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.


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?

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