Pure in heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” – Matthew 5:8 ESV

We were discussing this verse, along with the other Beatitudes, last night in College lifegroup. One of the people in our group mentioned that this verse is hard – that he struggles with being pure in heart.

It dawned on me that I’m not  exactly sure what “pure in heart” means. I realized that I haven’t thought about it much, to my discredit. Then a definition of pure in heart presented itself to me; here it is:

“You’ll know that you’re pure in heart when you would be comfortable with other people being able to hear the innermost thoughts of your heart.”

I realized right then that I have so far to go. I think all sorts of horrible things. I entertain bitterness, envy, anger, selfish dreams, and all manner of other bad things in my heart and it would horrify me if other people could hear my thoughts.

I’m not kidding – this scares me. I need heart surgery.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. – Psalm 19:14 ESV

“It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Turning the tide

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. – Galatians 1:3-5 ESV

“To deliver us from the present evil age.” There’s something there, tangible, that I often miss.

Through his death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus delivered us from death and hell, and has given us eternal life. It’s easy to think of that deliverance only in the future tense. But if you’re paying attention you’ll notice that the New Testament resonates brightly with a sense of the Now.

Salvation in Jesus is forever, of course. But forever started that moment that he took you into himself. These days have enough trouble of their own; deliverance from these days, these evil days, is happening now.

Deliverance from, not teleportation out of.

The Lord is with us – that’s his forever promise – and he is turning us each day into immortal beings like himself who are becoming immune to the evil of our times, and indeed are daily more and more a part of his heavenly host, turning the tide.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  – Matthew 6:10 ESV

Seek first

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Matthew 6:33

My high school discipleship group and I were talking about this verse tonight. As I’m learning to ask myself when reading scripture, what does this look like? What does it look like to seek first a kingdom?

I think it’s important, for starters, to understand what a kingdom is. A kingdom is a realm that is ruled by a king (I like to keep things simple). I, unfortunately, live in the kingdom of Bill too much of the time. Too often, I seek first what will increase my little kingdom; I focus on what will make my name great, what will increase my kingdom’s power, what will grant me, as the king, riches, luxuries, pleasures, power and exaltation.

It’s all about control, you see.

Our Lord understands that we are naturally this way. We worry about our own kingdoms; the context of this passage is our (natural) anxiety about the things we need to live.

But Jesus pushes against what we call “natural” – because, really, it’s not natural, or logical, or wise. We’re fallen and twisted, departed from what we were made to be, divorced from the natures God intended us to have, so much so that the wisdom of following after God is missed, often without us realizing it.

Here’s what makes sense: all the things we need fall under the domain of the King who created them. He offers us free citizenship in his Kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son, but to gain this citizenship we need to take our white-knuckled grip off of our own kingdom. This feels like death to us, in our unnatural, fallen condition, but it only makes perfect sense. Our kingdoms are small, wispy vapors that will rise and fall like flowers and we don’t know our right hand from our left. He is the King who created the universe and holds it together by the word of his power. His Kingdom is forever, the government is on his shoulders, and he has authority over all things, including everything we need.

Is this really a hard choice?

True, his call on us is weighty. Giving control to the true King can and often does lead to hunger, nakedness, the sword. As Paul wrote, “for your sake we are being killed all the day long”. But Jesus promises us that if we seek the Kingdom, if we are aligned with the King’s purposes and sent out as ambassadors for him, he will give us all the things we need, and he understands what we need so much more than we do. He will give us what we need to seek the Kingdom even more! And in the end we will receive an eternal weight of glory that far surpasses anything we have to deal with in this life.

That’s a Kingdom worth seeking. First.

Matthew 25

From today’s reading of Matthew 25

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” – Matthew 25:1 (ESV)

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.” – Matthew 25:14 (ESV)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Matthew 25:31-32 (ESV)

Throughout the gospels Jesus seems keenly interested in giving his followers a picture of the coming Kingdom. He does this through parables that each give a glimpse of the many sided jewel that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 present both the beauty of being let in and the horror of being cast out. A unifying thread in these stories is the idea of value. What do we do with the riches Jesus has bestowed upon us?

In the parable of the ten virgins there is the treasure of oil. Oil in scripture usually represents anointing, selection, or the Spirit of God. Five of the virgins had the oil burning in their lamps and were let in. Five did not and were cast out.

In the parable of the master of the servants, there is the treasure of talents; weighed-out money. Two of the servants used the treasures the master had given them to expand the master’s kingdom. One of them had an incorrect/distorted view of the master, the wrong kind of fear of him, and buried the treasure to be safe. He was cast out and even what he had was taken from him.

The final discourse is not a parable, it is a description of what will happen when King Jesus comes in the final judgement, dividing all of humanity like a shepherd would divide sheep and goats. What is the treasure here that the “sheep” valued and the “goats” did not? The treasure is Jesus himself, a King in disguise, as he identifies himself with the hungry and thirsty poor, the unclothed poor, the sick, the ones in prison. He is a King who has humbled himself beyond our comprehension, having left his throne to come to us, we hungry and thirsty poor, we naked paupers, a sin-sick people imprisoned by our trespasses. The citizens of his kingdom follow and emulate their King in his humility and, in small and near ways, reflect the deep dive of humility that Jesus has already undergone as they serve those who are like they were before he rescued them; poor, thirsty, hungry, naked, imprisoned. They may not realize it, but in doing so they are serving the King himself.

Those who do not and have not were never citizens, having devoted their lives to serving other kingdoms that are not of Jesus. They find themselves in the end cast out.

“To give them their food at the proper time”

From today’s reading of Matthew 24

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24:45-51 (ESV)

Have you ever noticed how much the New Testament references food? It is full of talk of fruit, bread, wine, water, fish, feasts, multiplication of food, hunger satiated and thirst quenched.

In the metaphor of the vine and branches we are to bear fruit as we abide in him. Jesus tells us that we will have springing out of us rivers of living water. He calls himself the bread that came down from heaven. His repeated promise is that in him we will never hunger and thirst again. He calls his disciples “fishers of men” and even gives them advice on where to place their nets. He multiplies bread and fish for his hungry followers, turns water into wine, and even compares the gospel to new wine in new wineskins. Jesus declares that his food is to do the work of his Father. In a resurrection appearance to the disciples he eats broiled fish, and at the home of the Emmaus walkers he breaks bread. The New Testament culminates in the wedding feast of Christ and his church.

It can be argued that the sole duty of a follower of Jesus is to be a feeder of others, to invite others to the smorgasbord of Jesus’ grace and to serve up heaping helpings of same.

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?”

Following his resurrection, in John 21 Jesus meets his followers on the beach, having prepared for them a meal of fish and bread (also, his helpful fishing tips have just provided them with the biggest haul of fish they’d ever seen). In his restorative conversation with Peter he commands him three times to “feed my sheep”. Not organize a church. Not get a degree. Not develop creative strategies. The prime focus of what Peter is to do involves feeding. Those other things: the degree, organization, creativity, strategic thinking, are not bad in themselves and are actually quite helpful and wise, provided they serve the mission of serving the bread of Heaven to those who are Christ’s sheep.

We’re to be feeders. And for one who might think that’s just a suggestion, an option, one way among many to go as a follower of Jesus, the final two sentences of the quoted passage above are a good corrective, and emphasize and illustrate the passion (it wouldn’t be off-base to use the word “ferocity” here) that our Father has for the feeding of his people.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others”

From today’s reading of Matthew 23, Luke 20-21

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long . . . – Matthew 23:1-5 (ESV)

It’s easy when reading the gospels to just assume the scribes and Pharisees were wrong through and through. But Jesus here affirms that their teaching was not wrong. They were sitting on Moses’ seat, teaching the law given by God. The law is good.

And yet, in a very crucial way, their teaching was wrong. They showed by their own lives that keeping God’s law is impossible in our own power, and yet still taught that salvation comes through keeping the whole law. This kind of teaching will do a number on the teacher, and it had developed in the Pharisees an exquisite blindness to their own hypocrisy.

Jesus is, of course, the great Light who gives sight to the blind. He decides to shed some light on the situation and so in Matthew 23 he lays into the scribes and Pharisees with brutal precision.

The Pharisees in their teaching had made it a habit to tie up their people with the heavy burden of keeping a law that in our fallen state we are incapable of keeping. Out of the cognitive dissonance that followed, within the heart of each scribe and Pharisee it seems that the mission changed for them. Deep in their hearts this statement took hold.

“I can’t keep this law I am teaching. The second best thing will be to at least look like I’m keeping it.”

I’ve engaged in that deadly logic myself, many times. The law of God is good. But in a cage match against my flesh, obedience to the law is going to get trounced. Paul writes the following in Romans 8:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 (ESV)

The Pharisees weren’t completely wrong. The righteous requirement of the law can be fulfilled in us. But the only hope of that happening is to throw ourselves upon Jesus, the Gift of God. In a completely unfair trade, we give him our weakness, our hypocrisy, our show-morality, our flesh, our sin, and we get his righteousness, his Spirit, and most of all, we get all of him!

Freedom!

The wedding feast

From today’s reading of Matthew 22, Mark 12

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:1-14 (ESV)

The Kingdom of Heaven as Jesus describes it is counter-intuitive. Where we expect a boot-camp, the invitation is to a wedding feast. Where we expect the best and the brightest, Jesus here and in many other places affirms that many of the guests are the worst and the darkest.

The Lord has prepared the feast. He has addressed and sent the invitations. The best and the brightest have too many other things vying for their attention, so they react with either indifference or hostility; Indifference because our own well-integrated, ordered lives running on our schedule and toward our own goals are shiny and alluring enough to capture and keep our attention. The wedding of the Son of a King that we don’t really know rates low on that priority list.

Hostility for much the same reason. He is infringing . . .

And he will infringe. He is God! This is his right. The parable recounts the destruction of the city of those who had ignored him and had attacked and killed his servants, clearly implicating the people of the King, Israel, with a history of repeated apostasy, destruction, exile and restoration. The phrasing is harsh because what’s at stake is so incredibly valuable. All of history is progressing toward the wedding feast of the Son of the King. It will usher in the age of ages, the eternal reign of Jesus in which he makes all things new, forever.

Why would anyone run from this invitation? Yet we do. I know this past week in particular I have, in multiple ways, been ducking God. I don’t even know why. I have been invited to the wedding feast of the One who is infinitely valuable. There is another one who opposes this, and in combination with my flesh he will attempt to slow, redirect, or cripple my walk. He will attempt to distract me from my true life’s calling, which is preparation for the feast, inviting others to it, and learning to wear well the wedding garments of righteousness that Jesus has so graciously given me.

Lord, I need you.

Broken or Crushed

From today’s reading of Matthew 20-21

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet. – Matthew 21:42-46 (ESV)

As I read this passage and the surrounding context, it dawns on me that the religious leaders in opposition to Jesus really don’t have anything approaching a rational motive for having him killed. Their motives are fueled by the most base human emotions: fear, jealousy, protectionism, and political calculation.

I can’t stand in judgment of them, however, because so much of what I do is powered by that same fuel. Sometimes to fix something you need to break it first. I need to be broken.

The chief priests and Pharisees are doing what is natural. They are protecting their kingdom. Give almost any one of us a kingdom, no matter how tiny, and we’ll marshal all our forces in protection of it. This is human nature, the fallen human nature whose stranglehold Jesus came to break.

Jesus is the Chief Cornerstone. He holds everything together. But this central fact of creation is missed by so many. The chief priests and Pharisees missed it, and rejected the Stone of Help, the Stone that when struck produces living water.

The path they chose instead is a path many of us choose daily, driven by our own blinding hypocrisy and fear that the tiny kingdom we think so precious is going to be shaken up by this uncouth (in our eyes) Galilean.

Who does he think he is?

The Chief Cornerstone! That’s who.

Jesus presents us with two choices. Fall and be broken, or stand in our own pride and hypocrisy and be crushed. Both are painful, but those who fall upon the mercy of the Lord, though broken, are built back up into a temple of praise and worship to Him.

I need to be broken! Even as a follower of Jesus I daily see, more and more clearly, that so much of what I do is for the protection of my little kingdoms. Petty jealousies, paralyzing fears, a continual reaching out to shift the spotlight back onto me. With such a jumbled up, backwards set of priorities, if any fruit is produced it’s completely by accident and always by the grace of God.

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.

Dear Lord, have mercy upon me, and break me to be rebuilt and restored into the destiny that you have for me: to be just like you.

The mathematics of Heaven

From today’s reading of Matthew 18

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” – Matthew 18:5-6 (ESV)

“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” – Matthew 18:12-14 (ESV)

Jesus is relentless love.

He stands against church growth strategies that treat people like numbers. When someone falls away, he pursues them and calls us to do the same. The idea of leaving ninety-nine to pursue one doesn’t make mathematical sense to us, but it makes sense to him. Oh to fully grasp the beautiful, redemptive mathematics of Heaven.

I can hardly put into words the impact this passage has on me. I have failed to pursue the one so often. I have passively sat back when observing others making the same mistake, rather than speaking exhortation to them and offering to run alongside with them in the pursuit of our lost sheep. I have given up on people, content to remain with the ninety-nine, then the ninety-eight, then the ninety-seven . . .

Without even trying I can think of a dozen young people who desperately need to be reclaimed. In light of that, I can’t really do justice to the scripture quoted above with lame words in a blog post and belated lamentations.

I do know this: it is difficult, frustrating, lonely work to search for the one, to try to bring them back when they themselves would rather be lost. That’s one reason so few of us do it. But it is the will of the Father that none of these little ones should perish. Jesus is relentless love.

May my love be relentless too. Enough said and amen.

Faith

From today’s reading of Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9:28-62

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astonished at the majesty of God. – Luke 9:37-43 (ESV)

In the parallel passage in Matthew 17 the disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the demon. His explanation to them is very simple: “Because of your little faith”. This is as good an explanation as any for almost every failure and misstep in my life. Oh, this great puzzle of faith!

Have you ever thought that Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples here, and in many other places, is harsh? It reads that way, doesn’t it? “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you?” He seems exasperated, and there’s no doubt he is. But why?

I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know about me. Perhaps my problem is similar to theirs. I think I often get faith wrong. I see it as a work, as something to conjure. After all, if I need more of something, I need to work for it, right? I often see faith as currency, and the more the better so that I can buy God’s successes.

It’s illustrative that just a few verses later in Luke 9 Jesus places a child in front of the disciples as an example of what it means to be great in the Kingdom. And in the next chapter of the Matthew passage he says this:

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3-4 (ESV)

One of the great shocks of being a parent is realizing how much faith your little ones have in you. It is a pure faith. They know you have what they need, and they aren’t shy about asking for it, smiling and eyes wide with expectation. In a healthy family there is no fear in the asking, and there is acceptance (albeit with some drama inevitably) of the answer, yes or no. Most importantly, there is no sense of work in the asking. The child knows she has no money on her own to buy the toy, so she goes to the only one who does have the money and might be willing to buy it, her mom or dad. A child’s faith is bold, because the focus of a child’s faith is squarely on her mom or dad. This faith is also wise; placing faith in the one with the resources is the only thing that makes any logical sense.

I think this simplicity of faith is often lost as we grow older and begin to take on resources of our own. The focus begins to shift from the Lord to ourselves, and this begets the effort, the work, the mental gymnastics that masquerade as faith so often, not to mention the caution, the hedging of the bets that accompany these wolves of work wrapped in the sheep’s hide of faith.

Jesus is exasperated by his disciples’ lack of faith, I believe, because they had, for quite some time, been physically with the Incarnate Faithful One, Jesus himself. Jesus was engaged in living a faith-filled life before his Father and pointing them to the same life of dependency and childlike trust. They had seen the results of this true, pure, golden faith over and over again.

Mark 9 records this interaction between Jesus and the demoniac boy’s father:

“if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” – Mark 9:22-24 (ESV)

Amen brother. Lord help my unbelief.

I think Jesus is exasperated with me because faith is, in ways I still need to fully grasp, very simple. I’m the one who’s making it hard. I need to put my faith in Jesus. Because he can do it. He can do anything.