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Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts

Monday, November 20, 2023

What's the Lord's Prayer?

Introduction
Last week, we studied Jesus simple instructions on how to pray.  He said don’t try to put a show to impress others when you pray and don’t babble on and on over and over again like heathens.  Instead, he said, “go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private.” (Matthew 6:6)

In today’s message, we’re going to study the example Jesus gave of an appropriate prayer.  The example Jesus gave is what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  We say this prayer together in worship almost every week.  Now, Jesus wasn’t saying this is the only prayer you can pray.  Rather, Jesus gave us this prayer as an example of both the attitude and tone we should have when we pray, as well as being an example of some of the things we should pray about.

Let’s first look at the traditional prayer my congregation says each week in worship during the Pastoral Prayer.

The Tradition Words of The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For Thine in the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Now let’s go through the prayer line by line from Jesus’ sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:9-15.  You’ll notice the words of Scripture are different from what you’re used to.  That’s because I’m reading from the New Living Translation, which puts the Scripture in modern, easier to understand language.

Matthew 6:9
Pray like this:  Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.

Remember, people who follow Christ Jesus are praying to our Father.  God is Jesus’ Father. 
He is your Father too (if you follow Christ).  A good father cares about his kids.  He loves them unconditionally.  He sacrifices for them.  He provides for them and gives them what they need.  Sometimes a good father withholds things from His children—not because He’s mean or doesn’t care, but precisely because He does care.  He knows what His children really need and also when what they want won’t be good for them   So when we pray, we simply talk to God like He is our Father, because He is.

But God is not just any father, God is our Heavenly Father.  That means God is better than our biological father.  God doesn’t have the character flaws and limitations of you dad.  If you had a issues with your dad, you can be thankful God is the Father you always wish you had.  And even if your earthly father was wonderful, you can marvel in the knowledge God is infinitely better than your earthly father when he was at his very best.

When we recite the traditional prayer, we say “Hallowed be Thy Name”.  Hallowed is a fancy old word we don’t use any more.  The closest we come is Halloween--which means All Hollows Eve.  Hallowed is the old English word for holy and sacred.  But we even take the words holy and sacred for granted in modern times.  We use them in church, but what do they really mean?  To be holy and sacred is to be different and special—set apart from all the other common things.  God is not like all the other common things around us.  He is special and unique.  He’s different.

And it’s not just God’s name that is different.  When we say, “Your name is Holy” or “Hallowed be Thy Name”, were talking about God’s reputation.  That’s what a name is—it’s verbal reputation of who you are.  If you tell someone you go to Pleasant Grove Methodist Church, it says something.  We have a reputation people know us by.  What do they know about us?  What is our reputation?  When I’m out in the community and people find out I pastor Pleasant Grove Methodist Church, they might say things like:

  • "Oh! That’s the church that does trunk or treat every year!  My kids love that!  We can really tell y'all are full of love."
  • "Oh! That’s the church that gave my friend $1,000 to help put a roof on her house!"
  • "Oh!  That’s the church where my friend started going and it turned his life around!"
  • "Oh!  That’s the church where I take all my Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes!"

You see, we have a reputation.  People know our church by our name and what we do.  And when we pray to God our Father, we know Him by what He has done.  When you pray, think of all God has done that is recorded in the Bible.  Remember all God has done for your friends and family or for you personally:  how He has cared for you and put people in your life to love you, how He has forgiven your sins and saved you.  Think of all the ways God has been there for you.

One year ago, my church was following the North Georgia Annual Conference of the UMC's rules for disaffiliation.  On December 28th (while everyone was on vacation and 2 days before Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson was scheduled to leave our conference to be reappointed to Virginia), the bishop “paused” our disaffiliation.  Her “pause” was effectively an edict denying over 186 churches their legitimate right to withdraw from the UMC because of the deadlines involved.  We were at a loss as to what to do.  Thousands of United Methodists across out conference were at a loss.  It caught us all off guard and there seemed to be nothing we could do.

People from my church kept asking, "What can we do?"  I didn't know the answer, but I said, let's pray and be patient and wait on the Lord's direction.  So we prayed.  We prayed to our Father, who is in Heaven and has the power to do anything.  And against all odds, God made a way.  I won't list out all the details and steps that took us from despair in January to victory in November.  However, on November 18th, 2023, our church was granted disaffiliation along with 261 other church.  God used all the extra time to increase the number of churches committed to following His Word.

There were 4 churches who didn’t make it out.  They were not approved.  Was that because they didn't pray hard enough?  No. They are still not defeated.   Either God had other plans for them or God will take their defeat and turn it into a victory!  That is the mysterious way God works sometimes.  SOmetimes He doesn't answer our prayers the way we want, but we have faith He always answers our prayers in the right way.  We will just have to trust God and wait and see what He does.

If you ever depsair because God doesn't answer your prayers the way you want, think of Jesus.  Jesus did not want to die on the cross.  What did He pray?  He prayed, "Lord, if there's any way it's possible, let this cup of suffering pass from me."  You see, Jesus didn't want to endure the agony and shame of dying on the cross.  He prayed for the cup to pass from Him.  But He also prayed, "But not my will, but Yours be done."  And Jesus died on the cross.  But God also took Jesus death and turned it into the greatest victory that's ever been one.  Jesus died on the cross but rose on the third day.  And through His ressurection, the whole world can be saved!  So if you ever despair because God doesn't answer your prayers, you are in good company--the company of God's own Son.  And God will turn your unanswered prayer into a victory.  Have faith!

Matthew 6:10
May your Kingdom come soon.  May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

This should be a Christians number one hope and number one prayer.  It’s not about us.  Ultimately, we want God’s to come and His will to be done because our faith says that’s what we really need.  Yes, we have our own hopes and dreams about how we want our lives to turn out.  But our faith tells us loud and clear, God’s plans are always better than our hopes and dreams.  Therefore, we must be like the heroes of faith in the Bible who were always willing to turn their backs on everything they’d ever known and to go where God led them.

Are you ready and willing to surrender your hopes and dreams and truly ask God our Father, “May Your will (not mine) be done on earth, as it is in heaven”?  When you are ready to surrender completely to the will of God, then you are ready to pray about your basic needs.

Matthew 6:11
“Give us today the food we need,”

We have basic needs.  We ask God to take care of them.  The struggles of daily life and prayer are opportunities to practice trusting God.  We sinful humans are incredibly prone to think we can take care of ourselves.  Do we really need God?  Oh sure, we realize we need God at certain moments in our lives—like when we get diagnosed with cancer, or when the church we’ve grown up in and love is in jeopardy.  When we are scared or at our wits end, we go to God and beg for help.  And that’s fine.  God hears us.  But it is far better for our spiritual health if we recognize every day, every moment we desperately need God.  We cannot do life on our own.  We cannot even tie our shoelaces whithout God's help!  We need God even for something as basic as food.  So we ask, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Just like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness, who God gave manna from heaven.  God gave them enough for one day.  He said, “Don’t collect more than one day’s supply.  Trust me.  I’ll give you more tomorrow.”  So we ask God to give us the food and basic needs we need today.  And we trust Him.  God will take care of us.

Matthew 6:12
...and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

Isn’t it interesting that right next to Jesus instruction to pray for daily bread is His instruction about praying for forgiveness?  Don’t miss this.  Forgiveness is as important to your health and wellbeing as is the basic necessity of food.  Let me say that again:  Forgiveness is as important to your health and wellbeing as is the basic necessity of food.  

This is something our church needs to remember and practice very intentionally during this season.  We have been in a hard and bitter fight.  The Lord has brought us through.  We have won the right to disaffiliate from the UMC and pursue the future we believe God wants our church to work for.  But we also still feel the pain and anxiety from the long fight.  There may even be hard feelings between some in our community—Dalton/Whitfield County—or even in our own church.  And we need to forgive one another so we can move on and heal.  And we need to pray, “Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”

Matthew 6:13
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one.

Here is the reminder of who the enemy really is.  Who is the enemy?  It is the evil one, the Devil.  The enemy is not the Bishop or conference leaders who tried to sidetrack our church.  The enemy is not that person at work who told lies about you and hurt your reputation.  You see, you real enemy is not the people or things of this world.  We are engaged in a spiritual battle.  Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”

So don’t give into the temptation to blame your problems on God, thinking He doesn’t care.  And don’t give into the temptation to blame people on earth who oppress you.  It is the Evil One and the forces of darkness in an unseen world who are twisting things up against you.  Therefore, turn away from temptation and not feed the Devil’s influence in your life.  Turn to God in prayer.

Matthew 6:14-15
14 
“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I don’t know how Jesus can make it any more plain than this.  We must forgive or we cannot be forgiven.  Forgiveness is hard.  It’s not some glib thing.  But it is essential.  We must forgive.  Forgiveness is what God has done for us.  And it cost Jesus His life.  Jesus died cruelly on the cross so we can be forgiven and so we can forgive others.  

We all need forgiveness and God is gracious to forgive.  But we in turn must forgive others.  So when you pray, pray like this.  

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For Thine in the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2023

How Did Jesus Teach People to Pray?

Introduction
I have odd question to ask.  It is an especially odd way to start a sermon on what Jesus said about how to pray.  Here’s the question:  Is there anyone here an expert on Dolly Parton?

I am not an expert on Kenny Rogers nor have I ever met him.  I have never even been to a Rogers concert.  I only know 2 or 3 songs Kenny Rogers sang.  But, I did dress up like Kenny Rogers once.  But do you think that qualifies me as a Dolly Parton “expert”?  Absolutely not!

Well, what does this have to do with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and prayer. 
I’m glad you asked!  Part of the fun of Halloween is being able to dress up like a character and pretend to be something or someone you’re not.  The reason I mention this is pretending to be something you are not is also the definition of a hypocrite.

Matthew 6:5
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 

Actors and actresses portray characters—sometimes so believable it’s amazing!  But just because an actor plays a doctor on TV, that doesn’t mean you should take his medical advice!  An actor takes the stage to play a role to entertain.  Their reward is the crowd’s applause.

In Jesus day, the religious leaders liked to put on a show by praying out loud in public.  It was a great honor to be asked to pray in meetings at the synagogues.  Everyone would see you and know you were a respected member of society.  But you didn’t have to wait until the Sabbath to be show off your amazing prayer skills.  Jews in the New Testament prayed three times a day—in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening.  Many religious leaders would show up to public places and pray out loud so everyone could see just how spiritual they were. 

However, Jesus warned us not to put on a show when it comes to our relationship with God and prayer.  He said, “Don’t be like the hypocrites…”  In ancient Greece, hypocrite was the word for an actor who performed in a theater.  Jesus said our relationship with God is to be real, not pretend and certainly not an act we put own to convince others we’re something we are not.  If your goal is to impress others or earn their admiration when you pray, then that is the only reward you will get.  And the praise and admiration of people is cheap and fleeting.  Ask a real actor or actress and they will tell you—one day you’re a star and the next day you are forgotten.

Matthew 6:6
But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private.  Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

When You Pray…
Jesus’ instructions for prayer are very simple.  Go away by yourself, shut the door, and pray to you Father in private.  Notice that Jesus said, “When you pray…”  That means Jesus expected His followers to pray.  It’s not if you pray.  It’s when

you pray.

Prayer is essential in a relationship with God.  It is how we connect with God.  Prayer keeps us focused.  Prayer takes our attention off ourselves and our problems and plugs us into the divine source of all life. 

I saw a video recently that is a wonderful illustration of prayer.  Some construction workers using a corded circular saw to cut some boards on a worksite.  Unfortunately, the word was not long enough to reach from outlet over to the saw horses where they were cutting the lumber (and they didn't have an extension cord).  They thought they were geniuses because they figure out a solution.  They would plug the saw into the outlet and rev the saw up to full speed.  Then they would unplug it and run across the room and let the residual spinning of the blade cut a little bit on the saw.  So little by little, they could cut through the board.  But when I saw it, I thought, "why not just move the saw horses closer to the outlet so you can keep the saw plug into the power source?"

That is how prayer is for so many us.  We do not have the power within us to be all we need to.  God is our source of life and prayer keeps us plugged into The Source of True Life.  Unfortunately, we often are like those construction workers.  We plug into God through prayer and get revved up, but then we unplug and run away to live life.  We run down so fast.  So we run back to our source of power to rev up again and unplug to go live life.  Why don't we just move closer to God through prayer and stay plugged in?  That is what prayer is supposed to be.

And Jesus assumed His followers would pray.  So he said, when you pray, do it privately.

Do It Privately…
Jesus is very clear.  Don’t use prayer as a means to impress others or win honor.  If you do, that’s all the reward you will ever get.  For some, looking good to others may seem pretty valuable.  Is that what you want?  If it is, then go ahead and pretend.  But the applause of people is a very cheap and short-sighted reward.  We are meant for so much more.

Now, does that mean we shouldn’t pray in public at all?  If that’s the case, I’m in big trouble because as a pastor, I prayed in public quite frequently.  A public prayer like a pastor prays at the beginning of a worship service is a different kind of prayer.  The pastor is praying on behalf of the whole community.  The pastor is trying to put the whole congregations' hopes and concerns into words and speak to God.  That is something appropriate to do in a worship service or other public gatherings.  

Our public prayers are part of a communal experience we share once a week in communal worship or at other public gatherings that celebrate what should be happening privately in each of our lives every day.  But if we aren’t praying privately on a day to day basis when no one can see, then our public prayers become hypocritical acts performed only for show that have no real substance.  Jesus said, don't be like that.  he said, when you pray, do it privately, to your Father...

To Your Father…
Jesus gives a very powerful clue to reveal the most important element of authentic Christian prayer.  He said, “When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father."  There’s no magic formula.  You just talk to God the way you would talk to your Father.

How would you talk to your earthly father?  Many are blessed to have great fathers that are easy to talk to.  Some of you love to talk with your father.  Others had a great father, but he has passed away and you miss the meaningful conversations you had with him.  You understand how wonderful it can be to talk to a loving father.  That is how you talk to God.

Not all fathers are easy to talk to.  I understand.  Mine wasn’t.  But that’s because earthly fathers are imperfect humans and sometimes selfish or broken.  Some people struggle with the image of God as a Father because they never had a good father.  I didn’t have a good father, but it never kept me from relating to God as a Father, because I simply know that God is the perfect Father.  So I imagine what it would be like to talk to my Dad if all his shortcomings and failings were taken away and he was made perfect in every way.  

So when you pray, imagine the ideal father, the perfect father.  He would be easy to talk to.  He would always be kind and patient.  He would be slow to get angry.  He would always have time for you and always want to talk with you.  He wouldn’t be self-absorbed and always wanting to talk about Himself.  Instead, He would be keenly interested in you always wanting what’s best for you.  He would love you unconditionally and help you in everyway He could.  He wouldn’t try to bribe you by giving you everything you ask for, but instead would give you the things you really need and guide you to grow as an individual to reach your full potential.  That is what God is like.  He's the perfect Father.

And how would you talk to this perfect Father?  There’s no magic formula.  You just talk.  And sometimes you would have a long conversation about something really deep.  Other times you might make a joke about some silly thing you did that day or some irony you encountered.  Sometimes you might just send him a text message on his cellphone to check in or to pass along a bit of information or to ask a quick question.  Sometimes you may call in desperation and say, "Help!  I'm out of gas!" or "I've got a flat tire!  What do I do?"  Sometimes you might just call and say, "I love you, Dad."

Prayer isn’t hard.  If you talk you can pray.  And we communicate all day long in many ways to many people.  You do the same thing with prayer—only you are doing it with God, who is your Father.

Matthew 6:7-8
“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!

As far as I know, all religions include some form of prayer.  And there are often elaborate formulas for how to pray.  Many religions have prayers that are chanted over and over again--the idea being the gods will eventually be worn down by the incessant prayers of the supplicants.  It’s sort of like the 4-year-old child who bombards his mom with the endless request:  “Can I have a cookie?  Can I have a cookie?  Can I have a cookie?  Can I have a cookie?”  

Jesus says, don’t be like that.  God cannot be worn down by our incessant chanting, but He does care about you and wants to help you with what you really need.  He knows what you need.  In fact, Jesus says, your Father already knows what you need even before you ask! 

Some people ask, “Well if God already knows what I need, why do I have to pray.”  Well, for one thing, because we need to talk to God.  He’s the source of Life.  Prayer is how we plug in.

Another reason is prayer changes us.  Sometimes we start out praying for one thing, but through the process of praying we realize we’re asking for the wrong thing.  So we grow through prayer.

I can think of another reason.  The spiritual forces of darkness cannot stand to hear our prayers.  You cannot see, it, but Scripture says we are engaged in a spiritual battle.  Demons are all around wanting to trip us up and lead us astray.  Our prayers to God are a loud shrill that pierces their ears and drives them insane until they flee away.  So pray.  Pray, pray, pray!  It doesn’t have to be some fancy prayer.  You just have to talk to your Heavenly Father and the Enemy flees away.

We will talk more about prayer next week when we consider Jesus’ instruction about the Lord’s prayer.  But I challenge you to focus on prayer this week.  Establish a specific time each day when you will spend time in prayer.  And then also pray short prayers throughout your day.

You can study all kinds of materials and formulas about how to pray, but the best way to learn is simply to pray.  So, get out there this week and practice!  Just pray!

Monday, October 23, 2023

Love Your Enemies

Introduction
We are working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount from Matthew chapters 5-7.  His words have been challenging.  Today, we will find they are even more challenging.  Today, Jesus commands His flowers, “Love your enemies.”

Matthew 5:43-44
43 
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 


Throughout His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows He is the fulfilment of the Law.  In fact, He specifically said in Matthew 5:17, “I did not come to abolish the law…  No, I came to accomplish their purpose.

The Old Testament Law is quite clear that we are to love our neighbors.  Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But nowhere in the Old Testament does it say to: “Hate your enemy.”  However, the Jews of Jesus day lived under tha hostile occupation of the Roman empire.  They had many enemies and they resented and resisted their Roman oppressors.  Many Jewish leaders therefore misinterpreted the Scriptures to say: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”

It’s human nature to love people who are good to you and hate your enemies, but God’s Holy Law in the Old Testament holds human nature in check.  We find several places where the Old Testament teaches people to do good to their enemies.  Such as 

Exodus 23:4-5“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. 5 If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.

Proverbs 25:21 – If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat.  If they are thirsty, give them water to drink.

So we see, Jesus upholds the spirit of God’s Law in the Old Testament while challenging the Jewish religious leaders misinterpretation of it.  Notice how the Old Testament teaches to do good to your enemies (and the emphasis is on doing good rather than on a loving feeling).

Matthew 5:44-45
44 
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 

It’s troubling to think God gives sunlight and rain to both the evil and the good.  In other words, God gives the same good things to evil people that He gives to good people.  Why, if God were fair, wouldn’t He reserve good things for good people and give wicked people only the evil they deserve?

Perhaps that’s the kind of world you long for—a world where evil people are punished and good people get rewards.  Is that what you want?

I can understand that.  However, the problem is we would all be punished and none of us would get a reward because none of us is good.  We have all acted like enemies of God.  Listen to what Romans 3:10-12 says:  “No one is righteous—not even one.  No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God.  All have turned away; all have become useless.  No one does good, not a single one.”  And Romans 3:23 sums it up: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”

What that means is every one of us is evil.  We have all been enemies of God who “actively opposed or were hostile to God.”  Rather than obeying God, we chased our own selfish ambitions.  Rather than surrender to God’s will, we wanted to do things our way. In sinful pride, we boasted “God is on our side.” But in fact, we were trying to use God’s for our own selfish purposes.

If God truly punished His enemies and only gave good to those who deserved it, everyone one of us would be living in Hell and there would be no one left for God to reward—no one except Jesus.

But as it is, God has given “his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.”  I am thankful.  Aren’t you?

Matthew 5:46-47

46 
If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?  Even corrupt tax collectors do that much.  47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?  Even pagans do that. 

Jesus calls His disciples to be different than worldly people.  If you only ever love people who love you and are good to you, then you are no better than a worldly pagan.  A pagan—in biblical terms—is a heathen, an ungodly person, anyone who doesn’t worship the one true and living God of the Bible.  If you only love people who love you and are good to you, then you are no different than the ungodly, immoral, corrupt enemies of God all over this world.
Jesus wants us to be different.  Jesus wants us to be like Him.  Jesus wants us to love our enemies.

A·ga·pe
Now, it’s important to clear up what it means to love—according to Jesus.  We often have immature notions about love.  Biblical love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling of affection. Jesus isn’t telling us to find pleasure in our enemies or their bad behavior.  The love Jesus commands us to give is a specific kind of love.  The Greek word Jesus uses is Agape, which is the “sacrificial love of God”.  Agape is not a feeling; it is a verb.  In other words, it’s a love you give.  Agape is to love someone sacrificially, expecting nothing in return.  It's the way God loved us when He sent His one and only Son to die for us on the cross—not because we deserved it, but because God loves us sacrificially.

Agape love is what Jesus did when He allowed His hands and feet to be nailed to the cross, because Jesus knew His death would make our salvation possible.  So, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies…” He isn’t telling us to have warm fuzzy feelings.  Jesus wants His followers to love their enemies sacrificially, expecting nothing in return.

It’s nearly impossible to live like this.  But Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of God’s law.  Jesus loved perfectly.  He even loved His enemies—even when they:
Twisted God’s words for their own evil schemes,
Told lies about Jesus and His Disciples,
When they spat curses at Him and beat Him and mocked Him,
And even when they cruelly drove nails through His hands and feet and displayed Him on a cross to die while all His enemies watched and gloated.

Rather than cursing them or getting revenge, Jesus prayed and said:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Jesus’ prayer wasn’t just for those standing at the foot of the cross.  He was also praying for you and me. Remember, in one way or another, we have all been enemies of God.  Every time we were dishonest, or were angry, or lusted in our heart, or were unfaithful, or sinned in any way, we were responsible for driving the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet.   It was our sin that put Christ on the cross.

But rather than seeking revenge or punishment, Jesus loved His enemies—us.  He perfectly represented the will of His Father in heaven.  And Jesus challenges us to do the same.

Matthew 5:48

48 
But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

We were created in the image of God.  We are to follow in the footsteps of Christ—to represent God, just as Jesus represented Him to us.  Just as Christ loved us, we are to love everyone else—even our enemies.  We are to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.

But how can we possibly be perfect?  No one is perfect. That is true.  Humanly speaking, it si impossible, but with God all things are possible.

One of the distinctive teachings of Methodism is the belief in Christian perfection.  John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught Christians should strive to be perfect in love.  And Wesley taught that Christians—with the help of the Holy Spirit—can grow, over the course of a lifetime, to become perfect in love.

Methodists believe Christians cannot make the excuse, “Oh, we’re only human.  We’re not perfect.”  It is true, that we will make many mistakes—even after we decide to follow Jesus—because indeed, “We are only human.”  However, there is one way we can be perfect (with the help of God’s Holy Spirit).  The Holy Spirit can help us grow to a place where everything we do is motivated by love.  And so, with God’s help, if we cooperate, we can be perfect in love—even as our Father in heaven is perfect.  But we cannot do this on our own.  We need God’s help.

Conclusion
God will help you if we seek Him with all your heart.  You must first surrender to God through Jesus Christ.  You must recognize you are helpless to save yourself.  Nor can you stop sinning simply by shear willpower.  You need God to save you.  So you must repent and beg God for mercy.  Jesus will save you , but you must trust Jesus to save you.  And you must stop trying to do things your own way and let Jesus be Lord.

Then, you must follow Christ as a Disciple.  Jesus said if anyone wants to be His disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily.  A cross is a symbol of suffering and self-denial.  Furthermore, you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit.  The same Spirit of God who created the universe comes to live inside you when you become a Christian.  That Holy Spirit can enable you to do anything the Spirit wants you to do, but you have to go along with the Spirit and do what He says.  And then, the Holy Spirit of God will enable you to truly love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.  And the same Spirit will also enable you to love your enemies.

Monday, October 9, 2023

 

Introduction
The Jewish people of the New Testament were commanded by God to be honest.  The 9th of the 10 commandments says, “Do not false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16) And throughout the Scriptures, God instructs people to be honest.  Just as God does not lie, we should not lie. 

And yet, how could Jews live under the oppression of the all Romans, and not lie?  Think about it.  Suppose you were in their shoes and some Romans soldiers came to arrest and execute your brother, who was hiding in your basement.  And they demanded, “Where is your brother?”  And you say, “I don’t know!  He isn’t here.”  Your lie may save his life.  And yet, in lying, you broke God’s command not to lie.

The Romans weren’t stupid.  They knew the Jews would lie for each other; who wouldn't in that situation?  But they also knew the Jews were religious and they feared God who told them not to lie.  So they might make the Jews swear a vow.  “Swear to God you don’t know where your brother is?”

An oath or vow like this was a very serious business to ancient people—especially the Jews.  Jews believed more than any other people that God was real and all powerful and all knowing.  Lying to God was a serious offense and He would punish you.  The Jews believed that wholeheartedly.

Now that’s a problem if you live in occupied territory.  What were the Jews supposed to do?  Well, Jewish religious leaders came up with some work arounds so Jews could lie to the Romans and not offend God.  We can deduce some of these from Matthew 23:16-22.  They could make a vow “by God’s Temple” as long as they didn’t make the vow on the “gold of the Temple”.  Or they could make a vow “by heaven” as long as it was not “by God in heaven”.  So these were ways Jews could use a vow to sound honest but actually lie. 

That’s convenient.  If we found ourselves in their shoes, we could probably all appreciate the practicality of being able to lie to the enemy like that.  Kids who live in abusive households often learn to lie for very similar reasons.  In order to avoid abuse and unfair punishment, they learn really quick it’s easier to lie and cover up than to be beaten.  It’s a coping mechanism and it often works.

The problem for many kids who learned to lie because they're abused is they grow into adults who are habitual liars.  Even though they are no longer in an abusive situation, they are still in the habit of lying because it’s more convenient.  Sometimes it’s just easier to lie than explain the truth.

The unfortunate Jews who lived under Roman occupation learned to be good liars.  They even learned to feel good about lying by using vows to cover it up with religious language.  But what was to stop them from using religious language to now lying to each other?  Nothing.

And into this world of lies and deception, Jesus speaks the Truth in His Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 5:33-37
33 
“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ 34 But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. 35 And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. 36 Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. 37 Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.

On Earth as it is in Heaven
Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.  His preaching often started with words like Matthew 3:2, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  Now the people to who He preached (just like us) lived in the real world.  The real world is a place where people lie and cheat and steal.  The real world is a place where we must look at all the bad options available and pick the least evil one. Right?  You know what I mean.  We live in the real world, not some fantasy.

It’s ironic that we call the broken world we live in “The Real World”.  It’s real to us, because it’s all we’ve ever known. But Jesus came to show us this isn’t the way the world is supposes to be.  He met our broken world head on and challenged all its broken people and broken systems.  And Jesus refused to bow down to the way things work in our broken world.  It may be one of the main things that annoyed the religious and political leaders most about Jesus—that He refused to get with the program about the way things work in the “real world”.  And so, when Jesus refused to cave in and play along by the rules of the “real world”, they arrested and executed Him.  They said, see, this is what happens to people who don’t play by our rules, you die in shame and agony on a cross.

But then an amazing thing happened.  Jesus rose from the dead on the third day because He is Lord!  You see, in the “real world” honesty and integrity may get you rejected and killed.  But in the Kingdom of Heaven, those who follow Jesus rise to new life—eternal life.  And we all have to decide which is really the “real world”.  Is it this broken world of lies or is it the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached?

Jesus challenged all His followers, “Pray like this:  Our Father in Heaven… Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…”  (Matthew 6:8-10)  Jesus came to overthrow our broken world and He calls all His believers to have faith to live as though His Kingdom is the true reality and this so called “real world” which we believe is reality is really a corruption and a lie that is passing away.  God’s Kingdom is coming, and we are called to live by the Kingdom’s principles.

And in God’s Kingdom, there’s no reason to lie.  There is no sin or abuse.  There is no Enemy.  We are called to live with honesty and integrity.  We’ve got to let go of our habits of lying.  We should be such honest people we no longer need vows to prove we’re telling the truth.  So the person who says, “Yes” is just as believable to as the person who says, “I swear to God, yes!”  In fact, the person who says yes may be more believable than the person who makes a vow.  Because why would you even need to say, “I swear to God…”?  If you have to swear to prove you’re telling the truth then it almost implies the possibility that you may have lied at other times when you didn’t swear to God.  In the Kingdom of Heaven, where Jesus is King, people are always honest.  Yes means yes and no means no.

Can Christians Make Vows or Swear Oaths?
Some Christian denominations interpret Jesus words about vows to mean Christians should not make vows or take oaths of any kind.  For instance, Quakers, Mennonites, and the Amish interpret Jesus’ words in Scripture to mean they should not make vows or swear oaths of any kind.  In fact, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement (officially called the Religious Society of Friends), was put in prison because he refused to swear on the Bible to tell the truth.  Ironically, Fox was a deeply religious man and argued the very Bible he was being compelled to swear upon required him not to swear an oath.

Was George Fox right?  Does the Bible forbid Christians from making vows or swearing oaths?  No.  I don’t believe it does.  That’s not the point of what Jesus is saying.  Besides, Jesus was involved in a trial where an oath were used.  When Jesus was on trial before the Jerusalem High Council (Matthew 26:63-64), the high priest said, “I demand in the name of the living God—tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”  Jesus replied, “You have said it.”  That’s not much different than when the judge asks you in court, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” and you respond “I do.”

Other Christian denomination may see it differently, but Methodists (and the vast majority of Christian denominations throughout history) have allowed and even encouraged Christians to make vows in certain situations—like when you get married and say, “I do” or when you become a Christian and join a church and are asked, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord?” and you respond, “I do.”  So the point is not to prohibit vows.  The point is to uphold the high value of honesty and integrity in God’s people in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Conclusion
Jesus reveals once again that the demands of holiness in the Kingdom of Heaven are beyond the reach of our sinful hands.  We fall so far short of God’s glorious standards. We’re so accustomed to living in a broken and sinful world, we don’t even realize how much we sin.  Jesus points out our sin—not to shame us, but—to wake us up to our desperate need of salvation.

Do you struggle with honesty?  Are you a liar?  Before you deny it, reflect honestly and deeply.  Some of you learned to lie when you were in an abusive situation—maybe an abusive relationship or marriage, maybe even as a child who could not be honest with your parents and still survive.  Now you are free of that abuse, but you still cling to your habit of lying.  Maybe it’s just easier to lie than tell the truth.  Isn’t it time to ask God to heal you so you can start to value honesty as Jesus does?

Some of you think you are honest.  You may even be proud of how honest you are.  But think about it. 
Did you ever laugh at someone’s joke when everyone else laughed even though it wasn’t funny?  That was dishonest.  Why did you lie?  Were you trying not to look foolish?  We’re you just being polite?

Have you every smiled and pretended understand someone when you couldn’t really hear or understand them?  Have you ever covered up your physical flaws to make yourself look better than you really do?  Maybe put on a little makeup or dye in your hair or wore clothing that covered up your flaws.  Isn’t that in some sense dishonest?

Friends, we’ve all lied.  If we’re honest about it, we can all see it and admit it. It may be a small thing to us, but we’re talking about the absolutely perfect and holy standards of God.  You see?  We can’t fulfill it.  And when we’re proud of our honesty, we can see even our pride is misplaced and sinful.  We’ve nothing to be proud of.  Even our so-called righteousness is but filthy rags.

But with Jesus there is mercy and grace and forgiveness.  With Jesus, there is salvation.  We must lay down our false righteousness and throw ourselves upon the mercy of Christ.  Repent and turn to Him today and seek to live by the principles of His Kingdom.

For we all must decided what is real.  Is this world we see around us, with all its corrupt rules and customs, the “real world”?  Or is the real world the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus taught about and showed us with His life?  You must decide.  Make your choice today, right now, this very moment.