Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December 18, 2011 - A Perfect Christmas? Matthew 2:19-23

There is a Christmas commercial that has run every year for a number of years. It is a classic in Christmas advertising. It’s an ad for Folgers coffee, and the brilliance of the ad is that it really has nothing to do with coffee and everything to do with crafting an image of Christmas. The problem is, the image it creates has nothing to do with reality at Christmas.

The ad begins with a taxi pulling up in front of a beautifully decorated home on Christmas morning. Out steps a young man carrying an armload of presents. He walks up to the door, turns the knob and it opens! What world is he living in? Who leaves their front door unlocked? Why not just put a sign out front that says come in and steal our stuff!

Then the camera shows him stepping into the front hallway of the house. Everything is perfect. All the decorations are in place as though Martha Stewart lived there. Is that your house? It’s not our house. We don’t have an angel on top of our tree – we have Yoda from Star Wars, brandishing his light saber.

To make matters worse, those two kittens we took home a few months ago are destroying everything. They climb the tree, bending down the branches, knock the ornaments onto the floor, and pull at the lights. Every year Nick lays out a Christmas village on a table, and one of the kittens keeps climbing up and chewing the people he puts in the village. It’s like an episode of Godzilla, as she stomps between the buildings snatching victims away and trying to eat them.

After stepping into the house the young man reaches to the wall, flips a light switch and all the lights in the house light up. The lights coming down the banister, the tree lights, lights on the mantle, lights along the windows – lights illuminate everywhere. Is that reality? One switch? At our house you have to connect fifty extension cords before any Christmas lights come on, and then the breaker box in the garage explodes completely out of the wall.

Then he goes into the kitchen and turns on the coffee pot. That’s when you finally see the Folgers can. The aroma of the coffee causes his family, who are upstairs in bed, to stir. They sniff the air and smile. Really? That’s when you call 911! Hello. Someone has broken into my house, and I think they’re downstairs in the kitchen making coffee!

Instead of coming down the stairs with a baseball bat, his parents and sister come bounding joyously down the stairs – all in perfect makeup, of course, and no one has bed hair. The image is perfectly formed, and as his mother turns the corner and sees him she says Peter! You’re home! And then I cry. Because of a coffee commercial.

Actually, it’s not because of a coffee commercial, but the image that is created. That’s the kind of Christmas we all want – a perfect Christmas. We want a Christmas where our family is gathered together, where everything works, where everyone is happy, where there is a beautiful home filled with plenty of presents and plenty of food.

But what is the reality of Christmas? It’s certainly not perfection, is it? Christmas in the real world is far from perfect. Christmas in the real world is a time of running around like some kind of maniac trying to get everywhere you need to go. Christmas in the real world is too little time and too little money. Christmas in the real world is one of stress and anxiety as many worry about not just paying for presents, but putting food on the table. Christmas in the real world is one of anxiety for many because health difficulties cause them to wonder if they will see next Christmas. Christmas in the real world is one of sadness for many because of empty seats at Christmas dinners, the result of loss or of broken relationships.

Our Scripture reading this morning tells us of the return of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus from Egypt. They fled to Egypt because of Herod’s murderous decree after the birth of Jesus. Herod was now gone, but one of his sons ruled in his place, so it was still not safe for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to return to Bethlehem. Instead, they traveled to Nazareth, in Galilee, the northern region of Israel, which was ruled by another of Herod’s sons. And Matthew closes this section of Scripture by writing and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

It wasn’t the plan Mary and Joseph had in mind, it wasn’t how they would have designed life to go, it wasn’t perfect in their minds, but somehow, God fashioned it into a greater plan.

Life seldom goes according to plan. Life seldom works out in the manner we desire – life is never perfect – but God can fashion a plan out of the difficulties we experience and can even turn those difficulties into something beautiful.

This sanctuary looks beautiful for Advent, doesn’t it? Let me tell you about getting it this way. You can’t imagine what a time we had trying to get these trees together. I lost count of how many times we took them apart and put them back together, trying to get them to look the same. We thought they were supposed to be the same, but there was no way that was going to happen. The one on the left came out okay, but the one on my right looks as though its missing a section and has another tree smashed on top of it, so I’m still not sure that we got them right.

And if you were here last night or Friday night for the cantata you saw a beautiful program. You should have been here on Tuesday evening. You always think it always comes together, but this may be the one time that it doesn’t. But it did, thanks to David’s great direction and talent.

But it’s okay when things seem to be falling apart. It’s okay because we need a reminder that in church – especially at church – we cannot forget that life is far from perfect. Sometimes, in church, we fall prey to the temptation of creating the illusion that everything if perfect. We can gloss over our failures and shortcomings in the hopes that we appear as though our lives are perfectly put together, when the reality is far from perfect.

If you fret about your family and your struggles this Christmas, know that the families in Scripture are far from perfect. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Jacob cheated his brother out of his inheritance. David – well, David’s family was an absolute mess. If you’ve had a tough year, think about Job. Job lost everything, but in spite of all he lost, he held fast to his faith and knew that God remained with him. If you’re worried about your past and wonder how God could use you, think about Zaccheus, who was so unpopular because of cheating people out of their money that people crowded him out of the view of Jesus as Jesus walked through town. If you struggle with doubt and are overwhelmed with questions about God, think about Thomas, who couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen. Maybe you wish your would like for your house to look perfectly decorated for Christmas, but you’re more worried because you don’t know who much longer the roof is going to last, think about Joseph and Mary, finding shelter in a stable, and placing Jesus in a manger – a feeding trough.

The good news that comes at Christmas is that God’s gifts of love and grace come into our imperfect lives and imperfect world and create something beautiful.

The perfect Christmas is not one where every decoration is in place, where all the lights work, where the table is set for a perfectly-cooked meal, and where the tree is surrounded by presents. The perfect Christmas took place once – in that stable and in that manger, and that Christmas is where we find hope, and love.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saying Yes to God - December 11, 2011


My grandmother, on my mom’s side, was born on Christmas day. She was named Mary Christina, in honor of being born on Christmas. My siblings and I called her “Little Grandma.” We called my dad’s mom “Big Grandma.” Both of them were about the same size – about five feet tall, so I have no idea how we came up with “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma.”

Though she was a small woman, “Little Grandma” commanded respect just through her sense of presence. My uncles were tough guys. They were big, tall guys, and when they were growing up no one messed with them. They lived in a tough neighborhood and they were about the toughest in their part of town. But I can remember being impressed at how those big, strong men snapped to attention when “Little Grandma” spoke to them.

“Little Grandma” was actually my mom’s aunt. I told the story in greater detail on Mother’s Day of 2010, but the heart of the story is that she traveled by train to an orphanage in Wheeling, West Virginia shortly after my mom was born. My mom’s mother died the day after giving birth, and a short time later her father left my mom and her siblings at the orphanage. “Little Grandma” was already a widow struggling to raise eight children on her own. Why would someone who was already struggling to raise eight children, on her own, take in another child? My mom needed someone to raise her, and so “Little Grandma” said yes.

I like to think of my grandmother as one who said yes. There was a need, and though it must have seemed like an overwhelming need to someone in her circumstance, she said yes to this little baby.

This morning, as we continue our journey through Advent, I want to talk about another woman who said yes – Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s gospel tells her story, the story of her saying yes to God. Our Scripture passage for today tells of Mary’s joyous affirmation – her yes – to God. Hear her words in Luke 1:46-55.

That is a beautiful passage of Scripture, but its beauty masks the difficulties that came with Mary saying yes to God.

Mary was about to have her life radically changed. The arrival of a child, though exciting, is never the easiest of moments. The arrival of a child means your life is never the same as you suddenly have the responsibility of caring for this tiny, fragile life. I had this illusion that things were going to be relatively simple when we had children. How much disruption could a tiny little baby cause, after all? You bring them home, you fix them a sandwich and that’s it, right? If only it were that simple. When a child arrives, everything changes so much you feel your life has been turned upside down.

For Mary, that challenge was much, much greater than what the typical parent faces. After the birth of Jesus, when Joseph and Mary travel to the Temple to dedicate him, Simeon tells Mary a sword will pierce your soul (Luke 2:35). That’s not a very cheery thought to tell a new mother, is it? You’re supposed to say something like your child might grow up to be king. But Simeon, in a prophetic moment, gives Mary a glimpse of the future, alluding to the pain Mary would face because of what would happen to Jesus.

The first stab of that pain would come quickly, because of the threat of Herod. Joseph and Mary had to flee to Egypt because of Herod’s murderous rampage, putting to death all the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem. In a life and death situation Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to leave their home, their family, and all that was familiar in order to find safety. They become refugees, exiles, living in another land. That’s not how life is supposed to begin.

Life is not easy for many children. There are children, every day, born into incredibly difficult circumstances. My grandmother had to provide protection for my mom. My mom’s father was not a good man. He was an alcoholic who was violent and abusive and my grandmother had to be sure he would not try to enter back into my mom’s life. My mom had no knowledge of her father until she was a teenager, and then she had to learn the truth of the kind of person he was. That’s not how life should be – a child should not have to be protected from her own father, but such are the circumstances for too many children.

Saying yes to God means life is going to be different. It’s going to be different because God calls his people to take up for the powerless, for those who need protection from people like Herod, and from people like my grandfather.

But it’s also a reminder of a powerful truth – the world is going to be different because Jesus came to put things right in the world. That’s the good news – that Jesus came to put things right. The bad news is that not everyone wants things to be right. Some people benefit from things not being right.

When you put things right, there is going to be resistance. Mary says, in her response, he has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble (verse 52). That’s a beautiful sentiment, the idea of lifting up the humble. It would be nice message on a Christmas card. But think of the reality of that message – he has brought down rulers from their thrones. Removing rulers from their thrones is not a simple matter. They don’t usually say okay, I’m done. It’s all your now. My best to you. Here’s the keys to my kingdom; let me know if I can be of any help. Herod had power and he was so threatened at the thought of one who would usurp that power that he did not hesitate to take the lives of children. What kind of person would do such a thing? People like Herod, who will do anything to protect their power. The scribes and Pharisees would not receive Jesus well either. He was a threat to their power and so they resisted him and they criticized him and, eventually, some of them got together and plotted how they might put Jesus to death. As much as some people will do anything for money, people are willing to take even more dramatic steps to either get, or keep, power. Jesus was a threat to many who held the power in his day, and they were not interested in giving up that power.

Then Mary says he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (verse 53). That’s pretty good news if you’re poor, but not very good news if you are rich.

There were not many rich people in the time of Jesus. Most people lived a hand-to-mouth existence. It’s a grinding-down way to live, being in poverty. It’s a tough, tough life.

As you might imagine, my grandmother, raising nine children on her own, did not have much money. Her husband was a policeman, and after his death she lived on the small pension she received. I don’t know how much it was, but I know it wasn’t adequate to raise a family of that size. My mom grew up poor. I remember when I was younger my mom would tell some of those we were so poor stories. I didn’t know at times if she was joking or telling the truth about some of them. She would say they were so poor they could only afford one bowl of milk for their cereal, so the oldest would get it first, put her cereal in it, then pass on what was left. On it would go until it finally arrived at my mom, with very little left. That story was a joke. I think.

More and more, we see people slipping into poverty. It takes a lot of money to live these days. Housing, food, energy, health care, transportation – there is so much expense in raising a family, and many people are simply not keeping up with the costs.

One of the founding ideals of our society is that of compassion. It is a compassion rooted firmly in the gospel. Compassion is part of who we are as a people, and that compassion is a compelling force that continually calls out to us to never forget the poor and to be advocates for the poor. But more and more it seems that our age is beginning to reverse the words of Mary, to where we might say that the rich are filled with good things while the poor are sent away empty.

Every year at Advent we read about the so-called war on Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas it has nothing to do with how we are greeted when we walk into a store. Personally, I don’t care if someone says happy holidays or Merry Christmas to me when I enter a store. To tell the truth, I prefer that Jesus be left out of the commerce of Christmas.

If there is a war on Christmas it comes when we forget that Jesus was born into poverty and calls us to be compassionate and generous to the poor. Demonstrating compassion to the poor is such a strong component of the gospel that in Matthew 25 Jesus portrays the final judgment as a time when everything rests upon how we deal with the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46).

Next weekend we will deliver 125 food baskets and 70 Angel Tree bags. What a great thing it is to give away! What a blessing it is to be able to give to others!

Mary said yes to God. May we say yes to God as well. May we say yes to be instruments of the love and peace of Christ. May we say yes to be people of compassion and generosity. May we say yes to be people who will comfort the bereaved and befriend the lonely. May we say yes to God, this day, and every day.

May we pray.

Monday, November 28, 2011

November 27, 2011 - Writing A New Story


Matthew 1:18-23







We live in a time of great poverty of language. So much of our language is unimaginative, unexpressive, and uninspiring.

I love modern praise and worship music, but the old hymns are much more beautiful in terms of their language. This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which is not my favorite translation in terms of readability, but the language of the King James is beautiful and it has had an immeasurable impact on Western society.

Some language is either so powerful or beautiful that it lives on in just a phrase. In fact, if I start a few phrases you can probably complete them.

































































































































Today begins the season of Advent. As we begin our celebration of Advent we begin with a short phrase that rewrote the story of history. Matthew writes at the beginning of our Scripture passage for this morning with a ten-word phrase – This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. Those ten words herald the news that God was writing a new page in the course of human history, a new story that everything was about to change and history would be forever transformed.

The Christmas story is one that reminds us that while mankind attempts to write one story God is writing a new story. While mankind attempts to write the story to suit humanity’s purposes, God writes the story to suit his purposes. While humanity writes the story of power and domination, God writes the story of peace. While humanity writes the story of hatred and strife, God writes the story of love. While humanity writes the story of riches and wealth and gain, God writes the story of giving and sacrifice.

As you follow the Biblical story you find time and again God writing a new story. When Egypt enslaves the Hebrew people to build their buildings and become their servants, God writes a new story. God writes the story to say that people were never created to be enslaved by others and he frees the Hebrew people and fashions them into a people and into a people who would demonstrate to all people throughout history what it meant to be people who would follow God.

And the Biblical characters are time and again a demonstration of God writing a new story for individual lives. Moses, who took the life of another man, was the one chosen by God to lead the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt. After killing a man Moses flees Egypt but God sends Moses back. Who would ever imagine someone like Moses to be qualified for such a task? But God wrote a new story in his life.

David, the great king of Israel, enjoyed a lot of high points in his life, but he also endured some terrible lows. His power and political achievements fostered in him an arrogance so terrible that when he wanted the wife of another man he took her and then ensured her husband would be killed to cover what he had done. His family, because of his tragic example, became the textbook example of disfunction that led to the tragic death of his beloved son Absalom. And yet God wrote a new story in David’s life to the point that Scripture would say of David that he was a man after my (God’s) own heart (Acts 13:22).

Peter was a fisherman just living his life, scratching out a living, when Jesus approached him on the shores of Galilee. He was a willing, though flawed, follower. He denied Jesus, was restored, but still struggled. Paul had to confront Peter about Peter’s hesitancy to welcome Gentiles into the church. But Peter was faithful, and gave his life for his faith. God wrote a new story in his life.

Paul, still breathing threats and murder against the members of the early church, found God on the road to Damascus and God wrote a new story in his life.

And then there are the characters of the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary, a young couple chosen from obscurity to raise Jesus. That God would choose a poor, young couple would be a major new story in the course of human history. Jesus was born in the humble surroundings of a manger, not the halls of a palace, to a poor family rather than into the comfort of wealth.

Herod, who had both secured and protected his kingdom by any means necessary, was frightened to hear of the birth of Jesus. He attempted to rewrite history the same way as other tyrants – violence. But God was writing a different story. God’s story was one that said the tyrants of history will not always have their way, and in the end, a different way will prevail. We are seeing in our own time the story of tyrants being rewritten. The Arab spring has unseated tyrants and dictators and signaling a new story in nations that have long been subject to tyranny. The story of God’s kingdom, as opposed to Herod’s kingdom, was heralded long ago by the prophet Isaiah in the immortal words they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4). The birth of Jesus was a sign that the days of tyrants and their kingdoms were numbered. Though they may have power for a time, God’s story is that there is a far greater power and kingdom.

The magi, who came from a land far away, tell the story to always look beyond the boundaries and limitations set by humanity. While the story of humanity has often been that of us versus them and who is in and who is out, the magi being led from far away is God’s writing of a new story to remind us that he neither sees nor sets boundaries between people. It is a writing a story to say that his kingdom is open to all people.

The shepherds, the lowly shepherds, saw God rewrite their story as a reminder that God never forgets the poor, the outcast, and the powerless. The story written by humanity is to favor the rich and the powerful, but the story written by God is that a great reversal of values is on the horizon. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, Jesus said.

God is writing a new story. There is much handwringing about the state of the world today, and there are many reasons to bring us concern, but God will write the story all the way down to the final chapter of history. The story of humanity will not be decided by the principalities and powers of this world, but by God.

And God is writing your story, and my story. When fears and worries, challenges and failures, appear to be writing the story of your life, remember that God is the author and the finisher of your faith and your life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November 13, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Beware the Shortcut

Matthew 7:13-14

When I was in high school, one year I tried out for the cross-country team. Running in West Virginia is not easy, as there is very little flat land. The practice course went down the road a little from the school, across a small bridge and then onto a hilly, winding back road. Most of that road was very secluded and was a difficult run. A couple of the guys on the team decided to take a shortcut, so they parked a car along that road. They would run to the car, sit for a while, and then drive the car until they were near the end of the course, get out, and run the rest of the way looking barely winded.

I’m sure they thought it was a great idea and a great shortcut. But do you think they ever won a race? No. They won in practice but never came close to winning a race. The shortcut didn’t help them at all; in fact, it worked against them.

As we draw near the end of the Sermon On the Mount Jesus warns us to Beware the Shortcut. Let’s read what he says in this passage –

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Jesus is beginning his conclusion to the Sermon On the Mount and starts this final section by making an obvious point – the path he is offering is not an easy path. By this point in the Sermon this should come as no surprise considering some of the things Jesus says, but it is a final reminder that the path of faith is often difficult and demanding. It is not easy to step away from our own self-interest. It is not easy to walk the path of love, of grace, and generosity. But it is the best path, and the path for which we were created.

When I was growing up my family would sometimes pile in the car on Sunday afternoon to take a drive. Was it just my family, or did your family think that riding around in a car for no good reason was a good idea? Can you imagine getting your family in the car now just to drive around for no other purpose other than to cram in the car and burn up gas that costs $3.50 a gallon. Who has time to do that now? Who wants to do that now?

My dad loved to load us all in the car to drive up the river to the Dairy Owl for ice cream. The Dairy Owl sat right across the road from a smelly steel mill that was spewing ash 24 hours a day, so it wasn’t the most picturesque spot. To get there from our house was about a ten or fifteen-minute trip up Route 2, but my dad could not go the short, easy way. We had to drive all around the countryside and through the hills rather than the straight, easy journey. While my dad was extolling the virtues of the winding path we were in the backseat turning green because of that winding path. But looking back on it, every one of my siblings and I would now take a very different view, recognizing there was value in those times for our family and that our dad was trying to teach us that value.

Man makes the straight canal; God makes the winding rivers (A Word In Season, John Bishop, Nashville: Abingdon, 1979, p. 45).

There are no straight paths in Scripture.

When God called Abraham to leave his homeland and to follow him he did not provide a roadmap. The journey was full of twists and turns, surprises and challenges, but each one added to what Abraham learned while on the winding path. When the Moses led the Hebrew people out of captivity in Egypt and into their journey to the Promised Land there wasn’t a great physical distance to travel. From where they were in Egypt to the Promised Land was a distance of about 200 miles. If they had taken the shortcut they would have traveled along the Mediterranean Sea and could have spent some time at the beach enjoying the weather, but they didn’t. The book of Exodus tells us they didn’t take that path – though that way was shorter (Exodus 13:17). They wandered, and wandered, and wandered. They took long, winding, difficult, desolate, and dangerous path. And while they traveled that path they faced great difficulty and they complained. Moses, they would cry out, why did you ever lead us out of Egypt? We were better off in Egypt, though we were slaves (Exodus 14:10-12, among other passages). Why not take the shortcut? Why take the most difficult path?

But generations later, their ancestors were able to look back and see how God fashioned them into a people on that winding path, and how he made provision for them, and those lessons would continue to teach them for generations.

When Jesus called his disciples there was no easy path laid before them. Follow me is a very simple request but it set before them a path fraught with many challenges.

In our modern lives we are always so anxious to just get somewhere, but God wants to make something of us on the way. My youngest sister got a speeding ticket not long after receiving her driver’s license. She was driving my dad’s old Ford Pinto. I believe she was clocked at over 80 miles an hour. I was amazed she could get that Pinto to go over 80 miles an hour! My dad did not like us driving fast. In fact, he had an old Chevy pickup truck that I often drove. The front end was in terrible need of an alignment. Around 45 miles an hour the front end would start shaking. We would often ask why he wouldn’t get it aligned. His response was if I do you all will drive it too fast! I remember the conversation between my dad and sister about her speeding ticket. He asked where were you going in such a hurry? My sister said nowhere, really, but I was in a hurry to get there! In our rush to get somewhere, we often miss what God is trying to teach us on the winding path.

It took a windy road through the wilderness to bring the Hebrew people to the realization they were a free people and it took the winding path through the wilderness to forge them into a nation. Only in the long and winding journey, I believe, could they learn those lessons. They could not learn them by taking the shortcut.

Paul had a pretty good life going for himself, and then came his conversion on the road to Damascus. Listen to where that path then led him - I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (II Corinthians 11:23-28).

It is tempting to take the shortcut in life. Jesus calls us to avoid the shortcut. There are easier ways than the way we are called to by Jesus. There are easier ways than the way of loving one’s enemies. There are easier ways than the way of praying for those who would persecute us. There are easier ways than the way of being a peacemaker. There are easier ways than the way of investing in the kingdom of God rather than investing in ourselves. There are easier ways than the way of withholding judgments of others. There are easier ways, but they are not better ways.

In many ways, my life has not at all followed the kind of path I would have predicted or expected. My life has taken some unexpected and strange turns. My life has not always gone neatly from point A to point B, and there have been times when I was greatly troubled by the strange, winding path of my life. But I have learned that each turn, however unexpected, led to something I needed to learn or experience. There are times when I wish I could go back and do some things over, but I think if I could, I would miss out on a great deal. To go back, I would be tempted to straighten out all the winding and twisting turns of my life, and in doing so, would undo much of what God has taught me through that winding way.

Beware the shortcut. May we pray.

Monday, November 07, 2011

November 6, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Is God Good?

Matthew 7:7-12




Steve Jobs, often in the news, has been in the news even more in the weeks since his passing. Known primarily for his business skills, the details of his spiritual life were far less familiar to the public. When Jobs was thirteen, he asked the pastor of his parents’ church if God knew about starving children. Yes, God knows everything, the pastor replied. Jobs never returned to church, refusing to worship a God who would allow suffering.

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/02/steve-jobs-private-faith_n_1072631.html?ref=religion).

After Christmas we will begin a new sermon series. It will deal with questions of belief, unbelief, faith, doubt, the intersection of science and faith, and suffering. This morning we get a bit of a head start on that series as we continue our study of the Sermon On the Mount. In this passage Jesus is answering the question that Steve Jobs was really asking his pastor years ago – is God good? I think there were some serious flaws in Jobs’ logic, and we’ll touch on those briefly today and in more detail after the first of the year.

Let’s read what Jesus has to say in this morning’s passage –

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets – Matthew 7:7-12.

Immediately upon reading that passage there are a few questions that come to mind – does everyone who asks really receive? Does everyone who seeks really find? Is the door opened to everyone who knocks? I think there are some people who would question the reality of the statements made by Jesus, and many people do question it by asking whether or not God is good. There are people who, like Steve Jobs, look at the suffering in the world and ask whether or not God can really be good in light of all the suffering.

Jesus is affirming that God is, without a doubt, good. That is his beginning point, which is made in the second half of this passage, so we’ll start with that affirmation, as we look at the first half of the passage.

One of the underlying questions in the Sermon On the Mount is this – do we want to be like God? In the beginning of the Sermon, in the Beatitudes, Jesus lists qualities that demonstrate the nature of God – mercy, righteousness, offering comfort, and peacemaking, among others. Then there are all the qualities that show what a person is like not on the outside, but on the inside, demonstrating that matters of the heart are of incredible interest to God. And love, of course, is the foundation to everything, and we see this in a very dramatic way when Jesus makes the incredible statement that we should love our enemies.

Over and over, as we read through the Sermon, Jesus is sharing the attributes of God as markers for what our lives can be – we can be people who exhibit mercy, people who demonstrate righteousness, people who bring comfort, people who bring peace, people who are more concerned with the inward condition of the heart than with external appearances, people who will love all people, people who offer grace, people who make an investment in matters of the spirit and not just in matters of the world, to name just a few.

If we want to be like God, then, we will want the same things as God and we will seek the same things as God. So when Jesus says ask and it will be given to you, by the time we arrive at this point in the Sermon we will know the kinds of things for which we should be asking. If I have made it thus far through the Sermon, and if it’s getting through to me, I will certainly not be asking for a couple of new PRS custom guitars and expect that God is going to leave them on my doorstep for me. That’s the approach that the prosperity gospel preachers have taken with this passage. It’s Lord, gimme! Gimme this, and gimme that. Provide for me what I want. Indulge my selfishness with lots of stuff and by showering me with affluence.

Instead of demonstrating that kind of attitude, Jesus calls us to pray for what makes us like God – Lord, make me a person who brings comfort to those who mourn; make me a person who will work for peace; make me a person who does not strike back in anger and retribution at those who may harm me, but reach to them in love and grace. I don’t think God is going to give me a new car or a couple of new guitars just because I ask, or because I ask dozens of times. But if I ask to be a person who brings comfort, to be a person who works for peace, to be a person who will love my enemies, I believe that is a prayer that God will be very happy to answer.

But those are not qualities that come to us very easily. We may have to persevere in our asking and seeking for those qualities. This is why Jesus talks about seeking and knocking. Those are qualities that represent perseverance. I’m not sure that the first time someone comes up and whacks me on the jaw I’m going to be very forgiving. I’m not even sure that I’m going to be that way when they whack me on the other cheek. But with enough seeking and persevering in prayer I can become a person who says I can love a person who would persecute me or hate me. I may not be a person who wants to move beyond keeping up a nice fa├žade in life, but with enough seeking and perseverance in prayer God can transform me into a person who is concerned that my heart is transformed and that the passions of my heart are equal to the passions of God’s heart. I may be a person who prefers to invest in the things of this life but with enough seeking and perseverance in prayer God can open my heart to the importance of investing in the matters of the kingdom and the giving of my resources rather than hoarding them for only myself.

And when we are transformed to become more and more like God it really changes the way we deal with people, and that’s where the last verse in this passage comes in. Often called the Golden Rule, it’s a version of a saying that long predated Jesus. But Jesus changes the nature of the saying that had been used. Prior to Jesus it was used in the negative – don’t do to someone what you don’t want them to do to you. Jesus turns it around into a positive expression – do to others what you would have them to do to you. He is saying it’s not enough to just avoid causing harm to another person. It’s good not to harm them, certainly, but it is more in keeping with the character of God to be active in our seeking to do good for others.

This is a big difference in how we deal with others. In the view of Jesus, it’s not enough to sit at home and say well, I’m not doing anything to hurt anyone. That’s great, but what are you doing to help another person?

This is where the young Steve Jobs made a mistake in his logic. He was disappointed that God wasn’t doing enough to help the starving children of the world. But don’t you think there’s some inconsistency in a person who was sitting on more than $8.5 billion dollars of personal wealth and yet decides God is not worthy to be worshipped because of the starving children in the world? How many starving children would $8 billion feed? Keeping a half a billion should be enough, shouldn’t it? My point is not to criticize Steve Jobs, but if you are critical of God for not doing enough shouldn’t you be certain to be doing all you can?

Being passive and not causing harm, Jesus said, is not enough. We are called to be active in our working to do good for others, and that’s why, in the end, the question is not really is God good? The question that is more pressing is are we good?