Friday, August 12, 2016

Jesus on Marriage & Divorce

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 19:3-12....
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?' He answered, 'Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning "made them male and female", and said, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.' They said to him, 'Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?' He said to them, 'It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.' His disciples said to him, 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' But he said to them, 'Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.'
The Pharisees were trying to test Jesus to see which side of an ongoing argument he would take. One school of Rabbis (those who followed a Rabbi named Hillel) said that divorce was allowed for any and every reason. Another school (that of a Rabbi named Shammai) said it was allowed only in the case of infidelity. By asking this question, the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into disagreeing with Moses.

Jesus sides with the school of Shammai, but in doing so he takes the Pharisees back to the book of Genesis. So like a good Rabbi, Jesus gives a Scriptural justification for his position. Jesus' comment on Genesis is simply this: "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." It has become a phrase often repeated in wedding ceremonies.

The Pharisees then ask Jesus why Moses allowed for divorce. And Jesus tells them it was because of their hard heartedness. "But," Jesus says, "In the beginning it was not so." In fact, according to the story of Adam and Eve, divorce was not even possible in the beginning. All Adam and Eve had was each other. I suppose that they could have run away from each other, but the Genesis story does not entertain that possibility.

Jesus' disciples realize that he has just uttered a very difficult ideal to live up to. They conclude that if there is no way out of marriage except in the case of infidelity then it is better not to marry!

Jesus responds to this by saying that he recognises not everyone can accept this statement. Some people are born eunuchs, without the physical capacity to enter into marriage. Some in Jesus' day were made into eunuchs, sometimes to be sold as sexual slaves. Others choose to be eunuchs, choose the single life, so that they can better serve the kingdom of God.

Jesus ends by saying, "Let anyone accept this who can." This suggests to me that the ability to be faithful in marriage is a gift. It is a gift we need to seek from God.

I think we preachers sometimes make some mistakes in preaching on this passage. I know I have in the past.

Sometimes preachers make it out like Jesus is giving a definition of marriage here. I don't view this passage that way anymore. Rather, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce. It is important to keep that in mind. 

I don't think this passage answers the question of whether same-sex marriage is compatible with the Bible. That is not even the question being entertained here. Oftentimes the Bible does not answer questions we would like to ask of God. And we simply have to accept that.

Secondly, some preachers treat this passage as though Jesus is enunciating a law about marriage and divorce. I don't think he is doing that either. Rather, Jesus is expressing a divine ideal.

For those who are not able to live up to Jesus' ideal of marriage, for those who do go through divorce, for whatever reason, I believe there is the possibility of forgiveness, if that forgiveness is asked of God. And even better, there is the possibility of a fresh start in life. 

Thank God, his mercies are new every morning! If they weren't, none of us would have a chance.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How often should I forgive?

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 18:21-19:1....
Then Peter came and said to him, 'Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 'For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything." And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe." Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you." But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?" And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.' When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.
Peter goes right to the heart of the issue of handling conflicts with people. As hard as it is to confront others when they have sinned against us, what is even harder sometimes is to forgive. That's why Peter asks, "How many times do I have to forgive?"

In any marriage, family, church, workplace, or close community, people are sinning against each other all the time, often without realizing it. To forgive someone one time is tough, but to forgive someone over and over again for the same offense is even harder. Thus Peter wants to limit the number of times he has to forgive his brother. Poor Andrew! I wonder if he was standing right there when Peter asked this question.

The Rabbis said that if you forgive someone three times then you are a perfect person. Peter is even willing to double that and add one to it. But Jesus says that is not enough. Jesus says we need to forgive seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. Jesus probably said this with a smile on his face. It was a clever way of saying that we need to forgive and keep on forgiving without limit, for that is how God forgives us. Then Jesus tells a story to illustrate the point.

The servant in the story owes the king ten thousand talents. That would be the equivalent of millions of dollars today. The king was going to sell the man and his family so that he could reap some benefit.

Notice how the servant in the story tries to buy off the king. "Be patient with me and I'll pay back everything." There's no way he can do that.

The king offers a better solution. He cancels the servant's debt.

What was the servant's response to the king's generous forgiveness? Did he go out and behave toward others as the king had behaved toward him? No way! When a fellow servant owed him only a few dollars he had the man thrown in prison until he could repay the debt.

And how did the king respond to that when he found out? He turned the servant over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed.

What is Jesus' point in telling this story? The point is simple but startling: if we don't forgive others, the very channel by which we alone can receive God's forgiveness is blocked, like a water pipe frozen solid in the middle of winter.

Why do we have such trouble forgiving others? Perhaps it is because we have forgotten how much the Lord has forgiven us.

All of us have run a long way in the wrong direction. The good news is that God has given us a chance to start over in Christ. In fact, he gives us many chances to start over.

Who do we need to give a chance to start over? Who do we need to forgive? Who do we need to remind that the game is only half over?

The only way we can forgive is by God's grace. None of us have the power, in and of ourselves. But Jesus does. He can give us the power and the love to handle conflicts with people in the best way possible. Why not ask him for that power and love today?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Conkers or the Cross?

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from John 12:24-26.... 
Jesus said "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour."
To listen to a message on this passage, click here: Conkers or the Cross?

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Parable of the Bridesmaids

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 25:1-13.... 
Jesus said to his disciples, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
To listen to a sermon on this passage, click here: Matthew 25

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Temple Tax

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 17:22-27.... 
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, 'The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.' And they were greatly distressed. When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, 'Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?' He said, 'Yes, he does.' And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, 'What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?' When Peter said, 'From others', Jesus said to him, 'Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.'
You may listen to a sermon I preached on this text some time ago by clicking here: The Temple Tax

Friday, August 05, 2016

Three Instructions from Jesus

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 16:24-28....
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Jesus gives to Peter and all of the disciples, including us, three essential guidelines for coming after him.

First of all he says that we must deny ourselves.

We tend to think of self-denial in a very limited sense. We might give up some luxury for Lent. Or maybe we give up eating a certain favorite food while on a diet. But after Lent or once the dieting period is over we go back to our old way of living.

That is not what Jesus has in mind when he talks about denying self. What Jesus has in mind is that at every point in our lives we are to say "no" to self and "yes" to God. Self-denial means getting our self off the throne, along with all of our plans and desires, the ones we think innocent as well as the ones we think wicked, and putting God on the throne of our lives instead. Denying self starts the moment we wake up in the morning. From that moment we must ask the question, "What do you want me to do today Lord?" and "How do you want me to go about doing this or that?" Then we need to spend the rest of the day doing what the Lord tells us, in his way, by his power. In order to do that, we must constantly turn to him throughout the day for strength.

Secondly, Jesus says we must take up our cross.

This statement gives us a radical picture of the kind of self-denial Jesus is talking about. Jesus doesn't have in mind that we simply wear a pretty piece of jewelry everywhere we go so that everyone will know we are his followers. Though that may be a good thing to do and may lead to some interesting conversations.

But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus made this statement it immediately conjured up an image in the mind of his disciples. When Jesus talked about carrying one's cross his disciples would have immediately thought of the countless people whom they had seen in their lifetime who were arrested by the Romans, tried and convicted for some crime, and sentenced to execution. Carrying one's cross was not a pretty sight. It meant something brutal and bloody. It meant death.

When Jesus said that we must take up our cross he was telling us that we must take self-denial to the extreme. We must literally die to ourselves. As A. W. Tozer once said, the person who has been crucified with Christ has three distinct marks:

  1. He can no longer turn back to his old way of life.
  2. He is facing only one direction.
  3. And he no longer has plans of his own. 
Of course, one of the most tortuous things about death by crucifixion was that it was a slow death. Carrying one's cross meant going to the place of one's execution. For us, carrying our cross is a lifelong process. As Oswald Chambers once said, "We don't get to choose the scene of our sacrifice." Or as William Barclay once wrote, it may be that the Christian "will discover that the place where he can render the greatest service to Jesus Christ is somewhere where the reward will be small and the prestige non-existent."

Thirdly, Jesus says that we must follow him.

Someone I know told me once that every morning when he gets out of bed and his feet hit the floor he says to the Lord, "Guide my feet where you want them to go today."

What would our lives look like if we thought about where Jesus would have us go, what he would have us do, what Jesus would want to say through us every day to others? I think life would become more of an adventure if we followed where Jesus was leading us every day. Without Jesus we simply exist. With Jesus we discover life in all its fullness.

And that means a life that isn't safe. If we are searching for safety, security, ease and comfort then Jesus' way may not be for us. If we choose to make every decision from worldly-wise and prudential motives then we may be missing out on the life that is really LIFE.

Winston Churchill once said, "Play for more than you can afford to lose, and you will learn the game."

Mr. Beaver, in C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says about Aslan, the Christ figure in the story, "he isn't safe. But he's good."

What a perfect description of Jesus: he isn't safe, but he's good. Following Jesus isn't safe, but it is the best way to live.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The One Thing We Need Most

Today in the Church calendar is the Feast of St. Martha. Thus, the Gospel lectionary for today is from Luke 10:38-42....
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

We live in a very busy world where we are often judged by others, and judge the value of our own lives, by the level of our activity, productivity, and busyness. This is true even in the Church. As some Christian wag once said, "Jesus could be returning at any moment, so look busy!"

This little story from Luke's Gospel cuts against the grain of all that. This is not to say that the Marthas of the world aren't important. They are. Without them, we would not have meals, or clean clothes, or pleasant surroundings in which to live our lives. But as important as attending to the basics of life are, like food, shelter, and clothing, Jesus says there is actually one thing that is more important. And Mary in this story has chosen that one thing: to sit at Jesus' feet and learn from him.

This poses the question for us: do we take time to sit at Jesus' feet and learn from him? Do we make that a priority in our everyday lives?

I am going to try to be a little less like Martha and a little more like Mary for the next few days as I go on vacation with my family. I hope you too will find some time this summer to check out from the busyness of the world and check in with your loved ones and with the Lord.

I hope to return to blogging a week from now. Till then, go under the mercy....