The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.

This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.

This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.

And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.

If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.

We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.

There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.

The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.


Hypocrisy and Redemption

2 Samuel 11:1-15

Anyone who calls the Bible boring clearly hasn’t read the story of David and Bathsheba. It has the same lust, murder and intrigue we expect to find in a late-night cable TV movie. And of course, there is hypocrisy, deep, deep hypocrisy from a man who was clearly favored by God.

There are many nuances to this story, some difficult to notice if you are not familiar with the traditions of the day and the subtleties of language being used to tell it. Let me point out a few that are important to the story as we have heard it thus far:

  • King David was not where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to do. We’ll come back to that later.
  • Bathsheba certainly was beholden to her king, and some people have described her as being a victim of power rape. That is possible, but as you read further into the Davidic story in 1 Kings, Bathsheba hardly comes across as a passive character. I believe she welcomed the series of events leading to the cuckolding and death of her husband Uriah, events that freed her from a foreign husband and empowered her.
  • The one honorable human early in the story was a foreigner. Uriah the Hittite remained loyal even after he likely has figured out what is going on, knowing the conspiracy between his king and his wife will lead to his death.

As the story continues, we see Uriah was not the only character aware of the king’s hypocrisy. Everyone seemed to know what the king had done: first messengers, soldiers and prophets; later, we can assume, the whole city, thanks to gossips, a swollen belly, and a little math. Again, the evidence for these facts is subtle, but present in the story.

How could one who was so loved by God and who loved God so much fall into such a sad, embarrassing state? Well, David fell into hypocrisy for a simple reason. He stopped being the person he was made to be.

Let’s go back to the very beginning of the story. In a time when kings went out to battle, David stayed home. David was supposed to be fighting a particular kind of battle, one waged against the enemies of God’s plan for the Promised Land. In what we have to remember is a story set in primitive times, David was fighting for what was holy. But at a time when he was still virile enough to pursue and impregnate women, he also had grown to prefer the luxuries of palace life, sending others out to do the hard work he once did so well himself.

In the process, he had become indolent, even lazy. I expect he would have described himself as bored. We are told he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof after he had arisen from his couch late one afternoon. In other words, David was not only staying home from the war, he was sleeping through key parts of the day. And in the process, he had become a shadow of his former righteous self. Formerly passionate for God, he now simply chased the passions of the moment.

When in such a situation, it helps to have someone come along, someone you trust, who can say, “Look at yourself.” David had such a person in the prophet Nathan. The prophet used a story of a stolen lamb to stir David’s sense of righteousness, and then turned the story on David by revealing to the arrogant king he was the real thief and murderer.

Nathan also revealed the punishment, which was harsh, but not as harsh as the death the repentant David expected. David’s kingdom would be without peace for the rest of his life; also, the child conceived by Bathsheba would die, despite David’s prayer and fasting to convince God otherwise. Sin can have devastating effects in this life, even where there is forgiveness.

Never forget what God has called you to be. None of us are called to be kings, but the day we begin to follow God through Christ we all are called to enhance his kingdom in some way. It may be in public ways, like the preaching or teaching of God’s word; it may be in the equally challenging roles of mother and father to children of the kingdom; it may be in how you bring Christian values into your work or community. Such calls may last for a lifetime or simply for a season, but they are always there.

When you sense boredom in the midst of fulfilling your call, be careful how you choose to relieve it. God’s word and a steady prayer life are always your first, best choices when bored. They will enrich you rather than taking you places that sap you or impoverish you.

And know that if you have fallen from your calling, whatever it may be, you live in a wonderful time. Thanks to Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, God’s grace is easier to access than ever. Simply make a true repentance and let God lead you back to the person you were made to be.

The repercussions of your sins may follow you, but God’s grace will bring you healing, restoration and a new joy.

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.


Four Parts of Worship: Celebrate!

So, we’ve talked about what it means to gather ourselves in search of God, and we’ve talked about how God is consistently revealed in Scripture. What is an appropriate response to God’s presence?

A celebration! The third part of worship is like a thank-you, praise-you party thrown for God, where we declare our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer the jolly good fellow, the one worthy of honor.

Again, it’s one of those reasons I like to put the declaration of God’s word up front as much as possible in a worship service. I think a lot of people struggle with worship because we don’t spend enough time rejoicing, and it’s hard to celebrate until we’ve really heard from God. When we fail to celebrate in worship, we miss out on the joy of being Christian, a joy available to us regardless of our circumstances.

I know—we may not always feel like rejoicing. Poor? Sick? Lonely? Broken by sins committed? Victimized by another’s sin? Those aren’t ideal situations to be in, but our current circumstances brighten considerably when we put them in the light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The temporary nature of this life becomes obvious when the Holy Spirit begins to work in us through God’s word, giving us a taste of what it means to be citizens of an eternal kingdom.

The joy of the resurrection—first, Christ’s, and later, our promised own—is something God offers us whenever we immerse ourselves in his story and praise him.

You see such celebratory worship in the Old Testament. One example would be the story in 1 Chronicles 16:1-6, when David returned the Ark of the Covenant—Old Testament evidence of God’s presence—to Jerusalem. Even before these verses, there are recorded acts of worship on the way to Jerusalem: sacrifices, singing, dancing and music, most of it quite exuberant. It all continued once the Ark was in place, with people appointed to keep it going.

Celebratory worship continues in the New Testament, particularly after the victorious nature of Christ’s work on the cross is made clear in the resurrection. We’re told in Colossians 3:16-17, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

God’s word begets gratitude, and with gratitude in our hearts, we sing and direct our celebration toward our audience, God. We can rejoice in such ways during appointed worship times, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, for example. We can rejoice when gathered in small groups. We can rejoice in our one-on-one time with God.

I know not everyone rejoices and celebrates in the same way, just as people will enjoy a party in different ways. I’ve always been more of a wallflower at a party. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy parties; it just means I’m not necessarily going to put a lampshade on my head.

You may be a fairly laid-back, reserved person in worship. Not everyone wants to jump up and shout “Amen!” while holding their hands up in the air. (Thank God for the worshipers who do such things; they are great help to a preacher and to worship in general.)

But if you’re reserved in nature, ask yourself this: Am I celebrating? Does that joy regarding Christ’s gift wash over my soul, at least as a quiet, tender experience?

Do I let the music take me back to the revelation of God I’ve just heard, connecting my emotions to my logic? Do I understand the prayers we lift up corporately as an open door to heaven? When I come to the table for communion, am I expecting to meet the one who will feed me for all eternity?

God calls you to such celebratory experiences whenever you stand before him in worship.

Shrewd Living

Third in a Sermon Series

Third in a Sermon Series

Can following God make you a more shrewd person in this life, helping you succeed?

Proverbs 2:1-15 would seem to promise just such a result. It says God is the source of wisdom and knowledge, and that he grants these gifts to those who earnestly seek them. God wants you to want them; certainly, prayer and study are two ways to seek what you desire.

I am convinced that growing in wisdom and knowledge through a relationship with God is largely dependent on knowing the stories in which God reveals himself to us. People may get tired of preachers saying it, but there’s tremendous value in studying your Bible. There is more there than can be learned in a lifetime, a wealth of wisdom applicable to everyday life.

All I have time to do today is share one example of shrewd thinking in the Bible. I’m going to use a Bible story that may be less familiar than some, a story found in 1 Sam. 25:1-42.

The books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel are full of strategy and politics, their focus being the rise of David as the great king of Israel. At this point in the 1 Samuel story, David, accompanied by about 600 soldiers, is fleeing King Saul, who pursues David with as many as 3,000 men. At the same time, David is trying to protect the Israelites from Philistine incursions and other threats.

Feeding a small army is, of course, a constant problem, but David thinks he sees an opportunity. He has protected the shepherds of a wealthy man named Nabal, who is of a tribe not Israelite but aligned with the Israelites. He sends word to Nabal reminding him of how he recently has helped Nabal’s shepherds and requests food.

We quickly come to understand that despite his large collection of livestock, Nabal is not shrewd. Hearing David’s request, Nabal is faced with either an opportunity or a threat, depending on how he chooses to view it. He foolishly treats David’s request as neither.

He does not curry favor with David by offering food; likewise, he fails to prepare a defense as the story unfolds. He simply insults the already famous warrior and his small army. Later in the story, it will be noted that to Israelites’ ears, “Nabal” sounds like a description of a crude or base person.

It’s also clear that Nabal has long ago lost the respect of his servants, household, and even his wife, Abigail. One of the young men runs to her for help, knowing this insult will not go unanswered.

David, the product of a culture based on honor and patronage, is furious, of course. Most English translations don’t fully capture just how angry he is, saying that David mutters he will kill Nabal and all of his “men.” The Hebrew term is far more crude, however; Hebrew expert Robert Alter translates David’s words as a desire to kill every “pisser against the wall.” These are no longer people to David, just creatures about to die on the edges of swords.

This is the moment in the story where we discover why the young man in Nabal’s camp went to Abigail. Her husband may be a dullard, but she is shrewd. In addition to sending the food David needs, she approaches him with a clear strategy in mind. First, she deflects David’s anger by placing the blame on herself, words that clearly cause David to pause a moment.

She then launches into a plea with three clear messages embedded in it: David, remember your past, your present and your future.

She artfully reminds him of his past with a veiled reference to his enemies being flung from “the hollow of the sling.” David has to hear in this a reminder of the day God was with him as he killed Goliath.

She also acknowledges that he is at this moment the anointed one of God and that he will be king, and that it would be inappropriate for such a holy person to take on the sin of bloodguilt, a burden Israelites believed they bore when they killed wrongfully, in anger.

Her strategy works, perhaps even better than she imagined. David relents. Later, when she tells Nabal what almost happened, he becomes “like a stone,” most likely, a description of Nabal having a stroke. Ten days later, he is dead. Upon hearing all of this, David sends for the woman who has impressed him so greatly and asks her to be his wife.

Certainly, there is strategy in Abigail’s actions, but it’s also important to remember that all of her cleverness is rooted in a wise understanding of God’s nature, how God expects us to behave, and how David would understand his role in these relationships.

So, are we supposed to behave similarly today? As people in church, should we be equipping ourselves as disciples who think shrewdly?

Jesus said we should. Jesus wanted us to be thinkers and strategists. My favorite example is in Matthew 10:16. Jesus had sent his disciples out to tell the good news of the arrival of the kingdom, but he noted: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Wisdom, strategy and thoughtfulness are important, Jesus was saying. Just be sure to root them in his message of love and peace.

As a people who believe God reveals himself to us in Scripture and prayer, we’re left with a question: Are we seeking these gifts earnestly, in a way that they can impact our lives now?

If not, you’re leaving some of the benefits of church involvement on the table.