Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:15-20

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Matthew 7:15-20

to those against us

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Matthew 5:38-48; MSG

When someone seems against us, what does Jesus tell us to do? Pray. We humbly go on serving in love. But I like what is said first:

When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer…

We need that space ourselves. Instead of reacting and responding in kind, we hold back. We pray for them. And in that act of praying God moves in the situation: in us and in them.

And we humbly do good. That’s how real love is expressed according to Scripture.

God will help us as we prayerfully endeavor to step in this direction. From an angry, hard heart, to a softened heart. It might take some time, but we need to pray. And then act accordingly, which a lot of times is not to act much at all, but carry on in our tasks. And help that person in whatever ways we can. In and through Jesus.

growing in the grace and knowledge (understanding) of our Lord

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

2 Peter 3:17-18

But you, friends, are well-warned. Be on guard lest you lose your footing and get swept off your feet by these lawless and loose-talking teachers. Grow in grace and understanding of our Master and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Glory to the Master, now and forever! Yes!

2 Peter 3:17-18; MSG

The letter of 2 Peter lays the foundation of God’s grace in Jesus, and our hard effort from that. Then warns us against false teachers, those who are religious, even Christian. With more. Then ends on the above note.

The grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is like a spectacular, breathtaking scene in which we’re delighted yet terrified at the same time. We’re not acclimated to it. We’re so used to living in our own make do, get by world. Even trying to do our religion there. Finding it a constant struggle to even keep on going, much less doing it.

Truth is, we just can’t. Not the real thing anyhow. Instead we’re called to live in God’s idyllic world, even here and now in and through the grace of Christ. We just can’t believe it’s that easy or simple. 2 Peter begins and ends making that point. Without it, there’s nothing in between. We might have some little spurts of grace now and then. But God wants us to have so much more.

So, as we’re told at the end of this letter, we’re to grow in the grace and knowledge or understanding of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Grow in it. To grow in it, we must live in it. It’s like either the light is on or off.  No matter what we’re experiencing, God wants us to live in that. And grow in it. Becoming more and more acclimated to the new. Living there. The only place we really can live, live this new life. In and through Jesus.

breaking new ground

While Jeremiah was still locked up in jail, a second Message from God was given to him:

“This is God’s Message, the God who made earth, made it livable and lasting, known everywhere as God: ‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

“This is what God, the God of Israel, has to say about what’s going on in this city, about the homes of both people and kings that have been demolished, about all the ravages of war and the killing by the Chaldeans, and about the streets littered with the dead bodies of those killed because of my raging anger—about all that’s happened because the evil actions in this city have turned my stomach in disgust.

“But now take another look. I’m going to give this city a thorough renovation, working a true healing inside and out. I’m going to show them life whole, life brimming with blessings. I’ll restore everything that was lost to Judah and Jerusalem. I’ll build everything back as good as new. I’ll scrub them clean from the dirt they’ve done against me. I’ll forgive everything they’ve done wrong, forgive all their rebellions. And Jerusalem will be a center of joy and praise and glory for all the countries on earth. They’ll get reports on all the good I’m doing for her. They’ll be in awe of the blessings I am pouring on her.

Jeremiah 33:1-9; MSG

Jeremiah was in prison, and it was not a promising time. God’s judgment had come and was coming, and the people neither liked that, nor the messenger of it, Jeremiah. God’s promise here though is to see beyond that judgment to God’s restoration. Not that we should brush off the judgment as unimportant, or just a necessary nuisance until we get to the good part. Judgment is actually a necessary prelude to God’s blessing. What the passage is referring to is God’s judgment of the wicked to prepare the nation for what is just and good. In our own lives, God’s judgment comes in the form of loving discipline, to clean house in our lives in ways which we may or may not understand, and certainly we have yet to enter at least fully into that experience.

Breaking new ground is about God’s change in our minds, hearts, and lives. That’s the groundbreaking I’m thinking of here. It requires a commitment before God by us so that God can see that through with the least resistance from us, even cooperating with that insofar as God helps us do so. Again, the prayer God encouraged Jeremiah to pray is applicable to us here:

‘Call to me and I will answer you. I’ll tell you marvelous and wondrous things that you could never figure out on your own.’

Jeremiah 33:3; MSG

And later in this passage we see what we now know to be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s answer to Jeremiah in Jesus:

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Breaking new ground we can see from this passage begins with God’s word, God’s promise, and prayer. We have to expect God to answer, but not dialed down to our own expectation. But instead with answers and blessing we would never arrive to on our own, not even in a million years. In and through Jesus.

addendum to preparation for martyrdom

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family. There is a great irony here: proclaiming so much love, experiencing so much hate! But don’t quit. Don’t cave in. It is all well worth it in the end. It is not success you are after in such times but survival. Be survivors! Before you’ve run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.

“A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?

“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.

“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.”

Matthew 10:21-28; MSG

I’m not one to write on martyrdom as I did yesterday. It was an honest thought, but one I feel is way over my head. Of course anytime we write about the things of God and Christ, it’s indeed over our head, given to us only by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.

In Matthew 10 in Jesus’s sending out of the Twelve we have what I think is helpful for us Christians, even today. Yes, we’re not the apostles, not the original disciples, and there’s much that’s different now. We’re essentially a witness in our communities, as the church and individuals of the church. And we witness to Christ, yes to the salvation Christ brings. And that gospel and salvation is not only about the good news of God’s grace in Jesus, but also the good news of God’s kingdom in Jesus. Both. Our light shines in the darkness, and oftentimes the darkness will try to snuff it out, put the light out, but ultimately through Christ that light will prevail. Even on some scale the light that enlightens everyone in the world (John 1). But the light of the good news of Christ is the main point here.

Grace and humility. None of us is able to even follow Christ on our own, much less be in danger and even worse in doing so. We’re not to run into the teeth of danger, as if that’s nothing. We should do what we can to avoid it, wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves. We should try to win over our enemies, love them, knowing that the same grace which has captured us can capture them. Think of Saul of Tarsus.

So it’s not like we want to run headlong into trouble, nor that we can take this on ourselves. But if we can’t avoid it at a particular time, God will be with us by the Spirit to help us in our speech and actions. This is certainly far beyond us, we can’t do it ourselves. But we can know for certain that God helps us with whatever we’re facing, no matter how difficult that may be.

Well, hopefully some balancing words with the post yesterday. A difficult subject. And let me add one more thing. The vast majority of Christians on different sides of the political spectrum here in the United States are not at all desirous to do anyone harm. Quite the opposite. And there is concern of coming trouble on all sides. That said, I think we have to stay true to the witness we have in Christ. One that again is not only about personal salvation, but also about the witness of Scripture from the prophets and elsewhere about the kingdom of God fulfilled and now even present in King Jesus.

preparing for martyrdom

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Revelation 2:8-11

1 Peter 4 and 5 is also a good passage when considering this subject. We live in especially evil times in the United States. If you disagree politically, or especially with a political figure, you can be considered an enemy, an enemy of the state. Death threats and fear tactics are common now. And Christians are complicit in this. It’s an evil day.

As Peter tells us, we’re to arm ourselves with Christ’s attitude, which seems to be acceptance and even embrace of sufferings as taking away our desire for the unhelpful and even sinful dainties of life. Instead we determine by God’s grace to go the way of the cross, the way of following Christ to the end, the way of suffering.

I actually thought of this yesterday when considering this post. So instead of complaining about the nature of what I have to do, which frankly can be more than difficult, I decided to consider it training for martyrdom.

None of us wants to go there. But I also wonder just how many Christians nowadays would be able to. I ask myself that, too. Does our teaching and practice prepare us for that? Perhaps a good question as to how well we’re prepared for it is how well we’re responding to the difficulties at hand. Maybe we need to learn to embrace them, not in our own strength, but in the grace and strength of God, resolutely facing such in prayer, with the goal of finding God’s help to not only get us through, but make us a testimony and light.

This is easier said than done, and words by themselves are cheap. We need corresponding actions. And this involves a process. We’ll have to work through fears. But God is present to help us. As we seek to follow in the way of Jesus. Seeking to be faithful to God’s call on our lives. Leaving what is not of that behind. In and through Jesus.

addendum to preparation for martyrdom: a hopefully balancing word I added.

But…God

Light, space, zest—
that’s God!
So, with him on my side I’m fearless,
afraid of no one and nothing.

When vandal hordes ride down
ready to eat me alive,
Those bullies and toughs
fall flat on their faces.

When besieged,
I’m calm as a baby.
When all hell breaks loose,
I’m collected and cool.

I’m asking God for one thing,
only one thing:
To live with him in his house
my whole life long.
I’ll contemplate his beauty;
I’ll study at his feet.

That’s the only quiet, secure place
in a noisy world,
The perfect getaway,
far from the buzz of traffic.

God holds me head and shoulders
above all who try to pull me down.
I’m headed for his place to offer anthems
that will raise the roof!
Already I’m singing God-songs;
I’m making music to God.

Listen, God, I’m calling at the top of my lungs:
“Be good to me! Answer me!”
When my heart whispered, “Seek God,”
my whole being replied,
“I’m seeking him!”
Don’t hide from me now!

You’ve always been right there for me;
don’t turn your back on me now.
Don’t throw me out, don’t abandon me;
you’ve always kept the door open.
My father and mother walked out and left me,
but God took me in.

Point me down your highway, God;
direct me along a well-lighted street;
show my enemies whose side you’re on.
Don’t throw me to the dogs,
those liars who are out to get me,
filling the air with their threats.

I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
Stay with God.

Psalm 27; MSG

All kinds of things are messed up in the world, a mess. And the main fault of that is us: humankind, as well as our own individual failures. The more you look, the more difficult it looks. That’s where we have to look elsewhere: to God no less.

What I like best about this psalm is the idea of living in God’s house, contemplating God’s beauty, and studying at God’s feet. And that being something daily, not just here and there like vacations. But right along, day after day.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not living in the real world. It does mean that we can face that world, whatever it is we’re up against, and whatever wrong and problems there are, not by ourselves, but with God.

So we need to say in the midst of the darkness and trouble of this world, “But God.” God is present for us in the here and now. To not only help us in seeing us through, but so that we might see God’s good hand in it all, in everything somehow. Righting all the wrongs including those in us, and bringing no less than the light of God’s presence in all its goodness and beauty into this sad and weary world. In and through Jesus.

the evil of racism

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27

I remember as a young boy living in the country pretending like I was Hank Aaron as I swung a baseball bat hitting stones, or a baseball, putting my lips out to look more like him. Little or nothing did I know about what these baseball players were going through. Hank Aaron (who died at the age of 86, Friday) broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record, but not without having to endure death threats. Willie Horton who played for the Detroit Tigers and was mentored by Aaron, said how he enjoyed playing for the Tigers in the 1960’s, even though he could not stay in the same hotel as his white teammates.

Fast forward to today. We might think things have improved, but notably, the past four plus years white supremacists have come out of the woodwork making their presence felt. No, the sin and sickness of racism is still very much alive.

Interestingly Africans are thought to be the only ones on the planet 100% human in their DNA. How that shakes out, or what it means, I don’t know, except in the mix we can say assuredly that all people on earth are human in the sense meant here in Scripture. Those are scientific categories after all, though I think they’re interesting, myself. The essential point is that all human beings are made in God’s image. That all humans are special.

Looking down on others who are different as inferiors seems to be an endemic part of much of humanity in this world. Which in large part was why Christ came. To break down those barriers, the hate between peoples, and make one new humanity in all its wonderful diversity (Ephesians 2:11-22). But all equal and one family in the human race.

We need to go out of our way to root out racism in ourselves, to begin with, and be sensitive to how it’s baked into society in ways which make it hard for those to see who are living far enough removed from it, but plain as day to those who live in and are victims of it.

This is something we need to become well aware of, sensitive to, and desirous before God to see change. And we need to pray and advocate for that change. Marching with others in peaceful protest. And learning from those who experience it. As we try to realize what Christ prayed for: that we may all be one, just as he and his Father are one (John 17:20-23). In and through Jesus.

going through it, not around it

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

Psalm 23:4; MSG

Psalm 23 is a delight, and one of the earliest Bible passages many of memorized and recited from the beloved King James Version. Couched in the middle of this David psalm is the reference to the darkest and most difficult of our experience in this life. What we would well like to avoid, but can’t. The inevitable trials and tribulations, dark in either what actually is experienced, or in the perceived threats which trouble us.

God, I believe is wanting to teach us something basic, but so crucial to our life in God as pilgrims in this world. We’re not to try to avoid or even escape the darkness we face, but walk through it, yes through it. Knowing that the Lord will be with us. Yes, God will be with us. Jesus our good shepherd. Protecting us with his rod and staff. The Lord will see us through. We’ll receive all the help we need, comfort and security, and will be better off, remarkably enough, for having gone through it. Or at least afterward we’ll be receiving the healing we need. In and through Jesus.