Sunday, 24 October 2010

Human presumption and Divine mercy


I love this story. It is the story that I go back to time and time again

It warns me against the presumption that leads to arrogance and lack of love.
It tells me of my God who has mercy.

1  It warns us against presumption

The first character is the Pharisee. He had status and respect in the community. He was a good man.

And it is important that we do not forget that he had made some life-style decisions which cost him significantly. He fasts twice a week (much more than the law requires). He tithed. He gave away a tenth of everything that he had. Just think for a moment what that would mean for your giving? Everything you receive, you give one tenth away. And when he says that he is not a robber, or an evildoer or an adulterer, we can take him at his word. He was upright, obedient to the law of God and self-controlled.

And remember that Jesus said in Matthew, that unless our righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees we could not be

But what we also see is that the Pharisee makes two big mistakes

1.      He presumes that – because he does what some of the law requires, and that because he is respected in the community - he is OK before God
2.      He assumes that others – who do not do what the law requires, and who are not respected - are not OK before God.
  
This is very real stuff.

I am very conscious that when people make big sacrifices – whether that is of time or service or of giving – and when they do live a very self-disciplined life – it becomes extremely easy to look down on people who don’t. That is true whoever you are, whether it is in a family, in a company or club or organisation, in a church – it doesn’t matter. There is something about the ‘I’m totally committed, so why aren’t they?’; I’ve succeeded, so they should succeed’ mentality in each of us. I was talking with someone about their mum who had survived a really quite difficult time. ‘But’, said the daughter, ‘It could make her quite unsympathetic. It was the attitude, ‘I got through it and so should you’.’ And sometimes the greater the sacrifice we make, or the harder the experience we have come through, the easier it is to look down on other people who haven’t been prepared or able to make that sacrifice, or who haven’t survived.

And that can also true for committed Christians, for people who have knelt down and received Jesus as Lord, and who may have made great sacrifices for God. At the beginning, of course, we realise we have nothing to offer to God, that it is all of him; that even the first glimmers of our desire for him have been given by him, and that we are saved not by any sacrifice that we might make, but by the sacrifice that he has made; that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. But after a while, we can slip into the presumption that we are acceptable to God because of what we have done and what we are doing, and we begin to assume that we are better than other people who do not live in the same way. And we become should-ist and ought-ist moralists and very superior. As someone said, the real thing we need to look out for is not the hardening of the arteries, but the hardening of the ‘ought-aries’

We tut tut when we see things happening that should not happen. We shake our heads at the way that society is going. And we pat ourselves on the back, and mutually congratulate ourselves, for being such reasonable good – even spiritual - people.

One of the accusations that people make about members of the church is, ‘You think that you are better than other people’. That is usually very unfair, but occasionally it is unjustified.

Do please watch out when you find that you are standing by yourself looking down at other people: whether they are other people in society, or other people in the church. Do be very very careful when you stand over another person and say, ‘They’re not really born again; they’re not sufficiently committed or spiritual; they’re shallow’.


2        This story tells us of the mercy of God

When Jesus talks about tax collectors, he is not talking about the sort of people who work for the Inland Revenue.

Tax collectors, in Jesus time, worked for a foreign occupying force, and they made their money by ripping people off. They were powerful people. You did what they said.  But they were also very unpopular, and they would not have been regular attenders at the synagogue.  They were often associated with other religious and social outcasts, including prostitutes. They were robbers, evildoers and – more often than not – adulterers.

But something had happened to this particular tax collector. Maybe his world had crashed. Maybe something had happened that had jolted him and made him face up to the reality of how he was living. Perhaps there had been a death in a family; someone he really did love had walked out on him – whatever, it had made him reassess, and he becomes aware that he has been living his life as if there is no God. He has rejected God and God’s word. He has put his trust in himself.

And so he goes into the temple: and he prays. He really does pray. He asks God to have mercy on him. He doesn’t pray a particularly well worded prayer, but it is a genuine prayer. It is a cry to God.

John Climacus (d. 649), one of the Eastern Orthodox fathers, writes “Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the tax collector and the prodigal son to receive God's pardon. ... Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father! Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The tax collector’s short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief.”

And I think, in this simple sentence, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ we can assume that he is not just asking God to forgive him. He is not just asking God to get him out of a mess. He may be asking God for mercy, for forgiveness, for help in a crisis, but when you really cry out to God for mercy, you are asking him for the strength to change and to live a new life – a life focussed on God, a life dependent on God.

This morning we have had a baptism. There is only one requirement for baptism: you don’t have to be a good person; you don’t have to be a respectable person. It helps if you are not. The only requirement is that you recognize that you are a broken, messed up person, that you have nothing to bring to God, and that you are absolutely dependent on him. That is why infant baptism is so powerful, because the baby is absolutely helpless and dependent.

And there is only one requirement for anyone who wishes to live their baptism, to live as someone who has been baptized (because that is what matters – not when or how or how much faith you had when you were baptized). You need to realize that you are a broken, messed up person, that you have nothing to bring to God, and that you are absolutely dependent – every minute of every day - on the love and mercy of God.

There is a story told about a mother who came to Napoleon on behalf of her son, who was about to be executed. The mother asked the ruler to issue a pardon, but Napoleon pointed out that it was the man's second offense and justice demanded death.
"I don't ask for justice," the woman replied. "I plead for mercy."
The emperor objected, "But your son doesn't deserve mercy."
"Sir," the mother replied, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask."
Her son was granted the pardon.

This is the secret of power-filled Christian prayer.
I remember realising this on one occasion when I was praying for someone to be healed. I had spent time preparing myself, spiritually psyching myself up. But as we prayed, I began to think, ‘Who am I to pray for healing for anyone. I have absolutely nothing to offer. I care for the person I’m praying for. I really do want them to get better. But my wanting them to get better is not going to make them better. I can’t do this.’ But then I realised – and this is incredibly liberating, ‘This is exactly where God wants me. Totally dependent on him. The reason that Jesus told the disciples to fast and pray before casting out a particular demon was not so they could become spiritually stronger – but so that they could begin to realise just how totally helpless they were, and how completely dependent they were on Jesus and his power.

This is the secret of victorious Christian living

We think the secret is to be more devoted, more passionate, more knowledgeable, more penitent, more self-denying, more self-sacrificing, more committed, more obedient.

It isn’t. You can’t be.  

The problem for the Pharisee was that there was far too much ‘I’ in his service. He is the subject of his prayer; the word ‘I’ appears 4 times. And far too often, the problem for us is that there is too much of the ‘I’ in our Christian service.

Helen Roseveare, a medical missionary in Africa, was the only doctor in a large hospital. There were constant interruptions and shortages, and she was becoming increasingly impatient and irritable with everyone around her. Finally, one of the African pastors insisted, "Helen, please come with me." He drove Helen to his humble house and told her that she was going to have a retreat—two days of silence and solitude. She was to pray until her attitude adjusted. All night and the next day she struggled; she prayed, but her prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling. Late on Sunday night, she sat beside the pastor around a little campfire. Humbly, almost desperately, she confessed that she was stuck. With his bare toe, the pastor drew a long straight line on the dusty ground. "That is the problem, Helen: there is too much 'I' in your service." He gave her a suggestion: "I have noticed that quite often, you take a coffee break and hold the hot coffee in your hands waiting for it to cool." Then he drew another line across the first one. "Helen, from now on, as the coffee cools, ask God, 'Lord, cross out the "I" and make me more like you.'" In the dust of that African ground, where a cross had formed, Helen Roseveare learned the master principle of Jesus: freedom comes through service, and service comes by releasing our ego.

May I urge you to make the tax collector’s prayer your daily prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is the beginning of prayer. It is the prayer of a Christian, because we call Jesus ‘Lord’. It is not a prayer for forgiveness, for we have been forgiven. But it is a prayer that expresses our total dependence on Jesus; that he will work in us every minute of every day, that he will change us, and that he will transform us so that we might become like him.

Or to put this in language that might be easier for us. It is what John Newton, the former slave trader, who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, said as an old man: ‘Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour’.


The quote from John Climacus and the  illustrations about the mother and Napoleon and Helen Roseveare come from Preaching Today sermon illustrations, www.preachingtoday.com

Monday, 11 October 2010

Dealing with anger


Last week we looked Matthew 5:17-20. There Jesus tells us that the Old Testament law and prophets really matter.

1. They are all about him. He is the fulfillment of the law. The law and the prophets point to him. And because the law is about him, he is the one whose interpretation of the law is the right one. 

In other words, Jesus stamps his authority on the law, he makes it his own. He shows the direction that the law is pointing in, and thereby – in places – he intensifies the law, and in other places – he annuls the law


2. They matter because obedience to his interpretation of the law and the prophets, is essential.
When everything is accomplished, when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness - that is when obedience as a requirement becomes unnecessary. We will then choose to live God’s way. But until then, obedience can be a delight, but it is also a duty.

And now, in these next verses, Jesus looks at what it means to obey the law

He deals with
1.      Murder and anger
2.      Adultery and lust
3.      Divorce
4.      The words we speak
5.      Retaliation
6.      Love

And today, in verses 21-26, we are going to look at murder and anger.

This is one of those places where Jesus intensifies the law.

Jesus says, You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and that anyone who murders will be subject to judgement .. but I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement’.

The sixth commandment prohibits murder. It is not a blanket prohibition on the taking of life (both the Old Testament and the New Testament recognize that there is a judicial process whereby life could be taken), but it is a recognition that human beings are made in the image of God, and that we cannot simply kill another human being because their existence is a challenge to our comfort, freedom, independence or dignity.

But if that is the case, then we need to look deeper. It is not just murder that is the issue. It is about how we treat other people who are made in the image of God. Obviously murder is out, but so also is anger. Why? Because when we are angry with another, when rage takes over, we want to destroy them.

I like the story of the Sunday school teacher who was discussing the Ten Commandments with her class of five and six-year-olds. After explaining the commandment to honour your father and your mother, she asked, "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"
Without missing a beat, one little boy answered, "You shall not murder."

He is right.

Family relationships are always the most intense: love and hatred can be very close.

We only need to read the first book of the bible to realize how messed up family relationships can be: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. The first involved murder. The second would have involved murder if Jacob had not fled, and the third saw attempted murder.

And the root cause: it is jealousy that led to anger. And anger that led to attempted murder and murder.
So Jesus challenges not only murder, but anger. And he points out that anger is still anger, whether it is expressed in murder or whether it is expressed in a verbal insult.

As one of the commentaries put it, “There is no clear distinction between the person with seething anger, the one who insultingly calls his brother a fool, and the one who prefers, as his term of abuse, "Raca" (transliteration for Aram. reka, "imbecile," "fool,"blockhead".)”

And Jesus warns that it is not just the murderer who will stand in front of the council for judgment. On the last day each one of us will stand before God’s council to answer for our anger.

We need to make one qualification. Anger is not always wrong. God, we are told in Hebrews, was angry with the people of Israel when they were in the desert escaping from Egypt. He says, ‘Even though I had rescued them from slavery; even though they saw miracles, they hardened their heart to me, and they continued to test me’.

There are times when it is right to be angry: anger when we see a group of bigger kids picking on a smaller kid; when we see blatant injustice. But even then we need to be careful. James 1:19 warns us that ‘human anger man does not bring about the righteous life that God exists’.

And I suspect we all know the difference between the anger that is under our control, and the anger when we lose it. I strongly suspect that when Jesus turned over the tables in the temple, it was an expression of the anger that he felt as he saw the open exploitation, but he had not lost it. He knew exactly what he was doing.
School teachers know the difference between the anger that is ‘put on’, that makes us ‘become scary’ and the anger that comes when we lose it. So do bosses and customers and parents.

The anger Jesus is talking about here is the anger that comes when we lose it. It is the red mist anger, when we become blind to all else apart from ourselves and the perceived injury done to us: it comes when we are standing in the queue for a train ticket, we’re in a rush, and the person serving completely ignores us. It comes when we are driving and someone cuts us up. Anger is the rage that wells up inside us, that makes us forget that the other person is also a person – and turns them into a demon to be destroyed, physically or verbally. .
Anger comes when we feel that we, or the things that we choose to identify ourselves with, are being belittled, treated as a joke, not given the respect that we deserve. It is when our ego is trashed. As a parent, I lose it with the boys not when they don’t do what I ask them to do, but rather when they do it with the attitude: ‘You just don’t matter’. That is when I see red.

And although what they do is not right, my anger is also not right.

I have to say that this is an area in which God has been immensely gracious with me. As a child I had a dreadful temper. With great shame, I remember some of the occasions as a child when I completely lost it. So don’t mess with me!

But it was an area that I asked God to deal with, and he really has – both through the process of growing up and through his grace. He has taken much of that anger away, and thankfully he has preserved me from doing anything even more stupid.

But anger doesn’t necessarily just come out in violence. It comes out in our words; in verbal explosions, in insults, in jokes about people (the humour hand-grenade), in seeking and relishing revenge. And the causes of anger [jealousy, hurt pride, the desire for revenge], can also be pushed under the surface. They fester like an unhealed wound, and in moments of stress, we explode, destroying others and ourselves. And often the victims of our anger are the completely innocent. We’re really angry about something or with someone, and someone else just happens to be there at the wrong time in the wrong place.

So how do we deal with it?

1.      We need to repent.
The passage tells us that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

Anger is sin, and it is worth remembering that we will one day give an account for our anger to God. When I destroy someone, physically or verbally, I destroy someone who is made in the image of God.

So we need to repent. We really do need to say sorry –to God.

When David had murdered Uriah the Hittite, and was confronted by the awfulness of what he had done by Nathan the Prophet, he prays: ‘Against you alone have I sinned’. I have murdered one of your ambassadors. I’ve declared war on you. 

Of course, because we are fallen human beings, we all do lose it. And for some they lose it so badly that they do kill another person. They have to answer both to a human court and the divine court

But we all have to answer to the divine court for our anger. And before it is too late, we need to say sorry to God and we need to ask God to help us change. It might mean asking God to deal with some deeper issues.
It is far better to be honest with God now, so that on the judgment day our plea will not be ‘innocent’, but ‘guilty as charged and dependent completely on your mercy’. 

2.  We need to move away from thinking about self to thinking about others.
Matthew 5:23 is fascinating. Jesus does not say, ‘If you present your gift and remember that you have something against your brother, sort it out’, but ‘If you present your gift and remember that your brother has something against you’

Jesus said this before the cross and resurrection. He is talking about temple sacrifices. If you are about to make a temple sacrifice, and remember that someone has something against you – Jesus doesn’t say whether that something is justified or not justified – get it sorted out before you make your offering.

To be honest, the going to the other person and sorting it out is as great an offering to the Lord as a physical sacrifice.

But we might say, ‘But I have done nothing’. Maybe not. Jesus did nothing, and yet he still hung on the cross for me. If there is going to be reconciliation, someone has to take the first step, has to say sorry, has to deal with the misunderstanding. You can never have reconciliation without someone paying some cost. And Jesus is saying, ‘Make it you’.

Romans 12:18 is very helpful here: ‘As far as it is up to you, live at peace with everyone’.

3.  We need to sort it out.
As our passage says, ‘Settle matters quickly with your adversary .. Do it while you are still together on the way’.

This particularly applies if you are in the wrong. Say Sorry. Do what you can to make amends if it is possible.
The consequences of not sorting it out sooner are far far worse.

An insult, a rejection (intentional or unintentional), a disagreement can, with time, become a bitter dispute.

4. Let God be the judge.
It is not for us to take revenge.

We need to remember how much we owe God, how much he has forgiven us. Don’t take yourself or the thing that you identify yourself by, so seriously. Pass the anger onto God. ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him a drink. For in so doing you heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12:20). Let God decide how many and how hot they should be.

I read of the man who had been seriously harmed by a then business partner. Underneath he was so angry with the person. And then on one occasion, he was in MacDonalds with his family, when he noticed the other man walk in with his family. They ordered some food, and then he heard the other man arguing with his wife. They didn’t have the money on them. There was a big scene. As he was walking out, he thought, ‘Good. There is justice in this world’. And then he heard the other voice saying, ‘If your enemy is hungry feed him’. So with deep reluctance he put down a £20 note on the persons table and said, ‘Have this meal on me’. And left. And suddenly all the anger, all the hurt, just went.

The bible tells us, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger’.

5. We need to ask God to help us deal with our anger
He does, but it can be a rocky road.
Story of the monk who struggled with anger.

And in the meantime, a couple of pieces of advice:
‘When you get really angry, stick your hands in your pocket’; or, as my granny used to say, ‘Before you answer back, count to 10’.


When it comes to anger, with the exception of Jesus, we are all in the same boat. Anger is one of the things that teaches us that we belong to a fallen world, that we do not live as we were made to live. If someone is right to be angry with us, it is God. And at one level God is angry with us. But his anger is controlled. It does not hit out. And much much deeper than his anger is his love. And in his love he took the immensely costly step to allow reconciliation to take place. He sent his Son Jesus to die for us. ‘As far as it is up to him’ we can be at peace with him. Our part is simply to recognize our sin, our anger, and to receive the forgiveness that he gives, to live forgiveness, and with his help, to change.