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.


God and Government #4

October 27, 2016

Here is the last lesson in the series. I enjoyed teaching this at Levy over the last month. 

Our last text to consider in this study is 1 Peter 2:13-17. This is an interesting text and context out of an interesting letter. Peter’s audience was not a single church. Instead he addressed his letter to…

God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:10)

As addressed, the original recipients of this letter were Christians living in various parts of the Roman Empire. The purpose of the writing was to offer encouragement and fortification for the trials they all faced, which Peter acknowledged first in 1:6. That Peter would address them as “strangers” set the agenda for the letter. He would pick up this idea again in 2:11-12 (immediately before the text of our study). Overall his teaching focused on their calling as God’s chosen people. This calling led to an understanding that the world offered no lasting home. Here Christians are just “aliens and strangers”. Peter would detail what that looked like lived out within a hostile world. One point of emphasis within this involved living in such a way to counter criticism. One way to do that would be to submit to governing authorities.

THE TEXT

Submission to all governing authorities—specifically to kings and governors—is called upon “for the Lord’s sake.” This qualifier is significant. Remember the type of government under which these Christians lived. It was not at all favorable to Christian faith. It was often oppressive, unjust and cruel. Why submit to such an immoral governmental system? That is what God asks of his people. He asks because even such evil governments are used to “punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” He asks because it is his will for his people—these strangers—to demonstrate their heavenly citizenship by “doing good” everywhere they happened to live and not to become involved in civil disobedience. Compare this text to both Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Timothy 2:1-5 and there is remarkable consistency of message.

Each of these contexts (and in ours) it is taught that Christians becoming involved in rebellion against those in governmental authority would be counterproductive to the spread of the gospel of Christ. Peter further explains why it is vital for Christians to submit to their rulers—to counter criticism or as he states, “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Christians were subjects of incredible rumors and misinformation—blamed for incidents not their doing. So it was crucial for Christians to not add any fuel to the false flames. “Peaceful and quiet” lives were the apostle’s mandates.

This could be accomplished four ways:

  • Showing proper respect to everyone
  • Loving each other—the brotherhood of believers
  • Fearing God
  • Honoring the king

But what if everyone was not worthy of respect? Even in the church? What if the king was corrupt? It does not matter. This approach is coming out of a respect first of God and his will. This is all done first “for the Lord’s sake.” It is a kingdom first perspective, which takes maturity to understand and practice. Just consider the next section of teaching—to Christian slaves. They were instructed to submit, obey and respect their masters—even the “harsh” ones. Why? Because it was “commendable before God.” Why? Because “to this you were called.”

It is the same principle. Christians are not to rebel but to respect and submit to those in authority even if that authority is unjust—because in so doing the principles and message of God’s kingdom are furthered. It is exactly why Christ endured the insults and sufferings without retaliation. We benefit from his submission. Others will benefit from ours. Ultimately the kingdom of God will triumph. We have to think more broadly than just the here and now. So we honor the king (even if he is Nero), we pray for him, we do our best to live at peace with everyone by living out the kingdom values as aliens and strangers in our world. This is God’s calling and will for us.

21st CENTURY APPLICATION

So how does all of this connect to us living in a democratic form of government in the 21st century USA? To answer this—again we must remember that the NT texts were not written specifically to us or to directly answer our questions. Understanding that and doing our best to apply the teachings of these texts to our situation, here are some consistent principles to consider:

  • Do our best—regardless of the type of government under which we live to submit and live at peace. Do not engage in civil disobedience or unrest. Our kingdom citizenship supersedes any earthly citizenship and living that out is paramount.
  • Pay our taxes and our debts. Give no one the chance to slander Christ in this regard.
  • If forced obey God rather than man—just like the apostles in Acts 5:29. But remember this still does not give permission to engage in anarchy. Persecuted Christians in the first century died not fighting but praising. Eventually their example won the world.
  • We are called to “honor the king” with no qualifications—even if we do not like his politics.
  • Christians can participate in the governmental process and use their rights of citizenship in peaceful and lawful ways (as Paul did—Acts 22-29) and in ways lawfully beneficial to the spread of the kingdom. Christians should not however partner with politics in any unequal way (2 Corinthians 6:14) nor should we expect the government to be “about the Father’s business.”
  • The latter is our call and that is why the NT so emphasizes living as strangers and aliens; living peaceful lives that are in submission to those who govern us. It not through ballots or bullets that the kingdom of God will spread. It is through quiet and determined faith lived out—consistently upholding the values of God’s kingdom.

God’s call is unchanged regardless of the type of governmental system under which we live. Live first the kingdom of God. Be the best citizen possible in demonstrating what it means to be first a citizen of heaven.

 


FIVE PREACHER FAILS

October 26, 2016

I am intimately familiar with preacher fails. I have lived through a host of my own. Here are five common ones.

  • Lack of discipline. Usually the church world allows quite a bit of daily freedom for preachers to be about their ministry. This freedom can be easily taken advantage of—preachers staying at home and away—not being fully engaged in productive ministry. We preachers already put up with the “you only work three hours a week” barbs. Let’s not allow laziness and lack of discipline to give that any credence. Instead let’s fully “carry out the ministry God has given” us (2 Timothy 4:5 NLT).
  • Inattention to study. Lack of discipline can also lead to sloppy study habits, which in turn damages our ability to effectively speak truth in love. Don’t take shortcuts on sermon preparation. We should put the proper study time in—so that we can be both confident in our presentation and content; that we are in fact handling correctly the Word of God.
  • Inability to listen. I once was convinced that I pretty much had all of the answers and I was eager to share them! Failure on my part to appreciate and to listen to other’s council, to hear proper constructive criticism, to simply learn from wiser and more experienced people hurt my ministry at times. Let’s be quick to hear and slow to speak!
  • Complaining. Everyone needs a place to vent on occasion—the same is true for preachers, but be very careful not to be seen as a whiner or complainer. This can undermine ministry. I have participated in and heard my fair share of elder roasts, how-terrible-my-church-is conversations, and complaints about everything from salaries to worship style. If things need improving usually complaining or whining is not the catalyst to make it happen. Instead let’s try to do all things without complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14).
  • People Pleasing. We all desire affirmation—preachers are no exception. And as preachers we certainly want to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I may save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), but not to the point of compromising personal or biblical integrity. Ultimately we will give account of our life and ministry to God. We simply cannot allow a desire to please people set the agenda for our work. It can be harmful to us, to our families and to our ministry. There is a balance here that we all must find.

Preaching is one of the most noble and needed callings! Let’s do it with a passion for excellence. I praise God for good preachers!


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.


When Bad Things Happen to Good Churches

January 23, 2015

Being in the preacher world I am well acquainted with bad things happening to good churches.

Division; immorality; financial difficulties; unhealthy leadership; strife and friction; ungodly agendas; even false teaching are among the bad things that often happen.

All are devastating. All are hurtful. All threaten to undermine the work of God’s kingdom. All happened to churches we read about in the Bible.

Just pick one: Corinth? Rome? Ephesus? Galatia? Colossae? They were all familiar with bad things.

Allow me to pick one–Ephesus–and roll with that (mainly because I am leading a study on Timothy at my church right now). We know quite a bit about this church. The first-century historian, Luke, details its riotous beginning in Act 19. The apostle Paul shares a rather emotional moment with its leadership in Acts 20. Later he pens letters both to the church and his protégé, Timothy, who was serving there (listed in the New Testament as Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy). And then this congregation is the recipient of one of the seven letters written to churches by Christ as recorded in Revelation 2:1-7. In terms of information about them—we have a broad context.

A broad context of bad things happening.

Bad things not only happened to the Ephesian church, but were first predicted to happen to them (see Paul’s statement in Acts 20:25-31). Ouch!

Turns out Paul was right—what he foresaw happened and it was bad. Unhealthy leadership with ungodly agendas did a number on this fledgling body of believers. Read 1 Timothy in particular, and you will start getting the picture. It is a picture of bad things.

To counter these bad things Paul sent Timothy. After Timothy got there and saw just how bad things were, Paul had to write a stay-there-and-do-the-job-I-sent-you-to-do type of letter. Hey, I have been a preacher at a good church when bad things were happening. Believe me when I say Timothy needed this kind of encouragement!

Of course, Paul gave him specific advice on how to handle the various bad things occurring, reminded him that he definitely was the man for the job, and encouraged him to keep his own nose clean as he sorted through the mess.

It is worth noting that in the midst of all of this instruction and confidence building, Paul uses the exact same phrase twice to preface a major point. It is:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. (1 Timothy 1:15 and 4:9)

Interesting. Various ideas have been floated out as to exactly why he turned this phrase, but I like to think it is one of those okay-now-listen-up-because-what-I-am-about-to-tell-you-matters-a-little-bit-more type statements. It is similar to when a parent calls the kid by his full name. Now it is time to pay closer attention!

So what was this crucial information Paul wanted to share and how does it help good churches currently dealing with bad things?

It all has to do with Jesus.

In both contexts Paul follows his preface with strong affirmations about Christ, forgiveness, and hope.

Could there be any more important information or any better way to counter the bad things while leading the church to a healthier place?

It all has to do with Jesus.

When bad things happen to good churches just double-down on the Christ! It may sound over simplistic in the always complex consequences of the bad things, but no surer foundation exists upon which to rebuild.

Bad things have a way of distracting; of bouncing off in all directions; of creating confusion in such a manner that we lose sight of the blessings of Jesus. He gets lost in his own church! The bad things discourage us; disappoint us; and divert us away from him and the hope he promises. They create a debilitating fog that clouds the joy of Christ, which prevents him from being exalted in his church.

Little wonder then in his letter directly to the church in Ephesus, Paul’s prayer was for them was “that you may know him better” in order to more fully realize the hope Christ offers by having the “eyes of your heart…enlightened” (see the entire context of Ephesians 1:15-23).

Discouraged because bad things are happening at your church?

Fix your eyes on Jesus more than ever! Get to know him even more. Teach, preach the forgiveness and the hope found only in him. Exalt Christ!

Not only will he provide you the strength (right, Timothy?) to navigate the bad things; he will create the healthy focus enabling your church to rediscover the good things.

He was the answer to the Ephesian church crisis.

It reminds me of what Paul “resolved” only to know while dealing with the bad things in the Corinthian church.

It was all about “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

When it truly is all about Him, bad things will not defeat good churches. They will hurt. They will disappoint. They may even discourage for a season. But better days are ahead. That is the essence of the hope Jesus offers.

Remember that letter Jesus wrote to the Ephesian church recorded by John in Revelation 2:1-7? Hear what he says to them then:

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance… You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 

Wow! Seems like the bad things were in their rear view mirror. They did not allow themselves to be defeated. This good church overcame the bad things in his name!

If (and God forbid) bad things ever happen to your good church cling to Jesus!

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (Ephesians 6:10)


“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)

 


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.