The following poem, written by Muriel Blackwell, has always stuck in the back of my mind as I think about children’s ministry.
On Sitting Still
by Muriel Blackwell
He told me just to sit right here,
But not to make a sound;
And he would teach me all the truths
Within the lessons found.
Although I sat still on a chair,
My mind went out to play;
For God’s blue sky called out to me,
“This is a lovely day.”
I soared the vast expanse of space
Without an earthly care,
And built me castles in the clouds,
Yet never left the chair.
It’s true I didn’t make a sound;
But he could not discern,
That sitting still does not assure
A single thing I’ll learn!
According to the most recent Barna Group report, 1 in 4 unchurched persons in America is either an atheist or an agnostic. You can read the full report HERE.
“But I warn you–unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teacher of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NLT).
I can’t imagine the disbelief that swept down the hillside as those words left the lips of Jesus. The religious teachers and Pharisees were experts in both the knowledge of the law and of its practice. Most of the listeners in the audience would have probably thought, “impossible!” Jesus would spend the rest of what we call Matthew chapter 5 providing compare and contrast examples of what he was teaching, which could best be summarized as living life from the inside out versus outside in.
I think Paul’s letter to the Colossian believers is helpful at this point, providing some guidance on how to actually exceed the righteousness of Pharisees.
First, he reminds us that keeping a thousand rules won’t make you one iota more like Christ.
“You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:20-23, NLT).
Next, he tells us to change the direction of our thinking about our lives as Christians.
“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is youra life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory” (Colossians 3:1-4, NLT).
Then, he challenges us to put to death the evil thoughts that come from thinking about the things of earth.
“So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds” (Colossians 3:5-9, NLT).
Finally, he encourages us to put on our new nature.
“Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful” (Colossians 3:10-15, NLT)
A helpful way to remember this is to think about the recent reality television series, “What Not To Wear.” In the show, a person would have an opportunity to receive a wardrobe makeover. The condition to this premise was that the individual would be required to trash their old wardrobe before they could be fitted for a new one. As part of the process, experts would teach the person how to pick new clothes that would compliment their physical appearance and personality. I think the key thing Paul would appreciate about the show was the requirement to throw the old away. No matter how nice the new is, it is somewhat diminished when blended with the old. That’s why I buy a new shirt and tie each time I purchase a suit.
Paul’s challenge seems a bit out of reach. But in the end I think he’s right.
I believe the Sermon on the Mount should be read as a unified whole, not a collection of individual thoughts. Jesus, who was the most gifted communicator the world has known, wove these thoughts together with smart transitions. For example, be began with The Beattitudes which display the core of a disciple’s character. Out of that character comes the disciple’s influence, namely salt and light, which preserves and illuminates a dark and decaying world. As the disciple’s good deeds shine forth, those who are influenced in turn praise and glorify the Father. Those good deeds become the transition for the remainder of Matthew 5 where Jesus describes the relationship between the Old Testament law and genuine righteousness.
Jesus teaching was new. Those who heard him confessed that no one had ever spoken like that before. I imagine it could be compared to the first time a person hears a new genre of music. It was different. So the implied question would have been, “What about the old teaching?” Was the old going away? Is it being replaced? Jesus clarified the relationship between his teaching and the old teaching by saying, “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (Matthew 5:17, NLT).
Jesus affirmed the law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament) in at least five ways.
1. The law revealed the standard of God’s perfect righteousness.
2. The law was designed to instruct God’s people in his will and to expose the sin in his people’s lives.
3. Jesus’ issue was not with the law itself, but with misinterpretations and misuses of it.
4. Jesus’ life was a perfect example of obedience to the law.
5. Jesus’ demonstrated that all of the law hangs on love of God and neighbor.
The Pharisees were masters of the law and practiced rigid observance of it. They taught that there were 613 commands, 248 voiced in the positive (Thou Shalts) and 365 voiced in the negative (Thou Shalt Nots). They memorized and lived each one with meticulous care. And they judged everyone accordingly.
These religious teachers of the law believed that doing good led to being good. Jesus turned that thinking inside out, saying that being good led to doing good. Over the next several days I’ll unpack what that looks like and provide a helpful suggestion on how to make that work. Thanks for checking in!
This week I’ve been posting some thoughts about our Christian influence by way of Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light. Today I want to offer three brief summary thoughts to wrap up this thread.
1. Our Christian influence (salt and light) is driven by our Christian character (the Beattitudes).
A friend recently reminded me that every fairy tale has a villain, and in those fairy tales the villains never give gifts. The reason is that nobody wants a gift from a villain. Our influence will only be palatable if it is offered from a place of character. I believe that Jesus offers to us the Beattitudes before the metaphors on influence for that reason.
2. There is an inference in the text that cannot be overlooked.
The reason we are salt is because we live in a world of decay, and the reason we are light is because the world is dark. Jesus doesn’t call that truth out, but it is there by inference. I think its positive and helpful to pause every now and then and see the world through the lens of the cross.
3. Jesus’ call is as common as the metaphors themselves.
Every home has salt and light. This call to be salt and light is not for the spiritually elite. Jesus is addressing everyone within sound of his voice. Jesus assumes our discipleship, and he assumes our participation in mission.
“You are the light of the world–like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16, NLT).
Sometimes I hear people say that their Christian witness is the good deeds they perform for others, as though those deeds are a suitable substitution for a verbal witness. More often than not, the people we serve see our good deeds and praise us for being good people. Good works are certainly a part of light bearing, but I believe the purpose of those deeds is to provide us a platform, or lamp stand if you will, for our verbal Christian witness. We cannot bear the influence we need to bear in the world in total silence. In order to clearly point people to Christ there comes a moment when we must confess that our good works are not offered because we are good. We do them because God is good. To silently perform our good deeds without a verbal testimony is like hiding our lights under a basket.
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless” (Matthew 5:13, NLT).
My grandfather has been gone for over 20 years, so my memories of him are diminishing. One thing I do remember is that when he sat down to eat a meal he salted his food before he tried it. Even as a child I thought this was a little absurd, given the fact that he used so much salt you could see it glisten. When we think of salt we usually think of using it to season food. But in Jesus’ context salt was more frequently associated with preserving meat given their lack of refrigeration. Granted, salt would have been used for flavoring in Bible times, but it was first and foremost a preservative.
Scholars believe salt was mined from the Dead Sea. Several years ago I participated on a mission trip to Haiti. As we travelled up the Caribbean coast our guide pointed out a section of the beach where Haitians would dam up water from the rising tide and then let it evaporate so they could mine the salt from the ocean water. It seemed like a primitive practice, but it does speak to our multicultural value of the product.
Jesus indicated that salt’s effectiveness is conditioned by its purity. I am told that sodium chloride is a fairly stable chemical compound. But even table salt can become contaminated or diluted. Jesus’ point is well taken. As salt of the earth we must make sure that we remain free from contamination so that we may bear our influence well. We have a responsibility to act as a preservative in a world that is decaying. If we don’t, our influence will be diminished and ultimately without value.
Tomorrow I’ll turn my attention to the second metaphor, light.
If you think about your life, you can count on several fingers the names of those who have made an impact or continue to bear influence. These are the people who have spoken the words into your life that you replay over and over in your mind. Maybe that impact came from a parent or a grandparent. Or perhaps a coach or a teacher. Maybe you have been blessed to have a mentor or a close peer relationship that has been beneficial. My guess is that there have been many more than one, and that you even have one or more people today that you turn to for wise counsel or sage advice.
But did you ever stop to think about who you are influencing? Have you considered that your words or actions are making an impact on someone else? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invited his hearers to push past the humility of this consideration and to take seriously his challenge to bear influence on those around us. He did it through two common household items: salt and light. This week I’m going to post some highlights from this weekend’s sermon, titled “Influence.” I hope you’ll stay tuned.
Yesterday I posted concerning the first four Beattitudes, which deal primarily with our direct response to God’s work in our lives as we strive to enter the Kingdom. Today I want to share some brief reflections on the last four Beattitudes which relate to our response to others.
“God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NLT).
When we recognize our spiritual bankruptcy, we mourn. When we mourn over that bankruptcy, we enter into deep humility, which causes us to trust. In the midst of that trust our desires and appetites change and we exchange our desires for what God desires, creating satisfaction. And when we desire what God wants we realize that its not just about us. There are others in this world for whom God has a plan. When we receive mercy, we should become merciful as well. Perhaps this is why children share more easily than adults. Children share because they realize everything they have comes as a gift from someone else. We adults tend to think we have to keep what we have because we have earned it. So it is with mercy. We didn’t earn it or deserve it. But we have it and should be quite willing to share it. As we share mercy God’s mercy is even more available to us.
“God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8, NLT).
When my son interned for a local Division I football program he quickly learned that he could not wear any article of clothing in the football facility that was as black. The reason? Black was the school color of the in state rival. Purity of heart has to do with a heart that is undivided. To be pure in heart is to be free from alloy or duplicity. It means to be single minded. The single minded are those who see God.
“God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9, NLT).
When we desire what God desires and our hearts are undivided, we will work for what God works for, which is peace. Notice that the Beattitude does not say, “blessed are the peace keepers.” Peacekeepers have the goal of finding quiet. Peacemakers, however, work toward reconciliation. The peacemakers are those who will be reminiscent of God’s likeness.
“God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:10, NLT).
Anytime we roll up our sleeves and work for reconciliation and redemption someone is going to be unhappy. It was true in Jesus’ day, and perhaps is more true today. I recently read that there are approximately 180 Christians per month in the world today who die because of their faith. These are those who work to bring reconciliation between God and human kind in places where Christianity is illegal.
Over these past two posts I’ve focused quite a bit on the progression to the neglect of the promised reward that accompanies each “blessing.” That doesn’t diminish the promises that Jesus offers. As we grown in our Christian character we can see what we attain with each step. But I am of the mind that the progression itself is worth it, with or without the reward.
As I study this progression I can’t help but ask myself the question, “So where am I in process? Perhaps that’s the takeaway. To understand the Beattitudes to the extent that we not only see how far we’ve come, but to see how far we still have to go.
My best understanding of The Beattitudes is to view them as building blocks. Certainly one could let each stand alone on its own merit, however there seems to be a logical progression not unlike links in a chain. I prefer to take them in order and attempt to understand those correlations.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3, NLT).
The Beattitudes begin with our realization that we are poor in spirit. Or more pointedly, spiritually bankrupt. Like you, I’ve written a resume or two during my career in preparation for a job interview. Resumes are tricky documents, because you have to assert yourself and commend your work in such a way that the employer can see the benefit you will bring to the organization. Poverty in spirit is the realization that we have nothing we can commend to God. We are broken and broke, unable to offer God anything to pay our own way. We stand before God empty handed.
“God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, NLT).
When we recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt, that realization brings with it a profound sense of loss. We mourn over our sin and the roots of our sin in the fall. We understand that our loss is not just individual, its also corporate.
“God blesses those who are humble (meek), for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5, NLT).
As we mourn over our bankruptcy, we become humble, and that humility is the gateway to trust. For years I have assisted people who have walked into the Church Office asking for assistance. Most who ask for help with rent, utilities or food make their request from a posture of humility. The proud do not ask. The proud have difficulty letting someone help them. The humble, however, are willing to ask and trust that their needs will be met.
“God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice (righteousness), for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6, NLT).
Another turning point in the progression is the fact that our appetites change. Hunger and thirst are desire words. In God’s economy the desire doesn’t change. The object of our desire changes. Prior to Christ, we had desires that we felt would satisfy the so called “God sized hole in our hearts.” Christians aren’t people void of desire. Christians are people with renewed desire for justice and righteousness. We want what God wants.
Tomorrow I’ll finish up the last four Beattitudes and see how our right standing with God leads us to desire the same for others. Thanks for checking in today.