the formative days of childhood: Jesus’s words of encouragement and warning

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 18

Proverbs tells us more about the training children can receive from their parents, and we can find it in places elsewhere. Like where Fathers are not to exasperate their children, but bring them up in the nurture, training, and instruction of the Lord. Jesus’s words here put the spotlight on children, not only what they need from us, but on what we can receive from them. And Jesus minces no words when it comes to those who would hurt children in any way.

What more important thing can we do than spend time with our children and grandchildren and invest into their lives, our love and careful thoughts, and simply enjoy them and what they do? And we have to be an advocate for those children who are used and abused by others, wanting to see justice done to the perpetrators, even as we hold out the gospel for all.

Children. A wonderful time with its own challenges for them. We need to be present with them, even as our Father is present with us. And we actually need their presence, too. In and through Jesus.

Advertisements

God’s priority to the poor

Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.

Proverbs 21:13

The Bible has plenty to say about God’s care and priority for the poor (see link above). God holds his people accountable for how they help the poor. And by poor, I mean those who are low on resources to the breaking point that their lives are at risk.

And this is not just a political, governmental issue. Regardless of what our position might be on that, God holds his people, and today that would be the church, as well as us individually who are a part of it, accountable. We need to be openhearted and open handed to those in need. There is no question that we will have plenty of opportunities to do so, just as scripture says.

I think my tradition, the evangelicals have done well at this in many places, but it hasn’t had the emphasis in our teaching, and probably therefore in our practice overall, as much as in other Christian traditions. There is no doubt that it was a major emphasis in Jesus’s teaching. Therefore if we’re to be Christian, we must follow suit.

We may not be overflowing with material wealth ourselves. But that doesn’t take us off the hook. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is clear on that. A great example.

We need to first open our hearts to the Lord, and then to those in need. To be much in prayer over this. To help by doing what we can, and growing in the grace of giving so that we become more and more generous in doing so. Given the struggling, broken down health care in the United States, so that basics are not always affordable for all, we who live there will have plenty of opportunities. Any church which doesn’t make helping the poor a priority in their community, and throughout the world where they can, is missing something of the very heart of their mission. And really in any nation there’s opportunity to help those in need. Not to mention helping the poor in the rest of the world.

And not to be overlooked, already touched on, is that this is an important aspect of our growth in grace in and through Jesus. Of course we need to be wise in this. To help the poor on their feet, and toward the means they need so that they in turn can help others. Thankfully much of this is happening in the world today, so that global poverty is on the decline as infrastructures are set in place. Beginning with basic needs met, but also helping others to be able to support themselves and their families through the goods they can help bring to others. Of course sin gets in this because of greed in the world, but we have to keep working on what can be helpful and good toward a win win situation for all.

But back to our mission, the mission of the church. It’s in the gospel, in Christ. And part of that is to help people in whatever way we can. Giving them money where needed, and helping them find their way, so that they in turn can help others. In and through Jesus.

 

the call to prayer

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Mark 14:37-38

The occasion was Gethsemane, and our Lord was in desperate straits. He took his three closest disciples with him, and then went off alone to pray. He had told them to keep watch, but he expected them to pray as he was praying. Instead they fell asleep.

What Jesus did that night has some mystery to it, but it was the final wrestling in prayer before he gave his life over in the will of the Father to receive the cup of judgment he was to drink at the cross in his suffering and death. He had walked steadily toward this inevitable hour, having set his face like a flint, it says, to do so. But now it had, as it were, rushed upon him, like waters breaking in to put one in danger of drowning.

Our Lord’s habit was to regularly pray, spending much time with the Father in solitude. He was again alone with the Father, but this time with his three closest disciples not far away. He surely wanted them to note what he was going through, to learn from his example, to try to begin to emulate it themselves you would think, from what the above text says. It was certainly an occasion for teaching them, and all of us.

Sometimes for me, I wish it was less often, it seems like life is caving in in a number of ways. I can panic and take matters into my own hands, which I’ve been good at over the years. Or I can learn to do what Jesus told the disciples, and by extension, tells us even today to do. Watch and pray. So that I won’t enter into temptation to give in to what’s wrong. Because while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

For me I see all such inwardly challenging times as a call to prayer. Even an opportunity for that. Not that I feel like praying, though I want to train my mind and heart in that direction. Praying for myself and for others, and continuing in prayer, seeing it as spiritual warfare, which surely was the case for our Lord at Gethsemane. And when I go through periods of time like that, I want to be devoted to prayer all the more.

It does seem like Jesus was challenged in his spirit, not wanting to drink this cup. Jesus was not willing himself, but he was indeed willing to do the will of the Father, come what may, no matter what. Jesus was weak in the flesh, in his humanity, though not having sin like we do. Jesus actually prayed like that because he needed to, so that he could bring God’s salvation to many, even to the world. If he needed to pray in that hour of trial, how much more do we need to, in the weakness of our flesh through which even our spirit can give way. So that we’ll not give in to our own will, but God’s will. In and through Jesus.

 

Sermon on the Mount Christians

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

It is puzzling to me, how Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (see link above: Matthew 5-7) is so easily relegated to another time, or as being under the law and not under grace. While Jesus’s context is different than today, which is after his death and resurrection, and his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, yet the new era of the gospel of God’s kingdom and grace in him was being revealed in significant part in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and is echoed elsewhere in New Testament letters which follow.

And I’ve found too that it seems to be a strict either/or. Either a tradition such as the Mennonites sees the Sermon on the Mount as basic to their lives, or many evangelical traditions really do not. An exception to the rule might be John R. W. Stott who wrote a book on it, as well as a Bible study, and in his last book emphasized taking up the cross and following Jesus. And I appreciate it when at least a church often cites scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

What seems to mark a church or tradition as Sermon on the Mount Christianity as we might call it, is their view of the church and the state, and whether or not Christians should serve especially militarily in the state. A plain reading of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as taking in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a whole seems to me to suggest something different than what has occurred historically beginning with what is called the Constantinian turn, effective, even if different, right up to the present day as in the United States, where, while there’s separation of church and state, church is still allied with state in a way that seems to me to be foreign to the New Testament.

Of course there are arguments on the other side, such as the military centurions who had faith as in Jesus’s day. The gospel is open to all, and God’s grace meets us all where we’re at. I’ve lived most of my Christian life with Christians who take it for granted that Christians can serve in the military. And I’ve known a number of fine Christians who have.

I was raised in the tradition of Sermon on the Mount Christianity as a Mennonite, even though it may have been taken too much for granted, and not as indelibly impressed on us as it needed to be, though being so far removed now from that time, I can’t really say, but I’m wondering. My own inclination it to completely embrace the Sermon, which for me included a pacifist Christianity. And arguments supporting Christians going to war for the state, and possibly killing other Christians along with nonChristians seems to me to be rather far fetched. Yet with the Romans 13 seeming (to me) to authorize police force (not military might, as a study of that passage would bear out), although I see it in context with the end of Romans 12 and the rest of the New Testament in a way that still sees the state as other than the church, I think I’ve come to the place where I’m not sure if there can’t be some use of force to stop evildoers by Christians functioning as part of the state. In fact it seems for sure that at least God uses those in worldly governmental authority to do that when necessary. Although I hold to a position of no capital punishment under any circumstances in line with what Jesus himself taught contrary to the Old Testament law. But I still hold to the position, that Christians should not bear “the sword” in the function of the state.

Should Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) be central to our faith as Christians and the church? I think so, regardless of how we answer some of the thornier questions. Jesus’s teaching should characterize our walk and our life in this world as a witness to the one who is the gospel: to Jesus. That people might see the new life breaking in, in contrast to the old, and even in the face of the old, bearing the mark of the gospel, which is weakness to Greeks of old, and foolishness to Jews of old, and certainly remains counter to this day. The message of the cross. In and through Jesus.

the center for the new year

As we enter into a new year on our calendars, and reflect on the past year, as well as this new year to follow, we do well to consider just what is central to our existence, and to the world’s existence, and what’s not.

For children, especially toddlers, often they are the center. It is what they want or think they need that counts, and nothing else. And babies necessarily need special care, along with children, to be sure.

All of us enter into the new year with either new or renewed concerns. And we tend to center on the factors, oftentimes people, who are involved in those matters. And naturally we are often trying to figure out just where we fit, or what our response is to be. Or it may be responsibilities we have, which can be in the mix with the concerns. We either don’t know what to do, or we might in panic try to fix everything, or whatever else might go on in how we process and work out things.

In Colossians in particular, but also in Ephesians, we find the center, as far as scripture and the story there, the gospel (good news) puts it. It is no less than Jesus himself, who brings us and the world into the very life of God, the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the case of the new creation breaking into the old, and to actually be completely in place, making all things new when Jesus returns.

The center is not any given mess in the world, in our world or the world at large. It is not the immediate concern we have, nor perhaps something at best hard, that we’re trying to navigate in our life. The center is always and forever, Jesus. Jesus is in the midst of everything, yes in the mess. And also according to scripture, the church is intricately woven into that (see the end of Ephesians 1). And so here’s probably the most important point, so that this post won’t be misunderstood: Jesus is the center, but it is always through the church and the gospel that this is so.

That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians 1

That is our only real hope on a personal, family, neighborhood, local, state, national, and international level. Jesus somehow is in the midst of all of this, but always through the church and the gospel. Yes, mystically by the Spirit, but also through his teaching, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), through his death and resurrection. And though it’s always through the gospel and the church, yet in some sense Jesus is at work in everything. God is sovereign over all, and that sovereignty now is always and forever in and through Jesus. Even though there’s a day coming when the Son turns over the kingdom to the Father so that God might be all in all (1 Corinthians 15). Whatever that means, we can be sure that Jesus will be at the heart, and in the center of it all.

And so I look to the new year, wondering about some things. But not wondering about one thing: just who is at the center of all of this, who is in control even when things seem out of control, chaotic, and maybe heading in a bad direction. Not to ignore the things which are good. It is Jesus himself, who is with us through the good news of God in him. And through us and that, for the world. Jesus being the center.

the true blessedness

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:2b-12

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount explaining to his disciples and the crowd who really is blessed which was in marked contrast to the ideals held among the Jews and Gentiles(/Romans) at that time. Jesus begins to reveal both the counter-cultural aspect of God’s kingdom come in him, how it would run against the grain of the world, a hint to where he was going, what we might call the cross culture, which at that time was not only avoided, but even despised. Only the lowest of the low were nailed to crosses.

Of course, what we call the Beatitudes gets specific enough and is interesting.  According to the Collins Dictionary, beatitude means “perfect blessedness or happiness.” There has been debate on precisely how to translate the Koine Greek word transliterated makarios. What is meant is more than just happiness, but that is certainly a part of it. It would go much deeper though, than what the world often seems to mean by the word, happiness, which is often superficial at best, and deceptive at worst. It is definitely a blessing and resultant happiness that is again, in contrast to what the world holds dear. And yet often admired by the world, with the attempt to emulate such, which apart from Jesus cannot fulfill what Jesus is getting at, and cannot be Christian.

We do well to remain in them for a time, so that they can get into our mind, our heart, and out into our bones in how we live. It is definitely part of the lifelong ongoing process to which we’re called in this life, a kind of goal. But more apt, this is really a description of Jesus’s followers, those who are part of God’s kingdom come under the Savior and Lord, King Jesus.

This helps us to see what the Spirit is working in us, and what we’re to work out of that as believers and followers of Jesus. In and through him.

In Luke there is a parallel “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17-49), good to read along with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

doing the hard thing

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

John 6:60

There are some things I want to put off, and other things that are just plain hard to do. I don’t think we have to look long in scripture at all to find the latter. The hard sayings of Jesus is not an empty slogan. And even in and through grace, it’s not always easy to put to death the insistent flesh which wants to have its way. We certainly cannot do that in our own strength, but only in God’s grace in Jesus by the Spirit. And this is not just something that happens at salvation. So that from then on, if it’s grace, it’s the easy and natural thing for us to do. It can become more and more that, but to even take that step of faith and do what we’re called to do can be oh so hard. It’s so much easier to stay in our comfort zone, better yet, stay in bed, so to speak, and not get up to face the music that is playing. Not to say that some bad stuff we’re not to pay attention to doesn’t come, because it surely does. Guilt trips and condemnation have nothing to do with doing the hard thing in grace. In fact the hard thing then will be to reject all such because of God’s loving provision for us in Jesus. And accept God’s love and acceptance in Jesus.

I am a procrastinator on hard things which have no deadline. If it’s part of my work for the day, then I won’t hesitate to do it, but if it’s just something which needs to be done with no deadline, chances are it won’t get done anytime soon. They say for some who are that way, there’s the fear of failure, or sense that they won’t do well. Sometimes it’s just out and out dread of what has to be done, preferring to delay that as long as possible. This nearly gets us into another subject away from something like keeping the hard teachings of Jesus, maybe into the wisdom genre like we find in Proverbs. And I’m sure we could draw some wisdom from there to help us in this.

Grace calls us to go on in Jesus, to believe and do what doesn’t come naturally for us to do, what we really can’t do, left on our own. We can through Christ. And we do well to prayerfully attend to the difficult tasks put in front of us. Along with the difficult things, we would rather put off. Of course we know the difference between what we could let go for another year, and for whatever reason, what we need to address now. May God help us to know the difference, and by grace do it, as imperfectly as we will. In and through Jesus.