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The Sermon, part 20: Two Choices

Read Matthew 6:19-24

“Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (Romans 2:4 NLT)

twochoicesIn Rabbinic Judaism, which developed following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, three tenants or pillars developed in the Jewish faith. It’s not that these “pillars” didn’t inherently exist within Judaism; rather, it is that it wasn’t until post-70 CE that they were so coined. The pillars represented the way one was to remain true to Judaism without the existence of the Temple, which was the center of the Jewish faith. Thus, the pillars replaced the Temple as the center of the Jewish faith and provided a way for people to live up to the Jewish covenant with God in the absence of a Temple.

The three pillars are Torah (including the study of the Torah), avodah shebalev (worship of the heart, aka prayer), and gimilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness). In other words, in order to remain a faithful Jew following the destruction of the Temple, one had to study the Torah and live faithfully by it, one had to worship God in their heart through regular and persistent prayer, and one had to perform acts of loving kindness in the world around them. By doing this, one was living in a way that was a holy and living sacrifice to God. Since there was no Temple to sacrifice in, this was the way the Rabbis taught to express faithful devotion to God. In fact, one could argue that if people lived perfectly by the three pillars, there would be little need to offer sacrifices in atonement of sin. Clearly, the three pillars are a noble and holy way to aspire to.

Matthew 6:19-7:12 parallels the third pillar of Judaism: acts of loving kindness. Today’s passage, Matthew 6:19-24, kicks off the section with another antithetical form. In essence, Jesus states that people either store up treasure on earth, or they store up treasure in heaven. People either hold onto material goods that will eventually be lost, or they will attain everlasting goods. People will either have a clear eye and live life in the light, or they will have a bad eye and live an utterly hopeless and confused life in the darkness. People will either serve “things” or they will serve God.

These antitheses serve to remind us that we are always facing two choices: the choice to do what is right and the choice to do what is wrong, the choice to follow God, or the choice to follow ourselves. Our God is a God of action and, thus, it makes sense that Jesus would lay out these antitheses centered on what we do versus what we do not do. It is important that we not only “believe” in Christ, but that we FOLLOW Christ and that we live our “beliefs” out in tangible ways.

Jesus doesn’t take time to explain what “heavenly treasure” is, nor does he go into detail on how to attain it. That is beyond Jesus’ point and he leaves it open for his disciples to respond in creative ways unique to their own situations. In other words, Jesus leaves room for interpretation. Where the wiggle room stops here: one either is actively working for God, being set apart for God, or one is not. Christ makes that very, very clear.

In our world we often look at the eyes as the window that lets light into brain, which then interprets that light, and shadows, into the objects we see. The ancients, Jesus included, had a different understanding of the eye. For the ancient world, the eye was a lamp that shined light on what we were seeing, thus illuminating objects so that they can be seen. Despite the two different understandings of the mechanics of the human eye, Jesus’ point is made clear by the fact that he makes it in the context of money and material gain. If the eye is seeking material gain, the person it belongs to will be misled and lost in a state of confusion and darkness. Their entire way of seeing the world will be perverted by their “eye’s” focus, which is really the focus of their heart.

This of course, is followed up with Jesus famous “mammon” verse, where Jesus states that one cannot serve two masters, that one cannot serve God and “mammon” or money. The fact is this, Jesus is reminding all of us that we have to make a choice, do we follow God or do we follow ourselves? Do we recognize Christ as our Lord, or do are we lords over our own lives? The choice is simple. If we choose Christ, then the Gospels (and all of Scripture in the light of the Gospels) points us to what our lives ought to become. If our lives are not matching up with the Gospel, that means we are not fully committal in serving Christ alone. Each of us falls into this reality, but Christ has gracefully given us the measure, along with the Holy Spirit, to begin to change.

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (Edith Wharton)

Lord, you are the light. Open my eyes that I may see it, embrace it, and reflect it. Amen.

Kingdom Building

Read Luke 16:1-13

“Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matthew 6:21)

throwing-away-moneyWe are a people who thrive on success, particularly financial success. After all, it is money that makes our world go ’round, right? We are taught, from young ages, what it means to make money and to save up. We are taught the importance of investing our money and, hopefully, growing our stock portfolio. Capitalism thrives on successfully making and investing money. Wall Street is an entire capitalistic empire based on making and investing money, and people have shown that they will go to all ends in order to see that success through.

While this is normal for our government and businesses, which exsit to make money and to secure the financial interests of our nation; however, what is sad is that this has become the mentality of our churches as well. Often times, it is all about the bottom dollar. In my conversations over the years, I have heard people share that so-and-so is really working to bring “the church” down, or that so-and-so’s really doing something that should not be and, yet, the church is too afraid to hold so-and-so accountable because he or she is one of the larger tithers in the church and they might get offended and take their money elsewhere. No joke, this type of stuff happens in the church.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen in churches…it happens in every part of society. Money talks. Yet, the church is not supposed to be like the rest of society. It is set apart. It is to be holy…to represent God and the Economy of God’s Kingdom…not the economy of the almighty dollar. Yet, t o many in the church my words are nothing more than impractical and idealistic. What’s more, many in the church would find my words here to be a threat, because if one chases out the biggest givers, then one is ultimately chasing out any chance of the church being able to stay open.

I certainly understand the fear and the sentiment. My question is this, are we called to worry about the consequences of our decision to follow God. Yes, there are consequences to following God. People might get offended by being held accountable, church buildings might be forced to close if there aren’t enough funds coming in to support the operating expenses, etc. Those things could come to pass. With that said, there are consequences to not following God and there is something that will SURELY pass if we choose to go down that road: WE WILL CEASE TO BE THE TRUE REPRESENTATIVES OF GOD’S KINGDOM.

In God’s Kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. In God’s Kingdom those can see will be shown to be blind, while the blind will be the ones who see. In God’s Kingdom, the rich will inherit spiritual poverty and emptiness, while the poor will inherit the riches (e.g. fulfillment, joy, peace, love, hope, patience, gentleness, generosity, and self-control) of the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God the masters will serve the servants and the servants will lead in their humility. Everything is flipped on its head in God’s Kingdom.

When God’s Kingdom arrives, there will no longer be a world where the few and the elite get everything while everyone else gets nothing. There will no longer be a world where the rich and the powerful get catered to at the expense of everyone else. Christ came to bring an end to such injustice, to such segregation, to such oppression. This is not to say that God scoffs at success or spurns the successful. Not at all; rather, God invites them to see their success as a gift to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth! But God also calls us to not cater to those with money over and above those who don’t. There is no room in Christ for that kind of garbage. If people get offended by that, then they are offended by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and there is nothing that we, the church, can do about that. All we can do is pray and keep on doing the work of Kingdom building that that God has called us to do.

“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 9:25)

Lord, help me to avoid being lured away from your Kingdom by the “riches” of this world. Help me to use what I have in a way that serves others. Amen.

SON OF GOD: Maundy Thursday

Read John 13:21-30

For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays Him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!” (Mark 14:21 NLT)

JudasHave you ever read the story of Jesus’ betrayal in the Gospels? Have you ever noticed the sentiment conveyed about Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus? Have you ever noticed that as you read through the Gospels chronologically in the order they were written (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John), that there is a progression from cold to seething despise in the representation of Judas and his final act of betrayal? In Mark and Matthew, Judas’ actions are more or less presented in a very “matter of fact” way. Judas decides to betray Jesus, for which no reason is given, and he gets paid for the betrayal. In Luke, the author writes that “Satan entered Judas Iscariot” which led him to go to the high priests. In John, Jesus calls Judas “a devil” (John 6:70) and Judas was possessed by Satan, who entered him following eating the bread at the Last Supper (John 13:26).

Since the moment he decided to betray Jesus, Judas has certainly gone down in infamy. He has been forever remembered as the man who betrayed the prince of peace. What sort of man would do such a thing? How could he have possibly even thought that betraying Jesus is a good thing? These questions, and more, to this day remain unanswered. We’ll never know why Judas did what he did. It is easy to understand why a growing number of Christians, from the Gospel writers onward, came to despise him for betraying our Lord. Yet, the ironic part is while we hold Judas accountable (perhaps more than accountable) for his actions, we give the other disciples a complete pass. After all, while Judas actively betrayed Jesus, didn’t the others betray him too? Which one of them stood by Jesus’ side in his time of need? They all deserted, they all fled, they all abandoned him…and in some sense…they all betrayed him.

Yet all of the Gospel accounts are consistent on one thing, if not on their view of Judas himself. They are all consistent on the fact that Judas was welcome at the table of grace, on the fact that Judas was welcome to share in the last supper, but a Jesus who was well aware of his deceit. While we’ll never know what was in Jesus’ mind at the time, it is consistent with his teaching on not judging, and loving even one’s enemies. In fact, Judas wasn’t an enemy at all, he was a friend and he was a trusted confidant of Jesus’. Yet, instead of reacting negatively toward Judas, Jesus pitied him and made room for him at the Last Supper. I would like to believe that Jesus wished that Judas would be able to forgive himself and eventually rejoin the disciples in spreading the Gospel message; however, I also believe that Jesus knew that Judas would never be able to.

The question for us, out of all of this, is how far are you willing to take the Jesus’ command to love? By his very example, Jesus showed us that he wasn’t being hypothetical or theoretical in his calling for us to love our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies. How far are you willing to go in your love of others? Will you love others, including your enemies, even if it comes at a great personal cost? Today’s challenge, as we approach the Lord’s table of grace at the Last Supper, is to reflect on your call LOVE OTHERS, just as Christ has loved you. Will you follow Jesus in living a life of LOVE, or will you abandon him and his cause for your own comfort and safety? The choice is, ultimately, up to you.

“If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 5:46-48 NLT)

Lord, help me to open myself up to your love and help me grow to be a person who more fully loves others, even those who I would otherwise consider to be my enemies. Amen.