The Least of These

May 18, 2017

Over the last few months I have been preaching from the kingdom parables in the gospel of Matthew. These stories along with Christ’s other teachings and personal ministry reveal the nature and values of “the kingdom of heaven.” To me as I read the entire story as it unfolds in Matthew, the kingdom was on the mind of Jesus from the very beginning of his teaching ministry (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) until his last public teaching before his arrest (chapters 24-25).

As I understand it, the kingdom of God has an “already here/but not yet” aspect to it. The kingdom is here Jesus taught—among us and in us, but not in it fullest state. We still get to anticipate, yearn for, and look forward to it. To me, the best way to understand the kingdom is like this:

  • It is where God is/rules. Wherever the reign of God can be seen, his kingdom is present.
  • It is within us. So Jesus stated in Luke 17:21. When God rules within us his kingdom then is evident in us.
  • It is from another place. So Jesus stated in John 18:36. This speaks to the values of the kingdom. This is what Jesus began sharing in the Sermon and throughout his ministry. These kingdom values are usually at odds with those of our world.
  • The kingdom focus is on the least of these. This was among what Matthew last recorded Jesus saying before his arrest in a section we know as “The Sheep and the Goats” or the great judgment scene. Found here is a major way that kingdom values differ from the world.

“THE LAST WILL BE FIRST”

As Matthew presents Jesus, we hear him say these words more than once and we witness him practice them. Sure there is the backstory of the Jewish establishment’s rejection of his Messiahship—the “first” in God’s story refusing to embrace God’s Son while reacting as the invitation goes out to the “last” folks they ever expected to be in a kingdom celebration (or wedding feast as Jesus imagines it in Matthew 22:1-14). But there is more to the story than just proving a point to hard hearted Jews.

The kingdom of God really is about the least of these. I love the way Jesus replied to some disciples of John the Baptist who came asking if Jesus was, in fact, the true Messiah  (Matthew 11:4). His answer was about the least of these. It was about how the lame could walk, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, lepers were healed, the poor hearing good news. Interesting.

You can see this all throughout Christ’s ministry—stopping to listen to blind Bartimaeus, healing lepers, feeding thousands, making time for little children, offering hope to an adulterous woman, casting out demons in people others had completely given up on. This was Jesus reaching out unashamedly to the forgotten, the devalued, the fringe, the ignored, the neglected, the last–and incredibly making them first on his mind, in his heart and in his kingdom.

Remember his disciples squabbling about who would be the greatest in his kingdom? This is so like most of us—seeking the edge, maneuvering for position, wanting to be number one—first! Matthew shared this unflattering episode in 20:20-28. Once more Jesus made it crystal clear that in his kingdom this type of ego stroking would not occur. It was about being last, he told them, not first. Or as he framed it in another conversation–giving up of ourselves; our self-will and ego in order to gain much more in him.

Do we get it? It is all about the least of these. Once Jesus said that if we harm or injure one of his little ones—specifically little children in the context of Matthew 18:1-15—that it would be better for us to have a millstone (read very heavy weight) strapped to our neck and cast into the sea. Not sure how much plainer it can get than that.

It is about justice, mercy, grace, empowerment, forgiveness, hope, compassion, healing and love—demonstrated to those who frequently do not receive much of it. This is what Jesus came to deliver. This is what his kingdom in its present form is to emphasize. And when the kingdom comes in its fullest—forgotten folks like poor, sick Lazarus will enjoy an eternal place at God’s table. The last will be first.

THIS HAS CHANGED ME

On a personal level this “least of these” emphasis has changed me. First, I can relate to it. Honestly, I often feel like one of the “least of these.” This has more to do with believing Satan’s lies than Christ’s teaching, but it is a real struggle for me at times. Quite often I assess my life and feel like a failure on different levels—wondering if my life has made any real, lasting difference; questioning if my attempts at preaching really matter in the big picture; wondering if I have helped or hurt my family; at times feeling lonely and afraid–just out on the fringe. I do realize and acknowledge that these thoughts come from my enemy who wants to “steal, kill and destroy” me, but they are honest emotions. And it is good to know that when I am thus struggling that Christ is there. This is the “when I am weak, he is strong” promise of 2 Corinthians 12:10–which is simply another way of restating his kingdom focus.

It has also changed me in how I look at others. How often have I brushed aside the Bartimeaus’s of the world in my rush to pursue my own ends—my own place at the chief seat in the kingdom? How often have I ignored the last? Had no time for the least of these? How many times have I been so focused on the winners, while denigrating the losers that I lost sight of the real purpose of my life within the kingdom of God?

God forgive me. I have come to realize that those I have called “the losers” are exactly who Christ valued–the least of these.

The evidence is just too overwhelming. Read again Matthew’s story of Jesus. It is right there—repeatedly. In God’s kingdom:

Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. 

It really is about the least of these.


The Cross is Enough

October 21, 2015

It is not my goodness. I have none. I am just a filthy rag.

It is not my ability to keep a law or perform good deeds. I consistently fall short at rule keeping.

It is not my mastery of morality. At this I am a failure. My flesh is weak.

It is not my winning personality; good looks; athletic prowess; charisma or intelligence. Those are all fleeting, inconsistent and limited.

It is not my expert homiletic or exegetical skills. These remind me of what I do not know.

It is not my church and our ability to produce a welcoming atmosphere or quality worship. Another church nearby likely offers something even more appealing.

It is not even the Bible. Yes, it is divine, inspired, and living. It contains the will of God. It is to be heard and heeded, but as essential as the Bible is to our faith–it is not enough.

It is the cross. The old, rugged, bloodstained, despised, and awful cross of Jesus—it is enough.

As Mercy Me sings in their amazing song (check out the entire song below):

No matter the bumps
No matter the bruises
No matter the scars
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless
No matter the hurt
Or how deep the wound is
No matter the pain
Still the truth is
The cross has made
The cross has made you flawless

The proclamation of the cross pleases God. The Apostle Paul whose goal was to “preach Christ and him crucified” had this to say:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.*

The power of God to save; to make whole; to transform; to give hope; to heal wounded hearts; to persevere; to vanquish guilt; to discover worth; to mend brokenness; to make you flawless.

By God’s grace the cross is enough.

Praise God the cross is enough.

*To see the entire context of these scripture references read 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.


The Power of Telling a Story

July 6, 2015

summerblogtour button

I am participating in a “summer blog tour” which will feature posts by several Christian bloggers and authors. We have all contributed by telling stories and finding the power of God’s working within them. Each week there will be two new articles which will be posted on each participant’s blog. In this way you will be introduced to new writers and perhaps choose to follow their blog. I hope you enjoy this summer blog tour and are blessed by the power found in each of these stories.

Starting our blog tour is Steve Ridgell. Steve lives to share the story of Jesus with this world. In addition to his work as Director of Ministry for Hope for Life , Steve is a regular writer for Heartlight.org and has written books. His latest book is Can I Tell You a Story?  Steve also serves as an elder at the Southern Hills church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.

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Jesus often used stories to illustrate how to live as his disciples. I believe hearing the stories of Jesus still equip us to live out his call on our lives. And here is one example of how I think that works.

I have often heard people talk about the Great Commission passage in Matthew 28, but I wonder if we have missed what it means.   It is too easy to simply make the point that “go into all the world” means go out of your front door and into your world.

What does that mean in terms of real life action? I believe Jesus explains exactly how his followers go into their world and make other followers. I think he shows how to go, where to go, and what to do when we get there.

Listen to the stories he told about going into your world.

How do I go? I go living forgiven.

She was a woman caught in adultery. The response by those who caught her was the familiar refrain of guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. But Jesus offered forgiveness, not condemnation. And then he told her to “go and leave your life of sin”. Go back among her friends and family as a changed person. Live forgiven. That is how we demonstrate the truth that Jesus changes lives. We are the living examples of God’s work in this world.

Where do I go? To those in need – and then serve them intentionally.

The story of the Good Samaritan was told to illustrate who is our neighbor. It is the story of a man who saw someone in need and then did something about it. He cared for them. Your world, your neighborhood, is full of hurting people in need of help. Physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs. Sick people, abused people, lonely people, addicted people. The last thing Jesus said after the story of the Good Samaritan was for us to “go and do the same.” So we go into our world as servants committed to helping others. But we do it with purpose.

We serve intentionally in the name of Jesus. This gives us credibility to speak into lives. Our lives are living proof that Jesus works. Our service is the proof that the Jesus story is worth hearing.

What do I do when I go? Speak with courage the story of Jesus.

He fought so many demons he was called Legion. He was lonely and in pain. Jesus met him, connected with him, and healed him. When Jesus left that place, Legion was ready to go with him. He was all in for a mission trip with Jesus. Except that Jesus told him no. Instead, he told him to go home to his family and tell them what the Lord had done for him and how he had mercy on him.

Our lives give credibility to the story of Jesus. Our service gives opportunity to share that story. But you will not make followers of Jesus in your world until you tell them the good news of Jesus. Tell your story. Tell His story. And invite them to become part of the story.

Go into all the world. Go into your world.

Live Forgiven.

Serve with Purpose.

Speak with Courage.

And you will make followers… who will make followers… who will make followers.

 


People, Not Issues

February 19, 2015

issuesQuite often during the ministry of Jesus, attempts were made to draw him into the middle of some controversial, hot-button issue. Whether it was healing or working on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:1-5) or identifying just who is your neighbor (Luke 10:29ff) the law experts and Jewish theologians were anxious to involve Jesus. But he refused to take their bait. He either ignored them or handled the issues in such a way as to deflect the controversy and defuse the debate.

Jesus and his ministry was about people–not issues. He came to serve and to save (Matthew 20:28; Luke 10:10). He had no time for issues. Reaching people was his priority.

It should remain so for his church. Issues continue to abound. Churches can get lost in them–making the issues their identity. God forbid!

Our world does not need more issues. It needs more servants sharing the gospel of Christ. Issues cannot save. Jesus can.

Three observations:

  • Issues splinter, the Gospel reconciles. Issues create strife, quarreling, and division–a toxic mix for a church. We should work to avoid this at all costs (2 Timothy 2:23-24). The gospel has the opposite effect. It reconciles and unifies (Ephesians 2:16; 4:1-6). It creates a healthy, harmonious, growing atmosphere for a church.
  • Issues are nothing new. Not only did Christ have to deal with issues, but the first churches did as well. The solution was always Christ-based and gospel focused (1 Corinthians 2:2). What an important example for us. When issues arise–put them at the foot of the cross.
  • People want Jesus, not issues. Most people do not know about nor do they care about most of our church issues. In fact, being made aware of our issues has pushed many away. They have enough issues of their own living in our broken world. By lifting up Jesus we are offering a heaven-based alternative to their issues; a message of hope and joy; of forgiveness and grace.

This is the message Jesus shared in his ministry. It penetrated the issue-laden focus of the religious leaders to reach the hearts of many–hungry to hear a word of hope. These people marvelled that Jesus was not an ordinary teacher with an ordinary message (Matthew 7:28-29). The first church grew rapidly because of their focus, not on issues, but on the “Good News of Jesus Christ.”

Let’s learn from this.

It is about people, not issues.


“Life that is Truly Life”

January 20, 2015

LifeTruly_lThe title is a little phrase snatched from the context of the apostle Paul’s concluding statements in a letter he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy the evangelist, who at the time was in the ancient city of Ephesus trying to sort out a mess of a church.

To many people across the world this letter we call 1 Timothy is likely unknown or obscure. Certainly Christians are more familiar with it, but even to many of them this phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:19) is probably not something they often consider.

It is just there in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on what to teach to the wealthy members of the Ephesian church. Apparently, among the other problems facing this infant church, an unhealthy attitude toward money existed.

Reading the immediate context you get the idea those with money were not using it to God’s glory or to further God’s kingdom. Reading the greater context, you get the feeling others in that church were using the church for their personal profit. Either way, it was not good news.

So Paul instructs Timothy to work to redirect some hearts and practices by encouraging them to “take hold of life that is truly life.”

By making this statement Paul is necessarily indicting the “life” being lived by many (rich included) in the Ephesian church. It is a contrast statement. Their (the Ephesians) approach to life was not “truly life.”

That is a fairly bold statement. How would that come across in our culture? Probably as judgmental and unwelcome. We pretty much pride ourselves on making our own way—rugged individualists that we are.

Who is some long dead, dusty old preacher or anyone else, for that matter, to tell me what life is all about?

Yet, if we ever honestly (brutally so) take personal inventory, how is that really going for us? How really is our life?

Contextually Paul shares three points that I think connect to his “truly life” statement.

  • It has to do with contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:6) is how he put it. Again, this was a contrasting statement—set up against the confusion; friction; and hurt put upon that church by people who were anything but content. The point? We can have it all, but without a God-laced contented spirit, can we enjoy it?
  • It has to do with hope. Real hope as in something true and meaningful after we are done with this world. This is found in one place- “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (what a great statement—6:17). Everything else is uncertain and temporary. Which is better to build a life upon?
  • It has to do with helping others along the way. Serving, sharing, being generous—that is part of “truly life” according to this teaching (6:18). Self-absorption; self-consumption; and self-centeredness isn’t.

“Truly life” leads us to “lay up treasures” as a “firm foundation for the coming age.”

Awesome.

So, if Paul is to be believed—“life that is truly life” not only allows us to live now in the abundance of the blessings God has given for us to enjoy, but shapes us to do so with a contented spirit and a generous heart in full certainty of an even better future ahead. And it also helps us to avoid many unpleasant situations, which rob us of peace and joy.

Where can I sign up?

Oh yeah, at the foot of the cross.

“ For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37)

 


Stuck in the Middle with Jesus

January 13, 2015

Middle crossIt was the middle ground; the high ground; the holy ground.

There he was—humiliated, exposed, and dying—up on that hill in-between two thugs. It was bloody ground; unwelcoming ground; it was holy ground

It was holy only because of him. The innocent lamb at the slaughter. He shouldn’t have been there; did not deserve to be there; but there he was. God in the flesh—up there on the middle cross dying under the devastating weight of my sin.

Literally, volumes have been written about Golgotha. I am not going to uncover anything new. I will just share what I see right now:

  • The middle ground—between the thieves. Symbolism aplenty. Jesus in the midst of all of us sinners. We surround him. Will we hold him in contempt as one thief did or will we recognize the Son of God among us and seek his grace as the other one did? Another view of the middle ground—where we are called to live, daily. (See a host of Scripture references—1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:5; Titus 2:2; 1 Peter 1:5.)
  • The high ground—I think Jesus lived his life here. He never lowered himself to engage in or respond to the manipulative tactics used against him by his enemies. He could have called down legions of angels, but amazingly he refrained. He always did the right thing even though he was tempted otherwise. Of course, we all know the discipline this requires because we have been asked to do likewise. “Let us do good unto all men,” is the exact wording of the Golden Rule type, take-the-high-ground expectation (Galatians 6:10).
  • The holy ground—the best way I know how to express one truth this reveals to us is exactly how Peter did: “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Being holy is not about being better than anyone else; it is about doing my best to be like Jesus.

I am just as broken as the two criminals who died with Christ that day on Calvary, but I do not want to be stuck in my brokenness—I want to be stuck right in the middle of God’s love with Jesus on that high, bloody, holy ground of grace, forgiveness, mercy, and pardon.

It is my only hope.


Haters Gonna Hate

December 16, 2014

Tis the season to hate?

Sometimes it seems that way.

Haters hated on Johnny Football’s first start. Haters hated on practically everything from every angle in Ferguson, MO. Haters hated on the recent election results; Haters hate on the Christmas holiday; Haters hate on churches that do not meet their expectations; Haters hate. That is what they do.

Jesus told us so.

Not often do all four of the gospel accounts share the exact same information in almost the exact same way (this is largely due to the fact that John’s gospel is written from a different perspective than the others), but on this topic they all have Jesus saying basically the same thing to his disciples.

It goes something like this: “Get ready. The world hated me and they are going to hate you too.”

(For the exact statements read Matthew 10:22; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; and John 15:18 along with the surrounding context.)

So from Jesus–haters are going to hate.

They are not going to dialogue; reason; discuss; contemplate; be patient; act lovingly; or extend grace.

They are going to react; rage; accuse; scream “Crucify him! Crucify him!;” throw stones (see Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7); and behave generally in a very angry and aggressive way.

The result is not pretty, nor is it intended to be. “Hate stirs up strife” a wise man said long ago (Proverbs 10:12). Hate is a tool to intimidate and bully–and to spread misery.

Think about hate’s role in the Christmas story. King Herod was a hater. He heard a rumor about a baby who would be king and instead of investigating, he hated. Hating was easier. Lots of innocent babies died as a consequence. Joseph and Mary with their newborn fled to Egypt to escape his hatred.

Hating hurts. The Bible equates it with murder (1 John 3:15). The families who lost their baby boys to Herod’s hate can attest to that.

Hatred originates from the first hater. His purpose according to Christ is to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Hatred accomplishes that quite efficiently. No matter how it is presented or justified–hate is hate and it produces nothing worthwhile.

But there is another way, of course. The rest of Proverbs 10:12? “But love covers all offenses.”

Love has absolutely nothing to do with hate (please read the 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 definition of love).

The counter to haters gonna hate is that lovers gotta love.

This will produce something worthwhile–even if we disagree about sports, politics, race, and religion. It will create an atmosphere of mutual respect where healthy dialogue can occur and real progress can be made on what separates us.

Love seeks redemption; reconciliation; peace and goodwill toward all.

It originates with the first lover. His goal is for every person to experience “life to the full” (the rest of John 10:10). Love can make that happen. Hate cannot.

Haters were jeering at him; spitting on him; whipping him with a cutting lash; They put him on a cross to die. This time he did not escape (he could have). Neither did he hate back. Instead Jesus loved–and it continues to cover all offenses.

Think about this the next time you are tempted to hate; the next time you are prompted to straighten someone out on social media with cutting words; the next time you think someone is attacking something you hold dear; the next time the election; the game; or the decision of church leaders does not go your way.

There are healthy ways to handle all of that. Hate is not one of them.

Yes, there are haters who are going to hate.

But let us be lovers of Christ who will love each other and (uh oh) even our enemies.

It might not be easy surrounded by a culture of hate, but Jesus has our back. Haters gonna hate, but against it, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Tis the season to spread the love of Christ.