There is a story about a teenage boy who was a compulsive liar. If deception was paint he’d be considered a world class artist. His mother once found a letter from his teacher hidden behind a bedroom dresser. She confronted him with the teacher’s charges and the boy painted such a picture of deception--it would make the “Mona Lisa” look like paint by number. The letter was in her hand, she shook it in his face, and he denied it existed.
One day the boy lied to his best friend Frank. Hurt deeply when his friend denied it, Frank carried a grudge for months. One day they were arguing, the way kids do about something unimportant, and the grudge reared its ugly head. In a moment of self-righteous anger--Frank swung a baseball bat at his head. In an instant, he became judge, jury, and quite nearly, executioner.
Jesus cautions us against acting on personal grudges. He says,
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:1-2 NIVO)
Frank’s judgment was terrible and he wouldn’t wish it on anyone--especially himself. But there was another reason for him to be sorry. After being betrayed, Frank was consumed with the evil of bitterness and the need to retaliate. That was harmful, but the remorse he carried for the rest of his life was worse. Perhaps this is why Jesus also taught,
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Lk. 6:35-37 NIVO)
Seems to me, this story is not just about how we treat others. To practice mercy and forbearance, and to forgive--is also about how we treat ourselves. It is about our mental health, and our spirit. To be merciful and to forgive is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. And it’s at the heart of peace.
Yesterday, I cleaned my study (a little bit) and came across my old Bible. It was given to me in 1977 by my parents. I was 14 at the time. I remember carrying it on the church bus that took me to Sunday school. It came in handy because when zipped--it made a good shield against spitballs. When I was 16, it was on the pew when the pastor dunked me in the waters of baptism. At the little mission church that opened in the heathen wilderness that was my neighborhood--I read from it during worship. On days when mired in teenage angst, I searched it’s pages for comfort.
At 18 years old, I enlisted in the Army National Guard. My Bible was with me for basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It was the first time I’d been away from home. My high school sweetheart had ended our relationship just before I left. In the pages of the Psalms, many broken hearted and homesick teenage tears were shed. In the quiet times of anxiety and grief, that old Bible was a dear friend that anchored me to something lasting and true.
In the pages of my Bible I met God. It showed me who he is and assured me of what he can do. I learned of his abiding presence with those who love him. In my worst moments, through his Word the LORD spoke to my heart and lifted me from the pit. In Christ, I experienced the profound promises and hope we have in God’s mercy. Scripture taught me there is always reason to hope because all things are possible with our Heavenly Father.
When training was done, I was still homesick and still missed the girl I desperately loved. But I was sure God was guiding my every step:
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Prov. 3:5-6)
Upon returning home, I had my old Bible in my hand at the airport. I squeezed it extra tight when I saw that girl who broke my heart--walking with my parents. We’ve been together ever since. Praise the LORD for keeping my path straight.
There are a few people who are going stir crazy during this shutdown. If you know her, you’d probably guess my wife is one of them. Always full of energy, I jokingly say living with her is like living in the house with a pulsing nuclear reactor. It’s why I’m balding with gray hair! I joke about the speed with which she goes about doing. She gets things done and can rarely sit still.
I had a secretary once who was excessively orderly and fussy. She had to have everything on her desk sitting just right. If I moved it a millimeter, she would quickly see it. I used to prank her by moving little things around and almost without thinking, she put it back in order. That woman could catch every mistake on my letters--even a margin that was off by a single space.
There are people we all know who have little quirks--strangeness that we might make fun of, or that drives us nuts. If we open our eyes we’ll realize that everyone has their own unique brand of crazy. Often that “strangeness” is more than annoying or funny. It can be a God given gift.
The apostle Paul writes,
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. (Rom. 12:3-6a)
We are the Church. It is made up of sinners, flawed characters, and a few strange rangers. It is filled with people who mean well, and those just looking for a place to call home. All come with their needs and their gifts to share. All are to be appreciated. Praise be to God! Amen!
Yesterday, it was suggested on TV that this virus lockdown could stretch all the way to June--and it made me queasy. This is the season of Lent--this week is Palm/Passion Sunday and Easter is right around the corner. How can this whole virus thing be happening? Every week that passes I find myself growing a bit more anxious for life to return to normal. I certainly want the threat of viral death to pass quickly. As I feel pulled down by the weight of this thing--I’m asking what God is doing about it.
Now, I don’t believe for a minute God ordained this nightmare--but I do believe He is actively working through it. It is no stretch that He would be working to change hearts. And don’t we need a few hearts to be changed? We can all make a list of the ailments that plague our communal life--religious, political, moral, civil. Most good people would agree--this society has “heart” disease, and needs to be healed.
During a time of trial, certain Bible texts jump out with new life. Consider the Word of God in Romans 13:9-12:
9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. 11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
My friends, take hope! The Great Physician is working overtime--offering the cure for our “heart” disease. This virus lockdown may be difficult, but God’s steady voice and constant presence is a blessing in the midst of it.
“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” It means that if revenge (or retribution) is delayed beyond the heat of anger, it is much more satisfying. I don’t know if that’s true. Retribution is a human attempt to makes things right by punishing another. The problem is it doesn’t usually make us feel that much better. We might get a little payback, but it doesn’t make us whole.
What we’re talking about here is broken relationships. To oversimplify, one person sins against another. The one harmed often seeks retribution. The dispute could be over anything, but the harm may be serious enough that we want to expel the sinner from our lives entirely. In Matthew 18:12-17, Jesus called us to take a different approach:
"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost. "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matt. 18:12-17 NIVO)
Some folks read this and think, “Yes! I’ll take my complaint to the church and they’ll give me my pound of flesh!” It that’s all we get from this text, we miss the point. Jesus was more concerned about restoration--about correcting the sinner and the damage done to the community. He didn’t want to lose a sinner to alienation.
This is not to suggest Jesus didn’t care about the person who was injured. He just didn’t want the victim, in bitterness or a desire for revenge, to compound the damage to the community. That too, is a sin and damaging to the soul. We are to desire what God does--the redemption of the sinner. It requires humility and turning it over to God’s judgement. But in the process the one harmed can be restored in his spirit as well.
When I was young and naive, I got tangled up with my best friend’s girl. I was just a geeky country boy who had zero experience with females. At the time, I didn’t think I did anything wrong but the result was I lost my best friend and was ostracized from our group. My friend never came to talk to me--and he never let his hurt go. How much I wish I had made different choices! I longed to be restored to friendship...or to at least be forgiven...but it was never to happen. A group of kids who did everything together had our friendships shattered by my mistake. We were never made whole again.
In my life I have been harmed as well. I wish I could say I handled it better than my friend. Having been on both the giving and receiving ends of broken relationships, one thing I’ve learned is that retribution drives a terrible wedge between sinner and victim, and between us and God. Restoration relieves pain and is the quickest way to inner peace. It is often the closest we can come to being made whole once more.
There was a wealthy man who heard Jesus was passing by that day. He ran to the road to get a glimpse--but because he was short he couldn’t see over the crowd. So he made the effort and climbed a tree. Understand, this was a man of status--a public official serving the Romans by collecting taxes. Such men didn’t shame themselves by running or climbing trees. Getting rich by over-taxing people, he was feared and hated. He never dreamed Jesus would stop and speak to him--let alone invite himself to visit.
The Lord came to where Zacchaeus was in his sin, and called him by name. The crowd disapproved of Jesus honoring a dirty, sinful man. But that didn’t sway Jesus in the least. To the Christ, all are worthy of a second chance. In Luke 19:1-10, we learn something important about Jesus. He will cross any boundary, challenge any religious “rule,” and accept any criticism to save his lost sheep.
Zacchaeus didn’t deserve Jesus’ attention. But a rabbi of renown paid him honor -and Zacchaeus welcomed him gladly. Zacchaeus was so moved--he stood up and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Luke. 19:8-10 NIVO)
So great is Jesus’ concern for you that he will do anything under God’s law to reach you--even die on the cross for your sin. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John. 3:17) Jesus calls all sinners--those who are lost and even those who are redeemed. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. All that matters is what you do next.
This morning I spent time looking through old photos and came across my cat Buddy’s baby pictures. He was apparently lost when his mother and her kittens passed through the area. Lydia and I could hear him outside the parsonage at night, starving and crying in search of his mom. He was so scared we couldn’t get near him. When we finally were able to feed him--he was terribly skinny. In one photo, he’s sitting in Lydia’s lap with her arms cradling him, and he’s looking up at her face. He was so tiny and vulnerable--protected in her arms. What I see in the picture is his awesome dependency upon a higher power. And I see trust and love.
Some people consider pets to be objects to own. Buddy is not my property. He is my responsibility and my joy. I take seriously God’s command to care for God’s creation. On the sixth day of creation, God blessed Adam and Eve saying,
"Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28)
Some take this passage to mean we lord over creation, dominating it--treating it any way we choose. That is a misinterpretation. The text isn’t a license to abuse, neglect, or wantonly destroy. The Bible is clear that God wants us to love as he loves--each other and all of creation. In Genesis he gave us a responsibility to care for this great gift--to protect and nurture it. When we do it right, it looks like Lydia holding Buddy in that photo.
To love as God loves takes a total reimagining of our place in the world. We are the crown of creation. That doesn’t mean we’re more important--we just have a special job to do. God gave us the ability to understand the interdependency of all living things. And we understand that God holds us all in his care. That photo of Buddy is a reminder that we too are dependent upon a higher power. When God looks down upon us, he wants to see our eyes looking up adoringly at him with trust and love--knowing our place in the world.
In Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes using a Roman coin which proclaimed Tiberius Caesar as divine. The Pharisees resented paying with Roman coin, calling it blasphemous. Yet they wouldn’t go as far as to publicly resist paying. To trap Jesus, they asked if it is lawful to pay the tax. If he says, “yes” he angers the Jewish nationalists who resist paying. If he says, “no” he upsets the Romans and could be arrested. It was a no-win situation. The Pharisees thought they had him.
It is not against the Torah (the first five books of our Bible) to pay taxes to the emperor. Knowing the sinister intent behind the question, Jesus calls for one of the coins asking, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” They replied it was Caesar’s. And Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Jesus wasn’t saying we must always respect worldly authority. There are times when their actions are so evil (against God’s intention) that we must resist. The Bible teaches us to honor human law when it doesn’t require us to deny God’s law. God is our ultimate authority. So Jesus, thwarting their plan to trap him, gave neither a “yes” or “no” answer. It was left to Pharisees to decide which is lawful and right according to their understanding of God’s intent.
In the news, there is resistance to a lockdown of businesses. We are told it is born out of a strong sense of basic need and the concern for an economic depression. On the other hand, we’re told by authorities the reason for the lockdown is a concern that a virus, against which we have no immunities, would spread so rapidly that hospitals will be overwhelmed. In both cases, people will suffer. It is a no-win situation. Which position is right?
Give to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s--and give to God that which is God’s. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:10-11) May God guide our choices.
I was in the grocery store the other day (guess that’s the only place most of us go these days) and there were a lot of empty shelves. It felt like I was in the old Soviet Union with their notorious shortages--especially toilet paper. What is is with our toilet paper shortages anyway? Of course, our problem is not supply chains as it was for the Soviet Union. It is panic buying.
Jesus’ disciples were in a panic once. In Matthew 8 we read they had gotten into a boat with Jesus and while on the lake, a furious storm came. The the winds blew violently and the waves swept over the boat. I can see the disciples in that small boat bailing water desperately while rowing madly. They were screaming in fear and panic and turned to Jesus for help. He was asleep!
They woke him and cried, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” Jesus replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Matt. 8:23-27 NIVO)
What does this story teach you about panic?
Some years ago a friend’s husband contracted a rare disease. His battle was valiant, and she and their two children were brave. He died with a 12 year old daughter and a younger son. It was a crushing blow to my friend and a challenge to her faith. One day she was reading her bible and came across this passage:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:4-7 NIV)
To my grieving friend, being told to rejoice, and not to be anxious, was like a slap in the face from God. How could she rejoice in her deep grief? She had two children denied the love and care of their father. Who wouldn’t be anxious with the loss of financial support, and with years of uncertainty ahead? What peace can be found in such troubled times?
The apostle Paul wasn’t saying we should feel joy for the circumstance of grief or other suffering. Nor was he saying we should put on a happy face despite how we feel. The joy named here is deeper and eternal--for it is based on what God has done for us in Christ. Redemption is a hope beyond all that can harm us because it ensures God has the last word in our lives. Ours is a God of wisdom, grace, and mercy whose promises are sure. So we rejoice that in Christ--God promises to lift us up and carry us through all trials. Even death.
When Paul wrote that we shouldn’t be anxious, he was writing from prison facing a death sentence. He was relying on God’s wisdom and care, rather than earthly solutions to his problems. All trust was placed in God for everything. If God were to open the doors of his cell and free him--he would rejoice in God’s power and gift. If the prison sentence ended in death--he would still rejoice for the salvation that is his in Christ. His lived in this world of sin but he centered his existence on God and had different priorities that were beyond the carnal. This is the peace of God--which transcends all understanding.
My friend did realize this with time...saying coming to that place is easier said than done. It takes remembering what God has done in the past, and looking forward to what you know God can do in the future. No matter the struggle, this is why we rejoice and give thanks. We belong to Christ and nothing can separate us from his love and mercy. May the peace of Christ be with you all.