Opportunistic Evangelism

witness

The best witness follows God’s lead.

          “A little boy built a model ship, glued all the pieces together, and worked on it for hours.  It was perfect.  Every detail was correct, down to tiny sailors standing on the deck.  He put it in a glass case.  He wouldn’t let his brother play with it in the bathtub.  He was going to keep it perfect by keeping it safe.

“His parents bought a real boat so they could spend the weekends sailing out on the harbor.  They loved it.  At first.  It was a lot of work to maintain.  Boat owners will tell you that the day you bought your boat was the happiest day of your life, and the day you sold it was the second happiest.  At first, they used it a lot.  But then they used it less.  It was expensive.  After a few months, they went to spend a day sailing and found barnacles growing on the side, algae all over it, and a dead motor.  A real boat is only kept in shape by being used.

“The two boats worked in opposite ways.  The model was preserved by being kept safe.  The real boat was preserved by being used.”

<James Miller, found at https://illustrationexchange.com/illustrations?category=631.&gt;

CONTEXT: This is the last word in Matthew’s Gospel, the last thing Jesus says to His disciples, His final instructions before returning to heaven.  They were gathered on a mountain top in Galilee, their home territory, for this final encounter.  Incredible as it seems, Matthew honestly reports that some of the disciples WORSHIPED Jesus, but some still DOUBTED.   Let’s begin there.

For those who DOUBTED, the words of Jesus had no immediate meaning.  His promises of His authority and abiding presence were not for the doubters.  They weren’t committed and at that time, had no part with Him.  The promises were not for them.

Instead, Jesus’ promises were for those who had faith and WORSHIPED Him.  They knew and believed that He commissioned them under the AUTHORITY that had been given to Him by God the Father.  They knew and believed His promise to be with them ALWAYS was perfectly reliable.  They would count on His abiding presence to inform and empower their obedience to His commands.

And so it is for all of us in this very moment.  This passage is for everyone who worships Jesus as Lord of their life.  It will sound like mere words in the ears of those who have not crossed the threshold of faith.  Do you have a model faith or a real faith?  Know which you are as we begin.

  1. This passage has been misunderstood.

Matthew 28:19-20 is known as “The Great Commission” and is frequently cited as a call to evangelism.  On this basis we have been sending missionaries to foreign lands for over 150 years.

Preachers love to cite the four verbs as imperatives to soul-winning.  GO has been understood as being assertive in seeking out t unsaved, creating our own opportunities to tell others about Jesus.

MAKE DISCIPLES has been taken as a call to “soul winning,” a term that never appears in the Bible.  The emphasis is lopsidedly on making converts.

The fact that the word BAPTIZING appears here has been taken to mean that baptism is somehow necessary for salvation.  The evidence in Scripture points to baptism as a demonstration of salvation, not a means of obtaining it.

TEACHING is the most obvious of the four verbs and Jesus Himself explained the aim of our teaching ministry; “TO OBEY EVERYTHING I HAVE COMMANDED YOU.”

The usual use of this passage creates problems.  If Jesus’ Great Commission makes every disciple responsible to assertively create opportunities to witness, then we all bear responsibility for every human contact we make throughout the day.  This is a massive responsibility that none of us is capable of undertaking.  It is not biblical, not Jesus’ intended understanding of the Commission, and produces a lot of guilt about the subject of evangelism.

  1. How this passage should be understood.

At the risk of sounding like I am splitting hairs, a correct interpretation of the passage requires translating the word GO properly. We first need to observe the order of the words.  In the Greek, the word GO has emphasis because it comes first.  Here’s how a direct translation reads: “GOING THEREFORE DISCIPLE YE ALL THE NATIONS, BAPTIZING THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, TEACHING THEM TO OBSERVE ALL THINGS WHATEVER I GAVE COMMAND TO YOU; AND BEHOLD WITH YOU I AM ALL THE DAYS UNTIL THE COMPLETION OF THE AGE.”

Second, we must observe the nature of the word: GO is a verb and we are commanded to it, but it is assumed we are going already.

As translated above, GOING THEREFORE is not a command to get moving, but to do something as you are moving.  As you live, put your real faith to work.  To put it another way, Jesus said, “As you go, make disciples.  Baptize them and teach them to be obedient.”

Now we can move to application of the rest of the commands.

The word DISCIPLE means to make new converts and to mature those who have accepted Jesus.  Discipleship is a life-long process where followers of Jesus help each other to mature spiritually.  I believe Jesus had Deuteronomy 6:6-7 on His mind as He gave this teaching.

THESE COMMANDMENTS THAT I GIVE YOU TODAY ARE TO BE UPON YOUR HEARTS.  IMPRESS THEM ON YOUR CHILDREN.  TALK ABOUT THEM WHEN YOU SIT AT HOME AND WHEN YOU WALK ALONG THE ROAD, WHEN YOU LIE DOWN AND WHEN YOU GET UP.

Even though the word GO is crucial for our understanding of this passage, in the Gk it is the word DISCIPLE that is the main verb.  It can be said that GO, BAPTIZE, and TEACH are all explanations of discipleship.  If you live for Jesus, the reason you draw breath today is so that you can disciple and be discipled. That’s the bottom line.

The word BAPTIZE is important to all Christians but not all of them will agree with the way I am about to define it.  Baptism is an action that is both a proof of a real faith and a means of discipleship.  It serves the purposes of witness and maturing a person’s faith.

Throughout the centuries, the Church has recognized this dual role of baptism and has historically used it as a means of maturing new believers.  For example, in the first century church, candidates for baptism had to go through THREE YEARS of preparation before they were baptized.

Finally, the word TEACH takes in all forms of instruction in Scripture and spiritual disciplines.  Because the main ingredients for maturing followers of Jesus are prayer and the Bible, it will always be necessary to be taught.  Folks who figure they have no more to learn reveal they have a “model” faith, not a “real” one.  A faith that works and is not just limited to display purposes is a growing faith.  There is always more to learn.

What we teach and learn draws us closer to God.  We grow by book learning and by life experience; we must not rely on one or the other but seek both.  Teachers teach by setting an example to follow as well as by passing along information, illustrating it with personal experience.  Teachers are lifelong learners.  In this life, we are both teachers and learners.  This is our greatest duty.

The best witness follows God’s lead.

We usually see witnessing as something we initiate, an opportunity we create by being assertive.  Worse, what often motivates us to witness is a false sense of guilt when we aren’t assertive, leading us to approach people in ways that aren’t genuine.  The result is often an awkward, unproductive encounter that may cause more harm than good.

This passage in Matthew’s Gospel indicates a better biblical way to approach witnessing.  Witnessing encounters start with the knowledge that God is the Initiator.  He will guide us to persons on occasions where He has already prepared their heart and ours.  He will give you words to say.

The second step is ours.  We need to listen to the Holy Spirit for the urging to speak and the words to speak.  Awareness of a God-directed opportunity to witness will come to us quietly, a gentle urging that can be easy to ignore or overlook.  What’s needed is active hearts, eyes and ears to sense the opportunities as He sets them in front of us.

The third step is also ours.  We must speak up, say something.  What’s needed here is obedience, not eloquence.  These opportunities are time-sensitive immediate obedience is necessary.

The final step involves the witness, the other people, and God.  We need to fully see and hear the others as we enter into conversation with them, so we can find points of connection to them as people and points to connect them with God.  We need to be awake and aware of the Spirit’s guidance as the dialogue develops, and follow His lead.  In these instances, our book learning (the Bible) and our experience (testimony) will be useful, so we need to be prepared to talk about both of them.

Be forewarned.  These opportunities will not arise in moments convenient or comfortable for you.  Your adult skills of flexibility, risk assessment, and sensitivity will be required.  It will be tempting to “pass by on the other side” ala Luke 10, but you will not be obedient if you do so.

If you have never sensed God leading you in this way, then something is wrong at the center of the faith you’re claiming.  Persons with a “model” faith will not sense God leading them in this way; they’ve schooled themselves on how to ignore it.  Persons with a “real” faith will want to have this experience and will grow from it when they take a chance that Jesus’ promises of authority and abiding presence are true.

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Labor Disputes

denarius

Please read Matthew 20:1-16 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

The first to cry “foul” are people who feel they have suffered loss.  You rarely hear people complain because they benefited unfairly.

For example, in one of last Sunday’s football games, a player for the LA Rams committed a foul against a player for the NO Saints.  But the referees did not call a foul.  Saints players and fans are outraged at the “no call” play and believe it cost their team the victory and a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Imagine for a moment if the offending player called a time out, gathered the officials around him, and asked them to call a foul.  What if he pointed to the giant screen in the stadium and confessed?  What if he said, “See, there I am cheating.  I wish you’d go ahead and call a foul on me.  It’s not fair I should get away with such an obvious foul”?

How do you think his teammates would have reacted?  The other team’s players and fans?  Some would no doubt object to such a generous, selfless act because winning would me more important to them.

God’s grace is not going to fit your idea of “fair.”

  1. Setting the stage: context.

Much of chapter nineteen is about who goes to heaven.  The rich young man was concerned about what he had to do to get ETERNAL LIFE (v. 16).  Jesus’ response was tailored to this individual.  He told him to go and sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  The man was prepared to do anything BUT that: HE WENT AWAY SAD (v. 22). Jesus reflected on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 23-24).

The disciples were stunned (v. 25); they assumed the rich were blessed by God & that’s why they were rich.  Peter wasn’t really listening.  He was thinking that if the rich young man could get into heaven by donating his wealth, he could too (v. 27).  After all, that’s just what he had done!

There are two keys to what Jesus taught.  One is in 19:26 where Jesus said, “WITH MAN THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE, BUT WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.”  The other is in 19:30 and 20:16 as “book ends.”  These verses identify the one main point of the parable: “THE LAST WILL BE FIRST, AND THE FIRST WILL BE LAST.”  This is Jesus’ teaching: no one earns eternal life; God gives it.  This point will be applied when James and John’s mother’s requests Jesus make her boys His left and right hand men (20:20-28).

  1. Reading the program notes: The one main point.

The emphasis in all of scripture is always on what God has done for us.  He chose us.  He sent His Son Jesus to die for us.  He forgives our sins.

The point of this parable is that salvation is God’s gift.  It is never about our deservedness.  We can never qualify ourselves.

  1. Watching the play: plot points.

It is essential that we identify God with the LANDOWNER.  He goes out and calls people to have ETERNAL LIFE.  Notice the workers do not seek Him out, nor do they apply for a job or show him a resume; all of this event is at the LANDOWNER’s initiative and depends on His resources.

In v. 2 we see the LANDOWNER and the WORKERS agreed to a specific wage: one DENARIUS.  This was the usual rate of pay for a day’s work.  This is a very typical scene in Jesus’ time; land owners kept costs down by hiring day laborers.  Jesus’ parables often start with an everyday circumstance, then got to something surprising and that is certainly how this parable unfolds.

Every three hours the LANDOWNER went to the marketplace to hire more workers (vs. 3-5). The later workers agree to work for WHATEVER IS RIGHT, not for a specific amount.  This will be an important detail later when the workers are paid.

Verses 6-7 give us the first clue about the generosity of the LANDOWNER.  He went out a fifth time that day to hire more laborers.  It is near the end of the day.  A more practical employer would not have bothered, as he would not get any more than a couple hours’ work out of t latecomers.  Moreover, day laborers were usually down and out people.  When the LANDOWNER asks why they’ve been standing around all day, their reply is only half of the truth; “NO ONE HAS HIRED US.”  Inquiring minds want to know why no one made them an offer!  They did not have a regular job for a reason.  The ones still hanging around the marketplace at that time of day were likely to be “the worst of the worst.”  The youngest and healthiest workers of the bunch would’ve been hired earlier in the day: the workers still hanging about the ELEVENTH HOUR were the “leftovers.”  Knowing all this about him makes the LANDOWNER seem even more generous.

The tale becomes more curious in verse eight, when the LANDOWNER pays off the workers beginning with those who were hired last.  This would make no sense if this had been an actual event.  Instead, it is a plot device that serves what Jesus taught in 19:30 and 20:16.  It makes sense only in that light.

The tension builds in verses nine and ten as the workers are paid.  Naturally, the men hired first thing in the morning are expecting extra payment as they see the LANDOWNER’s generosity toward those who were hired later in the day; the latecomers were paid a full day’s wage even though they didn’t work a full day.  That is undeniably generous.

Vs. 10-12 = The all-day laborers are naturally upset when they get exactly the same pay as the latecomers.  “YOU HAVE MADE THEM EQUAL TO US,” they complained.    “Foul!  Not fair!” they protest.

In verses 13-15 the LANDOWNER’s answer does not justify his actions to the bellyachers.  He simply affirms his right to do as he pleases.  He calls them FRIEND & reminds them they were hired to work all day for a denarius.  What’s fair is that all the workers agreed to work for a wage that was RIGHT. Legally, none of them have a right to bellyache.

The LANDOWNER rightly exposed the real motive of the complainers.  They were not trying to right a wrong or insist on what was fair, they were simply ENVIOUS.  The LANDOWNER was GENEROUS, not unfair.

God’s grace is not going to fit your idea of “fair.”

          Some people interpret this parable as a comparison of people who accept Jesus early in life and those who are saved late in life.  That’s a mistake because the center of the parable is the actions of the LANDOWNER, not the workers.  The main point is about the generosity of the employer.

God is the hero of this parable or it is just a strange little story that’s hard to figure out.  It’s really simple and rather obvious when we put our attention where it belongs; on the LANDOWNER.  Then we see that he was more interested in being generous than in meeting someone’s self-centered notions of what is fair.

This parable contradicts Peter’s very natural but wrong assumption that we can earn our way into heaven.  We like to think that we are somehow very deserving of the eternal life God offers.  We’d like to believe that all these good deeds, the hours of service, have somehow made us worthy.

That’s a worldly and self-serving point of view and something we must unlearn.  We are saved by grace, nothing else.  Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve (eternal life) and not giving us what we do deserve (eternal death). So whatever notions we have about fairness are likely to be self-serving, not real.

The application of the teaching gets at the motive that powers our work in church or in the community.  Any motive based on earning us something is not a God-centered motive.  We need to do what we do because we love God and His people.  Motives that begin with a love of self should always be suspect.  God has promised heavenly rewards for our good works, but it is still up to Him to decide what those works are and who truly deserves them.

In commenting on this passage, William Barclay wrote, “In the Christian church seniority does not necessarily mean honor.”  We’ve all heard church people – who ought to know better – recite their achievements and investments in the church as reasons for expecting to be heard and heeded.

The Bible does not support that kind of pride.  Either we do things out of love or, like Peter, we do them expecting to rewarded with power and influence.  It’s wrong to think experience or education qualifies us to lord over one another, earning us some kind of status in the church or in heaven.

In those moments we are very far from Jesus, who said His mission was service, not self-service.  In the very next chapter (Matthew 20:28) Jesus said, “THE SON OF MAN DID NOT COME TO BE SERVED, BUT TO SERVE, AND TO GIVE HIS LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR MANY.”  When we go on about our “rights,” and what we “deserve,” we’re grieving the Holy Spirit and are guilty of hypocrisy.  It is better by far to copy the attitude of Jesus; His humility and self-sacrifice.  It is better by far to rely on His AMAZING GRACE than our puny works.

 

RESOURCES:

Message #32

“Our Unfair God,” Ministry magazine (pp. 14-16), Gary Moyer

The Story of God Bible Commentary: Matthew, Rodney Reeves

Advent Attitudes: Reverence

Advent 4

When we worship God we make Him known.

(Please read Matthew 2:1-12 & Luke 2:8-20 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV (1984) for my research.)

Every year about this time we lament the “commercialization of Christmas” and silently pledge not to go to such extremes next year.  Somehow eleven months go by and here we are again.  it seems the only solution is to laugh at ourselves and stay out of the stores until February!  In that vein, I offer a couple of Christmas stories involving kids and gift-giving.

“Two young boys were spending the night at their grandparents’ house the week before Christmas. At bedtime, the two boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers. The younger one began at the top of his lungs:

‘I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE…’
‘I PRAY FOR A NEW NINTENDO…’”

“His older brother leaned over, nudged him and said, ‘Why are you shouting? God isn’t deaf,’ to which the little brother replied, ‘No, but Grandma is!’”

One father thought he’d found a new angle and told his daughters that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday and he only received three things.  So they were not be upset with what they found under the tree.

As it happened on Christmas morning, one little gal expressed her disappointment with her gifts, very nearly in tears.  When the father reminded her about Jesus only getting three things, she responded “How do you think Jesus felt when he got three things and none of them were toys?!”

(http://desperatepreacher.com/christmas/xmashumor.htm)

Now, at the end of Advent, we add the fourth and arguably the most necessary Advent Attitude: Reverence.  We must seek to regain a sense of the awe of the shepherds, the wonder of Mary, and reenact the worship of the Magi before we throw ourselves into gifting and feasting.  We must pray for God to recreate some of dazzling light of the star that will lead us to Jesus.

Reverence is quiet.  It is understated.  It requires a little solitude and some time for undistracted attention to the Spirit of God in us.  Hands need to be folded and kept still.  Hurried thoughts need to be gently brought back to an inner vision of the radiant baby, the Son of God.

  1. The Magi worshiped God with their giving (Matthew 2:1-12).

Their first gift was to seek Him because their journey was long in both mileage and time.  We have so little information on these visitors, all we can say with certainty is that there more than one (“magi” is the plural form of “magus”) and that they came FROM THE EAST.  Not knowing an exact point of origin it’s impossible to say when they started, but we have four clues about the timing of their arrival.

In v. 1, it plainly says AFTER JESUS WAS BORN. Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birthday; all that comes from Luke.

In v. 7, King Herod directly asked the Magi THE EXACT TIME the star appeared to them.

Add to that v. 16 where King Herod had all the boys in Bethlehem TWO YEARS OLD AND UNDER killed.  This was an attempt to slay the newborn king whom he thought must be no older than two years, based on the TIME the Magi told them.

In v. 11 the text says they came to a HOUSE, not a stable.  For whatever set of reasons, the family did not immediately return to Nazareth, but remained in Bethlehem for some time.

Their journey started with one fact (a new Jewish king was born) and an idea where he might be found (in Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews).  That’s going to a lot of trouble on the basis of very little information.

Their journey had some danger.  In addition to the usual hazards of travel, there was the danger indicated in Herod’s lethal reaction to the Magi not reporting in to him as he’d commanded.

From the Magi we learn that worship is more about the giving than the gifts.  Their gifts have been thoroughly analyzed by Bible scholars, without much insight added.  People have tried to say that the various gifts are various symbols.  What makes the most sense to me is that they were the kind of expensive gifts one would present to a king to curry favor.  What’s more important is following their example by making sacrificial gifts, whatever we might see as “valuable.”

God’s purpose in these gifts is that they funded the family’s escape to Egypt.  They were small but sold for a hefty price.

  1. The angels worshiped God with their singing (Luke 2:8-20).

The song was the culmination of their message.  The message was: “The most wonderful thing has just happened.”

“I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY THAT WILL BE FOR ALL THE PEOPLE. This is a major theme of Luke’s Gospel.

“TODAY IN THE TOWN OF DAVID A SAVIOR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU; HE IS CHRIST THE LORD.

“THIS WILL BE A SIGN TO YOU: YOU WILL FIND A BABY WRAPPED IN CLOTHS AND LYING IN A MANGER.”

The song is an example of heaven-sanctioned worship.

“GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST.”  In other words, “May God be praised in heaven” and/or “to the highest degree.”  Pointing to God is one job humans and angels share; we give Him the glory. For example, in Luke 19:38, the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem shout, “PEACE IN HEAVEN AND GLORY IN THE HIGHEST.”

“ON EARTH PEACE TO MEN ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTS.”  What we generally hear at Christmas is “on earth, peace, good will toward men.”  That line is based on a mistranslation in the KJV.  It should actually read as the NIV translates it.  The point: God bestows PEACE on whomever He chooses and He chooses His people.  Paul confirmed this teaching in RMS 5:1; THEREFORE, SINCE WE HAVE BEEN JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, WE HAVE PEACE WITH GOD THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST

Worship is more about the singing than the song.  Of course I am NOT referring to any quality of musicianship.  Seven times the Psalms urge us to MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE UNTO THE LORD.  Those verses put the focus on the worshiper’s heart, not his or her vocal chords.  I am referring to the attitude of the worshiper.  As usual, the inner parts are more important that the outer ones.

Because we are committed to your having a MERRY Christmas, I want to conclude with a couple humorous versions of the account of the visit of the Magi.

Three wise men walk into a barn…yes I said BARN…and see Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. Joseph asks why they are disturbing them as his wife had just given birth and needed rest. The first wise man said “I have brought gold for the child.”
Joseph thanked him but asked them to leave. Then the second wise man said “I have brought frankincense for the child.”
Again Joseph thanked him but was getting annoyed as they were interrupting a special moment between him and his wife. He then, forcefully, asked them to leave.

The third wise man said “But wait there’s myrrh!”

It is true that most of what we think we know about the magi has come from tradition or legend, not from the Bible.  As we’ve seen, the Bible does not give us a number of Magi, but legend says there were three, named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  They are so named in the book Ben Hur.

I recently came across a legend of a fourth Magi named Jacques.  Jacques did not make the trip to Bethlehem but stayed behind in Persia.  He refused to go because he was caring for a baby dolphin.

When the other three came back, they were full of wondrous tales of the journey and praise for the newborn king of the Jews.  When they had at last told all, Balthasar sighed and leaned back and said, “Poor Jacques, you missed all these things to stay home and feed that baby dolphin.”

Jacques merely waved him off.  He said, “I like to think I have served a youthful porpoise.”

<https://upjoke.com/three-wise-men-jokes&gt;

Throughout this Advent season we have observed the attitudes of joy, expectation, obedience, and reverence.  May the days ahead bring all these experiences to you.  May they transcend all the distractions the world offers so you will know the fullness of joy and satisfaction that only God can provide.

When we worship God we make Him known.

With this in mind, let us make worship the central part of Christmas.  Let us make Jesus known in our homes, our community, and our world.

Advent Attitude:Obedience

Advent 3

Please read Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to research these remarks.

            If you haven’t discovered it yet, please take a look at the website Bible Gateway.  It is a handy way to do research on the Bible and you can read from many different Bible translations without requiring loads of Bibles in book cases.

Bible Gateway reported last week the most often-searched Bible verse of 2018: “Out of more than 2 billion page views conducted by visitors to Bible Gateway during 2018, the most popular verse for the year was Jeremiah 29:11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2018/12/this-is-the-most-popular-verse-in-2-billion-pageviews-during-2018-on-bible-gateway/?utm_source=bg&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weeklybrief&spMailingID=58037004&spUserID=MTI3ODAxOTkxODkwS0&spJobID=1541969998&spReportId=MTU0MTk2OTk5OAS2

You would not want to read too much into this one factoid, but 2 billion is a big number, except in comparison to the federal debt.  So it may be safe to infer from this choice of Jeremiah 29:11 that people are looking for some reassurance.  We who believe need to be reminded from time to time that the trust we put in God is well-placed.  We need to be encouraged to continue to be faithful that our obedience to God is making a difference.  We need to hold fast when trials discourage us.

Obey God especially when it costs you.

  1. Joseph obeyed God (Matthew 1:18-25).

He was the type of man who you’d expect to obey God.  Matthew lists five obedient qualities Joseph evidenced.

He was a RIGHTEOUS MAN (v. 19).  Normally, we think of RIGHTEOUS as obeying God’s law.  However, in this situation the “righteous” thing for Joseph to do was to divorce Mary.  Jewish custom required divorce to break an engagement where adultery had been committed.  The little word AND figures large in this verse.  Joseph was RIGHTEOUS and yet, he did not want to make a public issue of Mary’s pregnancy which was assumed to be the result of adultery.  So there’s something deeper at work in Joseph’s heart than legalism.  Love is there, too, and it tempered the legal response.

He did not want to EXPOSE Mary to PUBLIC DISGRACE (v. 19).  The Greek word for PUBLIC DISGRACE is fourteen characters long.  It meant to punish someone by exposing them to the contempt of the community.  The punishment was shunning; making the person an object of scorn and ridicule.

Adultery was supposed to be punished with death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 and John 8:3-5), so there’s a greater danger to Mary than that of a broken heart.  The point is that Joseph was looking for a way to obey God, keep his honor, and not punish Mary.  He was merciful instead of being vengeful.

In the original language, the phrase AFTER HE HAD CONSIDERED THIS (v. 20) means that Joseph came to this decision after a lot of thinking about it.  He did not act rashly.

But when it came to being obedient, Joseph did not take his time; he obeyed immediately (v. 24).  The text plainly points out that when Joseph awoke from the dream, he brought Mary into his home as his wife.  He brought her under his protection.  He accepted her shame as his own and defied the customary response to cases of adultery.

Joseph obeyed the angel’s instructions and, on his own initiative, went beyond them (v. 25).  Matthew points out that Joseph gave up his  conjugal relations with Mary.  He was not instructed to do this, so it may have been something he felt honor-bound to do.  He may have had the foresight to know that any relations between them might cause some to say Jesus was his son.  This way, it is historically clear Joseph was not the birth-father of Jesus.

Obedience in this matter would cost him.  Matthew identified two costs Joseph paid for His faithfulness to the angel’s message.

To accept PUBLIC DISGRACE with Mary.  As far as anyone else knew, Joseph was the injured party here.  Mary had wronged him; she had been unfaithful to him.  As a man and as the innocent party, Joseph held all the cards and Mary’s life in his hands.  He chose mercy before God explained the real reason for Mary’s pregnancy.  After that, Joseph changed his mind about the marriage and proceeded with it.

It cost him what most people would consider a “normal” marital relationship, the customary way to consecrate a marriage.  The Bible confirms the marital rights of husband and wife.  It is an important aspect of the relationship.  Their marital relationship began under a cloud of suspicion.  Instead of the week-long celebration most Jewish couples enjoyed, Joseph simply set aside custom and took Mary into his home immediately.  And, as Luke tells us, one of the first things they did as a couple was to pack up and make the long journey to Bethlehem.

  1. Mary obeyed God (Luke 1:26-38).

She was the type of person you’d expect to be obedient to God.  Luke details five virtuous aspects of Mary’s character.

As the text tells us several times, Mary was A VIRGIN.  Mary had been moral and observed God’s command to have sex only in the marriage relationship.

She was HIGHLY FAVORED by the LORD (v. 28).  This Greek word (charitoo) literally means “full of grace.”  It is used of all believers in Ephesians 1:6 and indicates we are recipients of God’s grace, not dispensers of it.  The use of this word shows that Mary is on the same gracious status as the rest of us; she should not be made semi-divine.

THE LORD was WITH her (v. 28).  This explains the grace we just mentioned.  God is gracious by being present with us and by working His will in us.

She identified herself as THE LORD’S SERVANT (v. 29).  Mary’s faith was mature enough to make her humble.  She knew her place in relationship to her Creator.

Though the angel’s message GREATLY TROUBLED Mary (29), she was obedient.  The appearance of the angel and the greeting alone prompted this reaction and caused her to WONDER what this was all about.  Gabriel’s response was to answer her questions and try to calm her fear.  (In the previous section, Zechariah questioned the angel that appeared to him and was disciplined by being rendered mute.  Mary does the same thing and is not disciplined.  There is no obvious difference between the questions, so the difference my lay in the people.  Zechariah must have disbelieved the angel but Mary believed him.  She asked a question out of curiosity, not out of disbelief.)

Her obedience in this matter would cost Mary.  Luke’s Gospel and a little reasoning reveal four ways in which agreeing to carry God’s Son would require sacrifice on Mary’s part.

We go back to the PUBLIC DISGRACE we mentioned in regard to Joseph.  As the apparently offending party, and as the woman, Mary would have suffered a greater share of the DISGRACE.  Contrast the DISGRACE the people of Nazareth threatened with the grace God offered Mary in v. 28.  Remember our comment on the phrase HIGHLY FAVORED?

As we noted with Joseph, there is the problem of starting a marriage under these adverse conditions.  This initial awkwardness was expertly portrayed in the film “The Nativity Story.”  I recommend it.  (Incidentally, the two leads would also appear in Star Wars films.  From the Star of Bethlehem to Star Wars – it’s a fun bit of trivia – look it up!)

Mary would have to face the physical and emotional conditions associated with pregnancy and childbirth.  We can’t assume that just because she was carrying the Savior that she was spared morning sickness, getting kicked, labor pains, etc.  The conception was supernatural, but we can assume the rest of it was natural and typical.

This is not affirmed in Scripture, but I think we can assume that both Joseph and Mary were concerned how Jesus might be treated by their family and the people in Nazareth.  In that culture, an illegitimate child would probably have to bear that stigma and be treated cruelly.

This happened once when Jesus returned to Nazareth after beginning His public ministry.  In Mark 6:3 someone referred to Him as “Mary’s son.”  This might be taken as an insult, that Jesus was no son of Joseph.  While we know that was biologically true, it’s unlikely this remark referred to His divine father.

Thankfully, this was not always the case.  Luke 2:52 reports, the boy JESUS GREW IN WISDOM AND STATURE, AND IN FAVOR WITH GOD AND MEN.

Obey God especially when it costs you.

Obedience that costs us nothing is not going to be worth much.  Being faithful while trying to take control isn’t a great act of faith at all.  Obedience to God is risky, difficult, and in some places in the world, downright dangerous.

Mary and Joseph are examples of obedience that was costly.  Mary’s obedience took her all the way to the cross.  That was a sword that cleaved her heart in half.

In a December, 2012 article for Relevant magazine, Nick Price wrote, “As we approach Christmas, let us not forget the faithfulness of Mary and what she was willing to risk. In her story, we are reminded that following Christ often leads to persecution and rejection by the world. Sometimes the price we pay for obedience is rejection. We must ask ourselves, What are we willing to surrender to God? Are we willing to be used for His purposes in the world? Are we willing to trust Him to provide for us when the rest of the world may turn its back? Mary models for us what obedience in the face of rejection looks like.”

There is a place where you have not really said “yes” to God.  There is something He’s called you to do and you haven’t yet obeyed.  Advent is an especially good time to begin a life-long habit of obedience.

 

RESOURCES:

One Perfect Life, John MacArthur

The Bible Knowledge Key Word Study, Darrell L. Bock

Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek Lexicon

Searching for the Perfect Gift

Gift

Jesus encouraged people to seek God and find Him.

Please read Matthew 7:7-12 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Last Christmas a little boy did not get what he wanted.  He decided to negotiate with Santa and wrote the following:

“Deer Santa, I am riting this on the day after X-mas and I am very sad.  I only received 1 of the 2 presents I asked for.  Sense you ate my cookies I will asoom that my missing gift was a miss take.  I will give you 1 week too fix this.  Jeremy.” (Spelling errors are his.)

His parents saw this as an opportunity to teach their son a lesson and composed a very professional-looking “reply” from Santa: “Dear Jeremy, I’m sorry you are disappointed with your presents.  You asked for two very expensive presents and Santa can only do so much.  You need to learn to be grateful for what you have, not upset about what you don’t.  If you continue to complain I will have no choice but to add you to the naughty list next year.  Santa.”

Jeremy fired back with another note to Santa: “Deer Fatty, your threats don’t scare me.  I played your game and you did not deliver.  This is not O.K.  I will give you 1 week and then you will pay.  Jeremy.  P.S. I don’t know why you care that it is expensive when you have elf slaves to make things for you.  I think you are naughty for having slaves.”

What would you do next?  Jeremy’s parents decided another reply from Santa was needed: “Dear Jeremy, You are being a very bad little boy.  Because you cannot be happy with what you have, I have talked to your parents and told them to take away your Wii U.  Now you have nothing.  Once you learn to be grateful, perhaps you can have it back.  I am very disappointed in you, Jeremy.  You will need to be an extra good boy this year if you want to make it back on the nice list.  Santa.”

Jeremy is one unforgiving kid.  He wrote a third letter; “Deer Santa, I do not like that stunt you pulled with my parents.  You are on my naughty list.  Be afraid.  You look slow and easy to kill.  Enjoy your cookys next year because the will be poison.  I hope you die.  Jeremy.”  (Emphasis his.)

(You can see these notes for yourself at https://thoughtcatalog.com/callie-byrnes/2017/12/this-boy-didnt-get-everything-he-wanted-for-christmas-so-he-decided-to-get-back-at-santa-with-these-hilarious-letters/.)

I wonder what Jeremy’s Christmas will be like this year?!!  This is a sad and ridiculous example of how disappointment can overtake a person’s better judgment, resulting in toxic words and deeds.

Sadly, sometimes people have this kind of feeling toward God when His answers to their prayers don’t match up.  I know a very intelligent man who remains an unbeliever because his childhood prayers were not answered as he wanted.

Today, we hope to encourage you to pray by proving, with Jesus’ own words, that prayers to God are always heard, always answered, and always make a difference, even if the difference is limited to our own attitude.

  1. Be encouraged: God hears & answers seekers (7-8)

Three verbs appear twice: ASK, SEEK, KNOCK.  There is an ascending level of commitment/ involvement.  Each requires more of you.  The verbs are repeated for emphasis and to model persistence in prayer.

The tense of the verbs is called “infinitive,” which describes a constant, ongoing activity.  We are to keep on asking, never cease seeking, and keep on knocking on heaven’s gate.    Persevere in prayer until you receive a clear answer from God or He changes your mind.

As God knows what I need better than I do, and as He will do what He wills, why should I pray?  There are at least four excellent reasons to PRAY CONTINUALLY, as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says.

The first is the most obvious: God commands prayer.  Be obedient and pray.

The second is that God designed prayer for our sake, not His.  Let’s be clear; God is not waiting for any of us to pray to “activate” His will.  He does not depend on us for anything.  Instead, He commands prayer because communication is key to all relationships and loving communication promotes loving relationships.  God commands prayer to deepen our spiritual maturity.

James 1:5-8 gives specifics on what our attitude should be when praying: IF ANY OF YOU LACKS WISDOM, HE SHOULD ASK GOD, WHO GIVES GENEROUSLY TO ALL WITHOUT FINDING FAULT, AND IT WILL BE GIVEN TO HIM.  BUT WHEN HE ASKS, HE MUST BELIEVE AND NOT DOUBT, BECAUSE HE WHO DOUBTS IS LIKE A WAVE OF THE SEA, BLOWN AND TOSSED BY THE WIND.  THAT MAN SHOULD NOT THINK HE WILL RECEIVE ANYTHING FROM THE LORD; HE IS A DOUBLE-MINDED MAN, UNSTABLE IN ALL THAT HE DOES.

Third, we should pray because Jesus’ promises regarding prayer are unconditional.  For example, in this passage EVERYONE’s prayer is answered.  When people talk about “unanswered prayer” they really mean is “God said ‘no’ or ‘wait,’ or said ‘yes’ to something they didn’t want.”

Fourth, the Bible clearly promises that prayer changes things; it has an effect on our world.  As James 5:16b says, THE PRAYER OF A RIGHTEOUS MAN IS POWERFUL AND EFFECTIVE.

  1. Be encouraged: God’s answer is always what’s best for you (9-11).

More than any earthly parent, God knows our needs.  He will not tease or do evil to us.  Nor is He a child-centered parent who will indulge our wants.  Jesus used humor to make this point:

BREAD versus STONE = Some loaves of bread are baked so hard they become stone-like, some stones take on an appearance similar to bread.

FISH versus SNAKE = Both fishes and snakes have scales, some snakes swim and eels look like snakes.

The point is, if our earthly parents (YOU WHO ARE EVIL) can be trusted to tell the difference and not give us something bad, we can trust God (who is good) to do even better.

Whether God’s answer is what we want or not is not important; it is not the basis for evaluating prayer.  Rest assured God’s answers are always GOOD GIFTS.  Our theology of prayer is not to be centered on us.  God’s answer to prayer reflects His nature and His will.  It is never about our sincerity, posture, gesture, or choice of words.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is false.  Prayer is designed by God to be humbling and focused on Him, because self-focus is hardly ever healthy or helpful.

Full disclosure: it gripes me when people preach negatively about prayer: “Don’t do this or that.”  They reveal their ignorance of Scripture and the true purpose of prayer.  The best prayers are like tears: they flow from a heart overrun with either happiness or sorrow.  Prayer is the inner self expressing itself to God; every other consideration is secondary at best.

  1. Be encouraged: life with God is simple (12).

There is a big difference between simple and easy.  Following Jesus is not easy in the sense that it is a lifelong commitment to change and growth; hardships will be faced, expectations raised, persecution endured.

But living for God is not complicated.  Jesus reduced our ethical life to two commands, both to love, and one simple rule on how to treat others: just the way we want to be treated.

In guiding people’s behavior, you can take two approaches.  The Legalistic approach is to try to anticipate every kind of wrongdoing and write a law to cover it.  Congress is an example of this approach of multiplying the rules.

The Principled approach is to advocate for what is good by setting forth principles.  Everything else is evil.  As an example of reducing the rules is our work on constitution review.  One of our goals is to streamline the current constitution.

The Golden Rule – like the board game “Othello” – “takes a moment to learn, a lifetime to master.”  Using this rule requires us to embrace the principle of the preciousness of others.  Paul explained this principle: Philippians 2:3 = DO NOTHING OUT OF SELFISH AMBITION OR VAIN CONCEIT, BUT IN HUMILITY CONSIDER OTHERS BETTER THAN YOURSELF.  See also Romans 13:10 = LOVE DOES NO HARM TO ITS NEIGHBOR.  THEREFORE LOVE IS THE FULFILLMENT OF THE LAW.

We will always learn new ways and be confronted with new situation in which we can apply this principle, because Jesus said we were to apply it IN EVERTYTHING.  Motivation to use the Golden Rule is also quite simple: it comes from a love for self.  To the degree that we have a healthy self-image and take care of ourselves, it makes it easier for us to treat others in the same way. It may sound backward to say it this way, but a sensitivity to others is founded on knowledge of self; particularly what makes me feel loved.

Interestingly, a variation of the Golden Rule appears in all the world’s major religions.  However, Jesus is the only one who expressed the principle positively.  All others said it negatively; “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you.”  In this, Jesus sets an example of positivity that we should seek to follow.  His positive version embraces both sides of goodness: it is actively doing good works as well as avoiding evil ones.  Jesus’ version can be applied more broadly.

  1. How to help another seeker find God.

A = Active Listening (withhold your own opinions, suspend judgment for the moment).

B = Begin Where You Meet Them (match the need(s) they express with biblical teaching & church ministry).

C = Consider Their Experience (avoid using terms or making references that they don’t know).

D = Develop Your Own Story (stress points of your own experience common to all and/or similar to theirs).

E = Engage in Dialogue (your goal should be to do about half the talking and half the listening).

F = Find a Time to Continue the Conversation (initial encounters should be brief, later ones lengthier).

G = Get to an Application (an invitation to church is the place to start, invite a decision as the Spirit leads you).

Jesus encouraged people to seek God and find Him.

Earlier in Matthew’s version of these teachings, Jesus taught His disciples to avoid praying out of a hypocritical motive (to earn the praise of others).  In this section, He clarified what our motive for prayer should be.  Then He told us how to live out the godly life that goes into our prayers.

Teaching about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another should go hand in hand, because people who love God will love others.  The Bible teaches a lack of love for neighbor betrays a false love for God.

This is one reason I felt lead to express some “ABCs” of how we can have conversations about God even when we have just met the other person.  We do all we can on Sundays and Wednesdays to present the word of God truthfully and compellingly.  But the living out of that word is something we all must do as much outside the church walls as we do within.

During this season, many of us will spend more time out in the public than we normally do, as we search for Christmas gifts.  (After all, you don’t want to let Jeremy down again!!)  Part of our ambition for the remaining days before the Christmas Holy Day must be to use these public moments to tell others about Jesus.  It is wise for us to make best use of the public’s general affinity for Christmas to make Jesus Christ more widely known.

The first step is to not be in such a hurry.  Linger in public places, make time for conversations.  Then start some!  Make an invitation to church.  We will have Christmas Eve at 6 pm.  Do someone an act of kindness and explain why you did it.  Start somewhere!

 

RESOURCES:

Sermon #929

The Story of God Commentary: Sermon on the Mount, Scot McKnight

Risky Business

Please read Matthew 25:14-33 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

risk

After counting the cost, faith takes risks.

          Freakonomics is a franchise of enormously successful books authored by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  The books enjoy worldwide popularity because they ask more pertinent questions and arrive at unusual answers that they substantiate with hard numbers.

For example, in one chapter of the book they ask, “If crack dealers are so rich, why do they live at home with their mothers?”  The answer, it turns out, is that gang membership, like many legal businesses, enriches the people at the top of the organizational chart, while it impoverishes people at the bottom.  They calculated that a street dealer in Chicago made just $3.30 an hour.

Why do they live with mom?  Because at that rate of pay, it’s an economic necessity.  I mention this because even though a study of risk versus benefit of crack dealing falls heavily on the risk side, there are people lining up for those jobs.  This is a horrible example of ignoring the risks and misperceiving t benefits, with tragic results.

Our subject this morning is risk.  Why are churches so averse to risk?  How should people of faith look at risk versus benefit when making a decision?  This is not merely a mathematical equation, but also pays attention to spiritual factors that can’t be expressed on a balance sheet.  For us, the bottom line is discerning the will of God, arriving at a shared understanding of what God wants us to do.  After determining a direction, we rely on God to supply us with courage and perseverance to follow through on our decision.

Jesus addressed the issue of risk in the parable of the Talents.  Whenever we look at a parable, the question we must ask is, “What is the one main point of the parable?”

THE ONE MAIN POINT OF THIS PARABLE: The risk-takers pleased their master; the safe-player did not.

  1. The “$5 and $2 Servants” did bear fruit.

We’re not told HOW they did it, but the results speak for themselves; the first two servants doubled their master’s investment.  By means of contrast with the single-talent servant (whom I’m referring to as the “Dollar General”), we can infer that the $5 and $2 Servants were not WICKED or LAZY like the $1 Servant had been.

Two facts support this interpretation.  One, verse sixteen plainly tells us that the $5 Servant put the master’s money TO WORK.  Money at work is money at risk.  You’ve heard “you have to spend money to make money?”  Investing money or exercising it as capital to fund a business venture both require some risk of loss.  You simply can’t do business without it.

Two, the fact that they GAINED money implies that they were willing to take some measure of risk and used the master’s money to make more money.  Success comes to those who take risks; those who refuse all risk will never know success.  This is true financially and in every other aspect of life as well.

The two servants received the same reward and the approval of their master.  The servant entrusted with $5 made $5 and therefore earned more money than the servant who made $2.  However, the master made no distinction between their rewards.  Both servants received the same reward and the same commendation.

The reward both the fruitful servants received was a promotion: “YOU HAVE BEEN FAITHFUL WITH A FEW THINGS; I WILL PUT YOU IN CHARGE OF MANY THINGS.”  This makes it sound like the master was testing the servants to see if he’d rightly evaluated their abilities.  As verse fifteen states, the master apportioned his money to each of the three servants ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY.

Therefore, he believed the $5 Servant was the most ambitious and talented one. The master therefore put greater trust in him.  The $2 Servant was not as ambitious or talented, but he still merited the master’s trust.  However, the master suspected the $1 Servant was unreliable and didn’t put much trust in him at all.  The master’s judgment was vindicated in all three cases.

The servants who pleased their master received the reward of a promotion and an enthusiastic commendation.  The master said, “WELL DONE, GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT!  COME AND SHARE IN YOUR MASTER’S HAPPINESS!”  He called them GOOD AND FAITHFUL servants, commending their character and achievement.  Notice the master goes beyond mere business and makes a personal invitation to join him in the HAPPINESS a successful business brings.

  1. The “Dollar General” refused risk and was unfruitful.

We are told exactly how the unfruitful servant failed his master: he just buried the money.  He was unwilling to take any risks.

In fact, he was so “risk averse” that he didn’t even entrust his buck to a bank, where it might’ve earned a few pennies of interest.  He protected his master’s money but that was not the purpose of this little exercise.

He said he was AFRAID: his master knew better.  He might’ve very well been AFRAID, but that’s hardly a good excuse (he may have been afraid of failure or rejection, these are genuine fears and/or excuses we have all experienced) and the master saw through it immediately.

Whether he was sincerely afraid of his master or not, the Dollar General attempted to shift the blame for his fruitfulness from himself to his master.  He complained, “YOU ARE A HARD MAN,” and effectively said, “You expect others to make money for you.”  This is what the redundant lines, “YOU…HARVEST WHERE YOU HAVE NOT SOWN” and “YOU…gather WHERE YOU HAVE NOT SCATTERED SEED.”

The master was unwilling to accept fear as an excuse and was unwilling to accept the blame for the Dollar General’s failure.  The master threw the Dollar General’s own words right back in his face.  He exposed the fallacy of his excuses by saying, “If you were really afraid of me, you should’ve at least deposited the money in the bank, but you didn’t even do that!”

The master condemned the $1 Servant.  He exposed his true motives: wickedness and laziness.  It sounds to me like the WICKED servant resented his master’s wealth and power.  That was why he was willing to insult his master and be defiant at the time of reckoning.

The master also condemned the Dollar General as LAZY.  He didn’t want to bother with the bank or anything else, he simply made sure he didn’t lose the dollar entrusted to him.

In verse 30, the master condemned the $1 Servant as WORTHLESS.  These are three strong words of condemnation.  We must not gloss over the severity of the master’s condemnation and use them to motivate ourselves – if necessary – to avoid deserving similar condemnation from our Heavenly Father, our true Master.

The unfruitful servant also suffered two stiff penalties.  One, the TALENT he returned was taken away and given to the ten-talent servant.  In this way, the master encouraged fruitful service.  He said, “FOR EVERYONE WHO HAS WILL BE GIVEN MORE; HE WILL HAVE AN ABUNDANCE. WHOEVER DOES NOT HAVE, EVEN WHAT HE

HAS WILL BE TAKEN FROM HIM.”

Two, while the fruitful servants were welcomed into the master’s HAPPINESS, the unfruitful servant was thrown OUT of the master’s presence.  He was thrown INTO THE DARKNESS; darkness being a symbol of sin in the Bible.  He was to be cast out of the master’s presence, into a place WHERE THERE WILL BE WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH; signs of extreme regret, anger, and despair.

When taken in tandem with the other parables in Matthew 25 and Jesus’ introduction of them with the words AT THAT TIME (verse one), this part of the parable is clearly a warning of Judgment Day, when all of us will be called to account for how we used the resources God entrusted to us.

After counting the cost, faith takes risks.

Typically at this time of year, we inventory what God has done FOR us and are appropriately thankful.  When did you hear someone being thankful for what God has done THROUGH them?  When are we grateful for what God has done WITH us?

God has not called us to be “risk-averse.”  There is no virtue in seeking a “risk free” life; indeed, there is no such thing.  Risk is part of life; it is unavoidable.  What we can do is attempt to minimize risk or manage it, taking on risk in order to accomplish more.  We need a change of mind and heart on this point: we need to consider risk to be a tool we use to determine and do God’s will.  If we never do more than we know we can do, we will never experience what God can do

To help motivate this mind-set, I will close by telling you about three churches I knew in a state in which I have previously served, all of them closed.  Without ever running out of money, they ran out of people and ceased to be a church.

In one church, a single family ran off the rest of the congregation.  The church never officially closed, but now it’s only used for family functions.  They even put new carpeting in the sanctuary after they stopped holding worship service.  Today it’s a doll house; a plaything for the family that makes up the membership.

Another church ceased operations, selling their building.  It became a restaurant and bar.

A third became a hay loft; you can see the bales of hay through the windows.

I suspect these churches were populated by “dollar disciples” like the Dollar General in Jesus’ parable.  As a result, none of them survive to our time as houses of worship.

What this age and this culture demand are daring disciples; people who will take on risk in order to have a witness and a work in our community.  There is nothing less than survival at stake.

Seven Modern Maladies and God’s Solutions (6 of 7)

Anger & Self-control

Anger can quickly lead to other sins.  If controlled, we can avoid a falling-out.

If you are 50 year of age or older, you probably know this guy:

skipper2

the “Skipper” character from the TV series “Gilligan’s Island.  Do you remember the character’s real name?  Jonas Grumby.  Do you remember the actor’s name?  Alan Hale Jr.

Do you remember we identified the Skipper as a symbol of GLUTTONY in a previous message?  Perhaps you’re wondering why we’re picking on the Skipper twice.

We needed a symbol for WRATH or anger, and who was the guy that when he lost his temper hit Gilligan on the head with his hat?  That must have happened at least once an episode.   As often as it happened, you’d think I could find a picture of it on the internet, but I could only find this one.  Remembering what I can of the episode pictured on your notes, I recall the Skipper was only pretending that he was going to hit Gilligan.  His anger never broiled over into really harmful violence.

Of course, that doesn’t make anger right.  Physical abuse is only one kind of abuse, and anger can cause all kinds of harm without leaving any physical marks as evidence.

  1. The vicious vice of uncontrolled anger (Matthew 5:21-26).

Anger is a feeling of opposition and the emotions/actions it motivates.  (I was careful to use the word “motivates” in that sentence to counter the excuse that someone “makes” us angry.  We always have a choice whether to be angry or not and therefore always bear responsibility for our choices.  No excuses allowed; angry reactions can be avoided.)  The classic word for this sin is “wrath.”

Anger can be a deadly sin.  It says “can be” because we need to understand that the one word, ANGER, can refer to two situations.  One situation is a flash of anger and the second is a settled and lengthy decision to remain angry and act upon it.

Initial anger (the “flash” of anger”) is most typically a morally neutral experience.  Like temptation, it can come out of nowhere to surprise us.  We are not morally responsible if a sudden feeling of anger hits us that way.

That said, if we predispose ourselves to feel anger by being characteristically unhappy, negative, overly sensitive, grudge-holding, or a drama queen, then even flashes of anger can be immoral; they are our responsibility because we’ve made anger a greater part of our character.  Anger isn’t as likely to come as a surprise to a person who makes it a way of life.  Character is always a factor in determining moral guilt.

A decision to be angry or sustain anger is more common than a flash of sudden anger.  It’s what we do with our feelings of anger that makes us guilty.  Words and actions are other factors in determining moral guilt or innocence.  What we choose to say and/or do in response to anger is where our responsibility clearly lies.

Motive is a third aspect in judging moral guilt; of the three motives for anger, only one of them is good.

FRUSTRATION is a motive for anger where the person says, “I didn’t get my way.”  We typically get frustrated over little things.  Frustration is founded on self-centeredness and immaturity.

FEAR is a motive for anger that says, “I might not get my way.”  Fear and anger are the two most basic human emotions.  We respond more quickly to these stimuli because a quick response might be necessary to survive a life-ending threat.  However, at least 90% of the things we fear never happen and when they do, they rarely threaten our survival.  This is a survival mechanism that God hard-wired into our brains; it can make us overreact to fear, causing nervousness that is unhealthy and too often immoral.   If fear is ongoing, we call it “stress.”

RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION is a spiritual motive that declares, “It didn’t get done God’s way.”  There is only one instance in the Gospels were Jesus is said to be angry.  In Mark 3:5, Jesus is angry and distressed at the stubbornness of hypocritical hearts.  People commonly cite Jesus’ chasing the moneychangers and sellers out of the temple as a time He got angry, but none of the Gospel writers explain it that way.  Instead, zeal is the motive offered for that act (see John 2:17).  Following Jesus’ example, we can say several things about RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION to distinguish it as the only godly motive for anger

ANGER is a sin when it is based on self-centeredness; it begins as a perceived threat to self-interest.  RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION starts in love for God & addresses sin and/or disrespect of God.  RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION is often a response to hypocrisy where ANGER is often a result of hypocrisy.  Here are several observations about the difference between the virtue of RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION and the vice of ANGER.

RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION defends the truth while ANGER often tramples over it.

Like Jesus, persons expressing RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION are not characterized by aggressive words and deeds while people given to ANGER are often aggressive in what they say and do.

ANGER tends to be sudden, explosive, and frequently out of proportion to the actual offense suffered.  RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION is measured because it is a considered response and never out of proportion.

RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION is never an act of revenge and would not consider “fighting fire with fire.”  Unlike ANGER, it seeks reconciliation, repentance, and restoration.

ANGER is characterized as flaring up over trivialities while RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION upholds fundamental moral issues, encouraging obedience to God’s will.

Unlike ANGER, RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION is not about self-defense or even defending others or God’s reputation.  Instead, it is about doing what is right and calling others to do the same.

We’ve looked at Jesus’ example regarding anger, now we’ll look at what Jesus taught about anger in Matthew 5.  First, He proved the seriousness of anger; it can become a sin (vs. 21-22).

Were you to ask a stranger if they were a good person, what would be the most likely answer?  “Well, I haven’t killed anybody.”  Is that because we consider murder to be the most serious sin?  Would that person be surprised to hear that Jesus considers ANGER to be as serious a sin as murder?  That being angry is akin to murder?

“YOU HAVE HEARD THAT IT WAS SAID…BUT I TELL YOU” is the expression of contrast we read throughout the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is introducing a newer, better, deeper, and more true understanding of spiritual and moral life.

Under the old way, anger that did not result in murder was more or less OK.  Certainly considered a “misdemeanor” if at all.  But under Jesus’ way, anger is a sin, without regard to whether violence occurs or not.

Second, to avoid being guilty of serious sin, Jesus commanded swift and righteous resolution of anger (vs. 23-26) by giving two examples, one set in a religious context and the other in a secular context.

In the context of temple, Jesus taught that resolution must precede worship.  Consider: ANGER is sin.  Sin disrupts our relationship with God.  Worship is impossible under that circumstance.  In this predicament, it is essential to pause BEFORE worship to reconcile with other person, (your BROTHER or sister).  By way of another example, 2 Peter 3:7 implies that a disrespectful husband risks having his prayers “hindered” by the way he treats his wife.  Here is an overlap of relational and spiritual that merits a deeper examination.  (I can personally vouch that Peter’s warning is true.)

In the context of the legal system of the day, Jesus appealed to a practical and wise side of the issue.  Jesus advised that it is easier to settle a lawsuit out of court than it is after the judge has arrived.  That is probably still true today!  Just as an issue should be settled before worship, so should an issue be solved before appearing before a judge.  The person who fails to resolve in a timely way risks losing everything.

In this teaching Jesus underscores the foolishness of giving into anger.  Whether it’s a quick fuse or a slow burn, anger has destructive consequences.   Wise people will consider the consequences and exert the self-control necessary to squelch anger, reconcile relationships, and honor God instead of disobeying His will.

  1. The vital virtue of self-control (James 1:19-27).

As James presents it, self-control is a matter of timing.  We write this because he makes three references to time as central to his teaching about self-control in communications.

The first reference to timing is QUICK TO LISTEN; which means to get all the facts before reacting.  Begin by checking your perceptions.

– Do you have all the facts straight or are you overreacting to a misunderstanding?

– Are you really angry at that person or are you angry because something going on in your mind or heart that does not involve them?  If there is not a cause and effect relationship, then your anger is more likely to be a sin.

– Ask yourself, “What is my motive?”  If it is to “get even” or anything other than giving God glory and reconciling people, there’s a good chance your anger is just selfishness, no matter how self-righteous or reasonable you can make it sound.  Cancel the “spin” in your head!

– Ask yourself, “Is this any of my business?”  Previously in this series we’ve learned that godly ambition includes living a quiet life, minding our own business.

Next, since you can’t read minds, look at the situation from the other person’s perspective.

– Try to think of extenuating circumstances or other meanings to their words and deeds.

– In conversation with that person, check your perceptions and their intention.  Tell them how you see things and ask them if they see them differently.  Try to forge a common understanding of what is causing anger in your relationship.

Finally, by faith, try to see the situation from God’s perspective.

– If there is not a command of God being violated or a good deed left undone, is there really any reason to take offense?

– Can you be certain you are in the right on the matter and how you intend to resolve it?

– We have been warned that on Judgment Day, all “careless words” will be judged by God (see Matthew 12:36).  How will you feel when petty and hurtful words are repeated before Jesus?

The second reference to timing is SLOW TO SPEAK, which means to prefer silence and to carefully guard your words.  As we’ve been learning on Wednesday Bible Studies, the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of words.  One piece of wisdom is that the best away we can avoid speaking rashly is to avoid speaking.  Silence may not always be the best choice, but taking time to think is always good.

The amount of time we need to take before giving a comment or answer depends on how long it takes you to do the aforementioned three steps of homework prior to answering.  Besides, if you take your time, you will find that a good deal of hurtful speech and miscommunication can be avoided.  Taking time may give you an opportunity to recognize bad speech and its effects.

The final reference to time is to be SLOW TO BECOME ANGRY. This means to carefully and prayerfully guard your actions.

Obviously, words aren’t the only way we give in to anger.  But they are the most common way and I believe that’s part of the reason why the Bible has so much to say on this subject.

It takes time to be certain an offense is truly intended, who is at fault, and decide what, if anything, needs to be done to reconcile the parties involved.  If you practice this, you will find that simply because you waited to react, the situation resolves itself.  God will always do a better job than we can hope to do.

Modern scientific studies of emotional intelligence show that our brain structures are set up to respond most quickly to anger and fear.  There is literally another set of brain parts that are used for reason, love, and self-control.

This is evidence of what we have learned by experience: it is not in our natural self to be self-controlled.  Doing right requires that we take more time and use the parts of our brain that work more slowly than the mouthy, angry, and evil parts.  James’ double use of the word SLOW reflects the findings of modern science!

Our best motive for self-control is to achieve the RIGHTEOUS LIFE GOD DESIRES (v. 20).  Stated briefly, the RIGHTEOUS LIFE GOD DESIRES is becoming more like Jesus.  James is also clear about the details of what a RIGHTEOUS LIFE looks like.  Verse 26 says that a RIGHTEOUS person has a TIGHT REIGN ON HIS TONGUE. Verse 27 says that a RIGHTEOUS person looks after the needy and keeps themselves from being morally POLLUTED BY THE WORLD.

Elsewhere in James we develop a broad view of a RIGHTEOUS LIFE:

2:10 = Keep the entirety of God’s commands, not just your favorite parts.

4:7 = Become submissive to God, resistant to the devil.

5:13-16 = Rely on prayer.

James instructs us that self-control is a mark of maturing faith.  Writing plainly, verse 26 warns that uncontrolled speech betrays a RELIGION that is WORTHLESS.  We need our faith to be true in order to be saved and to persevere in this life.  When trials and death come, a false faith will be WORTHLESS to us.

One way to cure self-deception about our status before God is to look at what we are doing.  James gave three examples:

A person who says what they think reveals they are self-deceived and they will find, on Judgment Day, that their RELIGION is WORTHLESS in regard to getting into heaven.

Anyone can claim faith, but God-approved religion is proven by two actions: keeping from following the WORLD so closely that your moral status becomes as dirty as theirs.  God approves service and protection for the neediest members of the community, not the wealthiest.

In James 3:2 we understand moral perfection is proved by control of what one says: WE ALL STUMBLE IN MANY WAYS.  IF A MAN IS NEVER AT FAULT IN WHAT HE SAYS, HE IS A PERFECT MAN, ABLE TO KEEP HIS WHOLE BODY IN CHECK.

Ideally, self-control is achieved by surrendering to the Holy Spirit and thereby being Spirit-controlled.  GLS 5:22-23 = self-control is one of the Fruits of the Spirit.

Anger can quickly lead to other sins.  If controlled, we can avoid a falling-out.

If you are younger than 50, you know all about

twitter

Twitter as a place where angry exchanges can easily take place.  Twitter is an app and website that aims at providing news and social networking by allowing users to post and interact with messages called “tweets”.  Originally, tweets were restricted to 140 characters, but late last year, the limit was doubled to 280 for most languages.   On this basis, it may be argued that Twitter’s greatest virtue is brevity.

Twitter was launched in July, 2006. In ten years Twitter grew to more than 319 million active users.  Another gauge of the influence of Twitter occurred on the day of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when 40 million election-related tweets sent by 10 p.m.

The gentleman who may have benefitted most from all that election day activity was President Trump, who has also become one of Twitter’s most famous/infamous users.  I have a Twitter account with a whopping THIRTY followers.  This means 30 people get notified when I tweet.  Nine out of ten times my tweet is simply an announcement that I have posted my sermon notes on the internet.

Because of the relative anonymity (you can use a net name – pseudonym) and the brevity of the messages, Twitter has become a place where social interactions take on the form of angry opposition.  The word “Tweets” sounds like a happy thing, but the fact is, these brief messages too often take on hateful, condemning, and argumentative tones.  Occasionally you will hear about a celebrity who has closed their Twitter account because the messages left were so hurtful.

In fact, in February of this year the company announced that they were responding to constant criticism of the wrathful aspect of tweets by providing help for those who tweeted about self-harm or suicide, and restricting the access of users who encourage others to harm themselves or commit suicide.  This ought to come as no surprise to anyone: human nature is such that if we make it easy to hurt others, more people will engage in that behavior.

One of the things that is supposed to distinguish followers of Jesus from the rest of the world is the presence of peace and the absence of anger.  We will show the world we are different if we don’t tweet or talk in anger.  We will demonstrate we truly belong to Jesus if we take the time needed to act in love, not anger.  That will take pursuit of self-control and avoidance of the deadly sin of wrath.

RESOURCES:

Wikipedia.