Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“To be blessed,” Jesus says, “is to be poor.”

Jesus does not bless the poor in cash or wealth, though that often goes together with what he means. He blesses the poor in spirit. You won’t catch them bragging about their prayer life, how many people they have converted, how much they have given up to serve God, or how much they have grown and matured in their walk of faith. Whether they can quote Isaiah 64:6, or even know the passage exists, they agree with the prophet: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Not much of value there.

Imagine a homeless, jobless person millions of dollars in debt. If he dumpster-dived for aluminum cans and had 10 lifetimes to do it, maybe he could scrape enough together to change his situation. But he doesn’t even collect recyclables. All he has gathered together are scraps of cloth, and grimy, smelly ones at that–soiled by ripe, wet garbage, further spoiled by dust and dirt. Would he present those to his creditors at the bank, or send them in to satisfy the Visa bill? Would he show off his pile of rotting rags to impress you with his wealth? Would you?

Now, convert his soiled and spoiled collection to a life of thoughts, attitudes, and activities soiled and spoiled by selfish motivations, false pride, deceitful cover-ups, and self-indulgent lusts, and you have a picture of the poor in spirit Jesus calls blessed here.

How can Jesus call such people blessed? It’s not because their hearts and lives are such a mess. In that they are just like everybody else. No, it is because they are in touch with reality. They don’t mistake their filthy rags for gold bullion. They have come to grips with their true situation and stopped pretending it is better than it is. Once they admit their spiritual poverty, they stop trying to impress God with their garbage. They come to him with their hands empty. Before God, they know that they are only there to receive.

And God does not disappoint. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” With Jesus they go from penniless beggars to shareholders in Paradise. They own their own piece of heaven, literally. God does not hold their spiritual poverty against them and wait for them to pay. He forgives it, and he pays for it with the blood of Jesus, and he replaces it with his own eternal home of endless pleasures. All of a sudden it is as if these spiritually bankrupt street people have won the billion-dollar Power-ball!

This is what it looks like to be blessed. Such people lack any great spiritual valuables of their own, but God has given them the deed to heavenly real estate. Maybe it’s just a promise now, God’s word on the matter. But he never, ever reneges on a promise, and possession is as certain for the poor in spirit on earth as it is for the saints in glory in heaven.

What God Seeks

Luke 13:6-9 “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

The man in the parable was looking for fruit on his tree. That is a picture of the Lord coming to us and looking for fruits in our lives– the product of repentance and faith. Where there is true repentance and faith, a life of love naturally follows. That is the true measure of repentance–the love that flows from faith. It’s how we respond to God’s grace to us.

But it is easy for us to confuse fruits of repentance with something else. When you see a decorated Christmas tree, you are not confused about the source of the ornaments hanging on the tree. I have seen little children try to eat a Christmas ornament before, but we understand that those ornaments are not the fruit of a pine tree.  They may make the tree look better, especially Charlie Brown’s little tree in the Peanuts Christmas Special. The proper fruit of a pine tree, however, is a pinecone, not a shiny ball.

Somehow Christians find it hard to see that the fruit of repentance must be…the fruit of repentance! Repentance involves three parts: First, we feel sorrow for our sins and confess them to God. Second, we trust in God’s grace and receive his forgiveness (that’s the part many people forget). Third, we produce the fruits: a life of love. Any change of behavior or loving actions that don’t follow sorrow for sin and faith in the gospel aren’t the real thing. They are like hanging ornaments on the tree. You can change people’s behavior by making them feel guilty, appealing to their pride, or promising them all kinds of treats. Psychologists understand the principles of behavioral modification. But none of these are the product of true repentance, because they don’t come from our response to God’s grace.

In order to produce real thing, God himself works hard at inspiring our response. “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” There are three things we can note about the Lord’s efforts here. First, he is patient. The man in the parable had been coming around to this tree for three years. He didn’t chop it down right away. In the same way, the Lord keeps extending our lives. He gives us and others time.  He genuinely loves us and wants to see his work come to fruition in us.

Second, he is persistent. He keeps coming back. Jesus gives the impression that the man in the parable kept coming to the tree and looking again and again. It was more than an annual visit. So our Lord pursues us. As poet Frances Thompson once described him, our Lord is “the hound of heaven.” As a hound chases a rabbit, relentless, steady, the Lord keeps after us though we try to run from him or hide in our sin.

Third, he is proactive. “Sir, leave it alone for one more year and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.” The gardener didn’t mess around with the externals. He addressed the roots. Our Lord does the same. He acts first. He gives freely to nurture life in us. He meets us in his word with the message of the cross. He meets us in his supper, where Jesus’ own body and blood nourish our souls with forgiveness. As a God of grace, our Lord does not wait for us to respond to him. He takes the initiative. He produces the repentance he seeks in us, and fruits of love grow from the faith he has cultivated in our souls.

There is a reason the Lord is digging around in your life, making you uncomfortable, yet always leaving you with reminders of his forgiving grace. He is looking for something. Let the gospel do its work, and give him the fruit he seeks.

Unless You, Too, Repent…

Luke 13:1-3 “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! but unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

It’s not hard to see how someone could come to such a conclusion, is it– that these men were somehow worse, guilty of greater sins, because of what happened to them? You might think that God would protect them while doing something so pious as offering him sacrifices. Instead they were killed in the act of sacrifice.  Wouldn’t that be a sign from God that he was angry with them and rejected their sacrifice? Wouldn’t that be an indicator that these men were somehow lacking in their repentance?

People tend to draw conclusions like that based upon what God allows to happen. We still do it today. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, some suggested God was targeting the city because of the wild behavior associated with the French Quarter or Mardi Gras. I once overheard a guest at a wedding express his surprise that God didn’t strike him dead when he entered the church. His reason? It had been so long since he last attended worship. When nothing happened, he concluded that God must be okay with his life after all.

The obvious sin that follows this kind of thinking is loveless, self-righteous judging of others. People become cold and hard toward their unfortunate neighbors. They find an excuse to refuse help or sympathy just when they are needed most.

A less obvious problem with this thinking is the way it undercuts our confidence in God’s grace. If he grants prosperity only to those who do right, and he brings hardship on those who do wrong, what are we to conclude when diagnosed with cancer? What must we assume if we suffer a long string of failures? What if we are the victims of a tornado, flood, or car accident? Does that make us worse than everybody else? Is the Lord targeting us for special judgment? Have we somehow failed in our repentance? Has our faith been a sham? Are we headed for damnation?

Jesus answers our questions whether we should see tragedies as a measures of repentance or faith. “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” These are not a measure of repentance. They deliver a message of repentance.

Do you ever read the obituaries in the newspaper? I have never read an unkind obituary. None of them say that Mr. Jones was a criminal, a cheat, a blight upon humanity and we’re glad he’s gone–good riddance! They speak in warm and loving terms. He meant so much to his family. He contributed so much to the community. He will be sorely missed.

Still, every obituary gives a silent testimony that this person, too, was a sinner. If the wages of sin is death, then every death is preaching of sin. It preaches not only about the person in the casket. The sermon is directed at me. I am mortal, too. I can’t hear about the death of my neighbor without being reminded of my own sin and impending death. That makes every death–whether from untimely tragedy, or at a ripe old age–a call for me to repent while there is time. The same holds true for every pain or heartache we experience through life. They are all a consequence of sin. “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Jesus does not issue his warning to be vindictive. He loves us and wants to help. The Great Physician is offering his diagnosis of our souls’ sickness. Doctors don’t deliver their diagnosis to see us suffer. They want to share the solution. So does our Lord. His medicine works. He suffers the symptoms and the consequences of our sin in our place. He cleanses us with his blood and forgives us. His treatment not only delays death and extends our lives. It cures death and gives eternal life.

Tragedies don’t make an accusation. They offer an invitation. Jesus invites us to repent and escape from death to life.

More Than Enough

Matthew 14:19-20 “And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.”

This is a well-known miracle from Jesus’ life. Outside the events of Holy Week, it is the only story from his life that is included in all four gospels. None of them tell us how Jesus did the miracle, the process for multiplying the loaves and fish. Did the loaves grow back new parts in the disciples’ hands even as they tore pieces off and gave them to others? Did the basket from which this food came suddenly begin to produce new loaves and more fish as the first ones were taken out and given away? We don’t have the details.

But take note of these two facts: First, everyone ate and was satisfied. Everyone got more than a taste. They got all they wanted. They all ate until they didn’t want anymore. When God does his work, he doesn’t settle for some second rate, half-baked, incomplete conclusion to the project. When he atones for the sins of the world, Jesus suffers on the cross until he can say, “It is finished.” Here, he made sure everyone got enough.

Actually, there was more than enough. The second thing to note is that the disciples picked up 12 baskets of leftovers, one for each of them. That was far more than they started with. In the end the Lord took what they gave, did his work, and then returned more to his people than they had given him.

The Lord satisfied the needs of his people. The Lord far exceeded the needs of his people. Are the lessons for you and me hard to see? If it seems to us that we live in a time when God is no longer providing for us in such miraculous ways, in one sense we might be right. We have no promise that God is going to make the food grow in our cupboards. But do we have any need for such a thing? Don’t we live in a time in which God has blessed us with incredible plenty? How likely are most of us to run into such a situation where we are part of a crowd of thousands scrambling for something to eat?

I remember reading a story of a lady from Uganda, standing up in the middle of a worship service and asking the congregation to join her in thanking God for giving her shoes! She was overcome with appreciation. I can’t remember anyone from my church ever asking me to include a prayer of thanksgiving in the service because the Lord had finally given them shoes.

Maybe we don’t think of food that is more than enough, and our clothes that are more than enough, and our shelter that is more than enough, as a miracle like the feeding of the 5000. But the same power of the same God makes it so. He doesn’t promise us a miracle, but every day we see the fulfillment of this promise: “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Players, not Spectators

Matthew 14:15-16 “As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’ Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’”

Jesus wants those who follow him to be more than spectators in the work of his kingdom, cheering from the sidelines. He calls us to play on the team, too. He wants to give us more than a lesson. He wants to give us an opportunity to serve.

When the disciples saw the need of these people for food, they didn’t immediately recognize this as one of those opportunities. The situation looked too big for them. There were over 5000 people here, as we later learn, so they took the situation to Jesus. However, Jesus handed it right back to them. He wanted to give them more than a lesson. He wanted to see what they would do.

“‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered. ‘Bring them to me,’ he said.” This opportunity to serve also involved a test of the disciples’ faith. Like careful stewards and conscientious planners, they got out their hand calculators and took inventory of their resources for the project. The accounting didn’t take long: just five little loaves of bread and two fish— enough to feed perhaps 10 to 20 people. The project didn’t look very realistic.

It wasn’t wrong for them to take stock of their earthly resources like this. You or I would do the same thing. But when our Lord gives us a task to do, we shouldn’t be surprised, or dismayed, if it appears that our human resources are vastly inadequate. The Lord has a way of working like that in his kingdom. Gideon’s army wasn’t ready to take on 100,000 Midianite soldiers until the Lord had whittled it down to just 300 men. Armor-less David kills mighty Goliath with a sling shot and a smooth rock. A poor widow is commanded to feed the prophet Elijah as well as her own family from just one little jug of oil and one little jar of flour. Yet that supply lasts for months and months. Israel brings down the walls of Jericho without siege machinery. One man, Jonah, brings more than 120,000 pagan Ninevites to their knees in repentance with his preaching. Our earthly resources often don’t appear up to the tasks God gives us.

But we have more than our visible, earthly supply. The one who gives us our tasks, the one who invites us to bring him our resources, if only a few loaves and fishes, is the Almighty God whose power knows no limits. His resources never end. Of course we can’t do it on our own, but Jesus doesn’t ask us to. He makes us a member of the team, not just a spectator. When we get into the game, know that Jesus is going to be holding and guiding our hands–like the father standing behind his son, reaching over his shoulders, and helping him swing the bat.

Jesus takes our resources, touches them with his power, and makes them work in ways we could never have imagined or asked. With Jesus, the disciples got more than a lesson. They got the chance to live their lives by faith. They got a chance to be living instruments of God’s power. Those are things that we can get from him, too.

More Than A Helper

Matthew 14:13-14 “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

 The “happening” Jesus had just heard was the death of his cousin, comrade, and colleague John the Baptist. Just because Jesus was God’s Son didn’t mean that his heart was made of iron. News of John’s death moved him deeply. It may also have made thoughts of his own impending death more intense. He wanted to get away for a while. He needed some time alone in prayer.

Despite his boat trip to an uninhabited piece of lakeshore real estate, the crowds searched him out.  We might wonder whether he was irritated with them for denying him his privacy at a hard point in his life. I might be irritated with these people if I were in the Savior’s shoes. That isn’t right. Here were people who understood their need. They understood what we often find difficult to admit: Our problems are more than we can handle on our own. We don’t have it all together. Jesus isn’t just a fascinating character or a very nice man. He is the only one who can help us. He is someone we desperately need.

We don’t like to be so needy. We prefer to keep up an appearance of self-sufficiency. When I played football in college, I remember watching a teammate try to stay in the game after being injured. He tried to shake it off and look like he wasn’t in pain. But play after play he was run over. He was flattened. He was helpless. He didn’t want to admit that he needed to get off the field and let someone else take his place. But he was doing neither himself nor the team any favors by staying in.

How long can we keep up the illusion that we aren’t hurt, that we can do it, while life flattens us play after play? The pride of self-sufficiency does more than leave us alone in pain. It keeps us way from the one who can help. It cuts us off from Jesus. If that doesn’t change, the injury will be fatal.

These people understood their need, and in Jesus they found more than a helper. “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” The crowd didn’t have to twist his arm to get him to do something. They received much more than instant medical attention. Before they said a word, Jesus had compassion.

Compassion is one of those great, gospel words. It is a “good news” word that promise our God cares. Our Savior is not a marble statue God: grand and impressive in size and appearance, but cold and distant when it comes to our needs. Jesus has compassion. Our troubles genuinely touch his heart. He shares our pain. Moved by compassion, he comes to our aid.

Who should know this better than New Testament Christians who have seen his cross? You don’t die for a cause you don’t feel passionately about. You don’t give your life for people who don’t literally mean everything to you. Along with grace and love, compassion moved Jesus to die for our sins. He relieved us from the misery of our guilt and spared us from the pain of hell. We don’t have to talk him into it. We don’t have to butter him up or work him into a better mood. Long before any of us ever thought to ask, “Lord, could you forgive me?” Jesus had compassion. Long before you or I ever remembered to pray, “Lord, could you take away the pain, or help me get over this fear, or help me out with this need?” Jesus had compassion. With Jesus, we get more than a helper. He makes us the treasures of a God who deeply cares.

Relevant Preaching

2 Kings 22:13-14 “The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, ‘Look, as one man the other prophets are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.’ But Micaiah said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, I can tell him only what the LORD tells me.”

The Prophet Micaiah was summoned by Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat to advise them on their prospects for going to war. Unlike the other prophets who were busy buttering them up, Micaiah understood the true source of preaching: “…only what the LORD tells me.” That is LORD spelled in all capital letters. That is the God of free and faithful grace. That is the only God who actually exists, the only God who actually has anything to say about a matter. If the message isn’t from him, it doesn’t matter if the word appears to be relevant or appealing. Nothing stands behind it except so much hot air.

It is still true that the only safe and reliable interpreter of Scripture is a man who knows the LORD himself. Many preachers earn their reputation on their speaking ability. They can grab hold of your heart strings. They make you laugh and make you cry. They can impress you with their scholarship and make you feel as though you are learning something new every time. They can mesmerize you with their eloquence. You find yourself hanging on every word, even if the sermon went on for hours.

But what good is all of that if the man doesn’t know the LORD, if he isn’t a man of personal faith? All that ability to win your heart, stimulate your mind, or hold your attention is only going to be used to deceive. Then where will we be? Do you suppose that Ahab found the message of his favorite prophets relevant, the ones telling him to go to war, when he was bleeding to death in his chariot a few days later? Is it relevant to live your life and base your heavenly hope on lies? The preacher’s first task involves knowing the Lord for whom he speaks.

Then the preacher needs to limit himself to what the LORD has said. “I can tell him only what the Lord tells me.” As little as lies fit the pulpit, speculations don’t belong there, either. The message needs to be based on words the Lord himself has spoken to us. We find those words in his Holy Scriptures.

Only that kind of preacher, the one who knows the Lord personally and preaches his word, understands the central place of the gospel. Micaiah never got that far in his message for Ahab because of the king’s hard heart. Micaiah wanted to do the king a favor, and spare him from injury and death. But Ahab was bent on defying the prophet and defying God. Thus, he never got to hear a word of grace.

For you and me, there is not a more important word than “the Lord has forgiven your sins.” There is not a more important story than the one about Jesus dying as our substitute on the cross, and rising from the dead to promise us life that never ends. There is not a more important message for us to learn than God’s grace covering all sin, including yours and mine.

The Gospel may not be trendy. It isn’t new. It has never been the opinion of the majority. It’s not even what some people want to hear. But preaching it is always the preacher’s task. And it is always relevant to the people who hear it preached.

All Things Are Yours!

1 Corinthians 3:21-23 “So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

            It’s no secret that our world associates great wealth with importance. Who gets their names in the magazines and the newspapers? Unless you do something criminal, it’s the wealthy. Who gets elected to positions of power? Almost every member of the United States Senate is a millionaire. Who gets asked to endorse products before a television audience? Who gets invited to spend a night at the White House? Not many poor people I can think of.

            If wealth and importance go together, then you and I must be some of the most important people on earth. As it turns out, we own everything. Paul said it twice, “All things are yours.” That doesn’t mean everything is our personal property. Rather, we are the children of the one to whom everything truly does belong. And he has promised that he makes everything in this world serve you and me. There is no object, no person, no event that fails to serve us as Christians in some way. In all we have or experience, we are enjoying God’s providence.

            To help us understand, Paul gives us a representative list, starting with Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (or Peter). The Corinthians were forming cliques around these three apostles (against the wishes of these leaders themselves). In spite of the divisions and distinctions the members of the church were creating, these teachers remained the common property of all. Though they were leaders in the church, God used them to serve the church. He is still using them to serve us today through their words preserved on the pages of the Scriptures.

            All of life, no matter how bad, how painful, or how hard it gets, is here to serve us. Even at its worst it teaches us not to cling too tightly to this world. It forces us to throw ourselves on God’s grace in faith. Death may inspire our fear. We may pay huge sums to delay it and avoid it. But even death is here to serve us. Jesus’ resurrection makes it the door to heaven. What could be a greater blessing than that?

            The passage of time may appear outside of our control. It slips away from us, running faster and faster. But in God’s providence even the uncertain future, which so often fills us with worry, lies under our domain. It has to serve us, because we ourselves are the personal property of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

            In making us his own, God has made us like the rich and important people of this world. We have all these servants running around taking care of us. So we know that we are valuable, not because of some trumped up little boasts and wobbly pride of our own making. No, our value comes from the God who gave us to Christ and made us his own. No more boasting about anyone or anything less!

Fools for God’s Wisdom

1 Corinthians 3:18-19 “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”

The message of God’s word is our common birthright as Christians. Anyone familiar with it ought to realize that God’s view of what is wise or foolish, and the world’s view of what is wise or foolish, are usually opposites. The world celebrates the lifting of every sexual boundary and safeguard. It considers every restriction harmful. The wisdom that comes from God’s word teaches the opposite. It recognizes that the “sexual revolution” confirms people in self-destructive lifestyles, because “he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18).

More to the context here, the wisdom of this world suggests that you can become more prestigious, you can rise in the respect of others, if you are associated with the right people. It is wise to adopt the popular positions on key issues. This was going on in a small way in Corinth. Members of the congregation were guilty of name-dropping. They lined themselves up with famous leaders in the church in order to make themselves look more important or better educated.

But there was no difference in the teachings of Paul, Peter or Apollos, the men they were elevating. Saying you followed one didn’t make you wiser than those who claimed to follow another. On the contrary, it revealed a dangerous sense of pride. This attempt to acquire a morsel of donated dignity, this perceived need to be popular, caused divisions. Even more, it suggested that these people might value the acceptance, praise, and respect of charismatic leaders over the truth of God’s word. When the world came along with some immoral teaching that “anybody with any brains believes,” would they have the backbone to resist it? Would their desire to “be somebody” cause them to stumble? They might become “wise” in the eyes of the world, but big fools in the eyes of God.

Are we willing to be considered fools by the world around us? Are we secure enough in our faith and God’s love for us to stay true to the foolish things God asks us to believe? Part of what makes you and me valuable assets not only to the Church, but to the foolish world around us, is the biblical wisdom we possess in common.

The world ridicules us for believing that Jesus, with his selfless sacrifice and free forgiveness, is the only way to heaven. “How narrow-minded!” they say. “Do you really think God is going to condemn all the Buddhists, or all the Hindus, or all the Muslims? How foolish!” But it’s true! Not because we are any better than Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims, but because no one can work his way to heaven. Jesus is the only one holding out the way of God’s free and unconditional grace and forgiveness.

It’s not about us. It’s about him. If we ever give that up to join the ranks of the worldly wise, we will cease to be of any use to our world anymore. But as long as we still possess God’s wisdom of salvation by grace, and share that wisdom, we are worth more than all the advice columnists in all the newspapers. We will be wiser than all the professors in all the universities in all the world. We share this great value in common: we possess the wisdom of God’s word. It is worth being thought a fool by our world.