Living Examples of God’s Mercy

Romans 11:31 “So they (the Jews) too have now become disobedient in order that they may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.”

            “Disobedience” here is not just sin. It is the complete rejection of God in unbelief. Who, we might wonder, wouldn’t want the mercy of God that we find in having Jesus as our Savior? Who wouldn’t find free forgiveness and guaranteed heaven appealing? Who wouldn’t want to live every moment of every day confident that God is on your side in good circumstances and in bad, making sure that all of it ends with you at his side forever?

            Plenty of people, it seems. The Jewish people had a long history of running away from God in favor of something else. Sometimes the idol-religions of their neighbors looked more appealing. Sometimes they just wanted a prosperous life now. In Jesus’ day they didn’t want the shame and humiliation of admitting their sin and their need for a Savior. They wanted the pride of being able to say that they had conquered sin and laid their claim on heaven all on their own. Though once they had been the particular people to whom the Lord had revealed his mercy, by Paul’s time they had become a people who don’t have it anymore.

            And their example serves as a warning to people like you and me who have God’s mercy now. It is so easy for us to look down on people who have lost their way, or maybe never got on the right path in the first place. It’s so easy for our tongues to start wagging in self-righteous condemnation of their ungodly points of view and their self-indulgent lifestyles.

            It’s so easy to be lulled into forgetting that we are what we are, and have what we have, only because God has shown us his mercy. Certainly we don’t stand in praise of unbelief and ungodliness. But our sins are no less in need of God’s grace. Our future is no less dependent on his sacrifice. Our faith is only the result of his mercy. And to forget that is to stand in danger of losing his mercy ourselves.

            Their example also reminds us of one more reason that God has revealed his mercy to us now: “…that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” Like the Roman Gentiles in Paul’s day, you and I serve two great purposes in God’s plan to show mercy to those who don’t have it now, whether Jews or others. We are the keepers of God’s mercy, the preservers and protectors of the saving gospel which alone can bring people relief from the misery of their sin. As people who know and believe that message ourselves, we are keeping hope alive for those who still need to hear it.

            And we are the sharers of God’s mercy, the only ones God can expect and rely on to introduce Jesus to someone else. The other world religions aren’t going to do it. It isn’t the government’s job to spread the good news. Business and industry are interested in something else. Only those who know God’s mercy are equipped to share it with a world that may not be dying to hear it, but that will certainly die without it.

Be someone’s introduction to God’s mercy today!

Now God’s Mercy

Romans 11:30 “Just as you (the Gentiles) who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their (the Jews) disobedience…”

Heart disease has been called “the silent killer.” The first symptom some people ever experience is death. They have no chest pains, no nausea, no shortness of breath. The disease quietly progresses until one day its victim has a massive heart attack and dies.

Sin and unbelief can also act like silent killers. People think they are getting along because they make enough money, they have a reasonably happy family life, they are having a lot of fun. Sometimes they have masked the pain themselves behind hard drinking, drug abuse, promiscuous sex, or some other distraction.

Still, the wages of sin is death. The soul that sins is the one that will die. Whether we recognize the symptoms of sin in earthly misery or not, the disease is still there, still progressing, still robbing us of our lives.

God’s response to our condition is described in different ways in Scripture. In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul talks about God’s mercy. Mercy is the term that tells us God looks at our misery, and it genuinely moves him to compassion.

What led Paul to write about God’s mercy? For the last three chapters he had been discussing the mystery of God’s election. God chose Israel as his chosen people. With few exceptions, he revealed his grace and mercy exclusively to them for a millennium and a half. He acted in their history. He delivered them from their enemies. He revealed himself to them in his word and gave them the promise of the Savior.

During that time the Gentile peoples, anyone who wasn’t a Jew, were more or less ignorant of God’s mercy. They didn’t have it.

Instead, they lived disobedient to God, disobedient in the sense that they lived as unbelievers. There was no repentance, no admissions of guilt, often not even a realization that they were guilty of doing something wrong. Even when they did good things, they weren’t trying to do what God says. It was only a coincidence that their actions and God’s will happened to line up with each other.

As a result, there was no end to the misery they suffered, whether they recognized it or not. Paul was writing to Romans. In the city of Rome at this time as much as one-third of the population were slaves. By far the majority of the free citizens lived in slum-like conditions. The average life-expectancy was only about 25 years.

But even worse was the complete absence of hope their pagan religion provided after their short lives. There was no real heaven to look forward to, no God who loved you, no certainty of even mildly better conditions in the life to come.

For those who became Christians, that began to change. “You who were at one time disobedient have now received mercy…” God had compassion on them. The slaves didn’t all go free, at least not yet. The standard of living didn’t suddenly rise, and people didn’t start living longer all at once.

But through Paul and other missionaries, the Lord brought them the gospel, and the gospel brought them hope. Their after-life was no longer a terrifying uncertainty. There was a God who loved them so much that he became one of them. He suffered with them in this world. He died as a young man on a cross to give them an after-life they could count on, a heaven worth living in forever, a new world of unending pleasure in the presence of God and his love. Now they could live life knowing they were loved, without the constant fear of guilt and judgment. Suddenly, they were in possession of God’s mercy, something they didn’t have and didn’t know before.

In one way or another, this also the story of how you and I came to know God’s mercy. Most of us are Gentiles. Maybe your parents shared the gospel with you, and the line of believing families in your family tree traces back through your grandparents, and great grandparents, and as far back in history as anyone can research or remember. But at some point in the past, it was the spread of the gospel to your ancient Gentile ancestors that set in motion the chain of events that led to your contact with God’s mercy today.

Or maybe it is some more recent twists and turns in life that God used to make his mercy part of your faith and life. God is still in the process of showing it to those who didn’t have it before. May we all be certain it is ours.

Trials and the Future

James 1:12 “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

            More than one person I have known has described the trial of the moment as “hell on earth.” Some have even suggested that, since they have suffered hell here, heaven must be waiting for them when life ends. They see their trials as some kind of cruel payment plan God has concocted for purchasing a place in paradise.

            Our earthly trials don’t accrue as credit in our spiritual accounts. They won’t pay for eternal life. Jesus took care of that on the cross. He suffered literal hell there, not virtual hell. He did so in place of you and me. Nothing we suffer now can equal or add to the payment he has already made. The children’s song “God loves me dearly,” has it right in the second verse: “Jesus my Savior himself did offer. Jesus my Savior paid all I owed. Therefore I’ll say again, God loves me dearly. God loves me dearly, loves even me.”

This is why James can talk about “the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” There is still a connection between our trials and the crown of life God has promised. Since our trials are a tool God uses to build our faith’s perseverance, they help to ensure we have what we need to receive God’s promise at the end. They aren’t the cash that pays for our crown, nor even the hand that receives it. But they are the exercise that makes sure the hand of faith is still reaching, and still open, when God is ready to give the gift he promised.

            Since the gift is the crown of life, doesn’t that help us to see our trials as blessing? Perhaps you know that the ancient Greeks and Romans had two kinds of crowns. One was the jeweled and golden crown of the king, the diadem. It symbolized his power and authority. It said to the people, “I am the king. You are not. Bow before me and do what I tell you to do.”

            The other one, the kind James mentions, was the crown of victory, the stephanos, (from which we get our name Stephen). It was a crown made of branches from an olive or laurel tree. Sometimes the kings and emperors wore this crown, too on return from battle as the conquering general. Sometimes it was worn by athletes who had just won a race, much as we give out medals and trophies.

            At the end, God gives us the victor’s crown of life. It acknowledges our life here has been a bloody battle, a grueling race, an exhausting competition. He doesn’t sugar-coat it. Life for his people is hard. It always has been. But we have survived it all and win the prize! You will be the one on the victory stand. You will be the one for whom heaven is throwing the ticker-tape parade. You will be the one who isn’t wearing just some twigs around your head. You will be dressed in life, eternal life, life the way it was originally supposed to be–without the trials and the pain that may be useful now, but never pleasant. If they make even the tiniest contribution to ensuring that blessing becomes our own, that is reason enough to persevere under them.

            Bill was a member of a church I once served. If you asked Bill how he was doing, his stock answer was always the same: “It’s a beautiful day.” It was a beautiful day, even if it was pouring rain and the tornado sirens were going off. It was a beautiful day even if it was bone-chilling cold and the heat wasn’t keeping up. It was a beautiful day even if he was going into the hospital for some uncomfortable and unpleasant procedure.

I don’t know if Bill had James’ words in mind, but his life certainly reflected them. Don’t let your trials rob you of your joy now, or the life to come.

Trials and Maturity

James 1:4 “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

When James writes about us becoming mature and complete, he is not saying that we stop sinning in this life. Only one thing is perfect in our lives. That is God’s work of forgiving our sins. That was perfectly accomplished by Jesus’ life and crucifixion. He completed it for each of us personally, and applied it to us individually when God called us to faith. It is true that we are perfect and sinless in God’s eyes, but not because of anything we have done. It is solely because of God’s gracious work.

Becoming mature and complete in the way James describes here is never perfect. It is always a process. It doesn’t mean we become the kind of person who has no weaknesses or failures. It means we become the kind of person whose weaknesses and failures are exposed by life’s trials, the kind of person who is willing to admit them instead of covering them up. Then our trials drive us back to the foot of the cross. There Jesus forgives our sinful failings. Then our trials drive us back to God’s promises. These provide the power we lack. Then our trials lead us to put our faith in him, not in ourselves.

I have always found the temptation to lie about my mistakes and shortcomings a powerful one. That temptation was never stronger than when I got my first job as a young teen. This city boy made a lot of mistakes working on a farm, suddenly working with livestock and all kinds of machinery. In a single moment, I could make the kind of mistakes that cost more than all the money I would make that summer.

But until we start admitting our mistakes, whether careless, lazy, or ignorant, we can’t work on correcting them and getting the help we need. Taking responsibility and admitting our mistakes is the first and most important part of being mature and complete.

In a similar way, when life’s trials expose our weaknesses and sin, they empty us of the idea that we will get along on our own. Then we have to admit we need help. We are driven back to God for his help and grace. We discover that this is the way to get through all of life. So we see that we must live life, all of it, by faith in God, not in ourselves.

Let the trials come, then. What do I care? I have my Lord and Savior to get me through! That is perseverance. That is maturity. That is the kind of complete Christian person who doesn’t live in constant fear of his trials. Maybe they aren’t enjoyable, but there is no denying the blessings they bring us now.

Trials of Pure Joy

James 1:2-3 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

 Let’s say you call me some afternoon to tell me that you are in the hospital, and that your doctor has given you some bad news. Can I come right away? When I arrive at your room a little later, you tell me that you have an aggressive, malignant cancer. It may not be terminal, but treatment involves a very long, very painful course of radiation and chemotherapy. I reply with something like, “I am so happy for you! What a blessing this is. We should thank God right now for his mercy.”

 Or suppose you show up at my office some morning and tell me that your car has just been repossessed, your utilities have been cut off, or you have just been evicted and you are homeless. My reply is: “How wonderful! I have been praying for something like this for you! Thanks for remembering me and taking the time to share your good fortune.”

About this time you are thinking: A) I am the cruelest man who ever lived, or B) I have completely lost my marbles. I assure you, I am not so insensitive or so clueless that I would respond to your crisis like that.

But maybe you should! What does that mean? The Apostle James urges us not to miss the good things God is doing in our bad circumstances. He even urges us to adopt a positive reaction. He tells us, “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of man kinds” He’s not crazy. Let me explain.

Mark Twain once wrote a story called The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg. Hadleyburg had a reputation for being the most honest and upright town in all the region. One day a man came along and decided to put that reputation to the test. “There is nothing weaker than an untested virtue,” he said. Sure enough, he concocted a little temptation that exposed the greed and dishonesty in every leading citizen of the town.

Have you ever wanted a stronger faith? “There is nothing weaker than an untested virtue.” “The testing of your faith,” James says, “develops perseverance.” It gives our faith endurance, the ability to keep clinging to Christ to the very ends of our lives. The Christian race we are running is less of a sprint, more of a marathon. There is only one way to prepare for running long distances. It requires the constant repetition of running long distances. Too much rest, too much time away from testing and pushing the body results in lost endurance, lost strength and extra to work to build it up again.

In the context of his own times, the trials James had in mind may have been the persecution Christians suffered. Between 50 and 300 A.D., the persecution was not non-stop, but it did flare up over and over again. Rather than destroying the church, it tended to make it stronger. It produced the kind of Christian who was fully devoted to his faith and Savior. It didn’t prevent new people from joining the church, either.

When we think of our own trials, we start with tragedies and catastrophes like the pandemic through which we are suffering, or the civil and racial unrest that has seized our country.

But the stream of trials that come into our lives is more constant than that. They don’t always get described with words like “tragedy” or “catastrophe.” They often consist of the little irritations that pile up on top each other: A bruise, bump, cut, or pulled muscle that makes simple tasks painful; a workload that suddenly exceeds the hours in our work day; a coworker’s incompetence or a manager’s unrealistic expectations; someone’s irritating habits that become harder and harder to ignore.

Our days are full of these things. Individually and together these trials test our faith. We can react in one of two ways. We can set faith aside and let our sinful nature take the reins. We become whiney complainers, always criticizing, always pessimists, always fishing for pity. We act like we have no God and we have no faith, and we are well on the way to losing both.

Or we can face our trials and let them do their work. We can turn to our Lord for help. We can remember his grace and forgiveness and let them change us. We can get through them with prayer and patience. We can trust God’s promises. We can respond with love and godly action. We can be stronger Christians at the end of the day.

We can consider our trials pure joy, because the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

Never Empty

Isaiah 55:10-11 “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

We may have reason to wonder about “It does not return to me empty.” We have tried God’s Word on brothers or sisters who have strayed from the faith, children who’ve stopped coming to church, or friends we have been trying to evangelize. The rolled eyes, the look of disinterest on their face, say, “Oh no, not this again.” “Really,” we think to ourselves, “God’s word never comes up empty? Then what do I make of this?”

When I was riding a train across Denmark ten years ago, a man took a seat facing mine. Then he did a very un-Scandinavian thing: he started a conversation with me. His name was Amir, and he was immigrant from Saudi Arabia. He was very eager to tell me about his Muslim faith. It was hard for me to get a word in edge-wise. He told me about his respect for Jesus as a prophet, the many things he learned about personal hygiene from the Koran, his belief in fantastical creatures in the Koran like monsters that eat rocks and boulders. At the moment I found him more than a little naive, and some of the teachings of the Koran more than a little silly.

Later I thought, “Maybe that’s how some people look at my beliefs from the Bible–the miracle stories, the spiritual world we cannot see. And if other people look at me the way I was looking at Amir, then how can I expect to reach them with the Word? How can I expect that God’s word will not end up empty?

The problem is never with the power of God’s word. It is with the sinners who hear and use it. Who are we to deny God’s promise, or just as bad, consider it boring or irrelevant? No one hears God’s word and remains unchanged. It is always working on people for salvation or for judgment. Appearances can deceive. Experiences can be misinterpreted. But God does not lie. Where his word is present, it is never just an empty letter.

Isaiah reinforces the promise in a positive way: “It (the word) will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

I said a moment ago that God’s word is always working on people either for salvation or for judgment. But the emphasis of Isaiah 55 is salvation. These words of promise are part of a comparison with the life-giving power of snow and rain. No doubt Isaiah and the people of Judah had often seen their dry, thirsty country suddenly burst into life when God sent rain. Even a desert blossoms and turns green when the rain falls on it. It works every time.

“So is my word that goes out from my mouth.” God has given us a Word of Life, Good News perfectly composed to give him what he wants: souls that seek him, hearts that trust him, and lives that are lived for him. He speaks to us like a young man in love, trying to win a woman’s heart. More than that, he speaks to us like an utterly devoted and committed man trying to win an unfaithful woman’s heart. “You left me for another yesterday? I honestly don’t remember it. I forgive you for the way you have turned against me, each and every time. I will always be here for you, always be waiting for you, no matter what the future brings.”

You won’t find this Word in my friend Amir’s Koran. His god would rather scare you into submission. You wouldn’t think of it left to your own thoughts and ideas. Only this Word tells you God loves you so much that he gave up his own Son to save you and make you his own. Only this word brings with it faith and the Holy Spirit. Only this word changes God’s enemies into friends, slaves into Sons, and spiritual corpses into living and breathing children of God.            

So don’t give up on God’s Word. Maybe your life isn’t easy. Temptation still gets to you. Sometimes your soul feels like a very dry, very dusty spiritual desert. God’s Word is just the Water of Life we need. Trust that in it God still accomplishes what he desires, and achieves the purpose for which he sent it.

Like Little Children

Matthew 11:25-26 “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

What are the “these things” Jesus says have been hidden? John the Baptist’s disciples had just visited him with a question John sent from his prison cell: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Was Jesus the promised Savior, the Messiah, really? “These things”, then, are the truth about Jesus’ identity and message. Jesus is the Son of God who came to rescue us from sin and death.

From some people the truth about Jesus had been hidden by his Father. He had hidden these things from the “wise and learned.” They came in two types in Jesus’ day. There were the religious conservatives, the Pharisees. They knew the Bible like the back of their hand. Unfortunately, they did not know themselves well enough to be able to see their own desperate need for God’s grace. Their great learning only puffed themselves up with self-righteousness.

Then there were the more secular Sadducees. They were the liberal elites of their day. They reasoned away much of what God’s word had to say. They were men of the world who considered themselves too sensible to believe in things like spirits and an afterlife.

Such “wise and learned” still live among us today. You probably know plenty of the second kind personally–someone with a college degree or two who accepts all the theories of modern science as established facts. They are skeptics of all things miraculous and associate belief in the supernatural with a low IQ. One such man was visibly shocked to learn that an otherwise educated man like me was a young-earth creationist who believed that Jesus was God.

Higher education and a sharp mind are a great gift from God so long as they remain subject to God’s Word and Spirit. But few things have the ability to blind us to God’s truth like putting too much confidence in one’s own intelligence and learning. Don’t think that we are immune to this kind of challenge to faith.

The first kind of the “wise and learned,” the Pharisaical moralist, we may not recognize so easily. They often sound so “biblical” and “moral.” One clue is the claim that they have discovered the key to a genuine Christian life, and that key is something other than Jesus and his cross.

I know of an evangelical leader from some years ago who was trying to promote fasting as the way to God’s heart. He said that he began his fast by meditating on God’s word and confessing his sins. But frankly, he claimed he didn’t have many sins to confess. His relationship with the Lord had grown so strong. If it had actually been growing, he should have been even more aware of the depth of his sinfulness and need for Christ. Somehow he was missing the place of God’s grace in his life. These things remain hidden from some, not because God has kept the information away, but because their own ideas get in the way of believing it.

Do you want to meet someone who knows Jesus? Ask a child about him. Their faith is eloquent in its simplicity. Who is Jesus? He is bigger and stronger than your best friend, and the bully who lives down the street, and even your dad or mom. There is nothing he can’t do. They don’t question whether he healed people, or stopped storms with a command, or made five loaves of bread grow until it could feed 5000 people. The Bible says so. They don’t question whether he is really God. It’s why the worship and pray to him.

How do they know Jesus loves them? He died to pay for their sins on the cross. They know what sin is, and they know it has consequences. Perhaps more than us adults, they have big people reminding them of what they have done wrong all day and making them pay for it. Jesus paid for it instead of them–not just one time, but every time. Yes, they know that Jesus loves them.

Want a picture of what this means to know and believe in Jesus like little children? Mark’s gospel tells us that, when Jesus told his disciples to change and become like children, he actually called a little boy or girl over to use as a visual reinforcement. Then he took that child in his arms and held it while he was speaking to them.

Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes for a moment. Picture what they were seeing. To be a little child, wrapped up in Jesus’ arms, surrounded by his love and protection–there is not a better place in heaven or on earth that you could be!

What Jesus has revealed are not abstract principles to debate or pick apart. He has revealed himself, the God who loves us without conditions, who died to cleanse us of our guilt, who lives to give us life that never ends. Put aside your pride and cynicism. Let go of your desire to be respected. Be his little children. There is no better way to know him.           

“Why?”

2 Cor. 1:8-11 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.”

When tragedy strikes, there is one question that plagues our minds: Why? What purpose is this serving? Often we ask “why?” not so much because we genuinely want an answer. We simply can’t believe any good can come of this.

God doesn’t feel obliged to share all the specifics with us. “Why?” is often the one question he doesn’t answer. But in these words to the Corinthians, Paul does provide a general answer to the question “Why?” It’s one we can apply to our hardships, too.

Paul spent nearly three years in Ephesus, a leading city of the Roman province of Asia. They weren’t easy years. In his earlier letter to the Corinthians he talks about fighting wild beasts in Ephesus, and the many men who were opposing him. Preaching about God’s love in Jesus made him many enemies and created many hardships.

The year 2020 has been a year dominated by hardship. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of COVID 19, and millions sickened. Tens of millions face unemployment and financial ruin. Now the unnecessary and unjust death of a black man at the hands of a white policeman in Minneapolis has opened up old, deep wounds of prejudice and racial division. Fear and frustration grip minority communities. Riots and looting exacerbate their suffering. Attempts to maintain order by those charged with keeping the peace sometimes pour fuel on the fire. No one knows quite what to do to achieve justice and heal the divide. We find ourselves at wits end.

Perhaps we can relate to Paul’s sense of despair. Paul doesn’t say, “It was almost more than I could bear.” He states that it was too much, “far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.”

It’s not necessarily a sin to despair of life. But despair becomes a sin if we despair of faith as well. If I suffer hardship, so much so that it exceeds my human ability to endure it, then I might start to think that something is wrong with God. Has he lost control? Has he stopped caring? Has he been just an illusion all this time?

Actually, not only does he still have control. He is probably getting some of his best work done. Paul explains, “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” Why? Why does God let our hardships exceed our ability to endure them? One reason is that he is stripping us of the illusion of self-sufficiency. He is constantly letting hardships into our lives to strip us of the idea that our gifts, our abilities, our hard-work are going to rescue us or enable us to get by.

The destruction of trust in ourselves leaves only one viable option. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.”

Why shouldn’t Paul have confidence in God to deliver him? This was the God “who raises the dead.” Jesus’ raised the widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’s daughter, his friend Lazarus. You don’t get much more hopeless than already dead.

Jesus died and rose as well. If ever there was a hardship that begged for someone to ask the question “Why?” it was his death. The answer doesn’t come back with some defense of its fairness. The answer is, “This is how much I love you.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” “This is how much you mean to me.” In Jesus, God has delivered us. He did so by becoming one of us, and letting our sins kill him instead. All the guilt, all the consequence, all the danger, all the hell for our sins went with Jesus to the cross.

Now Jesus lives again—more than lives, he reigns. Above I recounted the hardships this year has brought. But you are alive and reading these words. God has delivered you. If you are alive, then God has a purpose for keeping you here. So long as God has a purpose for you, it is our hope (in the Biblical sense of a future certainty, not just a wishful possibility) that he will continue to deliver you. You are going to make it. Rather than worry about dangers, we can focus our attention on finding and fulfilling his purpose.

Maybe you don’t have the cure for a deadly disease. Maybe you don’t have the power to erase the pain, the fear, the suspicion, or the resentment caused by centuries of oppression and inequality. But you and I can continue to be a voice for Jesus. We can live lives marked by unconditional love. We can show mercy to someone who needs it. We can answer hate with grace.

Through it all, we can rely on the God who raises the dead, even as we struggle with the question, “Why?”

Don’t Miss the Heart

Mark 7:6-7 “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”

Someone once told me about a conversation they had with a person who professed to be a “non-practicing” Christian. This person doesn’t go to church, doesn’t pray, doesn’t make much of Christian holidays. Let’s be clear on this: a non-practicing Christian is no Christian at all. Maybe such a person remembers being a Christian once, or used to be a Christian, but genuine Christian faith won’t let us be non-practicing Christians, at least not for very long.

But what do real believers practice? It has to do with more than going to worship, and mouthing prayers, and celebrating holidays. The Pharisees and teachers of the law did all those things, but Jesus calls them hypocrites, actors, pretenders. He reveals the root of the problem in this Isaiah quote: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

They looked religious. They prayed a lot. They worshiped regularly. They kept all their extra traditions. It made them feel spiritual. But all the while their hearts were not what God wanted them to be. They were lacking in faith and love.

How could Jesus tell? First, they lovelessly judged Jesus’ disciples, who had done nothing wrong. That is not the practice of faith and love. Later in his ministry Jesus does not mince words in exposing their hearts, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”

Even more serious evidence of their hypocrisy was their treatment of Jesus himself. Nothing says, “My heart is far away from God’s” more clearly than ignoring, rejecting, or attacking his Son. You can’t say you love me and mistreat my child. Jesus says in John 5, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (v. 23).

We, too, need to be careful not to go through the motions of worship and prayer, to look like we are religiously busy, but our hearts remain empty, we do not love each other, and we fail to acknowledge our sin and trust Jesus for the forgiveness he alone can give us. Wherever Christians have adopted a subtle shift in emphasis from being forgiven and saved to being good (in other words, from Christ to me), you can be sure that people are turning into hypocrites.

The very rules and traditions the Pharisees intended to protect God’s Word eventually replaced God’s Word. You might look at it this way: In order to deliver our food and in order to protect our food, we wrap it in boxes and cans. Those boxes and cans serve a good function so long as we eat the nourishing food inside of them.

But what happens if we eat the boxes and cans, and ignore the food that they contain? We aren’t billy goats. Instead of nourishing us, the packaging will make us sick. This is what the false emphasis on their own rules was doing to the Pharisees. What was intended to protect God’s word, and deliver God’s word, now replaced God’s word. There was no spiritual nourishment there. By eating the wrapper and throwing away the food, the Pharisees had made themselves spiritually sick.

Our Lord wants nothing else but to reach us with his law to expose our sins, humble us before him, and lead us to repent. Our Lord wants nothing else but to reach us with his gospel, to show us the dying love of Jesus, pouring out his life on the cross to erase my sin and give me faith and life. That in a nutshell is the Word that must command our attention week in and week out. Everything else is only packaging. May God keep us so enamored by his message of grace that we resist the dangerous distractions that turn us from his word.