today, two or more of the daily readings seem to go together.

The verse above is obviously from the psalm for today. The Hebrew word translated here as “disturbed” refers to a heightened sense of anger or fear. Frankly anger is often the byproduct of fear. When we are angry/fearful we tend not to make the best decisions. I know this is certainly true of me. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that I am more effective when I give myself a day or so to calm down rather than responding out of the heat of the moment. In the book of Ephesians the apostle Paul counsels:

26 Be angry but do not sin… and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

And then, as if to give a clear example of what NOT to do, there is our passage from Matthew:

13 Now after (baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) left Bethlehem for home, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod…16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Matthew 2:13-15)

V.16 uses the word “infuriated” to describe Herod’s state of mind when he ordered untold number of infants be put to death. Why? Because he was protecting his throne from ANYONE – even a baby. It’s hard to imagine how awful it must have been to watch infant after infant dashed against the rocks or run through with the sword as their mothers watched. Nothing short of evil!

I trust neither you or I would ever command such a thing, even if we had the power to do so. That said, it’s easy to do violence to other people out of fear or anger. The most common form of violence I see isn’t physical but verbal. When we’re angry it’s easy to say things that are incredibly hurtful, particularly to those closest to us. We know just what to say to inflict the greatest pain. Or maybe instead of talking directly to our loved one we talk about them to others – which is just as bad.

Psalm 4:5 “… put your trust in the Lord”

This is a hard one for me. True, it’s a good idea to talk directly with someone with whom we have a problem or conflict. The key is not to do so when we’re angry. What I’m learning to do is to take some time to pray first, to ask the Lord to calm my spirit, to put my trust in the Lord to bring about a solution. Lord let it be so. Amen.

The first-fruits of my time…

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Genesis 4:1 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

At first it was not obvious to me why God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, but upon closer inspection the reason emerges. V.3-4 tells us that Cain brought an “offering” but Abel brought “of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions”. In other words, Abel gave the very best he had, but Cain did not. That obviously mattered to God. This has me asking myself if I give to God my very best – of my time, of my personal gifts/talents, of my material resources. I think sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes no.

What keeps me from giving to God my best at times is my fear that by giving my best, or my first, I won’t have what I need. Initially this involved my financial resources. Particularly once Jana and I determined to give the full tithe (10% of our income) I had anxiety that our family would be left in a hole. It was a scary thing. I think many people have this anxiety when stretching to meet a giving goal. However our experience was that the Lord always found a way to provide what we needed. In fact, I would say our financial lives got better, not worse, when we grew in giving. It’s not logical, but that’s how the Kingdom of God works. Truly. If you doubt, you should try it.

The area that challenges me these days has more to do with time than money. Giving to God the first-fruits of my time is something that is always being challenged. Seems like I’m continually putting out fires of various kinds. It’s the tyranny of the urgent. Even this morning I’ve struggling to finish writing this. I let it get too late and the demands on me are in my face. That said, this is a key focus for me in 2020 – giving to God the first-fruits of my time each day and a Sabbath day each week.

Lord you know this is so hard for me. I stumble on this all the time. Give me grace to honor this commitment to you and to myself. I cannot do it on my own. Thank you in advance for your faithfulness in this and all things. Amen.

He will save the people from their sins…

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Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

If you’re like me you’ve heard this story many times. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit before Mary and Joseph were married. V.20 tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him what was going on – that the child was of divine origin. What stands out for me on this particular morning is in v.21 “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Why was Jesus sent by God? To save his people from their sins. 

Seems simple enough. As the old Lutheran liturgy used to say, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Man, isn’t that the truth? So often my problem isn’t that I don’t know what is expected of me. It’s not a lack of knowledge that gets in my way. What makes me stumble is the part of me that knows what to do and does the opposite anyway. It’s the rebellion baked into human DNA beginning with Adam and Eve. If there’s anyone who needs saving from his sins it’s me. And you. Simple.

What strikes me this morning is my observation that Christians in America continue to wrestle with identifying what exactly is sinful and what is not. This is not simple at all. We wrestle with questions related to sexuality and gender, economic justice, caring for the environment, abortion, appropriate treatment of immigrants, and more. We’re regularly confronted with questions not specifically addressed in scripture so we are left to interpret the times as best we can. Too often we Christians disagree among ourselves and split from one another. It’s not a great witness to an unbelieving world.

Why was Jesus sent by God? To save his people from their sins. 

What gives me hope this morning is that forgiveness of sin is not conditional upon our correct understand of what is sinful and what is not. We’re never going to gain unanimous agreement on these questions this side of Jesus’ return. Not gonna happen. What we CAN agree on is that each human being is born with a predisposition to rebel against the will and ways of God – whatever form that may take. It’s this innate state of rebellion that is the root of all the incidences of rebellion we can “sins”. In Jesus Christ we are made new, saved from the eternal death which is the consequence of sin, empowered to live eternal life – right now. 

So as I close this blog post I’m lifting up before the Lord my sin, my brokenness, my failings before God and man – which are many. Lord Jesus see before you a sinner in need of redemption. By grace forgive my sins and make me into the man you’ve always wanted me to be. I cannot do it, but you have the power to do what I cannot. Thank you for your faithfulness in this and all things. Amen.