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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Enter the Kingdom...

A sermon based on Matthew 7: 21-27

Preached by Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,

January, 31thth, 2021.


"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?'

 23 Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'

 24 "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.

 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!" (Matt. 7:21-27 NRS)

We are continuing the series on the most important subject of Jesus’ own preaching; the Kingdom of God.  Let’s quickly review what we’ve covered thus far.

We’ve understood first, that the kingdom Jesus preached about is the ‘nearness’  of the long awaited Jewish hope that God’s eternal kingdom would one day  be established on earth, through God’s people Israel.   This was envisioned by the major prophets and especially late, in the book of Daniel.

Of course, Israel rejected Jesus’ preaching, ministry and mission of the kingdom, but Jesus had already passed on the ‘keys of the kingdom’ to Peter and to his followers, who are today identified as the church, the spiritual heirs, who are the living body of Christ.  We become part of Christ’s body and the coming kingdom when we reorient our lives in hope of God’s saving presence in this world.

Jesus then clarified in the opening of his Great Sermon,  that this kingdom does not belong to the power brokers of this world, but it belongs to those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, are meek, are hungry to do what’s right, are pure in heart, and are being persecuted for it.  The kingdom belongs to them, not the places of power in this world.

Then, we learned how Jesus taught us to pray for the kingdom to come into this world, not only with thoughts and words, but by doing God’s will and  living by the most basic, doable priorities of  feeding the hungry and forgiving those who sin against us, so that we and the world too, can lead away from evil’s temptation and destruction.

Finally, last week we learned that God’s kingdom demands we establish certain priorities in our lives, which are both spiritual and ethical.  For Jesus, God’s kingdom is primarily about heaven’s priorities being done on earth, as in heaven,  becoming our own earthly priorities, rather just making some other worldly priority to go to heaven when we die.  We are to put God’s kingdom first in our lives new, by how we live and how we behave, so that God’s righteousness and holiness are salt and light for the world that so desperately needs God’s saving and redeeming love and light.

So now, in this message we are going to see just how this Kingdom has come to us in the life and presence of Jesus Christ.  In today’s Scripture Jesus reminds that the kingdom of God is about his life, his ministry and his saving work.  You cannot enter the kingdom except through the door, who is Jesus Christ, God’s Son who is our Savior.  But you enter this door, not simply by calling him your Savior and Lord, but by doing what God’s will, which has been clearly laid out in y thy he patterns of living expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, with this very long introduction, let’s get to what Jesus was saying about entering the kingdom.


Our text begins with a series warning.  How many of you remember the  friendly robot on the 1960’s TV  series, Lost in Space?  Maybe you younger folks saw the updated movie.  I haven’t seen the movie, but I can still see and here the Space Family Robinson’s robot announcing impending danger by waving his robotic flexible pipe-like arms saying, Warning! Warning!


Well, that’s how I’ve always approached this saying from Jesus about entering the kingdom.  Warning!  Warning!  Not everyone who says Lord, Lord (to Jesus) will actually enter the kingdom of heaven.   I took this as a most serious warning because I heard a lot of revival preachers using this to get us to make sure we had truly decided to follow Jesus so that we could go to heaven when we die.


But of course, this isn’t exactly what Jesus was talking about.  I’m not saying you couldn’t imply something like this, that we need to be sure we mean what we profess about Jesus, that he really is our true Lord, but the kingdom of heaven Jesus meant is God’s kingdom that we are to pray to come to on earth, as it is in heaven so we can enter it right now, by how we actually live. 


Besides this, Jesus was primarily pointing back to false teachers or prophets who were could were the most dangerous professors of faith around.  Just a few lines before, leading up to this text, Jesus warned about these false prophets who were like trees bearing bad fruit (15-20).  Sounding like lawyer Timothy Welborn who’s very confident  TV commercial says: ‘You’ll know when You need us.’  Here, Jesus says about false teachers, ‘You’ll know them by their fruit.’   It’s also something Jesus declares again and again.


But what exactly is the ‘bad fruit’ that a false prophet drops people’s feet?   Well, put simply, what follows here is a clarification that a the qualification of a false prophet is someone who claims to know and call Jesus the Lord of the kingdom, but doesn’t follow or live by the kingdom ethic or principles Jesus is has taught.  


And what’s most frightening and sobering about this  warning and clarification is that even some of those who claim Jesus and preach the kingdom with Jesus will not discover that they were not really preaching or living the way of the kingdom until it’s too late.  It’s not until they stand before the Lord as Judge on the last day that they get the word that they missed the kingdom and did not and will not enter God’s eternal kingdom.


Now, you see why this word from Jesus is serves as a special warning to both false prophets and those who decide to follow them.  If they,  if you, and still today, if we aren’t careful we can say all the right words, and even use the language of  Jesus and his kingdom, but still fail to enter His kingdom.


There are specifically two warnings being expressed here.  You don’t want to miss either of them, or you could miss God’s kingdom.  The first part of this warning has to do with Jesus himself.   Did you catch how these false prophets and their followers miss entering the kingdom.   To put it most simply, they don’t ever get to know Jesus.  Jesus is the ‘key’ to the kingdom, and he is the ‘door’ to the kingdom too.  

That’s why Jesus makes this warning very personal.   Jesus says ‘Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven…. Did you catch that?  These false prophets have expressed their respect for Jesus, and they have even served him by casting out demons and as their Lord and used his name to do miracles and  mighty deeds of power in his name.  Still, Jesus makes the entrance to the kingdom very personal, saying to them, no matter what they claim or have done, ‘I never knew you. Go away you evil doers.’

 There are too things that make these false prophets and false professors evil doers.  First, Jesus doesn’t know them, because they really don’t know him. Jesus is trying to bring forgiveness, justice, love and mercy to the people.  Everyone knows that, except those who don’t want to know that and get to join with him. 

So, these false prophets become evil by choice because they don’t want to have a living, daily, saving and healing relationship with him.  Since they don’t want to know Jesus because of who he is and what he is doing,  Jesus warns them (and us too) this way because he is the entrance to the kingdom.   We can only enter God’s kingdom by having a redeeming, healing, and living companionship with Jesus.

Isn’t this what the gospels make clear from the very start?  The gospel of Mark starts out even with demons recognizing the importance of Jesus, calling him ‘son of the most high’.  At his birth, Luke has angels naming, ‘a savior who Christ the Lord,  and then the gospel of Matthew has an angel naming him Emmanuel, God with us.  Then finally, in the gospel of John Jesus himself declares to his disciples just before his death,  ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.’   When you consider what each gospel is saying, each in its own way, there is no mistaking that everything points to Jesus as the way to enter God’s kingdom.

Of course, this is no surprise to this of us who have grown up in the church, hearing the gospel story over and over again, but what comes next is still a bit shocking and can still be a warning to us.   This is Jesus’ warning that just like  false prophets who preach and do good in the name of Jesus, but can still miss knowing the real Jesus and also miss entering the kingdom. 

While Jesus spoke this warning to his disciples then, it is a warning that should still warn us now.  This is exactly what those fiery evangelistic preachers were preaching about.  They were warning us that you can ‘speak’ Jesus but still not really ‘know’ Jesus in a personal, healing, and life-changing way.  But here’s the question ‘what is this personal, healing, and life-changing way?


Well, according to Jesus the ‘authentic’ way of knowing begins when we are truly with Jesus as we ‘do the will of the Father in Heaven.’ 

Jesus’ point is simple and clear.  Words are not enough.  Saying the right words isn’t enough. Hearing the right Word isn’t enough.  Reading the right Word isn’t enough.  Finally, and here’s it gets tricky, even believing the right word isn’t enough.  No,  what Jesus is clearly saying and warning is that entering God’s kingdom is only through doing the will of the Father’.

Since what Jesus says hear is a warning and can seem to be tricky and vague because many fail to connect this text to what Jesus has been saying in this great Sermon on the Mount, we need to stop a moment and connect the dots.

There should be no vagueness or mystery to what Jesus means by doing God’s will.  God’s will is the ethics of the kingdom that Jesus speaks about all through Matthew 5-7.  Of course the kingdom of God is bigger than these chapters, but these chapters reveal the kind of ethic Jesus lived and it reveals the kind of ethic or lifestyle that invites God to be present in our lives.  And when we live this way, like Jesus lived, then we open the doors to allow God’s to rule our hearts and lives.  We are doing the word of Jesus, not just speaking or saying we believe in Jesus.

I can’t underscore enough how important it is to follow and live like Jesus.  In our Baptist Church Tradition we have put our emphasis on having an true experience with Jesus.  That is good.  Jesus is more than a religious tradition.  Jesus is also more than reading about him in the Bible. Jesus is someone we need to get to know personally.

The question that arises, is how do we experience Jesus.  For too many people the way of experiencing Jesus has taken them right back to tradition (how grandpa did) or to settling for reading Scripture about Jesus, rather than actually knowing Jesus by doing God’s will, which for Jesus, is living the way of Jesus, which is revealed in this Sermon.

In recent years,  major emphasis has been placed on Christian practices.  As our society has become more secular and less Church oriented, even Christian scholarship has been placing more emphasis on what it means to ‘being Christian’ by focusing more on ‘doing Christian.’   This has been a necessary development for our times, because even in church,  Christians of all stripes have put more emphasis on believing in Jesus than we have living and doing Jesus in our lives and world.

And what makes ‘doing’ Jesus so very important, if not most important, is that according to Jesus himself, it is only by doing what God’s will tells us through Jesus that we really enter into what it means to believe in Jesus.  Believing is Doing.  As Jesus words specifically  imply: There is no knowing Jesus only by believing Jesus, there is only a knowing and believing Jesus in your head or heart, but there is only a true way of knowing and believing by trusting Jesus enough to live as he called and commanded his disciples to live.

Understanding that the entrance to God’s kingdom is not just saying Jesus, but living Jesus can be a challenge to how we have understood Jesus before.  And that’s exactly why Jesus gave this warning.  He’s not only warning False Prophets, he’s also warning us not to be ‘false professors’ of Jesus, who say we follow Jesus, but don’t actually follow in the very challenging, demanding, and also life determining way he has called his followers to live.


Since this warning of Jesus was spoken in a such a negative way, we need to now see how Jesus concludes with a story about m choice.  He ends with a  parable that opens with a much more hopeful opportunity.   


After Jesus warned the ‘false professors’ that ‘he never knew them’ because they did not try to live by the way of the kingdom,  Jesus wants his hearers and disciples to know that they, and we too, don’t have to end up like them—not entering the kingdom and missing Jesus altogether.  We don’t have to end up like them because we still have the chance to make the right choice.


This ‘right’ choice is, as Jesus says, is to ‘hear the words’ of Jesus, and ‘act on them’.   Jesus is not belittling having faith or belief in him, but Jesus is clarifying that this is what having faith, belief and love for Jesus means.  Again, knowing Jesus means ‘doing’ Jesus, which is, as the book of James also clarifies later, that  becoming a ‘doer’ of the word, and not a hearer only.  By the way the book of James takes us back clarify what it means to believe in  Jesus.  Even in NT times, people were already misunderstanding what it means to believe or have faith in Jesus. James clarifies for us again, what Jesus is saying here, that it’s not an either/or scenario, where you choose either faith or works, but it’s Faith is a way that can only be proven to be true and real through good works, deeds and acts that do the will of God in the world.  If you try to separate the two, as Jesus warned, you won’t enter the kingdom.


What Jesus hopefully clarifies, is that a wise, understanding and thoughtful disciple would not dare try to avoid following Jesus and putting into action His way of living and ethics.   A wise person will practice Jesus’ way because His way is the only way to build a life  on a foundation that can withstand the storms that are coming.   To build one’s life without following and doing Jesus way; that is by speaking Jesus without doing Jesus, is to invite disaster upon ones future.   For only the way of Jesus, which is hard now, but pays off later, will enable you to weather life’s  storms and enter the life of God’s kingdom, which has been opened up through the way being offered in Jesus Christ.


This parable that Jesus told was a favorite parable taught to us as children in both Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, but this was not intended only to be a children’s story.  It was a story Jesus told because many of hearers and listeners didn’t want to follow his very challenging way of the higher righteousness, which Jesus explained as a way of  focusing on the heart,  turning the other cheek, going the second mile, refusing to retaliate and also loving the enemy.  These are definitely NOT childish behaviors.  These are very mature behaviors, which Jesus also called being  ‘perfect as your father in heaven is perfect’.


And do you know why Jesus was demanding such a higher, demanding, and almost impossible way of ‘knowing’ and ‘following’ him?  Because this was the only way to save his people from their sins. 


And the great sin that was about to come down hard on Israel, was that their was a religious and political movement getting ready to stand up against Roman Occupation head to head and  sword to sword.  To Jesus this was a way that would lead to complete destruction, and it did.  The people, as a whole, ejected Jesus’ way and followed Judas’ way, Barabbas’ way, and the Zealot’s way, which was to rise up against Rome to rebel and retaliate.  But this rebellion brought the wrath of Rome down upon Israel and so that the entire nation was destroyed.


But the miracle of that terrible moment of history was that the followers of the way, as the first Christians were called, who were of course followers of Jesus’  way, who lived as Jesus taught and did as Jesus did, left the city, did not join in the military fight against Rome, and lived to fight another day, in a completely different way. 


And that way is the way of Jesus that eventually did come to Rome and took Rome’s place as the kingdom that did not fall and will not fall—the kingdom of God which is still present in the world through those who trust, live and follow the way of Jesus Christ.


So, now, knowing that Jesus’ words and Jesus way was true for them, what about us.  How do we still enter the kingdom by following and living the way of Jesus today?   And how do we make sure we don’t fail to ‘enter the kingdom’ by failing to be with Jesus, and then facing the storms ahead without a true foundation and anchor?


As I was working on this sermon, a news flash came about an actress, Naya Rivera, who once was on the hit TV show Glee.  Her rented Pontoon boat was found with her four-year old child on board, wearing a life jacket. The actress was no where to be seen.  She was feared to be drowned.  This happened not long after she broke up with her boyfriend, and just two years after she divorced  the father of her child. 


Whatever happened, accident or not, we can surely say that we all need a way that anchors us, saves us, and offers us a firm, solid foundation to face the storms of life.  Just being beautiful, which Naya was isn’t enough.  Just having a child who is the light of your life, isn’t enough.  Just having success in life, isn’t enough.  Besides one of the major lead stars in that show, back in 2013, died of Substance abuse.  No, we all need a firm foundation to build our lived upon.  Without that foundation, Jesus teaches, the storms of life can destroy us, then and still now.


What we need to know, is that the foundation Jesus offers, and the kingdom that Jesus makes real on this earth, isn’t a kingdom like other kingdoms.  It’s not a kingdom that can be threatened by life’s storms, because it is a kingdom, that Jesus says, is not of this world.   


Now, don’t misunderstand what Jesus meant.  He’s not saying God’s kingdom isn’t in this world, but it’s not ‘of’ this world.  It’s a kingdom that is lived in this world by those who dare to enter God’s kingdom here and now, by following in this way Jesus teaches and challenges us to live. 


If we live this way, it can be a difficult, challenging, narrow and hard way at times, but it is still the only way to survive the winds, the storms and shifting sands of this world.   This is true because Jesus’ way is still the entrance into the eternal kingdom, the kingdom that has come near to us in him, and still offers us a way to live to survive the storms that we will face.


So, now let me ask, as this text does, and as those old evangelists did:  Do you know Jesus?  No, that’s not how I should phrase it.  The real question is: Does Jesus know you?  For only when we live in his way and we do what he taught, are we assured that he knows us, and we can face and survive the storms that will come to us, in both life and death.   Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Strive First For The Kingdom...

A sermon based on Matthew 6: 25-34

Preached by Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,

January, 24th, 2021.


 UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, established for his players a Pyramid of Success.  It was made of the building blocks required for both individual and/or team success.  They started with things like industriousness, loyalty, cooperation, friendship,  enthusiasm, initiative and others . 

At the BASE of his Pyramid, coach Wooden wanted to develop an eagerness and love of hard work;  showing  a respectful, loyal and cooperative spirit with others.  The second layer of development called for self-control, self-awareness and a self-motivated drive that resulted in diligence, determination, fortitude and resolve. WOW!   Who even uses words like this to describe people?

Of course, at the top of this Pyramid made of the most basic habits of good character and teamwork was success, which Wooden called Competitive Greatness.  Simply put, he was challenging his players to be their BEST when their BEST needed.   He wanted them to understand that their was no getting to the top if the foundation wasn’t laid down properly. 

In Matthew, 6:33, part of our text for today, Jesus gave, and still gives his followers the most basic ’building block’ of Christian success, “ But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.  Do you see what Jesus was saying?  Put the things of God first!  Go after them first, work toward mastering them first, put them to practice in your life first, and then everything else will fall into place.’  

This the same kind thing Coach Wooden was saying to his basketball players.  Put these qualities in your life first  Follow this way first.  Make this your priority first of all, and then rest will come together and fall in place.   You will get there, but you must be this and you must do that first of all. 

Now, hearing the kind of priority Jesus puts on the kingdom the question is, what is THIS that we are to put first, and why do we have to be told or challenged to do this?   Why isn’t this ’automatic’ or ’natural’  for us after we become Christians?   Why is Jesus having to explain this priority to his followers?  When you think about it,  all those basketball players Wooden was displaying his building blocks of excellence for, where already great players, but he was still challenging them tool. What this ’kingdom success’  Jesus wants us to  achieve in this world when we put God’s kingdom first?


We can begin to understand what Jesus means by the Kingdom because he qualifies it by making it equal with ’his righteousness’.  The kingdom that Jesus means isn’t a ’magical kingdom’ like Disney, not some ancient walled city like in medieval Europe or China, but the kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of Heaven is an ethic, a way of behaving, or living.  


This is why Jesus’ call to ’strive’ or ’seek’ the kingdom comes on the heels of Jesus’ teachings in The Sermon on the Mount.  ’You’ve heard it said, that you should do that, or behave like this, but ’I say to you, that you should, ’turn the other cheek’, ’go the second mile’, ’don’t even be angry with others’, ’don’t look with lust in your heart’, and learn how to ’love your enemies’.  That’s what the kingdom is, it’s a way of living and behaving because you allow God righteousness to rule in your hearts.


The first time, in the Bible that any command about God’s righteousness, of course, was in the 10 commandments.  ’I’m the Lord Your God’ it begins,  and continues, this is how you should relate to me and how you should relate to each other. 


The heart of the Law of Moses was about living righteously, which Moses declared as ’being holy as God is holy’.  In other words, the way people should live is revealed in who God is.  So, it all fits together.  God has created us,  We are made in his image.  So, it follows that we only continue to thrive when we live as God intended,  that is when we, in our God-given freedom, continue to  ’seek’ or ’strive’ to live in his righteousness.


But what is God’s righteousness?  Righteousness is a very broad term with different meanings, but has three most specific meanings in the Bible; such as justice, faithfulness, and mercy.  Since God is just, faithful, and merciful, so should we be in our relationship with God and others. 


Certainly in the last year, with the social outcry against racism in America, and in the world, many voices we’re heard, and many different interpretations of justice and mercy spoke out very loudly in our own country.  But what I’m afraid we didn’t hear enough about was ’his righteousness’.  We heard and saw a lot of people’s anger, hurt, and frustration which resulted in protest marches and taking down statues, monuments and flags, and a lot of ’cancel culture’, but what wasn’t really addressed was the kind of behavior we should have as people, the ’change culture’ everyone needs to hope for and become. 


For it’s one thing to remove the symbols of our past, good or bad, but it’s quite another to keep new symbols of hate from popping up again, and to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and hope.  Once all the past is erased, will people actually live any different?  Is the problem really etched in stone, or is the problem still a matter that is deep within the human hear?  As an old Chinese saying goes,  ’The heart can be both hard and soft’.  It is our wills that make the difference.


So, here is exactly why we need to seek or strive after God’s righteousness, not just our own version of what righteousness means to us.  We all have our own versions, our own  viewpoints, and our own opinions about what is right, just, and righteous.  Somehow we have to all come together around a vision of righteousness that is both beyond us, and bigger than any of us, but is also fair and just for all.  And this is exactly what the revelation and vision of God’s righteousness is about.  It can be seen and clearly understood in that one great line from the Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 7:12, which said:’ In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’  



It is because we don’t always do very well at going after ’his righteousness’, but going after only what we want, that Jesus put his command the way he did. We are very good at going after what we want and need, only focusing on ourselves, but overlooking the fact that we are all created by God and related to each other.  And do you know how we get off track? 


Well, Jesus is talking about what we fail to realize right here, just before our text, and in our text too.  We get lost or distracted in pursuing our own treasures and looking after our on concerns and worries. ’Don’t store up treasures on earth…but store them up in heaven…For where your treasure is your heart will be also ’(6:19-21).  


Don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying.  He isn’t simply saying that we are to be righteous so we will get rewarded when we get to heaven, but he’s saying that we should seek God’s righteousness so that God’s will comes down to earth, now, as it is in heaven.  Misplaced values, selfish pursuits, and unjust conditions brought about by poor human choices only delay God’s will and God’s purposes---the purposes of heaven from being realized on earth. 


While human sinfulness won’t prevent God’s kingdom from coming into this world, it can prevent us from entering into that kingdom.  As Jesus makes clear in the next chapter: ’Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (7:21).  This is why Jesus is so adamant about ’striving for’ the kingdom of living in God’s righteousness.  If we miss this God’s kingdom, and if we fail to understand what it means for us, and to seek after it, we can miss the blessings of the kingdom, no matter who we say we are.  It’s what we do and how we actually live that makes the real difference.  And there is a difference---a very real difference.


I received a video from my German friend recently which was an interview with. German Jew named Sally Pearl.  His story of surviving Hiltler’s Germany is incredible.  Pearl was just a kid when the war came and his family was stolen from him. 


Strangely enough, Pearl survived by posing as a Hitler supporter himself, a Hitlerjunge, a youth for Hitler.  Hitler stood for everything he was against, but because the whole world around him was evil, he had to pretend to be part of that world to survive.  And he did.   He was never discovered, and by the end, was even working as an assistant to a high Nazi officer.


During the interview, Pearl remembered, quite ironically, that he survived by listening to the last words of his mother, not his father.  His father was a Rabbi who told him obey God, no matter what happened.  His mother, fearing for her son’s life, said ’Son, do whatever you need to do to survive!’  Sally Pearl said he survived by ’disobeying’ his Father and by becoming a Nazi, even disobeying God too.


While I hope we never have to make a choice like that,  we too live in a world that sometimes ask us to make hard choices between doing right and what will make us rich,  between what is best for us, and what God requires of us and what this unrighteous world sometimes expects for us.  During the Coronavirus threat many people were refusing to wear masks, no matter who said they should be wearing one.  Some people even saw mask wearing as a threat to their own political freedoms, just like some churches and pastors saw social distancing as a threat to their religious liberties.   


Perhaps this is why Jesus said that to follow him meant doing something difficult, something that went against the grain, which was like ’denying yourself’ and  ’taking up a cross’.   Life does require us to make difficult and hard choices, sometimes.  And the most difficult choice is seldom like Sally Pearl’s choice of having to choose between life or death, but the most obvious choices we make most everyday are between what we want to do and what we should do.  


And we won’t ’strive’ or ’seek’ this needed difference and this way of being different, if we are completely distracted or caught up in only going after only what we treasure, or seeking only what we wish for ourselves.  Sometime we have to see beyond ourselves in order to do what’s right for others too, not just for ourselves. Sally Pearl finally did this too.   After the war was over Pearl moved to Israel, like many Jews did, and there he opened  a Zipper factory, but he never ’unzipped’ his lips to tell what happened during the war.  He didn’t want to jeopardize his relationships and his business. He knew his Jewish friends who lost loved ones during the Holocaust would turn against him.  But then, after suffering a heart attack, he decided to tell his story, even crooked, deceptive and underhanded, as it made him look.   He was just a kid, trying to survive in an upside down world.  But now, he needed to come clean, to tell his story, and to talk with children of the next generation, in hope that this kind of choice would never have to happen again.  Now, he was striving for ’righteousness’ and trying to make up for lost time.



What Sally Pearl did, isn’t at all what Jesus asks of us.  While Mr. Pearl went after all these things, and waited until he had them, then started telling the truth and living the truth,  Jesus asks us to live choose God’s righteousness, now, and then ’all these things’ will be ’added to us’.   What prevented Pearl from sharing, and caused him to hold all those difficult memories inside was his ’worry’ about losing his friends, and perhaps his business too.  But all that ’worry’ almost cost him his life too.  Because he had held it all in and kept carrying all the guilt of how he survived by siding with evil, he nearly lost his life again. 


Worry can do that to people.  It still can.   That’s why Jesus understood way back then, that you can pursue God’s kingdom if your heart is filled with worry and fear.   Worry and fear is why so few have time to seek or go after God’s righteousness, he says.   The only way God’s kingdom comes, or new priorities are pursued is when we give all these cares and worries to God.   It may sound counter-intuitive to put our treasures in heaven and too stop our worry by seeking him, rather than all the stuff that makes us feel secure, but it’s not.  Jesus makes it clear that a ’carefree’ life is based on caring for the right things, not getting lost in caring for the wrong things.


Recently, I was saddened to hear the difficult story about a week-respected pastor in California.  Someone working with children in his large mega-church, came and admitted that he had an wayward attraction toward children.  Because the young man hadn’t acted on his feelings, the pastor advised him to seek counseling, but didn't remove him.   Later, another person on staff, wrote a letter informing the church leadership that this young man was, in fact a pedophile, suggesting the pastor was wrong to let this go.  He wrote this because he had fear for the safety of the children.  He wrote this very carefully but intentionally, because the young pedophile man was his brother, and the pastor was their Father.   


This is a very sad story, because it happened in a church, and to a much beloved and popular Christian ministry.  While nothing bad happened in that church, it could have.  And God knows, we don’t need more bad press about churches not doing what they need to do to protect children.  But still, even the difficult truth needs to be told because not only do children need to be protected, but churches made up of imperfect people still need to be constantly challenged with God’s higher, demanding righteousness too.  That Pastor was faced with the choice between keeping ’his own family kingdom’ and God’s kingdom, and he, by not making a difficult choice, made a very bad choice, that could have hurt a lot of people, let along hurting the most vulnerable of all.


This is why we must make hard choices, both in the church and in the culture.  Not to seek the kingdom of God’s higher righteousness can be disastrous for our world, as it can also be for us, in our own private lives.  If we settle for less that God’s holy, righteous, and coming kingdom, we will end us living lesser, lower and healthier, and even destructive lives.  That’s why we are not to ’settle’ for less, but to ’strive’ and ’seek’ what God intends as his moral, ethical, and and righteous way of life, that is for our benefit, and for our earthly redemption too.


So, let me conclude, where I began.   I began this message talking about coach John Wooden.   Wooden was a devout Christian.  His Pyramid of Success clearly indicated his belief system was built on the rock, not just any rock or foundation.   Wooden kicked All-American athletes out of practice for using curse words.  He personally stood firm against the world with a belief system built upon the righteousness of God.  He also built his life around the message of Jesus.  At the top of his pyramid, over everything else, floated too words pointing straight back to Jesus: faith and patience.  Wooden believed that loving God with everything you have, all that you are, and in everything you do, will lead you to living righteously, which Wooden called WWJD, Walking Worthy of Jesus’ Death


What motivates you to strive to live differently and to be a difference maker in the world?  In his sermon Jesus challenged us to be both Salt and Light.  Striving after God’s righteousness is to become salt to the flavorless, and a light in the midst of darkness?   


How can you possibly have the desire, the will, and the strength to live in ’his  righteousness’ as Jesus presents it in the Sermon on the Mount—in a world that will still run over you if you try to learn or love this way?   Well, the truth is you can’t live ’his righteousness, his justice, his faithfulness, or in his mercy on your own.    You won’t be able to be faithful in your own strength.  This is why Jesus will recommend in the very next chapter for us to ASK, SEEK and KNOCK!!  “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt 7:8).   


So, are you asking, seeking, and knocking on heaven’s door?   Do remember that great Bob Dylan song.  He wrote it for a Movie about Pat Garrett, the lawman, in pursuit of Billy the Kid. But the finally lines are prophetic to our human struggle to be more than we are.   Garrett was looking at the lawless Billy as more than an enemy of the law, but as another human being.   The feelings he had in the movie were being felt in the terrors of the Vietnam War, we’re men were tired of killing, longing for a better world and a higher righteousness, where even enemies could be forgiven and loved.   That’s why the final verse goes,

Mama, put my guns in the ground, I can't shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin' down, I feel I'm knockin' on…

Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door.


The point Jesus was making is still valid and needed now.  Life’s too short to pursue the wrong kingdom or righteousness.  It is only by seeking or striving after God’s kingdom, that we can have the life we are intended to have.   Amen



Sunday, January 17, 2021

Your Kingdom Come

A sermon based on Matthew 6: .9-13 Preached by Charles J. Tomlin, DMin. Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, January, 17th, 2021. In 1996, the late catholic professor, chaplain, and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen wondered ‘just how much longer Christianity could survive in a world like ours.’ He then added: “Many voices in our land today, even wonder whether humanity can survive its own destructive powers." I guess most of us have had such thoughts. It doesn’t take much these days to push us over the edge. During the Coronavirus outbreak, several people have expressed feelings the end is near. And certainly, it does sometimes seems we are nearing the end of something. As we consider the political landscape of the world in these past 25 years, while we have seen fewer major wars talking place, we do see astounding changes, increasing tensions and greater threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and of course, the continual rise of China and its threat to Hong Kong and the rest of the world. We also have our own increasing conflicts here in the United States too. The recent racial unrest after the death of George Floyd, the growing disparity between the wealthy and working classes, the observable growing secular focus of our society, along with its growing suspicion of religion, along with the continue Christian decline, makes many of us wonder how much longer the world can keep going in the direction its going. I raise this issue not to depress or discourage us. As a matter of fact, I want to share a hopeful word similar to what Jesus was doing in his Sermon on the Mount when he taught his disciples the Lord''s prayer and to pray for the ‘kingdom... to come and God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ COME? But what does it mean to pray for the kingdom to come ‘on earth’ when many, even some Christians think the world, as it is, appears to be doomed? How can we take Jesus’ prayer for the kingdom to be a message of hope in a world that may seemed to be doomed? Interestingly, the world Jesus lived in looked like it was doomed too? If you want to see what I’m talking about read Matthew 24, where Jesus envisions pagan ’armies’ surrounding Jerusalem (Lk 21:20) and he recommends to his followers that when those armies move in they should run to safety (24:16). This will look like the end too, Jesus said, ’but the end doesn’t come yet’ (24:6). ’No one knows when that day will come’ (24:36) he explained. What he does know, and we must know too, is that ’heaven and earth will pass away but ’my word will never pass away (24:34). While it sure looked like Jesus was talking about the end, Jesus also looked beyond this ’ending’ with great hope. In the flow of this discourse Jesus also said ’the good news of the kingdom would be preached throughout the whole world’ (24:14). He even guaranteed and that all these things would take place’ in his time, in his generation (24:34). This included the ’sign’ of the Son of Man in heaven’ and the ’coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory’ (24:30). Again, while this language sounds like a grand finale of events, the truth was that it was both and ending and a beginning at the same time. Jesus himself referred to all these events as ’birth pangs’ (v.8), that is a painful signal that something new is about to be born, which Jesus himself named ’the good news of the kingdom’ (24:14). He also says that those who ’endure’ through all these events, ’will be saved’ (24:13). But saved for what? Luke says ’redemption coming near’ (Lk 21:28) is ’the kingdom of God come near’ (21:31), but what is this ’kingdom’ that is coming Jesus’ disciples are to ’keep awake’ (24:42), ’be ready’ (24:44), and to pray for? Has it already come? Is it still coming? How are we still to pray for this kingdom now? What does all this mean for us in a world where any kind of Kingdom of God or of Heaven seems to be further away rather than coming close and near? KINGDOM? When we think about the Kingdom we are to pray for, we need to understand, that the kingdom isn’t so much a ’place’ that comes to us, as it is a reality we come to live out in our own lives in our world. You can see this in what Jesus implies in this model prayer. Jesus said when we pray ’Your kingdom come’, we are, in fact, praying for God’s rule to come and for God’s will to be done on earth, right here and right now, right where we live today. In other words, the coming of the kingdom not only depends on what only God can and what God one day will do, the kingdom also depends on us, on what we do, and how we live our lives and allow God’s to rule and reign in us now. To pray the kingdom means that we are seeking to do God’s will, now, ’on earth as it is in heaven.’ Learning how to distinguish between God’s kingdom that is is ’not yet’, that is always beyond us and is still coming, and God’s kingdom that is ’already’ near and can be ’among’ us now is one of the most important lessons we can ever learn about the ’mystery’ and the reality of God’s kingdom. What this means is that there is always a part of God’s kingdom, rule and purpose, which we can never bring into reality, so we are relived of the burden of having to bring, or force this kingdom into the world. This is forever God’s kingdom, that comes as God determines. The kingdom never belongs to us. On the other hand, the kingdom is also a kingdom we are to pray for. Through Simon Peter, who was given the keys to the kingdom, we, the people of God, the church, have also been given the ’keys’ to the kingdom, so that we have a responsibility to both to seek and to strive, which means that we are to both work for and toward God’s kingdom that is still to come. This, while wear are relived of the burden of the kingdom, to pray for the kingdom means we are still challenged and called to live this kingdom into reality in our own lives. William Barclay, the distinguished Scottish Bible teacher, once said about the this prayer, that: "This is no prayer for the man or woman who wants and desires for things to stay the way they are." However, you and I know full well how easy it is for us to try to keep things the way we are. It is not easy to want to learn how to participate in the work of the Kingdom of God. We prefer to maintain our own safe "Kingdoms, ” don’t we, just like we also prefer to work for more achievable, recognizable earthly kingdoms too. The late Senator from North Carolina, Sam Ervin, who became nationally known during the Watergate trial, once told about a minister who somehow wound up by mistake at a Democratic Party Convention. They were meeting to select delegates and a candidate. It was a festive, banner-waving occasion. Instead of going to the church event, he somehow gets tangled up in this convention. The church building was very close to the Convention Center. The minister, who was Dr. Robert L. Abernathy, got into a discussion with slightly intoxicated delegate who was surprised that a minister would be mixed-up in political happenings. As they talked, the delegate slapped the pastor on the back and said, "Dear brother, what office are you running for?" The humble pastor said, "My dear man, I am a candidate for the kingdom of God." The somewhat drunken delegate then responded, "That''s great! I think you will be elected, because I know everyone else here at this convention, and believe me--nobody else is running for that position." This story reminds us that a true commitment to the kingdom of God will often put us in conflict with other political and personal agendas. How many of us, even as Christians, really put God’s kingdom agenda at the center of our lives, rather siding with other earthly or political agendas in this world? And to be quite honest, it’s not always easy for us to pray and live toward God’s kingdom. Without prayer, without reading God’s word, and without the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit, any of us can be pulled away by worldly agenda’s from those Jesus tells us to pray for when we pray for God’s kingdom to ’come on earth as it is in heaven’. ON EARTH? So, now if we are to pray for the kingdom of God to come now, and there is also a part of that coming kingdom we can and should participate in, what are the priorities of this kingdom that are being revealed to us in this kingdom prayer, which is to be our prayer and our call to kingdom priorities hear on earth, as it is in heaven? The first priority of God’s kingdom is to pray and to work to make sure that everyone in this world, on earth, have the basics of life. Isn’t this what this prayer for ’daily bread’ means still today? Several years ago, I heard Fred Craddock, the preacher from rural Tennessee, say that the most pagan, profane, and troubling sign he ever saw on the Atlanta Freeway, read ”All you can eat!”, then with the numbers underneath, ”$6.95”. Do you know what was profane and pagan about that? It was far away from the agenda of Jesus which was ’5 loaves and 2 fish” which was not ‘all you can eat’ for just one person, but it was the agenda of making sure everyone has enough. To pray and to live the kingdom is to deliberately choose an agenda and a lifestyle that considers not only what’s in this life only for you, but it’s to also live each and everyday seeking just enough for you so that you can also consider the needs of others. What is also amazing, and perhaps surprising for some is that the first agenda of a kingdom prayer—a prayer that honors God wasn’t a spiritual agenda, but it’s a very basic, physical agenda. It’s an agenda the most basic human, physical needs be met for us, and for everyone. And isn’t that also what Jesus modeled for us in his ministry too? The very first thing Jesus did, when he preached and signified that the God’s kingdom ‘had come near’ was to help people physically; both by miracles of healing the sick and by miracles of feeding the multitudes. So, here’s the first priority of the church, when we truly seek the kingdom and hold the keys to the kingdom. Before we do anything else, our work, our first, kingdom priority, is to a ministry for meeting basic ’human need’. In a world that continues to seek our own kingdoms, and live by our own agendas, praying for God’s kingdom, is first about making sure everyone has enough. The second agenda of a kingdom prayer takes us straight to the most basic, human spiritual need: forgiveness. This is why Jesus teaches us next to pray for about forgiveness: ’Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I guess you know already, that in the very first miracle Jesus performed, according to Mark’s gospel, was to heal a man who was paralyzed by saying to him, first of all, ’Your sins are forgiven, then adding to it, ’Take up your bed and walk!’ What got Jesus in trouble with the religious leaders was that Jesus made God’s agenda, the agenda of heaven, also an earthly, human agenda. Now, through Jesus Christ, forgiveness is a divine agenda also given to us, so we too can participate in God’s kingdom by ‘forgiving the sins of others’ just as we have been forgiven. But this ‘other worldly’ agenda of forgiveness, still goes against the grain of most everything this world wants and stands for—which is much more focused on ‘revenge’ rather than forgiveness, isn’t it? In both our public and private worlds Jesus is pointing us toward an agenda that can still change both the world and us. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a motivational speaker of another generation, was a minister who wrote a lot about spiritual healing. He once told the story one time of a lady that came to hear him preach one Sunday who was relatively young, attractive, and well dressed. After the service was over she came up to him and said: "I want to share a problem I have with you. I have an itch that will not go away, and the itch gets worse whenever I go to church. Today the itch was unbearable as I was listening to you preach." She said, "Furthermore, I constantly run a low grade fever." Dr. Peale said, "Well, I've had a lot of reactions to my messages, but I don't believe I've ever made anybody itch." The lady didn't even laugh. She said, "I'm very serious. I've gone to doctor after doctor, and no one can tell me what is wrong, and I was hoping you could help me." Dr. Peale said he thought immediately that perhaps her itching did not have a physical cause, but a mental or even spiritual cause. Dr. Peale, with her permission, called her doctor. The doctor told Dr. Peale that, in his opinion, there was nothing physically or organically wrong with this patient, but there was some kind of a neurosis or obsession that he described as a kind of mental eczema, a scratching on the inside that was, in her mind, on her skin." Dr. Peale said, "Do you know of any other problems that she might be having?" He said, "Well, I do know that she and her only sister have been on the outs for a long time, and that may be that is part of the problem." Dr. Peale called the woman in and asked her about her relationship with her sister. The story she told was not complex. But years before she and her sister had had a bitter disagreement over the disposition of the proceeds from their deceased father's estate. This lady swore after this argument that she would never again speak to her sister. So, Dr. Peale asked her, "Do you love Jesus?" She said, "Yes." He said, "Did Jesus ever hate anybody?" She said, "No." He said, "Then do you believe that with His help you can overcome your hate?" She said, "Yes, Dr. Peale, I know that with Jesus' help I can overcome my hate." He said, "Then you do right now what I'm going to tell you. You tell God that you're sorry for this sin, and you ask Him to take that hate away." She did that. Then he said, "Now, you tell God that you love your sister, and that you forgive her if she has wronged you." Dr. Peale said for a moment she hesitated, and all-of-a-sudden she burst out crying and said, "Dr. Peale, she didn't wrong me, this is all built up in my mind. She's the sweetest person on earth, and I've been such a fool." Dr. Peale said, "Now you tell Jesus right now: ‘With your help, I now let my hate go, and I affirm my love for my sister, and Lord forgive me.'" She did that. Dr. Peale said, "What is your sister's telephone number?" She gave it to him, he dialed the number and gave her the phone. She said, "I can't talk to her." Dr. Peale said, "You're going to talk to her." The sister hesitated for a moment, and then just simply said, "Sister, I love you. Would you please forgive me?" Both of those sisters began to weep and cry, and a relationship was mended. Dr. Peale said when she hung up the phone, for the first time in four years, the itching was gone and so was the fever. What doctors, medicine, psychiatry, and pills could not do, forgiveness could. Of course, ‘forgiveness’ is not a cure-all for everything, but without ‘forgiveness’, as Desmond Tutu, of South African, once said, ‘there is no future’. That’s at least how it was in South Africa, when Apartheid was being dismantled by the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ Committee. Without ‘forgiveness’ the agenda of personal and public healing could not happen. And this ‘forgiveness’ doesn’t mean, he said, denying the past, or ignoring it, but it mean facing it, and then deliberately ‘forgiving it’ and those who have ‘hurt us’ so that life can move forward. That’s why forgiveness is so important to God’s coming kingdom. Finally, perhaps the most personal priority of God’s kingdom is to pray to be ‘rescued from evil,’ or, as our translation says, ‘to be rescued from the evil one’. I find it most interesting that more a modern translation reminds us that this pray is not just to be delivered from ‘evil’, but it’s a prayer to be delivered from ‘the one’ who leads or ‘carries’ (Grk) us into temptation. This is to make this problem of evil in our world, not simply any kind of problem, but it’s primarily a human problem. It’s a problem that can happen to any of us, even good people too, because we can all be ‘lead’ or get ‘carried away’ by evil. It’s also a problem that can only be solved when we want it to be solved, when we want to overcome it, and when we lift up and help each other overcome the negatives of life, rather than pull each other down, which enables ‘the evil one’, that is Satan, the devil, to gain the upper hand over us. What I think this final major kingdom agenda teaches us about God’s kingdom, and how it comes into our world, here and now, is that it must be something we choose and want. Scripture says that we are led astray and tempted by our wayward lesser ‘desire’ (Jam. 1:14-15) and that the only way we can every overcome this ‘desire’ is to replace it with the greater desire, which God gives through Jesus Christ. Last year, officials in Tuscaloosa Alabama found that several college students had organized “COVID-19 parties” as a contest to see who would get the virus first. These students hosted parties to intentionally infect each other with the coronavirus. The plan was to purposely invite some guests who tested positive for COVID-19. Then, they put money in a pot, and invite others who try to get COVID. Whoever got COVID first, got the pot. Of course, city officials were furious to that something so serious and deadly was being taken for granted. Not only was it irresponsible, but those who contracted the virus might survive, but then they could take it home to their parents or grandparents. This kind of ‘wayward’ desire is very strange, but it reminds us of just how easily it is for youth, and any of us to be pulled away from what matters most about what life and living is supposed to be about. And what is that? Those youth certainly couldn’t. They had nothing in their lives that could keep them from giving into their lowest desires. This brings us right back to what Jesus taught us to pray about the kingdom. This is a prayer, not about getting to heaven when we die, but this is a prayer about God’s will being done, now, on earth, as it is in heaven. This prayer leads us away from the ‘temptation’ to live a lesser, and lower life by inspiring us to live toward God’s future with hope, not despair. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Theirs Is The Kingdom!

A sermon based upon Matthew 5: 1-16

Preached by Charles J. Tomlin,  DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,

January, 10st, 2021.


Sometimes it seems our whole culture is designed to remind us to that our chief goal in life is to be happy.  Even the great constitution of our United States declares that ‘pursuit of happiness’ is right up there with pursuing life and liberty.  People even write songs about it.  Do you remember one?   

"Here’s a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note:

Don’t worry. Be happy!".


Knowing that we all want and need at least some amount of happiness makes the world go around—the business world, that is.  


Advertising sells products based on how much happier or more satisfied we might be if we purchase their products—-whether it is a particular brand of shampoo or toothpaste or deodorant ( that probably affects the happiness of the people around us more than us!).   


One place of employment, as part of their annual performance review, requires each employee to answer the question, "How would you evaluate your level of personal happiness in working for this company?”


Of, course, there’s nothing wrong with being happy or pursuing some happiness in our lives.  Happy can be good, and our constitution guarantees us some form of life and liberty to pursue our own version of happiness, as long as, it doesn’t interfere too much with another person’s version.  But our ‘right’ to pursue happiness doesn’t guarantee our being happy, does it? 


Even in America the Beautiful, happiness isn’t everything.  If you are only using your life and liberty to pursue happiness, that could become the wrong thing, or the very last thing you might find.  Think about it this way:   When a couple ends a relationship it’s usually because one of them is no longer happy in the marriage.  Or sometimes, when people drop out of school, quit a job, or leave a church, the reason is expressed in a complaint that they were’t happy.


Many people buy into the mistaken idea that the only purpose in life is to be happy.  That too can spell trouble—sometimes even more trouble than not being happy.  The Jerry Springer show, and other talk shows too, are filled with people who are a lot worst than unhappy because they feel the need to complain loudly about not being happy.   Does that make them happy?  No, but it can make the Television producers happier..


But what is our hope when we don’t, or can’t find our own version of happiness?   What is our purpose in life when we don’t or can’t have the happiness others appear to have, or we dream of having?   How do we live when life is uncertain, unstable, or unfair?   And regardless of what it says in our much beloved constitution, life can sometimes be unhappy or the happiness we went after, can prove to be an illusion, which could make our unhappiness even worst.


I know this is an extreme example, but I’m thinking about that couple who probably murdered and buried those two children in Idaho, and then moved away to Hawaii.  Why did they have to murder her children to pursue their own versions of happiness?  What kind of new life or happiness were they after?  Now that the bodies of those two children have been recovered, and the couple have been arrested and charged, what kind of lasting happiness will they have, if they are convicted, or even if they aren’t?  


And while there’s definitely some real evil or sickness here, and none of us would ever go to that extreme, the point still holds true, that false and failed pursuits of happiness can take any of us down roads that are much worse than learning to live with our own unhappy times.  


As a more realistic example, many years ago, some close friends of ours had so much to be thankful for—they were a beautiful couple, had great jobs, and also had two beautiful children. 


But then, one of them, out of the blue, informed us they had ‘been bad’ and were now getting a divorce.  They got too close to a work colleague and had found a greater sense of happiness outside their marriage, than within their marriage.  So, since being happy was what they wanted, and deserved, they went after their new version of happiness, no matter who got hurt.  I’ve often wondered if the one who ended the marriage is happy with what they got and who they have become.


The movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith, tells the true story of Chris Gardner, a salesman, who lost practically everything— a couple of marriages, his home, his job, and almost his relationship with his son, so he could literally ‘go for broke’, becoming penniless and homeless, to hope of , producing and marketing a piece of medical machinery. 


The story is warm-hearted, and inspirational, but it still glorifies Gardner as a unrelenting hero of the American dream, willing to sacrifice almost everything for his own version of happiness, which eventually pays off.  In the end, he does end up very successful, despite several failed marriages, and all the pain, he and his family went through, so that he could finally achieve his own version of happiness.    


This is a long introduction.  But it’s necessary because in the opening to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges almost everything our culture assumes to be the way to happiness. 



And for Jesus, God’s blessing has a much greater and more lasting value than happiness.  What makes a person blessed has less to do with our situation or status in life, and much more to do with our relationship with God.  Jesus illustrates this by even turning our normal way of thinking about happiness and blessing upside down.


Several years OK, a popular television preacher, named Robert Schuller published messages on this portion of the Gospel of Matthew, and he titled the book The Be-Happy-Attitudes.   Schuller took these as ‘attitudes’ which, when we have them, bring us happiness.   But this still doesn’t capture the distinctive, different and upside-down way Jesus is describing the reality of God’s kingdom.


Now, I was never much of a Monty Python movie fan.  It was most often too satirical and disrespectful for me.  But even with that, the film “The Life of Brian’ which is a spoof on the story of Jesus, does have a few interesting teaching moments, that make valid points.   One point was exactly here, when Jesus was preaching to his followers as a large crowd gathered.


A few folks in the distance were having a hard time making out what he is saying, and exactly who he is blessing.  They think they hear him say, "Blessed are the cheese makers," and off they go, talking excitedly to one another, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of what he said.


Now, of course, we know that Jesus didn’t say, "Blessed are the cheese makers," but the valid point is that what Jesus was saying must have sounded just as strange to his followers, as it still does to most of us today.   


Think about it,  it is really strange, and goes against the grain of most everything when know about how life works to says:  “Blessed are the poor..., Blessed are those who mourn,... Blessed are those who are meek...,  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...  


You must be careful not to wish these kinds of situations on anybody.   Who wants to the blessing of poverty?  Who wants to be blessed with grief and loss?  Who wants to settle for being meek and lowly?  And who wants to live in such a difficult, immoral situation that are desperate for some sign of goodness?   No, these are not the kind of ‘attitudes’ anyone would desire.  That’s not the kind of ‘upside down’ reality Jesus means.  Jesus isn’t teaching the ‘attitudes’ the prescriptions for living.


So, what does Jesus’ upside down language and blessing mean? 


Well, for one thing, the text plainly says that Jesus wasn’t even speaking to the world, or the masses.   Matthew tells us that ‘When Jesus saw the crowds he went up on the mountain; .and that ..his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them…" (5:1).  Jesus wasn’t sharing the secrets of happiness with the world, just like he wasn’t giving secret lessons to his own disciples on how to find God’s blessings in life. 


No, what’s going on with these ‘beatitudes’ is ‘kingdom talk for kingdom people.’   Jesus isn’t prescribing how to live, but he sharing the blessing of God’s presence, who has come to be them, and to bless them, because they are already being faithful to God’s truth and purpose. 


And when people are down in Spirit, because of how things are; Jesus says ‘take heart’, the kingdom is yours.   When you do have to mourn your losses, because you love and care, take heart,  God’s presence and promise will comfort you.   When you are being humble and meek in how you live your life, God will give a blessing that others have no clue about.


Sure, some of this kingdom talk, sounds bizarre and out of step with the times, and even just plain upside-down; but that’s exactly what Jesus meant to say.   You can’t earn God’s blessings.  You can’t make this kind of contentment and happiness for your life.  No, the spiritual truths Jesus teaches here, are things that only God can do for us, and what God does in us, when we are living in a consistent, living relationship with him. 


The kind of ‘other-worldly’ ‘counter-culture’, upside down talk Jesus is giving here, is very much the same kind of reality, the apostle Paul talked about with the Corinthians. "The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing," says Paul, "but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).   In these beatitudes Jesus expressing God’s blessing to those who ‘live’ the cross and bear the cross, even before there was a cross.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is flipping the same kind of worldly priorities Paul is talking about.  


In God’s kingdom, where love is the supreme value, most everything is the opposite from what we expect.  For if God worked the same way the uncaring secular world works, Jesus would have said, "Blessed are the rich in spirit… Blessed are those who rejoice… Blessed are the proud…


" But Jesus says the exact opposite.   Why did he say the opposite of all this?



The reason Jesus talks this way, and sees life this way, and invites his disciples to see life in this kingdom way, and us too, for that matter; is because living a life of faith is the only way to be redeemed in and saved from the brokenness and wrong-mindedness so prevalent in a fallen world.  


When we live the cross, and when we trust God so we don’t have to trust only in our own wisdom or power;  when we hunger and thirst and dream of a day when God’s justice will prevail for all people everywhere;  and when others see the very different way we are living God’s mercy in the world, they will see the peace and purity in us, and they might come to desire and believe in God’s mercy and peace too.  


 It is no accident, that right after these ‘blessing’ his disciples for who they are and how they live, that Jesus challenges them to keep being both ‘salt’ and ‘light’ as a witness to God’s very different way of life that still challenges a flavorless and dark world.


Johnny Dean,  an African American pastor, tells how a young couple joined the church when they moved to a new town.  They weren’t particularly religious people, but to join a caring community seemed like a good way to get to know their new neighbors and become accepted.


They went to church most Sundays.  The husband enjoyed talking with the other men before and after church, and the wife loved to sing the hymns.


 The preaching was tolerable.  When their children were born, the couple brought them before the church to be dedicated.  The pastor talked about raising their child in a Christian environment.  It was a very happy time in their lives.


But one evening the husband was late getting home from a business trip. The wife became was worried.  She knew he would call if anything was wrong.  When the phone rang at 11:30 that night she expected to hear her husband’s voice, explaining why he was so late.  She wasn’t prepared for to have a highway patrolman tell her that her husband had been involved in a terrible accident.  They had done everything they could for him, but Jack had died before the ambulance could get him to the hospital.


Numb, in shock, the wife called her new pastor.  Within hours, people were in and out of her home, offering consoling words, bringing food, taking care of the children, answering the phone.


In the days and weeks to come, the wife, now a wisdow, only vaguely remembered the funeral.  She was on autopilot as she tried to feed and dress her children.  After some months had passed, she found herself facing an exhausting, never-ending schedule of things to do and places to be.


One Sunday, the wife asked the pastor if she could address the congregation for just a moment.  She said that she deeply appreciated all that the church had done for her and her children, but she still needed their help.  She said, "When my husband and I brought our children here to be dedicated, you promised to help raise them in the faith.  I need your help. I just can’t do it alone."


After an agonizing moment of silence, a couple stood and offered to keep the children one day a week.  One man, who was an accountant, offered to help her organize her finances.  Another couple offered to fix dinner for the family once a week.  The congregation rallied around the young widow and her children.  They did that because that’s what God’s people do.  That’s not what a "looking-out-for-number-one, I-don’t-want-to-get-involved" society would do, no that who God’s people are, because God is there for us.


What you really learn in this upside-down kingdom of God, is that none of us can easily face the challenges of life alone.  In order to live like this, and to keep an attitude of faith like this, we must be part of a community, if not a kingdom; which lives and invites peace, mercy and compassion as the rule, not the exception.  We challenge the world by how we live, because this is who we have become, because God is here, where God’s people live out the values of this other worldly kingdom.  As Frederick Buechner, wrote, "Compassion is like living inside someone else’s skin.  It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."


Can you imagine what happens when a church lives the values of God’s kingdom and God is revealed in our midst?   


It’s a place where the first shall be last and the last shall be first but nobody really minds who goes first and who goes last, because they know there is more than enough of every-thing to go around?  That’s exactly the kind of place where the mourners are comforted and the losers win?  


What would it be like to live in a community like that? Well, honestly,

 I think it just might feel like the kingdom of God.  And that kingdom wouldn’t just be God’s kingdom, but it would also be ‘theirs’.    AMEN