The Christian way
Matthew 18: If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him – work it out between the two of you.
We Christians claim to be followers of Jesus but we tend to overlook some of the inconvenient things he teaches. Jesus says that if there’s something going on between me and you that my first order of business is to go to you and explain to you how I’ve been hurt. If that doesn’t work out there are further steps I’m to take in seeking reconciliation with you. The thing is we Christians seldom follow these clear instructions. We go around with a chip on our shoulder, talk about people (otherwise known as gossip), start lining up our allies and identifying our enemies and, in general, toss aside this teaching of our Lord and Master. When that’s done, a rift in the church is formed that draws people into the fight and drives people out of the church. Energies that should be spent in winning the lost are wasted in attempts to win the fight. Still, for those of us who can’t imagine dealing with a broken relationship like Jesus says, I’m going to offer an alternative approach. Just forget it. Stop being hurt, stop “remembering,” stop talking, and forgive from the depths of your heart. Apologize to Jesus for being so shallow as to be hurt about whatever it is and ask him to forgive you as you’re forgiving them. This alternative is almost implied by the rest of this passage in which Jesus talks about the unforgiving servant. So, when I’m hurt and upset about something, as a follower of Jesus, I have a couple of options. I can go to you and begin the reconciliation process Jesus described or I can stop being so sensitive and let it go, forgiving as I’ve been forgiven. Responding to hurts in these ways is how Christians do things.
Take Away: A Christian with a chip on his or her shoulder isn’t behaving like a Christian at all.
The way to forgiveness
Matthew 12: If Satan banishes Satan is there any Satan left?
It’s really about the Sabbath. The religious leaders have taken “Remember the Sabbath day” and turned it into a heavy burden laid on the backs of the people. Even picking a piece of fruit to eat is considered to be a transgression. Jesus responds with examples from their own law and history proving that they’re wrong. He goes on healing people, even on the Sabbath. When a demon-afflicted woman is set free the critics of Jesus sputter that he must be in cahoots with the devil. Our Lord responds that if they say that about him what do they say about their own exorcists? Beyond that, it’s a silly contention anyway. If Satan casts out Satan there wouldn’t be anything of Satan left. He then deals with the opposite side of the same coin. If the Holy Spirit is the One who forgives sins and we cast the Holy Spirit out of lives, how can we ever expect to be forgiven our sins? Its serious business isn’t it. We’re sinners in need of forgiveness. There’s one who forgives. Throw him out and we’re left without hope. Stated differently, there’s one road to forgiveness, if I refuse to travel that road, there’s no way I can ever arrive at forgiveness. The way to God is abundant and grace-filled, offering hope to the worst sinner. Still, it’s the only way. I can take it or leave it, but if I leave it, I’m left with nothing.
Take Away: We have, in Christ, hope abundant, but aside from Christ we have no hope at all.
The Perfect Sermon
Matthew 5: Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
In one glorious Sermon Jesus sums up the life to which God calls us. In every word we hear pure gold. It’s in retrospect that I realize that this beautiful, perfectly constructed Sermon challenges me at every level of my life. This chapter of the Sermon touches on everything from how to be blessed, to heavy topics like murder, adultery and divorce. Jesus deals with the promises we make and our relationships with our enemies. Obviously, the religion he teaches isn’t merely about “me and God.” Just about every word in this perfect Sermon is about “me and you.” It concerns my relationship with people I like (and maybe like too much according to the section on adultery) and people I don’t like (I’m to settle things with my old enemy quickly before things get even worse). He sums up this first part of the Sermon by teaching me to live “generously and graciously.” Rather than protecting my turf I’m to think the best of people and be generous in my dealings with them. This pretty Sermon has teeth. It’s supposed to work out here in the real world. And, just so I clearly understand the measure of this gracious, generous life style, Jesus tells me that I’m to treat others in the same gracious, generous way God treats me. I need to spend a whole lot of time here at the Sermon on the Mount.
Take Away: The Christian life is as much about “me and you” as it’s about “God and me.”
My attitude toward things that matter to the Lord
Haggai 1: I’ve matched your tight-fisted stinginess.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Generally, I put about 95% of the emphasis on the first part of that statement. I certainly know I need the Lord’s forgiveness for the many “debts” of my life. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to realize that the Lord uses the level of my forgiving attitude toward those indebted to me as his measure of his forgiveness in my life. In the passage before me today the Lord uses Haggai to deliver a message concerning current events in the lives of the people of his day. They’ve been stingy in their support for rebuilding the Temple. Now, the Lord says he’s treating them with that same level of stinginess. They’re holding back in supporting the rebuilding of the Temple and the Lord’s holding back in his provision of rain for their crops. I’m glad today for the abundant generosity of God. His provision in my life greatly exceeds all that I do for him. Still, there’s a time to be reminded that some of the Lord’s blessings to me are linked to my attitude toward the things that matter to the Lord. Jesus teaches me to pray, “Lord, forgive me to the same extent that I forgive others.” Today, Haggai adds that I should be able to pray, “Lord, care for the needs of my life in the same way I care for the place in which I worship you.” If that makes me squirm a bit, well, maybe it’s supposed to!
Take Away: Remember that some of the Lord’s blessings to us are linked to our attitude towards the things that matter to him.
Yes, that’s good enough for me!
Micah 7: You’ll sink our sins to the bottom of the ocean.
“Gone, gone, gone, gone, yes my sins are gone…buried in the deepest sea, yes, that’s good enough for me.” You have to have been around the church awhile to recognize the words to the children’s chorus I sang back in the “good old days.” At the time, if I thought about such things at all, I got the message of the song: when God forgives my sins, they are “gone, gone, gone.” However, the mercy being described here isn’t childlike at all. Micah talks to adults who are committing adult-level sins. The result of those sins will be not a slap on the wrist, but national destruction with pain and death everywhere. It doesn’t have to be that way. Micah tells his people that mercy is a specialty of God and that the Lord much prefers granting mercy and forgetting sins to destroying those who live in rebellion against him. Micah assures his listeners that the Lord anxiously waits to forgive and forget; to show mercy and compassion on them. I sang the chorus as a child but as an adult I realize what an amazing offer it is. There’s hope for a new start with God in this passage: “praise God, my sins are gone!”
Take Away: Mercy is a specialty of the Lord.
Praying in catastrophes
Joel 2: And here’s why: God is kind of merciful.
The prophet sees the natural catastrophe of the locust infestation as a judgment of God. It may be that the Almighty manufactured these bugs specifically to cause the people to stop their march to wickedness. God is God and he has ability to do stuff like that. On the other hand, it may be that the locusts are just a natural phenomenon that God is using to get their attention. Either way this is all under his authority. Joel tells his people that in the face of all that’s happening it’s time for a national turn around. He calls for more than a surface makeover but a real change in which they return to God with their whole hearts. If they do that, Joel promises, they’ll find God to be kind and merciful and they might just see the Lord intervene to cancel the catastrophe that has them reeling. One response to personal disaster should be a reexamination of our lives. If things aren’t as they should be this is a good time to ask the Lord to forgive us and ask him to help us get our act together.
Take Away: One response to personal disaster should be a reexamination of our lives.
A love that never gives up
Hosea 2: Then I’ll marry you for good – forever!
The book of Hosea is a book of extremes. There’s nothing mundane or middle of the road here as everything is at one end or the other end of the spectrum. Here we see powerful love and painful betrayal. We see the beauty of tender, marital sex and we also see the brutal, cheapening side of sex in the market place. In one place we see the anger of God as he declares the coming destruction as a result of their sin but we also see God’s mercy as he promises restoration. There’s nothing in Hosea that lends itself to a relaxing late night read before sleep. This book is an emotional rollercoaster. God’s people have betrayed him and, because of that betrayal he’s rejected them, kicking them out. Israel has committed spiritual adultery against God and God has issued a decree of divorce against them. Then as we’re emotionally ready to close the book on this relationship the tone of the Lord changes. He’s kicked them out and declared his anger with them and judgment on them. Just as I get my mind around that the landscape suddenly changes. The Lord declares his intentions to clean them up, to romance them again and ultimately to reinstate his marriage to them. The sweep of all this is stunning and I realize I’m reading about a love that never gives up. God is truly the God of Second Chances.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Good news for people who need a Second Chance
Ezekiel 33: None of his sins will be kept on the books.
Since Ezekiel’s mission throughout most of his ministry is to warn people of pending destruction, and since he is about as rough and tumble a guy as you’ll ever meet, his messages are generally not especially uplifting. He’s like a doctor with a poor bedside manner: he isn’t especially interested in dressing things up but for the good of his patient he tells it like it is. Still, as I journey through the book of Ezekiel, I find plenty of sunshine along with his gruffness. At one point he tells people that they can’t rely on past goodness to cover current sin. If even the most pious person turns from God’s ways to sin he or she will be judged not for their past, but their current life. However, there’s good news in flip side of that situation. If a person who’s living a sinful life hears Ezekiel’s hard message and decides to pay attention and straighten up there’s a real possibility of life. God will gladly give that individual a second chance. Now that’s a message for any day. The Lord loves it when sinners turn to him. He doesn’t hold our past against us and is more than willing to forgive sins and transform lives. That’s good news for every one of us who has made bad choices and wishes life had a rewind button. We can’t go back but by God’s grace we can go forward. If a person turns to God, Ezekiel tells us, “He’ll live.”
Take Away: We can’t go back but by the grace of the Lord we can go forward.
Accepting fault, doing something about it
Ezekiel 18: The soul that sins is the soul that dies.
A common saying in Ezekiel’s day is that “the parents ate green apples and the children got a stomachache.” That saying describes the current plight of the people of Judah. Their nation has been defeated and many have been exiled far from home. They blame it all on their parents and consider themselves to be victims of the failure of others. Ezekiel says that isn’t so. While it’s true that their ancestors failed God, the current generation has plenty of failure of its own. Ezekiel wants them to understand that when a wicked person turns from his or her wicked ways that God is gracious and rich in forgiveness. God, he tells them, doesn’t hold a grudge. On the other hand, if a righteous person abandons that righteousness he or she stands guilty before God. Past righteousness doesn’t make a person immune from current failure and judgment. The bottom line is that the Lord will “judge each of you according to the way you live.” The spiritual principle here is that it’s our current relationship with God that really matters. Ezekiel’s advice is still good today. He says since it’s “right now” that counts, those who are living apart from God and blaming their parents (or someone else) for it need to “turn around…make a clean break” and “live!”
Take Away: It’s our current relationship with the Lord that really matters.
Death sentence reprieve
Jeremiah 31: I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget that they ever sinned.
A few years ago I developed an itching rash on the lower right side of my back. I had some other stuff going on so when I went to the doctor I asked him about it. He took one look at it and said, “You’ve got shingles.” I thought, “Shingles? Old people get that!” Honestly, at the time, I didn’t worry too much about it. I could handle the itching. However, I had no idea of the journey I was about to take. The itching gave way to sleepless nights of burning pain. For days I was homebound, unable to get dressed. Now, at the beginning, I knew something was wrong but I thought it was going to be a minor inconvenience. Only in the mid-term of the illness did I grasp just how bad things were. I’ve seriously wondered if Job was given a full body version of shingles. When the Lord tells me I’m a sinner my reaction is something like what I had at the doctor’s office. It’s too bad; I’ll have to try harder to clean up my act. What I don’t realize is that I’ve just been given a death sentence. This isn’t just bad news; it’s the worst news possible. It’s only in this light that statements like the one I’m reading from Jeremiah carry the force they’re supposed to. Otherwise, we have God just helping us along in doing what we can pretty much handle for ourselves. When I realize that being a sinner is to be broken beyond repair; to be, for all intents and purposes dead already; and when I realize that God, in his mercy is willing to “wipe the slate clean” and to “forget” it all…well, it’s then that I begin to grasp the meaning of grace.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his grace – without it, there’s no hope whatsoever.