Hungering for Righteousness…

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In his 1969 devotional, Think on These Things, Norval Pease provides a compelling thought about righteousness.  It is a reflect on  the beatitude in which Jesus said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6):

Certain attitudes and practices ruin the appetite for goodness… Just as children aren’t hungry at mealtime when they have eaten too much candy between meals, so preoccupation with the follies and pleasures of the world may ruin our appetite for the things God has for us.  Sensational fiction may cause us to reject the Bible.  The theater may dampen our desire for the church.  Excessive concern with sports may make serious Christian service unappetizing.  Only when we keep our appetites healthy will we desire the things we need most.

For what are we hungering and thirsting?”

These words, penned so many years ago, seem as if they could have been recorded today.  What is the object of our hunger and thirst?  How do we fill our insatiable appetite, and how do we try to fill up on things of this world?

Although I am one for a good movie, a moving piece of fiction, and a Braves baseball game, at what point does our preoccupation with entertainment become an idol and act of “corporate worship”?

Jesus promised that his presence is sufficient, and that his Spirit will fill us.  We need not look elsewhere–Jesus is all we need.  Drink deeply, and meditate on his character, his person, and his presence.  Thirst for the things of God: justice, peace, love, faith.  Desire God’s will, and “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these shall be added unto you.”

“Back to Basics”: A Sermon for Lent

Text: Mark 7:1-16

I.

Most of you have heard about the tragedy that occurred last month in Afghanistan.  U.S. security forces found POW Qurans containing hand-written subversive messages, so they confiscated them and burned them.

Whether the burning was intentional or not has yet to be determined, but the “defiling” of Islam’s sacred text created protests that left 40 dead.  We are all disheartened, not only by the event itself–who would burn such a text?–but that lives  have been lost as a result.

I guess we Christians think that we have evolved and transcended such a worldview.  Burn a cross or a Bible, we most likely will not kill 40 people.  These are only signposts of the real thing: They point to God, but they are neither God nor something to be worshiped as a god.

When you look deeper, however, we Christians take some signposts or symbols of our faith seriously as well.  Just try to take someone’s “assigned seat” at church the next time you visit another congregation.

Some churches will kick you out if you’re not wearing a suit.  And just try to remove the picture of the Ten Commandments from your local courthouse and see what happens.

Yes, we have our signposts, and we have our church groups–be they committees or our churchly “neighborhood watch group”–that legislate all of the rules, both written and unwritten, in our church.

Some churches are worse than others.  Some churches really have strict rules, and those watch groups use Bibles almost like tasers if you get out of line.  Some churches have so many rules, they forget that Christianity is all about relationships rather than rules in the first place.

Some of you have come from churches where you have been the recipient of a “Bible tasing” a time or two.  You’ve been spiritually abused, or you have been excluded or hurt by a community who believed that they were keeping their sacred space “pure” from whatever “defiling” actions you did.

When it comes to rules at church, be it here at Trinity or elsewhere, what is really at stake?   Identity.   Our signposts, from Bibles to burqas, music to mosques, communicate something about a group’s identity.  And we take that stuff seriously no matter where we are from.

And what is a neighborhood watch committee but gatekeepers and guards of a community’s identity?

II.

In our text today, Jesus and his disciples have a run-in with the neighborhood watch committee–the Pharisees–whose job it is to make sure every Israelite is upholding the identity of God’s special people.

The Pharisees had a legitimate complaint: Jesus and his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating.  We may tell our kids about the importance of hand-washing before each meal, but this was more than good hygiene.  For Israelites in Jesus’ day, washing and dietary laws had to do with identity and holiness.

Bible scholar, N. T. Wright, says it best:

“The Jews were very conscious of their status as God’s chosen people.  Years–centuries actually–of being hated, persecuted, overrun, sneered at and generally ill-treated by the rest of the world had hardened Israel’s sense of God’s choice into a solid wall, an invisible steel fence around their national identity.”

Jesus and his disciples were defiling more than just hands; they were defiling the very purity of God’s holy people.  They were degrading the very signposts that let others know who–and whose–they were.

And a Bible war ensued, and the Torah was ground zero for their arguments.   They crossed words, and scripture started to fly.

I remember a recent story that broke in the AJC about Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta.  Last year, the Georgia Baptist Convention “disfellowshipped” (read: kicked-out) Druid Hills because the church called a female pastor.

When the story broke, a Bible war broke out in the public square.  Both camps were quoting scripture, justifying their positions with God’s call upon their respective institutions.  They were lobbing Bible bombs at one another. (To be fair, the GBC threw more bombs than the other.)

Ever get a Bible bomb thrown at you?  I have several wounds from those things!

III.

When Jesus confronted the Pharisees about his indiscretion, he did not make excuses or shy away from the accusation.  Rather, he posed a counter-response about the intent of a person’s heart:  The Pharisees worshiped God and followed rituals–they were good at what they did–but their hearts were far from God.

The debate moves from hand-washing to the deeper issue of God’s Law versus human tradition.   Whereas God’s Law–Torah–transcends time, human tradition is culturally bound; it only works for a time or a season.  The pharisees have their rules, but they forgot that the rules were meant to bring redemption, not condemnation.

Rules, to be specific, threaten to choke religion out of people.  Rules can leave broken relationships as collateral damage.  It replaces the heart with mere ritual.

IV.

What does all of this talk about rules and relationships say about Jesus?  Did Jesus merely push aside all of the things that promoted purity and holiness in exchange for a “everything goes” mentality?

No.  Jesus does not do away with those things that make God’s people pure; rather, he redefines purity in the truest sense.  Jesus takes us back, literally, to the heart of the matter.

N. T. Wright has some more words for us to consider: “Outward purity–washing the hands, not eating certain foods–is simply a signpost to the real thing.  Jesus seems to say: Don’t mistake the signpost for the real thing.”

Note verse 15: “There is nothing outside a person that defiles, but the things that come out are what defiles.”

Jesus does not stoop to relativism, he ups the stakes by getting right to the heart: It’s our heart, and those things that reside in our very soul, that determines the make of a man.   Later, Jesus tells us what defiles a person: adultery, lying, slander, and the like.

It’s the heart that determines character, not one’s outward appearance.  It’s the relationship that we have with God that determines our sanctification, not the rituals of our faith, no matter how important those rituals may become.

V.

No matter what a committee does for the sake of helping us to become pure, to craft our identity–be it the worship committee or the Faith in Action committee or even Church Council–no outside body can determine the purity of your heart.

The season of Lent can become a time to focus on signposts.  Someone offers you chocolate and you politely decline giving Lent as a reason.  The ritual turns into an activity in focusing on the outward results.  Lent is, however, a time to determine the inner disposition of our heart and the extent of our relationship with God.

We may worship and we may do Lent, but are our hearts far from God?

Consider that the Bible wars and Bible bombs that we throw in the name of defending our interpretations of God’s word are mere side shows to the real heart of the matter–the spiritual geography of our soul.

And it is the endless debates over scripture that threatens to make void the Word of God that becomes incarnate in our midst through the quality of our relationships and the integrity that we honor as a people.  It is our experience of He whom scripture reveals that makes our rituals and religion more authentically transforming as we live out our daily and weekly faith.

Take it from 1 Samuel 16:7: “For the Lord does not see as mortals see: humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

My prayer for this community, for me, for all of you, is that we will not be hypocrites.  My prayer is that we will live out our faith with authenticity and a deep sense of calling, but not at the expense of our relationship with a God who expects more of us and more from us, a purity that goes far beyond any rules we can seek to establish.

Sources:

N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2012), p. 75 & 72.

Being a People of Vision (part 1/4)

“Being a People of Vision” are sermons from the “People of Vision” series currently going on at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, GA.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. . . Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”  (1 Peter 1:3-5, 8-9)

“Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all you hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.  Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves to all your conduct.”  (1 Peter 1:13-15)

I.

This past Christmas my daughter received a certain Star Wars puzzle as a gift.  Like her other puzzles, this one seemed simple enough.  The pieces–only 100 count–were large.  She asked for my help, as is custom with every new puzzle.

As we began to work, we noticed that this puzzle was quite different than her others.  This one had two pictures on it depending on how you looked at it.  If you looked at it from the right it showed one picture; if you looked from the left it showed another picture.  If you moved side-to-side, the pictures combined a little unfolding drama that worked like one of those old nickelodeon machines.

I suggested that we put the borders together first, so we started hard at work.  Ten minutes into the puzzle, we realized that the border did not fit as expected.  It didn’t take long before we learned that we had to follow one perspective or the other to put the puzzle together.  If we looked at it from different angles, the pieces just wouldn’t fit properly.  That puzzle took us nearly an hour to put together.

There are so many times in our life when we feel like we are wrestling with a puzzle that just doesn’t seem to fit together.  Consider the many pieces in our life: family, career, finances, faith, and recreation, to name a few.

Sometimes we have a perfect fit–we connect!  Other times, we seem to lack a coherent picture of what this puzzle is supposed to look like, so we can’t figure out how to make the pieces work together.

Let me ask you:  Do you know that God has a purpose for your life?  Do you know that God gives us meaning and fulfillment when you are connecting with that purpose?  That God has a vision for you to use as a template to put those scattered pieces together?

The next few weeks, we are discussing vision.  Today, we are talking specifically about the vision that God has for your personal life.

II.

Let’s define vision:  A vision is a picture or an image of the future.  It’s not “what is;” rather, it is “what could be.”   It’s an image–it gives an impression with definite details, a coherent picture.

Consider these various visions:

God’s vision for Israel: We get a picture of Israel’s future in Genesis and Exodus: “I will bring you to a land flowing with milk and honey…”  God gives Abraham and Moses specific details–an image–of what life will be like in the Promised Land.

The book of Revelation: Paints a vivid portrait of what Christians can expect in the End Times, as John envision and describes a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision: MLK envisioned a society–“I have a dream where all men are created equal.”  He went on to paint a picture of what that might look like: “I dream of a day where little black boys and black girls will hold hands with little white boys and white girls.”  That’s a vivid image of Luther’s vision for the future.

III.

God has a vision for each church, but it’s hard to have a vision in community if it is made up of people who don’t have personal vision for their own lives.  If you can’t imagine where God will have you in one, five, or ten years, then this church will have a hard time figuring out the vision for that future as well.

Today I ask you to build a personal vision for you and your family.

When we paint a vision, I recommend that we start with a few elements from 1 Peter for our palate:

V. 3-4:  Our first element is that we must include a vision in which we are born again and confident in our place as children of God and heirs of a “living hope.”

When we envision the future, it must include a hope that is to come–hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection–but also hope in a road set before us in this earthly life.  A life in which Christ’s Spirit is present, rich with blessing, and filled with joy and peace–1 Peter 1:8 describes an “indescribable and glorious joy.”

Let me give an example of how hope can help us in our vision:

When I envision my future, my wife is a part of that picture.  I tell my wife all the time that I can’t live without her.  So my hope is that in the future we will be together.  If that’s the case, then divorce or separation is not a part of God’s vision for my life.

Even in our fiercest conflicts, divorce is not an option.  We have a living hope in our future that shapes the decisions and actions of our present.  Hope starts to connect those puzzle pieces into a coherent picture of our marriage.

IV.

Another element is to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Pet. 1:13) now for what is to come.  This is not some “power of positive thinking” jargon, nor is it merely an attitude.  Peter is describing an active, living faith that takes steps now to prepare for our future.

In our Dave Ramsey FPU small group, we get a clear vision for an end result: debt-free living.  When Dave teaches us how to get to that vision, he does not tell us to simply wish it to happen.  Instead, he gives what he calls “baby steps”–clear, definitive action goals that allow us to live into that vision.

When it comes to God’s vision, we take “baby steps” to grow into that vision.  Perhaps we are to take marital counseling; maybe it is to start attending Sunday School or a home Bible study with a friend.  Whatever baby step we choose to take, it usually requires “discipline” and “obedience,” which brings us to our next element–

V.

Our last element for painting a vision is to pursue holiness.  Holiness is such an archaic word, and we have trouble defining what it means.  Literally, holiness means to be “set apart.”  When it comes to vision, however, holiness draws the boundaries for our vision.

Holiness–God’s holiness–defines the boundaries for a vision-oriented Christian life.  It helps us to avoid having a double-image for our vision–conflicting pictures in which we choose between the desires of our flesh and the desires of the Spirit.

When we make holiness our boundary, and we obey God’s word for our life, we start to care about things that God cares about.  We start to spend time with people that God spends time with.

What does God care about?  Who does God spend time with?

I don’t care who you are or what you do for a living, the vision that God has for your life must include God’s deepest concern–those individuals who have yet to know Him.  Your vision should in one way or another include the Great Commission of Matthew 28.  God cares about the lost and marginalized, the poor and oppressed.  God spends time with the lost–Remember who Jesus spent most of his time with?  Sinners and tax collectors.

You see, when we get a vision for our life, and we start to bring all of those scattered puzzle pieces together, the picture that starts to form takes on a certain shape.  For the Christian, the shape of that puzzle–the glue that holds the pieces together–includes your vocation as a minister and missionary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our vision should include a type of lifestyle where we are helping others see God’s love and experience the salvation that God offers in Christ.   Look at 1 Peter 2:9:

“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness and into the light.”

So what is your vision?  For you?  For your family?

I hope that over the next few months you and your loved ones will pray about that and make it a priority in your spiritual walk with the Lord.