Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blessed Mourning (Sermon on the Mount #4)

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." - Matthew 5:4

Jesus does not want us to live our lives in an artificial, "Pollyanna" existence.

Biblical hope is certain, and faith lifts our eyes to look at that future hope with full assurance that what we see now is not the end of the story. Christians have many reasons for joy, and we are right to recognize and celebrate them. However, it seems that in western Christianity, the emphasis on the promises of God sometimes leads us to believe that mourning is a lesser expression of faith - that God puts up with it, but tries to move us beyond it as soon as possible.

This beatitude reminds us that there is a time to mourn - and according to Jesus, there is a mourning that is not only acceptable, but "blessed". A mourning that ushers us into the fullness of satisfaction found in God alone.

“Mourn” in this passage literally means “sorrow-bearing”. It’s a word signifying the outward manifestation of grief; a grief too deep to be concealed. The tense used indicates an ongoing action – mourning as a way of life.

Jesus is not encouraging us to be depressed or morose. A quick look at a concordance reveals more than 200 uses of the word “joy”; in fact, we are specifically commanded to “Rejoice” over 100 times. What, then, is the mourning which is blessed because of the comfort that is assured? The wider canon of Scripture unveils at least two specific types of mourning that God honors.

Mourning over sin. Whether our own sin, sin in the church, or sin at a societal level, Scripture consistently records that grieving over sin is always appropriate. Paul actually chastised the church at Corinth for NOT appropriately mourning over sin in its midst. The opposite of mourning over a sin doesn’t always mean openly engaging in that sin. Scripture records a range of non-mournful reactions, including passive acceptance (1 Corinthians 5), active promotion (Matthew 5:19), and inappropriate humor (Proverbs 14:9). Isaiah and Daniel, two of the prophets Jesus refers to frequently, each faced times when an awareness of sin led to mourning and deep identificational repentance (Isaiah 6; Daniel 9). The only appropriate response to sin is mourning and repentance.

What is the blessing that comes with mourning over sin? Jesus promises that those who mourn “will be comforted.” The word for comfort is parakaleo; it’s the same word used for the Holy Spirit. When we mourn over sin, God comforts us with His Holy Spirit. This comfort isn’t to make us feel better about the sin; instead, in His comfort we are reminded of the hope that we have even in the depth of sin. He never leaves us or forsakes us; He promises to forgive and cleanse us; and His transforming power means that we can move beyond our own sin and be made more into His likeness. On a societal level, the Holy Spirit’s comfort reminds us of the message of redemption that we have been given – a message that transforms individuals, families, and nations.

Mourning over circumstances. Jesus cared deeply about people’s temporal needs as well. On several occasions, Scripture records that He was “moved with compassion” because of people’s hunger, loss, or sickness. In Luke 4, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 a description of His purpose. The Isaiah passage reveals much about God’s heart for both eternal and temporal needs.

(Isaiah 61:1-4 NIV) - The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
What is the comfort that comes from the Holy Spirit for those whose mourning is temporal? Certainly God wants to give them an eternal hope, but the example of Jesus as He walked this earth shows us that He also wants to make a difference in their circumstances. How does He do that today? Simply put: through us.

In Psalm 132, the people recall God’s purposes for Zion: For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling: "This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it-- I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor will I satisfy with food.” (Psalm 132:13-15 NIV). Throughout the New Testament, God makes it clear that in His new temple, the church, all that He intended for Zion would be fulfilled – including meeting the needs of the poor through His people (2 Corinthians 8-9). As Christians, we should mourn over heartbreaking circumstances like human trafficking, hunger, deep poverty that leads to unnecessary deaths, hopeless diseases, the effects of war on the innocent … and we should pray for God to show us how we are to be part of His Holy Spirit’s comforting ministry to those in need.

“Now abide faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Faith and hope rightly look beyond the present circumstance. But love reaches into the present circumstance and embraces the hurting. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willing bears it.” May we willingly reach into our hurting world, make their pain our business, and allow our hearts to be broken with the things that break God’s heart.

I see the King of glory
Coming on the clouds with fire
The whole earth shakes, the whole earth shakes
I see His love and mercy
Washing over all our sin
The people sing, the people sing

Hosanna, hosanna
Hosanna in the highest (x2)
[ Lyrics from: ]
[Verse 2]
I see a generation
Rising up to take the place
With selfless faith, with selfless faith
I see a near revival
Stirring as we pray and seek
We're on our knees, we're on our knees


Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like You have loved me
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your Kingdom's cause
As I walk from earth into eternity

More lyrics:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Learning the Art of Losing Myself in Bringing Him Praise

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29 NLT)
Sanctification is the hardest part of this thing we call “the Christian life”. To be very clear - God doesn’t make it hard. It’s hard because I make it that way!
When I was oblivious to my sin, when I lived and walked in darkness, only God’s divine intervention could pull me out and give me the desire to seek Him. He dealt with my salvation on the cross when I was still His enemy, and I worship Him forever for justifying me, declaring me righteous in Christ at the moment I believed.
But He didn’t stop there–the Scripture above makes very clear that He has determined that I will be transformed into the image of Christ. And He has determined that this transformation, this sanctification, will be a process, one that will take the rest of my life until I see Him face to face.
And that’s where it gets hard. Because He asks me to cooperate with Him in the process of making me more like Jesus, sometimes really hard decisions are involved. Daily choices abound: to live for myself or for Him; to be selfish or lay down my life for another person; to give up my right to be in control and surrender to Him; to take Him at His word and trust Him or walk in doubt and fear; to obey Him or do what is right in my own eyes.
These daily choices amount to constantly choosing to die to self – to lose myself in His bigger plan. I’m convinced that one of the reasons sanctification is a process rather than instantaneous, and that God asks for our cooperation rather than just making it happen, is that an inside-out change demonstrates Jesus to the world in ways that an outside-in change never could. God has given the church the mission of reflecting Jesus to the world – and the personal process of sanctification in the lives of each believer makes that possible in a way that completely puts the emphasis on God’s gracious work in our lives.
If God were to make me perfectly obedient, but I had no choice of cooperation in the matter, the “witness” would become my outward obedience. However, if God changes me from the INSIDE OUT – increasingly unveiling the new heart He gave me at salvation, a heart that miraculously wants to cooperate with Him in making me like Jesus – then the “witness” becomes His miraculous ability to change hearts. And in this increasingly cynical world, who doesn’t need to know that God can change hearts?
Sometimes when God is teaching me a “big-picture” lesson like this, He uses a song to draw together biblical truths and bring clarity to my thinking. The first time I heard Hillsong’s “From the Inside Out” (video and lyrics below) I was captivated by the line, “the art of losing myself in bringing You praise.” Often since that time I’ve asked God to teach me that art. Over the years I’ve come to understand that “losing myself” isn’t self-loathing or debasement or striking a martyr’s pose as I explain that surely God must be glorified today because I’m so miserable. No, “losing myself” is simply another way of saying what Paul said to Corinth: “I die daily.” It’s choosing to cooperate with God in the process of sanctification, so He can make me like Jesus and the world can see the transformation not from the outside in, but wonder of wonders, from the inside out. He’s given this sinner a new heart that wants to follow Him, transforming me continually along the way.
I don’t always cooperate fully. I fail in thousands of ways. But part of the miracle of salvation is that grace is not just for salvation, but for sanctification. Because when I stumble, I’m caught in His grace. It’s the ground on which I stand. May I increasingly surrender quickly, to become a better reflection of Jesus to those who don’t know Him. And may we pray for each other when that process gets a bit challenging!

A thousand times I've failed
Still your mercy remains
And should I stumble again
Still I'm caught in your grace

Everlasting, Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending, Your glory goes beyond all fame

My heart and my soul, I give You control
Consume me from the inside out Lord
Let justice and praise, become my embrace
To love You from the inside out

Your will above all else, my purpose remains
The art of losing myself in bringing you praise

Everlasting, Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending, Your glory goes beyond all fame

My heart, my soul, Lord I give you control
Consume me from the inside out Lord
Let justice and praise become my embrace
To love You from the inside out

Everlasting, Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending, Your glory goes beyond all fame
And the cry of my heart is to bring You praise
From the inside out, O my soul cries out

My Soul cries out to You
My Soul cries out to You
to You, to You

My heart, my soul, Lord I give you control
Consume me from the inside out Lord
Let justice and praise become my embrace
To love You from the inside out

Everlasting, Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending, Your glory goes beyond all fame
And the cry of my heart is to bring You praise
From the inside out, O my soul cries out

Everlasting, Your light will shine when all else fades
Never ending, Your glory goes beyond all fame
And the cry of my heart is to bring You praise
From the inside out, O my soul cries out
From the inside out, O my soul cries out
From the inside out, O my soul cries out

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Blessed are the poor in spirit (Sermon on the Mount #2)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Sometimes in Bible study it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees– to focus so much on a word study or a specific hard-to-grasp phrase that we miss the overall impact of the text. This passage is a perfect example.

Jesus speaks in present tense to teach that the blessedness of the kingdom alreadyexists for those who are poor in spirit. It’s a present reality. Let that sink in for a minute. Those who are poor in spirit – whomever they are – are already blessed, because they already have the kingdom.

We previously saw that blessedness is a state of sufficiency, of satisfaction. Essentially it is a “more than enough”state that recognizes God and what He gives as thoroughly sufficient in every situation. Aristotle used the word as an antonym to “needy”; it’s a state of fullness – fullness from God. When He fills us we are no longer needy, but satisfied – “blessed”.

Glance ahead in the passage and you’ll see that not all the Beatitudes are present tense. Most, in fact, use that wonderful word “shall” – a promise of something to come in the future. The blessedness is present, but the reason for it hinges on a future event – what John Piper calls “Future Grace.”

Not so for those who are poor in spirit (v. 3) or persecuted (v. 10). To these individuals belongs the kingdom of heaven. Not “shall be”, but “is” – they already have the kingdom. With such a rich assurance at the heart of Jesus’ message, let’s look more deeply at what it means to be “poor in spirit.”

The word “poor” is not a Greek word referencing relative poverty; instead, the original word refers to utter destitution. It’s a word used to reference crouching like a beggar and can mean abject poverty, utter helplessness, and complete destitution. Picture blind beggars in a third world country and you begin to understand the level of poverty intended by this word.

“Poor in spirit” thus means literally, “spiritually destitute.” However, to get a full grasp of the meaning of the phrase we have to lay the parallel passages of Jesus’ sermon side by side. Matthew and Luke both record a lengthy teaching by Jesus at this point in His ministry, and they share so many of the same verses that the two passages almost certainly record the same message (commonly called the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain, referencing a flat place on the mountain where Jesus is thought to have stopped to teach His disciples).

Matthew, written to a Jewish audience, emphasizes spiritual poverty in contrast to the “spiritual elite” that Jesus consistently confronts throughout the Gospels but especially in Matthew’s record. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, references those who are not the spiritually elite Pharisees and scribes, but whose hearts represent spiritual helplessness. This type of spiritual poverty is pictured in a beautiful story recorded in Luke:

(Luke 18:9-14 ESV) - He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
The spiritually elite Pharisee emphasizes his worth; the spiritually destitute tax collector emphasizes his need for mercy. To see ourselves as spiritually needy is to be poor in spirit.

But Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount adds an additional dimension to the overall definition of poor in spirit. Luke’s record of the Beatitudes includes not only blessings but contrasting woes. Writing to a Gentile audience in the highly materialistic Roman Empire, Luke records Jesus’ words:
(Luke 6:20, 24 ESV) - And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God....But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
In contrast to the materially elite who might think they are blessed, Jesus lifts up the poor. In the larger context of Scripture, of course we know that being poor alone does not ensure that a person belongs to the kingdom of God. Jesus does, however, indicate that while poverty does not ensure salvation, wealth can be a definite hindrance. Three of the four Gospels record that Jesus taught His disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25).

God’s heart for the poor is evident throughout the Bible. He clearly lines out His heart for them and our responsibility to them. We have an eternal responsibility to share the Gospel –absolutely. But we also clearly have a temporal responsibility as well, to meet their practical needs and relieve their suffering in whatever way we can now. (See some of the key references).

From a kingdom perspective, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” reveals to us that the kingdom of God isn’t dependent on the elites of the world. We can never forget Paul’s words to the Corinthians that remind us where our boasting should lie-never in any person, but in God alone:
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV) - For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
From a missiological perspective, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” gives us insight when we are looking to discover those individuals in whom the Lord is moving. Often, it’s not going to be the spiritually elite who are confident in their rule-keeping and status before God. Instead, those whose hearts are broken by their inability to obey; those who feel rejected by their own religious system because of a failing; those who are outcasts of their religious community and who wonder if God can accept them now – these are often the fertile, good soil onto which the seed of grace falls and takes root. Like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, these never stop showering love because they are aware how fully they are forgiven.

Finally, from a relational perspective, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” tells us how God wants us to come to Him. Whatever our personal or financial condition, our hearts must be fully cognizant of our need. We can’t be spiritual elitists. We need to have hearts like the Sons of Korah.

Korah was part of a rebellion by Levites who sought a position beyond what God had granted them (see Numbers 16). God brought judgment on the men and many of their family members, but spared the sons of Korah (Numbers 26:11). Their descendents would go on to pen some beautiful, God-exalting psalms (see Psalm 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88). One passage in particular reveals the heart of these men who learned through their family history to rejoice in the special place God planted them, rather than aim for a more “spiritually elite” position. As I sought the Lord on what “poor in spirit”can look like in the life of a believer, I believe God drew me to this passage.

(Psalm 84:1-12 ESV) - To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!

Review the bold verses in light of lesson of Korah. His descendants learned well that what they had in the courts of God, even just serving as a doorkeeper, was great. God wasn’t holding out on them. There was no need to grasp for a spiritually elite position. They were simply happy to serve, and saw God as one bestowing favor and honor.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” After we realize our spiritual poverty and come to know His grace, may we realize that we never stop needing Him – and may that realization overflow into worship as we rejoice that we have everything we need in His presence.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Surrendering for Greater Things

God loves to send me the same message from different angles when He's trying to get through to me. Passages will jump off the page of Scripture, I'll read it in a book, hear it in a sermon, and even have songs that echo the theme. That's one reason I don't look at His will as a needle in a haystack that I have to dig around to find. Just staying in a place to hear His voice will put me in place for Him to make His will obvious. Even when I don't know the specific details, I will always be able to discern a general direction.

These days, that general direction is surrender. As in let go, give up control, and trust Him for where He is taking me. As my friend Pam Rosewell Moore says, "Let God write my story." (BTW, if you haven't read her book, Safer Than a Known Way, get it now! Learn the lessons of someone who surrendered to God - and found herself working with Brother Andrew and Corrie Ten Boom.)

Of course, since I've always loved to peek ahead to the last page, it's a little challenging to surrender the right to know what's coming down the road. Recently God spoke to me in my quiet time that He never asked me to seek a plan - just to seek Him. "The plan" is unveiled in the context of His revealed will which never comes apart from relationship to Him.

Then right on the heels of that came a new insight in worship one Sunday morning. I hope you pray for your worship team - the choice of music is so significant and it's fun to see God bring it together in different ways, not man-centered or human-orchestrated but God-centered and Spirit-led. So a couple of weeks ago we sang "God of this City" (the extended version) and right behind it "I Surrender All".

Wow - I wasn't expecting what came next. God overpowered me with the word that "Those greater things still to be done here will only be done through surrendered people." Suddenly the call to surrender - daunting by itself - became purpose-driven. God doesn't want me to surrender for the sake of surrender itself. He wants me to surrender MY will for HIS. He wants me to lay down MY plans, goals, dreams, for HIS plans, goals, dreams. Because He has greater things to do than what we've seen - glimpses of the kingdom to bring into a broken world. He wants His will done on earth as it is in heaven - but we have to be surrendered for that to happen.

So in my city, in your city, in far-flung corners of the world that have never heard the name of Jesus, God is asking for surrendered people who will embrace His vision of greater things. When He asks you to surrender something that is hard to give up, remember the purpose behind it. God has called us into this amazing divine partnership. Yes, He is absolutely orchestrating every bit of it. But when we join Him in what He is doing, the lesser things we surrender along the way pale by comparison.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Blessedness of the Kingdom (Sermon on the Mount #1)

(Matthew 5:1-12 NIV) - Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: 
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 sons 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. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

An interesting truth about my spiritual learning style is that I learn best by contrast. While I dig out lessons from the lives of Biblical characters and martyrs and missionaries and everyday heroes, I find that the lessons that are most vivid to my spirit are those that come in contrast: “See that reaction? That’s NOT what I want you to be.” “See that choice? Don’t make it.” Those sorts of phrases drop into my heart, often when I’m in prayer about a situation that distressed me. I’ve come to learn that there are just some attitudes and actions God has to let me endure so that I learn “what NOT to wear”, spiritually speaking.

I think that’s one reason the Beatitudes speak to me so deeply. From start to finish, they are in stark contrast to our natural reaction to a given reality. The Beatitudes turn me on my head and shake me around, so that I find that what seems “upside down” is really “upside right”. In a word, they transform my mind.

I’ve been studying the Beatitudes the last few weeks as part of an overall study of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is essentially Jesus providing glimpses of the kingdom – glimpses of what life can be like if we truly embrace kingdom living now. Jesus didn’t save us so that we can withdraw from the world and wait for His return. Instead, He wants us to be part of the prayer He taught us to pray in this very sermon: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As followers of Jesus, we are called to be part of His kingdom in heaven coming down to earth – bringing “up there”, down here. Not in its fullness, and not in a worldly political way, but in a very real, tangible, practical way that expresses our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. To either spiritualize or legalize the Sermon misses the point. What Jesus wants us to do is live it.

To truly live these words we have to first understand that our thinking about being “blessed” is all messed up. Think about it – when you hear someone says “God has blessed me” what are they usually referring to? Not always of course, but in the West that phrase often references material prosperity, or circumstances that have gone the way the person wanted them to go. We have an erroneous idea that challenging circumstances are tests we have to pass in order to get to the blessing. Before we can effectively be part of bringing a glimpse of His kingdom to earth, we have to learn what blessedness really means.

The word makarios literally means “a sense of God’s approval”. It’s a contentment that comes from doing what is right in His sight and is rooted in right relationship with Him. A.T. Robertson defines it as "happiness identified with pure character" that pictures the "ideal of a world-wide sympathy and of a happiness realized in ministry." The word is used in the opposite sense of “need” to describe a state of sufficiency and fullness. A literal rendering of Psalm 23:1 reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” This is a perfect definition of a state of blessedness. When we are "blessed" we are fully satisfied. Jesus’ words teach me that this blessedness, this satisfaction, comes when I chose holiness over sin, His way over mine, His presence over popularity; when I live congruently with the new creature He’s made me, then I experience true blessedness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian who ardently opposed Hitler and the overwhelming majority of churches that gave into Hitler’s schemes. Over time, Bonhoeffer came to see the Sermon on the Mount as a call to a lifestyle of radical discipleship for all Christians. In his insightful book, The Cost of Discipleship, he expounds on the Sermon on the Mount in great detail. Bonhoeffer sees the first two verses as significant:
(Matthew 5:1-2, NIV) Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:

Bonhoeffer observes that while the crowds were present, it was His disciples to whom the message was directed. These disciples followed Jesus (like us!) but lived among the people (also like us!) to preach His call to discipleship. Bonhoeffer sees that the very call to follow Jesus led these men into a status of being poor, afflicted, and hungry – a place they might not have been if they had stayed in their businesses and minded their own business. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer sees the Beatitudes as encouragement for those whose call to discipleship has led them to a place of struggle:  

He calls them blessed, not because of their privation, or the renunciation they have made, for these are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which they are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes. (Bonhoeffer, Call to Discipleship, p. 96.)

Yes, Jesus calls the disciples blessed in the presence of the crowd. This becomes a call to all who follow Jesus to live out what He makes us by His promise. For His path to satisfaction and joy has never been a path to more of this temporary, fading existence. Instead His promised depth of satisfaction and joy is directly linked to us bringing a glimpse of His kingdom to this broken, needy world. Through the prophet Isaiah, God painted a picture of what can happen when we pay attention to this call:
(Isaiah 58:6-14 NIV, emphasis mine) - Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob." The mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Freedom for the oppressed. Meeting the tangible needs of people.  Trading in legalism and accusations for spending ourselves on behalf of others’ needs. Repairing things at a societal level. Enjoying the presence of the Lord. This is true satisfaction and joy. This is true blessedness.

Are you pouring yourself out today and experiencing unexpected challenges along the way? Check out those Beatitudes again. Hear Jesus speaking to you, calling you out from the crowd to remind you that He sees, He knows – and He calls you blessed because you have heeded the call to discipleship and trusted His great and precious promises.

May you learn along with Corrie ten Boom the most precious of realities: “You may never know that JESUS is all you need, until JESUS is all you have.” And may you be reminded that however the world defines your situation, when you are sacrificing for Him, you are blessed. And it is beautiful.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Engaging in Love

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith,
so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
-Philemon 6

The Apostle Paul understood something about balance.

Throughout his writings, he consistently strikes a balance between overly personal, pietistic religion on one hand and often hypocritical, external religiosity on the other. Readers of the New Testament will see clearly a call to a radical, personal faith as well as a bold, public witness. I believe that if he were here today, he would reject both the claim that religion should be private and personal (the "naked public square" argument much of Europe has embraced), as well as the idea that we can impose faith from the top down. Based on the full range of his writings, and his example in the book of Acts, I believe Paul would vocally defend the concept of an "open public square" - the idea of freedom OF religion, not freedom from religion - and that he would firmly hold to his belief that the light of truth would speak louder and shine brighter than the darkness of deception.

But Paul also understood something about motivation.

He understood that even Spirit-filled men and women needed encouragement to step into that public square. In his day, there were very few "open public squares" indeed (his experience in Athens was certainly not the norm for him). Believers in many parts of the Roman Empire took a great risk when they shared their faith in any form - whether they simply made their faith known as the motivation for their actions, or responded when asked about the hope that was in them, or boldly preached or taught in a public setting. So Paul, writing to one man known for his faith, laid out a principle that could motivate someone who might otherwise find himself staying silent.

Simply put: The more we share our faith, the more we come to understand just what we have in Christ. As any teacher knows, the best way to cement a lesson is to teach it to someone else. Passing on our faith becomes the divinely-appointed means of strengthening that same faith. In fact, Paul says it's the only way we'll obtain a full understanding of all the good things association with our relationship to Christ. All the Bible study in the world (as crucial as that is!) will not yield the depth of understanding that we will gain from communicating our faith to someone else.

So how, in the still-open public squares in the US and a precious few other countries, or in the naked public squares of Europe, or in the hostile public squares of some parts of the world, can we do this? What should be our relationship to the cultures in which we find ourselves?

Much has been written about Christianity and Culture, but I believe the answer is a simple Biblical principle that transcends all cultural forms: Engage in love.

We are always going to have a fleshly tendency toward fear of man which causes us to either attack or withdraw (fight or flight). When we attack, we create an "us against them" mentality. This mentality does not advance the kingdom of God; if you need proof just look at the Crusades, a horrible mark against the church that mingled selfish motivations with fearful ones and has resulted in entire segments of world that are still closed to the Gospel today. Withdrawing doesn't help either. Withdrawal can look like pacifism and result in tolerant relativism ("all religions are the same"), or it can look like isolationism ("let's just hang out with other believers and wait until Jesus comes").

Engaging in love, however, conquers fear (1 John 4:18). It conquers our fear, but it also becomes a tool to conquer their fears as well. Engaging in love reveals the heart of God to others who may have misconceptions about who He really is. Beyond fulfilling the Great Commandments, engaging in love opens the door for us to fulfill the Great Commission.

So how do we engage in love? There are as many answers to that as there are individuals in the world. A great place to start is, where you will learn much about Biblical justice which the site defines as "love made public." One of their key principles, "Start Small, Dream Big", highlights a continuum from compassion, to incarnational action (loving and meeting needs of one person in unique ways), to community justice, to societal change. The common element to all these is that engaging in love is required. We don't get there by staying in our comfortable homes and churches and never taking the risks of love.

Even as we start to engage, we can be sure God will constantly call us to new levels of love and service, of new opportunities to share our faith. Because He wants us to fully understand all the good things that are wrapped up in knowing Jesus. I have a feeling I've barely begun to scratch the surface.