Sunday, July 14, 2024

Our Nation's Descent Into Darkness

If you are a fan of Alice in Wonderland, you will remember when she went into the rabbit hole, she fell slowly enough to look at the shelves, and read the label of a jar of marmalade, which she placed back on the shelf, lest she drop it and it hit someone below.

I feel the analogy holds here as I watch my country free-falling into more and more darkness.  It's been a slow fall, but it is one that leads straight down. 

As we have looked at the Kingdom of God, we see its radical nature more and more as we compare it to our country today.

There has always been darkness in the world.  History teaches us that. But darkness has gradations--not all darkness is created equal. The darkness in a cave is not the same as turning off a light in your bedroom. 

Darkness can start out as a dimming of the light.  Think of sunset. There is a enough light in the sky to keep the darkness at bay; you can still walk at twilight.  But as the light fades, the darkness becomes more absolute.  Soon, the light is all but gone, and darkness, not light, is the dominant feature.  Darkness makes us lose our way; paths are not clear, roads are not obvious and cardinal directions are not easily discerned.  Yes, you can use the stars to navigate, but what if it is a cloudy night? 

I am disturbed that darkness is becoming more and more the dominant feature of our country.  We no longer have the Bible as a moral compass, and we think what we believe is good enough to discern  right and wrong.  Standards are mocked, upholding biblical definitions are scorned and hating your enemy is standard operating procedure.

Jesus' day had darkness in it as well.  The Romans were a vicious and violent people, and the Jewish leadership was more interested in following rules than following God. So, it is no wonder when Jesus spoke His sermon, He was out of touch with the surrounding culture.  

The Kingdom of God always is. 

The Kingdom of God is where the poor, the sad, the meek, the seeking, the merciful, the sincere, the peacemakers and the persecuted have a place.

Our salt flavors the world, and our light drives out the darkness. 

We don't take our anger out on others. 

Our gifts are sweetest to God when we are at peace with those around us. 

We settle disputes quickly with those who think that a court of law is the only place to go.

We think kindly of others, not lustfully or selfishly. 

Our marriages seek to bring out the best in each other. 

Where our word is good enough. 

We could punish the other person, but we forgive. 

We forgive those who are hostile to us, knowing God pursues them as well as us to come to His table. 

We love the unlovable. 

We serve the poor for their sake, not for ours. 

We pray to the One whom we love and respect, knowing He hears us. 

We forgive the unforgivable. 

We deny ourselves, so we open up more of ourselves to Him. 

Our heart is filled with His beauty, not our greed. 

We do not worry, for we serve a loving and caring Father. 

We do not judge others, for we know we all fail in one way or another.

We are active in our faith, pursuing God with wild abandon. 

We know following Jesus isn't easy, but we do it knowing that it is worth it. 

We listen to Jesus, not to others who want to deceive us, or who just get it wrong. 

We want to do His will alone, in His name alone, and in His love alone. 

We live in a house that sits on a rock and is weather-proof. 

Wow. The Sermon is a way of thinking, acting and living in a matter that pushes back on the darkness and allows His light to shine in and heal the brokenness that led to the darkness in the first place.

I don't know where our country is going, but the Sermon the Mount is an excellent way to get our moral bearings and try to reach out in Jesus' name to encourage and touch those around us. 

We need to pray without ceasing.  


Sunday, July 7, 2024

What the Kingdom of God is NOT

So, if the Sermon on the Mount is the Kingdom of God's constitution, what does the Kingdom really look like?

First, you have to look in the right places. Jesus addresses this very issue in Luke 17:20-37: 

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.

It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”

“Where, Lord?” they asked.

He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
(17:20-37 NIV) [emphasis mine]

Remember that many of Jesus' followers, including the disciples, were still enamoured of the idea that the Messiah would be an invading Warrior of God, intent on conquering Israel's enemies, thereby allowing Israel to once more be free of oppression and to worship Yahweh unimpeded, with joy and thanksgiving.

Jesus is trying to disavow His listeners of the notion that the Kingdom of God is a place--somewhere you go and experience its reign and its visible presence.  

A place where Romans don't walk down the street with scorn on their faces and harbor subterranean violence just waiting to erupt.  Right?

A place where emperors are not worshipped and puppet kings aren't allowed to do whatever they want.  Right? 

A place where religious leaders are not more concerned about control and power and do not scorn those who do not look like them or act like them, or see the Scriptures the way they do. Right?

A place where poverty is gone and those in charge are genuinely concerned for the welfare of others. Right?

A place where Yahweh is honored and revered and all pagan temples with their abhorrent practices are nowhere to be found. Right? 

Who wouldn't want such a place to be brought forth by Jesus, right here, right now?  Perhaps the disciples thought that with all the power Jesus possessed, as evinced by miracle after miracle and powerful teaching after powerful teaching, why wouldn't He just go and make this Kingdom of God a reality?  

It's interesting that the Pharisees asked Him the question.  Were they testing Him (they periodically did so with loaded questions, trying to trap Him in a response they could use against Him) by asking about this Kingdom of God thing, seeing if He was planning this Warrior-Messiah thing and stirring up His followers to join His enterprise? 

Jesus cuts quickly to the chase: The Kingdom of God is HERE...It's ME and those who believe in Me.  It's a belief, with a humble and seeking heart, that places you in the Kingdom, because it places you beside Me. 

In other words, Jesus is telling the Pharisees, 

I am not setting anything up.  The Kingdom of God is where you reside in the Messiah and He resides in you.  Kingdoms can be invaded, destroyed or reorganized beyond recognition. This kingdom will go everywhere because My disciples will go everywhere.  It's not tethered to a location--it's tethered to My followers' hearts and they will be messengers, ambassadors, of this Kingdom.  You don't go to the Kingdom--it comes to you on the wings of a whispered prayer to the One who will soon prove His love for you by hanging on a cross. 

Then you notice, Jesus starts teaching His disciples, because they were probably stumped by Jesus' remark to the Pharisees.  

If the Kingdom of God is in us, what does it look like?

The Sermon on the Mount is what people who dwell in the Kingdom, and it dwells in them, looks like. But they seem to have forgotten He's already laid out Kingdom life.  Because the idea of a restoration of Israel had probably grown in their hearts and in the hearts of others as He gained more popularity,  did more miracles and confronted the authorities, He needs to clarify what the Kingdom is not, having already laid out what it is in His sermon and His teachings.

First of all, it won't be place where the Messiah just shows up.  The Messiah will come as lightning in the sky:  unmistakable and seen by all. 


First, He must suffer.  That statement right there lays to rest the notion of Him as the Messiah coming and vanquishing His foes.  That day will come, but other more important things must happen first.

The restoration of Israel must come after the restoration of the people's hearts, and not just the Jewish people's.  Their original mission was to be a blessing to the nations (Gen.12:3) and this is coming in the near future, when the upcoming sacrifice of Jesus will be for all people. 

And just as in days passed, people will be going on in their daily lives, not concerned about spiritual matters of obedience and serving Yahweh with a full heart. Why?  Because the timetable the people have set for the Messiah to come and conquer will not happen the way they want it.  After awhile, people will lose their joyful sense of expectation and go back to everyday life and perhaps become even more resistant to spiritual matters, because they perceive that God is in no hurry to bring forth His righteousness.  The people will think they have plenty of time to do what they want and then shape up when the time grows near.

Jesus is prophetically mapping out the future.  In 40 years or so, many Jewish people, fed up with God's (perceived) delay, decide to take matters into their own hands and bring the Kingdom of God to earth, by leading what became known as The Great Revolt.  It started in Galilee in AD 66 and culminated with the destruction of the Temple and a million plus Jews losing their lives in AD 70, when Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans. 

Did some of them argue, several decades hence, 

Hey!  Nothing happened with that Jesus of yours!  How could He let the Romans kill him? Where's that Kingdom He talked so much about?   Oh, that Sermon on the Mount--wasn't that just metaphors and adages?

The Kingdom of God the people imagined turned into rubble, death and dispersion.  Those not killed or driven out were enslaved.  In fact, the Roman Coliseum was built from Jewish slave labor after the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus is speaking to that counterfeit day, when some will say the Messiah has arrived and He's going to war. Jesus is warning that on that day, you will be on the rooftop, in the field, or in your room and you will hear of the Kingdom coming!  

No. People will be arrested or just dragged off and those who remain will be tempted to join in and clean the clocks of the Romans once and for all. Don't.  

Please don't.

The vultures will gather because they know death is coming.  They will soon feast on Romans, Zealots, bystanders, supporters and believers.  No winners will emerge from this fight. This will not be the Kingdom of God in any way, shape or form, despite what its leaders will want you to believe.  

God's kingdom is not brought about by violence, but by reclamation and restoration of fallen human hearts.

God's kingdom is not brought about with swords, sieges and slogans, but by humility.

God's kingdom is not brought about by killing Romans, but by praying for them, walking an extra mile with them and modelling Kingdom values, not retailory ones borrowed from the world. 

Jesus is not only warning His disciples, but He is also educating them so they can teach others and so avoid, in the future, being seduced by a counterfeit kingdom.  

The Great Revolt was catastrophic for the Jewish people, during the siege and after.  Couple that with Bar-Kokhba's rather messianically-cloaked rebellion in AD 135, the Jewish people, cast from Israel once and for all by the Romans, would not see their homeland restored to them until 1948. 

Jesus wanted to spare His people this future. 

By the Kingdom of God being in the hearts of those who loved and served Him, there would be no expedient overthrow or seismic change of rule in the future.  

But there would light coming to a world of darkness.

There would be a salt's flavor and preservation coming rescue the decay of hope.

There would be an encounced Kingdom that no one could destroy.  

In fact, the ultimate "Roman,"--the enemy of all of mankind--would not be able to prevail against it. 

Not then.

Not now. 


Sunday, June 30, 2024

REAL Real Estate

Remember all those people, sitting on the mountainside, listening to this new Rabbi expound on what He called "the Kingdom of God?"

When Jesus first started teaching that day, what might they have been thinking? 

But don't we already have a kingdom of  God, Rabbi Yeshua?  But, now that you have started teaching, it sounds so different than what I expected--It's our faith, yes, but different...less about following the rules and more about, how shall I say it? Showing our love for God not only in what we say and do, but in our attitude as well, right? 

Did a hush descend upon the people when Jesus finished?  

Or, when they thought He had finished? He just talked about those who seemingly follow Him, but because they are false in their devotion and are motivated by self, He will repudiate them and send them away, calling them "evildoers." 

End of sermon, right? 

It's a natural ending--Jesus teaches the true aspects of the Kingdom and then warns His audience not to be deceived by those who will come and twist His words for their own gains, even if they do amazing things in His name, such as prophesying and driving out demons.  They may appear to be serving Jesus, but they are not motivated by doing "the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21)

He could have been done at that point.  But Jesus says something remarkable to wrap up His teachings on that hillside:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matt. 7:24-27) [emphasis mine]

With all due respect, Rabbi, your words?  Not only your words, but actually putting them into practice--acting on them, doing what you say...Wow.  Isn't that a bit presumptuous?  I mean, you are a knowledgeable rabbi, to be sure, but you are implying that your words are equal to the Torah.  Your commentary and the Torah stand together. Wow. It is hard to ignore the power of your words, and the truth that echoes through them is like a trumpet blown in a valley...

In fact, we have the exact reaction the crowd had to Jesus' teaching: 

"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law." (Matt. 7:28-9)

So, it wasn't just what He said, but how He said it...forcefully, and with authority.  Not as the people He described just a bit earlier who seek to deceive others; somehow, some way, the people sensed He was true to His words, that He had no hidden agenda and was speaking as a prophet. 

He was speaking God's words, in effect.  Just like the prophets of old.  

Now, this Rabbi made no claims of being a prophet until He reached the last portion.  There, Jesus is saying that His words are a firm foundation upon which to build.  He brought the Torah to the center of His teaching and then commented on it, and now He is ending His teaching with, The Torah is still front and center, but my commentary is an essential component of it.  I have not added to it but I have given it back its life and you, if you walk in this, will have new life as well.  

Jesus began His teaching with "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and now He's saying, 

You know what makes someone's spirit move into poverty?  The winds, the rains, and the storms of life that pummel the person year after year after year.  It's when someone is standing and watching all that they hold dear wash away--the death of a child, not enough money, not enough food, an angry spouse, a chaotic household--all of this and more will drive a person into despair. The sound of the rain that never seems to end; the raging water that has no mercy--where the good and the bad, the pious and impious, the great and the small--all are thrown into the rapids and their lives are knocked about against life's rocks, giving them a spiritual vertigo and making life terribly unsatisfying. 

But wait!  I have an answer.  The rains, wind and raging water will still come.  Our world is fallen, and the prince of this world will seek to create chaos and pain wherever and whenever he can.  But, guess what?  Implement what I have taught: Engage your heart, mind and spirit in exercising love, forgiveness, right thinking and intimate time with our Father, and you will be able to withstand all that the world throws at you.  

You will stand by your house, sopping wet, but you will still be standing, and you will have hope in the sun returning.

Hope in the Son.  

Hope because of the Son. 

That was Jesus' parting thought. 

Jesus commented what the Law was in the letter of it ("You have heard it said...") and then moved the Law into the spirit of it ("But I tell you...") 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Wolves, Bad Fruit and Powerful Deception

Recently, we have looked at the verses where Jesus discusses the narrow gate, the wide gate and the road that leads out from it that will destroy those who travel it, and false prophets--those who would act like sheep but will attack the flock as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  

Everyone listening to Jesus that day would recognize the ferocity of wolves and its predations upon sheep.  They probably have seen, either first hand as shepherds, or through stories, the horrors of what wolves do to sheep. Then Jesus switches metaphors and uses fruit as a way to think about identifying if this person is a false prophet or not.  Because good trees bare good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit, looking at the lives of people is a good indicator of the nature of their hearts. 

In harmony with Jesus' earlier words about not judging others, due to our own moral failures, He doesn't say, "Well, look at the fruit and let 'em have it with words they need to hear due to their reprobate hearts!"  No. Fruit inspection is just that:  Looking and evaluating as opposed to judging.

What's the difference? Judging is taking a stance of distance from the person. Let's look at one parable where Jesus address this very problem: 

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Boom.  The Pharisee distanced himself from his fellow man, based on a self-imposed level of righteousness that the other man could never live up to!  

So, what is Jesus saying?  Judging is about disconnecting from each other, based on personal definitions of righteousness.  Notice that the Pharisee blathers on about what he does but the tax collector submits himself to God based on who he is, and he is all too aware he has fallen short of what God demands. The heart of this man echoes these words: "My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise." (Psalm 51:17). So, he prays, knowing God is there, despite his failings, and loves him deeply.

So, what is fruit inspection all about?  Discernment.  The people Jesus is warning us about those who style themselves as prophets, healers, teachers and whose motivation is to destroy you.  Maybe not literally, but whose deception and betrayal may cause you to walk away from God altogether, having been deeply wounded by someone claiming to be a teacher or healer, in God's service. 

Distancing yourself from people like this is wisdom, not condemnation. Jesus is not saying walk away and distance yourself from anyone who you suspect has moral failings; He is saying walk away from anyone who claims to be doing something for the Kingdom of God, but is actually doing it for the world's kingdom.  

Face the truth of what the fruit is showing you. 

Look at the next verses after the ones in Matthew 7:15-20, where identifying the fruit is a way to recognize what kind of person this is:  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matt. 7:21-23)


These are people whose moral failings have so permeated who they are that they are not only living lives where they have deceived themselves, but they want to deceive others.  In fact, they are very persuasive--they even have a power that "verifies" their claims:  They prophesy, drive out demons and perform miracles--all honorable kingdom work, right?  But where is their power coming from?  You guessed it--not from the Kingdom of God's King, but from the prince of this world.  So, instead of humbly confessing their brokenness and need of a Savior, (like the tax collector in the parable) their pride has poisoned them.  They don't distance themselves from humanity; they prey on it.  

Earlier Jesus refers to such people as "dogs" and "pigs": “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matt. 7: 6).  You are a pearl to God, and He wishes you to never be subjected to that kind of abuse, that kind of treatment.  Notice that Jesus is saying don't give the sacred to the unsacred.  Is that judging them?  No: because the fruit of their lives will reveal their canine or porcine nature and thus,  you are to avoid them.  

Let God do the judging in His own time. You, in the meantime, cut a wide berth from them as you pursue the life in the Kingdom of God. 

Let me illustrate this with a story.  I served in a small community church who was looking for a pastor, because the current one wanted to retire.  We had one man come and preach, but we were not impressed.  Then, one day, a man showed up and very quickly he became our pastor. We were so desperate to fill the position, we were not very discerning or asked the right questions and just let him jump in. (Red flag #1). 

The new pastor requested that the retiring pastor not be involved on the board, but he could attend the church. In other words, there would be no transition, no mentoring--just a quick removal from the position that the retiring pastor had held for years.  The new pastor even intimated that it might be best for this pastor not to attend the church for awhile, and come back in five months. (Red flag #2)

The old pastor was devastated but we soldiered on.

The new pastor had one good year in him and in that year he preached the Word with strength and conviction.  He lead a Bible study, but seemed to not like being asked questions--he just wanted to teach. (Red flag #3)  One of the couples who was hosting the study grew increasingly upset, but we soldiered on, despite some legitimate concern for his attitude.  

The new pastor stated he wanted to do a radio ministry, and at a board meeting, one of the elders asked him how much it would cost.  The anger in the pastor's eyes was very evident (at least to me) and he said that this is what God wanted him to do as well as the church. When I found out how much it would cost (and this was a little country church) the pastor still seemed undeterred and wanted to move forward. (Red flag #4) 

He didn't disclose to us when we hired him that he was a prosperity gospel adherent, and a fairly intense charismatic; for some, that wouldn't have been a problem, but this was a non-denominational church, so we were uncomfortable with his increasing insistence on this kind of theology. He accused us that our church was not growing because we didn't speak in tongues. (Red flag #5) There was already such a church in town, so the people who came weren't looking for that kind of church.  

But after one year, when all the sermons he had learned from other pastors had been preached, his preaching grew more erratic and not biblical. (Red flag #6)

He didn't visit the sick in our church and would dismiss their illnesses by saying, "I never get sick." (Red flag #7)

He didn't visit a family whose father attended out church and had passed away. (Red flag #8)

He wanted to just show up, preach and go home. (Red flag #9)

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  The bad fruit was there, but because he was doing some good in our church with several people there, we ignored it, figuring we might be misinterpreting what we were seeing. 

By the time we found out that he had lied about a great many things, sold our sound equipment and pocketed the money and "borrowed" money from a struggling single mom, his fruit was painfully evident.  But the church closed its doors and he left. Sadly, we saw the wolf in sheep's clothing way too late. 

His good works were now tainted with all of his lies and manipulations.  Was an evil man?  No.  We learned a lot about the Word, but his fruit revealed a man who never should have been in leadership.

That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at:  We can assist a fallen brother, but do so in a manner that does not involve judging him.  But we must not endanger ourselves either. But a broken brother (as this man was) who is prideful, (as this man was) not humble and who used the church for his own ends (as he did) should have never been a leader of any kind.  He had a lot of personal work to do, and yet, in our eagerness to have a pastor, we ignored the red flags and allowed him to guide us.

He hurt a lot of people along the way.  

He had been severely abused by his father, and had served in Viet Nam.  He was very intelligent, but he was also very manipulative and knew how to deceive people.   

He claimed that God had taken all the bad away and he was fine (Red flag #10). 

We are all on a journey of healing and being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, but that takes time. If someone is emotionally broken, the restoration process is not accomplished by one prayer in one moment. Naming and claiming a healing is not healing.  Healing is a process for most of us; God does deliver some people very quickly, to be sure, but they still have work to do, as we all do. I've seen that most people need time, love, care and accountability to others in order to heal.  

The key here is Jesus' words, "I never knew you. Away form Me, you evildoers!" (v. 23)  Do we truly know and serve Jesus with a humble heart or do we use His name for our own ends?  Do we allow accountability in our lives from trusted believers, or do we operated as a lone wolf, accountable only to ourselves and our claims of having a direct line to God?  

This pastor once told me that God told him what to do and he then told the church what to do. That is not biblical model.  We are a community of believers, loving, praying and confronting (if need be) our brother or sister in a spirt of  restoration.  

I am claiming this brother did not know Jesus?  No.  That would be judging him, for only God can truly know and see into our hearts. 

But, in light of what Jesus teaches here, the Kingdom of God must be lead by humble men and women, who want only the best for the body of Christ and are discerning because they are led by the Spirit. 

Those who follow them in the Kingdom of God must also be discerning because they are led by the Spirit.   

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Fruit Inspectors

Interesting to note, in the previous verses, Jesus uses active verbs:  ask, seek, knock.  Why be so active in this Kingdom of God?  Because as Jesus explains, you have a heavenly Father who longs to give you "good gifts," and because you should do to others what you would have them do to you, those gifts are not selfish or designed for you only.  If you are blessed with abundance--money, compassion, time, wisdom, to name a few--then share as your Father shared with you.

Makes sense, right?  Because maybe next time, you would like someone to share their gift with you.  

But then Jesus makes an interesting observation about all of this.  He talks about it in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

Hmmm.  Doesn't this contradict the rather expansive idea of the Kingdom of God? That the poor, the broken-hearted, those who are hungry and thirsty, all have a place at the table, and yet here it seems Jesus is narrowing the access.

No.  He is narrowing where you get your information.

Consider the next passages with that in mind: 

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:15-20)

The "narrow gate" is outlined by Jesus in His sermon.  His words, His teaching are "narrow" compared to all the other teachings that will vie for the audience's attention once they leave the hillside after Jesus' sermon is over. The Kingdom of God, while Jesus is speaking, feels to near, so possible, so beautiful.  But once off that hill, back into the religion of the religious leaders, and suddenly, all that possibility recedes and is replaced with burdens, to-do's and a rather joyless relationship with God the Father. 

The gate that religion proposes is wide open and with a push of a large gate, you 're in and on the road.  But then the restrictions start coming and the road grows longer and longer.  The do's and don'ts take over and that width seems suffocating.

It just seemed so wide and free at the beginning and now?  You are on a road destined for destruction. Width and easy gates are not invitations to intimacy with God:  they are shackles described as "freedom."

But where does the invitation to go wide and go home comes from?  Jesus moves into the next part of the teaching:  "false prophets" dressed as "wolves in sheep's clothing."  

False prophets will tell you all about the freedom that awaits you--how their revelation is from God and here what's you need to do in order to gain heaven.

Wait a minute.  Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom of God, and if He is who He says He is, then there is no other way.  The road and gate are Him, and once you enter by His gate and walk down His road, there is no other way.  Yes, compared to all the other "ways" out there vying for your attention, His way and His road do seem rather narrow, yet if He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, then it is narrow:  the focus is on Jesus and on Him alone. 

Jesus is warning His audience that amongst the sheep are individuals who will exploit your desire for a quick and easy answer, with little or no effort on you part.  Just ask the person and BOOM! here's what to do.  Easy breezy.

But all along, Jesus is talking about intimacy with a loving God, so that when you go into your secret place to listen for and to Him, you will know He cares deeply for you.

But we like to short-circuit that time, that effort, and land on answers with little work. 

I once asked a Jehovah's Witness why she went from being a Baptist to joining this church and she said, "They have all the answers."  She could look in their little books and find what she was looking for, in an easy to read format that seemed so right.

But the road to destruction always seems so right until you are far along it, and then realize you are now trapped.

Jesus wanted His audience and us to know how to discern false prophets. He described them as "ferocious wolves."  Not a flattering description, but Jesus did not play nice when truth was at stake, and when someone's life (spiritually and otherwise) was at risk.  

So, how do we know?  Look at their lives--their "fruit."  Jesus says that good fruit comes from good trees, and bad fruit from bad trees. But, how do you know the good from the bad?

Not by observing each other, (we are all fallen) but by observing Jesus and His way of teaching and living out His message.  Every thing He taught, He did. He never flinched when following His own words, because His words came from a heart that sincerely loved God and people.  He never asked His followers to do anything that He wouldn't do or hadn't already done.

A dear lady in my church decided to move to another state and go to a university run by a man who preaches prosperity gospel.  I know of this man's ministry having read one of his books, because a pastor I served under was a dedicated admirer.  So much so that he donated to his university so that he could be blessed and have his own.

I didn't think much of it until I received a letter from her, trying to raise money for a very expensive missionary trip, that was part of the program in this university.  The cost seemed exorbitant, after I looked at airline tickets, cost of living, etc.  I then went online and found the university's tax returns and the leaders' ones as well--all are public record.

Not only was his university was millions of dollars in debt, so was he. 

I was stuck by the incongruity.  Here is a man who preaches God wants us to be prosperous and blessed in all of our endeavors, yet he is in tremendous debt.  Why isn't his prosperity message playing out in his own life?  In his university?

I sent this woman all of what I found with a letter sharing my dismay about how his teaching didn't match his message, and how this huge amount of money for this trip might be used to offset the dire finances of his university. 


I was saddened.  I was once lured away from focusing on Jesus' teachings to that of a pastor's, so I get it. I explained to her I know what that's like: going to someone with all the answers, lured by finding myself part of something exciting and miraculous.

But false prophets know what people want, and sadly, it's easy to get lured into their territory. 

I was spiritually very wounded when I finally ventured back into Jesus's territory and I was seeking to spare her the pain. 

I saw her many months later at our church, when she was visiting, and she looked away.  I am grieved I hurt her, but I couldn't just stand by and say nothing.

We are all at risk for substituting Jesus for a person standing in front of us with "all the answers."

But the gate is narrow and so is the road.  Why?  So you and Jesus can walk through it and start down the road with no one slipping by or trying to push you out of the way. 

The gate and the road are wide enough for just two. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Ask, Seek, Knock: The Verbs of the Kingdom of God

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount has a certain flow to it.  The previous section talked about judging others, failing to see what is wrong in our own lives and seeking to tell others what is wrong in theirs.  Jesus warns us to not expect the profane to appreciate or value the sacred--they will destroy what you brought to them and then turn on you.

Then Jesus moves into this portion in Matthew 7:7-12: 

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!  So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."

Jesus is giving us the Constitution of the Kingdom of God in the Sermon on the Mount.  How do we live in this new Kingdom, whose values seems so diametrically opposed to how we think and how we act? 

Think of our Constitution. Picture yourself living in the colonies in 1776.  It's one thing to say that the monarchy is not a government that honors the God-given rights that are ours; what the king gives, the king can take away.  We, listening to the Fathers debate on the failures of Parliament and the king, might have given a hearty, "Hear! Hear!"  But we would have that niggling feeling that if we don't have a king, then what do we do? 

After the Declaration of Independence was sent to Britain and we fought in the war that resulted, we faced the daunting business of running this new Republic.   We all remember the Articles of Confederation didn't quite make for a smooth-running government and its ability to handle the nascent nation's issues; hence, our Fathers wrote the Constitution and it as guided us ever since.  It explores what the government can and cannot do, and what we as citizens can do when our rights are threatened. 

The Sermon on the Mount is, in effect, the Constitution of the Kingdom of God.  The people, sitting on the hillside that day when Jesus began to speak, probably were wondering if Jesus was just another rabbi with some nice ideas that they would enjoy and then would go home to face the same life, the same problems. 

Jesus was advocating a new way of living:  in a Kingdom that looked nothing like the world, with none of its values and promises.  Whatever the world said was OK, the Kingdom said the opposite. Whatever the Kingdom said was the way to live, the world would scorn and revile those who thought this way.  

In other words, the Kingdom of God was God invading the world with a new way of living, offering it  to the prisoners who were under the sway of evil and to put on notice to the evildoers that their days were numbered. 

That's why the Kingdom is so simple:  It repudiated what the religious leaders in Jesus' day had allowed for minimal piety in themselves but demanded utter compliance to those who were already burdened by life's demands, and offered a new and living way because it was based on the new and living Way--Jesus Himself. 

So, "How do we live in this Kingdom You are advocating, Rabbi Jesus?"  is an excellent question.

The answer is simple. 




Be active in the pursuit of God, not just doing rote rituals that you tick off your "to do" list and you move on. 

Good fathers give to their children what is essential for the children to thrive; why wouldn't God?  But here's the key element: Ponder how Jesus categorized the relationship between God and us: Parent and child--the most loving and endearing of relationships. This relationship is deeply woven into the fabric of creation: from human babies and their parents, to animals caring for their young, that kind of love is beautiful, sustaining and inspiring.

Love is the foundation of the Kingdom.  

The Kingdom of God could not be built on anything else.  

In asking, seeking and knocking, ask yourself this:  Is what I am going to do for someone the same thing I would like to have done to me?

If I would like someone to open a door for me when my arms are loaded sown with groceries, wouldn't someone else want the same?

I would not like to be yelled at for having failed at something, why would I turn around and yell at someone for their failure? 

When I am praying, am I looking out for the best in my request, or am I being selfish and not thinking about what the Father believes is the best for me? 
The Kingdom of God is sustained on love: for ourselves and for our neighbors. If God wants the best for us, then He wants the best for my neighbors, too.  They are His children, too.  

Jesus took the Law and the Prophets and remolded them into the Law of Love. 

The Kingdom of God is this love in action, when His children operate by love alone.

The Kingdom of God isn't easy, but if we ask, seek, and knock, God will answer our pleas for guidance and wisdom.

He will also supply the love we lack, by giving us His Holy Spirit.  His Spirit is the only way we can live out the principles that Jesus has laid out for us. 

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Don't Judge Me!

Here we go with our next section in evaluating the Kingdom of God, in Matthew 7:1-6:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."

"Do not judge!"  Yes, this is a verse I have heard non-Christians quote, more or less.  It's as if you cannot say anything negative about well, anything, especially anything that is popularly accepted.  

I had a fellow instructor at a community college where I taught who used to say, "Suspend judgment!" as if that was the highest moral stance you could exhibit.  

But is that what Jesus is saying, that we should never examine closely and carefully a situation and make an assessment about it? An evaluation of it?  A determination of its moral aspects to deem it right or wrong?

Well, if we are not to judge, then Jesus Himself did not live out His own teaching.  In chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus excoriates the Pharisees with His "seven" woes: about how they make others carry heavy loads and will not help them; how their religious practices are for show; they make people unfit for heaven as they themselves are; they teach people how to be as unrighteous as they are; that using God and His Temple to enhance an oath is wrong; having a slavish devotion to the minutiae of the Law while overlooking what God really requires--"justice, mercy and faithfulness"--is unacceptable; that having a morally respectable persona while hiding a corrupt heart is wrong and that acting as if they would have supported the prophets, when in fact they plot to kill the ones God sends, is reprehensible. 

Jesus levied a lot of judgement on that group.  

What's the common denominator here?  Hypocrisy.  These leaders wanted others to live a moral life, and condemn those who, in their estimation, did not do so.  Yet they themselves fail to uphold God's moral code. 

Most Christians are very familiar with Romans 1 and use it to exclude and condemn homosexual behavior. But Paul isn't finished yet; he sees that behavior as part of a larger constellation of behaviors which are the result of not retaining the "knowledge of God': 

"Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.  Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." (Rom. 1:28-32)

Then Paul says: "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:1-4)

Wow. Just like the Pharisees who taught God's laws but didn't live them, we too know God's expectations for moral behavior and yet we do "the same things." Judgement was not what led us to repent; it was God's love. So, how do we, who know what God expects, expect to lead someone to Him by judging them?  

Judgement never converted anyone. 

The love of Jesus does. 

Once someone joins us in the family of God, we sometimes behave towards them as if God is still judging them for who they are, and therefore so can we--wrong.  How quickly we forget that they are forgiven, not perfect. 

Just like us.   

Hypocrisy undermines this judgement stance because everyone, and I repeat everyone, falls short of what they know they should do, but do not, or act like they do when they don't.  My sin may not be as apparent as the gay couple who walks into my church, or the man who is clearly hungover on a Sunday morning, or the woman who comes wearing clothes that are sexually provocative, but my sin is still there. I may sit in the pew looking like Mrs. Respectable, but I have been merciless to those who need mercy and faithless to God and His desire to renew a right spirit within me. 

Sin doesn't have to offend someone to be sin. Sin is sin.

So, does that mean I can never judge anyone? 

Well, if you are going to engage in any kind of moral eye surgery according to Jesus, you must first examine your heart and see what sin is there.  Perhaps when you realize the sin you have in your life, your brother's plank becomes only a speck.  Your clarity of vison, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, gives you an accurate assessment. Now, you and your brother can commiserate about how blinding sin can be.  Both of you can discuss how to help each other to not allow sin to blind you in the future.

No judgement.  Just commiseration, prayer and a realization that we all struggle in different way but we still all struggle. 

Jesus does ask us to be discerning, not judging.  You don't get to stand on a corner and call out the pigs and the dogs.  You need to understand that pigs and dogs are not going to embrace you and thank you for pointing out their rather unsettling qualities and lifestyle. Just expecting your faith to be celebrated and adored by those who do not know Jesus is not realistic--they do not have (yet) the heart of Christ. They trample and tear what you have because they do not have the Spirit of God in them.

You discern their spiritual condition and then ask the Holy Spirit for the right time, words and attitude.  

Whatever theses people are, you cannot judge them--that is not your prerogative.  It is God's.  Your role, as a member of the Kingdom of God, is to wait on the Holy Spirit to guide you in either engage with the person, or to guide you away.  

Not every need is for you to address. We are to be good and faithful servants by listening and doing only what He asks, and in an attitude that reflects the Master. 

A final word.  Recently, I saw a young woman with a sign and a baby stroller near the entrance to a Walmart parking lot.  I was leaving and I noticed she was using the sign to cover her face.  I wanted to keep going, but God asked me to turn around and go and talk with her.  I try to be discerning every time I see someone looking for a handout; many a time, I drive on by.

But not that day. 

I had a lot of groceries and ask God to not allow everything to defrost. I parked and walked over to her.  It was a warm day and her baby was in the stroller, with a bottle tilted to her mouth, propped on a pillow.  The baby was far too young to navigate the bottle that way. The young woman wanted money.  I told her we have a women's shelter in town and they would provide a safe place for her and her baby.  She said she needed money to get back to Oklahoma City.  Her husband was in Portland, Oregon and didn't get the job he was promised.

I again brought up the shelter and how money wasn't going to solve the problem; she needed to be in a safe place with her baby. She said churches don't do anything for her--they only give her food. (!) 

I would have driven her and her baby to the shelter in a heartbeat, if she had asked me. I realized that her plea was rehearsed, to keep on insisting for money for gas, despite not appearing to have anywhere to live. 

The longer we talked, the more uncomfortable I got.  I just pictured some abusive boyfriend/husband having schooled her in how to insist that money was the solution to her problem and would demand her takings at the end of the day.  She had a thick accent and it was hard to understand everything she said, but I sense her agitation when she realized I wasn't just going to give her money. 

I wished her well and walked off.   

I prayed for her on the way home and fought the disgust I felt. (I think disgust is the precursor to judgment, because then you feel justified to say unkind things.)

The Kingdom of God is about motivation--are we true to the Spirit's guidance or are we hiding something and acting super-spiritual to hide it?  Are we really loving others in Jesus' name or are we acting like we love them but we want to change them into what we think is right, instead of trusting the Holy Spirit to do the transforming? 

The Kingdom of God is not an easy place to reside in, but it's where we find Jesus and the power He gives us in order to live there and to be its emissaries.  

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Seek Ye First...

In the previous passage, Jesus declares that serving both God and money is impossible, because you cannot love both. You cannot be devoted to both. Why? At some point, both occupants of your heart will demand what the other one will not be compatible with or agree to, and you will plunge into a kind of war with your heart and your conscience. 

Paul explicates this in no uncertain terms: "Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:5-8)

But those of us in Christ have a different perspective, a different motivation: "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:14-16)

So we are either children of God, or children of the world. Our familial ties are expressed in how we act and what we believe. The world, represented by money, has its own values and will not tolerate sharing the stage with the Kingdom's values.

Think: How often have you wanted to do the right thing financially, but had divided loyalties between your love for God and the pressure and pleasure that debt and spending can bring?

  • You want to put even more debt on your credit card for a purchase but your church is conducting a fundraiser for an orphanage in Mexico and you are torn as to what to do.  You really want to make that purchase, but you know that outreach is important. 
  • You want to spend time with your kids but your wife is worried about money, so you go into work that day.
The list goes on and on. 

Jesus knows that we are ultimately at war with the things of God--hence, His teaching on the Kingdom of God. He wants us to know what life in the Kingdom looks like and how we should operate.

The values the Kingdom proffers are not the world's, pure and simple. The world is about self and a born-again heart is about God. 

Yes, we fail to uphold and live out those values quite often, but we know that.  The world goes about its business as if it's all about itself, and if people don't like it, too bad.  The world sees itself as progressive, hip and so aware of what's really important. 

But the world is deceived.

Jesus brought light and is Light to a world shrouded in darkness.  All too often the world thinks that darkness is the only quality life can have. 

So Jesus' teaching on this mountain is to reassert the values, the ways and the attitude of those who call on God.  A lot was lost under the cloak of "religion" and Jesus wanted to show His people that God was still standing by them and wanted far and away more for them that they could ever imagine. Isaiah 64:4 says, 

    Since ancient times no one has heard, 
        no ear has perceived,
        no eye has seen any God besides you,
        who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

So, Jesus moves from how money can turn into a very demanding master to, what I am sure the crowd is thinking, what seems like an impossible place to stand. 

OK, Rabbi Jesus.  You should be able to live on the very words of God.  We know His words are life, and we do not live by bread alone, but you must earn the money to buy the flour to bake the bread. That takes work.  Whatever money we do get goes to the Romans anyway.  So, really, even though we work hard, you wouldn't know it. The poor are everywhere and we see them, pity them, but we do not want to be them.  Yet, when we walk away from the tax collector's booth, we realize all too well, we are them. 

Now Jesus launches into quite a response to the question, "If we don't seek money, how will we live?  How will we eat?" in Matthew 6:25-34: 

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"

You mean, Rabbi, even though we see how God takes care of His creation, we forget far too easily that  we are part of it?  A very important part?  Do You mean to say that we are just as important to Him as our children are to us?  What kind of father would not provide for his children?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

Wait a minute!  Are you saying, Rabbi, that we are  acting no differently from those who do not believe when we are frantic about how we are to get along in this world?  It's true, though.  Those pagans have to do all sorts of rituals to get their gods' attention and I get the impression they are afraid that if they don't do exactly what their priests tell them to do, or they don't do the ritual in just the right way, the gods will punish them. They live in fear of their gods. But we don't!  We are God's children!  Oh, I get it. We need to not just say we are His, we need to act like His. 

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:25-34)

Oh.  Wow. You have been saying all along, Rabbi, that this Kingdom of God (not the one we see around us with all of our buildings and religious practices) is about relationships.  If we make our relationship with the Father our deepest goal, our deepest pursuit, then He will bless us, sustain us and show us that He is all too aware of our needs. 

Wow.  This Kingdom of God teaching feels like a much lighter load than the one I am used to carrying. 


Saturday, May 18, 2024

You Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

The Kingdom of God is an odd place.  Why wouldn't you pursue wealth, treasures and money? 

Good question.  

If this world is it and nothing lies beneath nor beyond, then go for it.  Right?

But if there is something else, then we need to pause. Jesus is asking His listeners to pause and think about another way to pursue what life has to offer--but in this life, but in the life of the Kingdom of God. 


“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, [generous*] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy [stingy*], your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matthew 6:19-24)

Treasures...the very word conjures up riches, luxury and a sense of adventure.  The word denotes a kind of abundance, almost a kind of hoarding of valuable things, all stashed to be admired.  At least to us.  

I was curious what the Greek word for "treasures" was. The word is used biblically to describe, "the place in which good and precious things are collected and laid up; a casket, coffer, or other receptacle, in which valuables are kept; a treasury; storehouse, repository, magazine; the things laid up in a treasury, collected treasures." [1] 

Hmmm.  Not too far off from our sense of the word. The word "wealth" signifies something that can be gotten quickly or over time. But "treasures" speak of time--amassing valuable items until the room is overflowing. Not only does the word in Greek describes what is stored--the items themselves--but also the place where such valuables are stored. 

So, Jesus is wanting us to consider both the valuable item itself and where it's put. 

So, if we pursue and amass treasures that are earthly, we have a problem.  Creatures such as moths and vermin get into those things (clothing, textiles, food, anything that can be eaten by little mouths) and they will destroy them.  I remember my mother using moth balls to protect her woolen sweaters.  I have had mice get into a quilted weekend bag and chew through the fabric, taking the bits for nesting material.  My husband's Corvette seat had most of its stuffing removed from underneath it to also provide bedding for some wee mice.  

In a world where houses are standing on the ground, wee creatures getting into things is not unusual. Jesus' audience all have lots of stories of taking valuable items out of storage, only to find them  shredded and full of mouse poop.  Horrified, the person realizes the items is past redemption.  (It is no wonder that the Egyptians made the cat into a goddess--cats saved their granaries from mice and their destructive ways.)

But now Jesus moves from the items themselves to the place where those items are kept. Thieves will break in and take what they can from any place a person stashes valuables. I am sure after awhile thieves know exactly where to look for them in a home, because most people place their items in the same places, thinking they are secure.   

In other words, those things you value here on earth, so will other people.  

People will admire you. People will envy you.  People who will sneer at you.  People will plan evil against you.  What drives you to acquire an abundance equally drives others.  You want more, so do  they. You got more. So do they. You may have even gotten your valuables in a shady way; why wouldn't they do so as well?

Bottom line:  The world gives and the world takes away.  If you live by the world's rules, you will never be at peace because someone, somewhere, wants what you have and will do anything to get it. 

Why do wealthy people live in virtually fortified compounds, with body guards, high walls or in gated or exclusive (we only trust people like us) communities?  Protecting all that wealth.  If wealth made people happy, then Hollywood would be a bastion of joy.  


Now comes the punch line, if you will. Your heart stands by your treasure, like a guard dog.  Your heart worries about your treasures.  Your heart obsesses over them and wonders if they are safe, and if you can obtain any more. 

If you want to know the heart of a person, see where their heart hangs out. See what the person's focus in on.  The next verses speak to that:  If a person is focused on being generous, looking for ways to benefit others with their treasures, then that person walks in the light.  Why?  Because everywhere they look it's not for What can I get, but What can I give? 

This is the Kingdom way: Using the bounty God gives you to benefit others.  God isn't against the treasures--He's against the focus, the energy and the dissatisfaction that wealth brings, because it will never be enough.  Why?  Because we are wired to acquire His gifts: wisdom, service and communing with Him and others. Wealth is a false better, a counterfeit to what God really wants us to pursue:  Himself. 

But if we are stingy, we are full of darkness, because we don't see or want to see others in their need.  We pull away, either blaming them for their woe, or how we can't do enough anyway, or how I enjoy what I have, so I am not giving it away.

Now Jesus boils down His argument into its fundamental thesis:  What you love is your master--whether you want to accept it or not. Your wealth, your prestige, your status, whatever you love, you will serve.  

Dual loyalty is an illusion, for God and money occupy polar opposites.  

Money gratifies you right now. Strokes your ego.  Keeps you moving to obtain more. Makes you blind to others because you just focused on acquisition or protecting what you have. Makes you proud, desirous of others' approving nods. 

God wants you to find life in Him now and in the long haul  Your self needs to die.  You move to serve the Kingdom. Makes you see others as children of God and you look for ways to alleviate their suffering. God wants you humble, desirous of only His approval as a faithful servant.

Jesus was basically telling listeners that day, (to quote Bob Dylan) "You're gonna have to serve somebody.  It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody." 

The Kingdom of God is odd, isn't it? 

*Text notes for NIV on Bible Gateway.

[1] Strong's Concordance 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Piety Not Performance

I have been a worship leader for many years.  Music is one of those areas of the church where performance can start to out distance piety.

The reasons people join worship teams and perhaps go on to be a leader, or start out as one, are varied.  Some love to worship and being on a team means joining with other brothers and sisters and standing in the presence of God together.  Others want to learn to grow in their musicianship and playing with others is an excellent way to do that. Others want to expand their musical horizons by learning new songs and to be part of something creative and growing. 

But there is another side to this, and I have seen both.  Some people are frustrated musicians and want to be on stage (and admired) so they think a worship team is a substitute for that.  Others want to serve, but the need for validation takes over and they lose their love for worship. The focus shifts from God to themselves. Still others are intimidated because they keep comparing themselves to others.  They stop growing in their musical journey, because they think they will never be good enough. 

But God is in the business of helping us see our misguided priorities and is more than willing to help us realign them. 

God knows our hearts.  We can't see into the hearts of others, and some very pious people really are not.  There are others who struggle to do what God wants them to do, and feel they fail Him far too often.  

We assume that when people go up stage, their hearts are in the right place and they are sincere in what they are doing. That is a responsible assumption; otherwise, we may sit there, scornfully scanning other people, and trying to detect what they are really all about. 

Or we get so swept away in our admiration for them, we lose our objectivity.  We know they are pious (!) and if anyone asserts otherwise, we become defensive.  We think they are righteous people and everyone needs to agree with us.  

But admiration and fixation on another human being can become dangerous.  We look to them to model God for us; to be Jesus for us and to walk the walk for us.  We become (literally and figuratively) the audience and we lose motivation to be active in our faith.  

It's just easier to let the pastor open up the Word of God, and read it, so we don't have to.

It's just easier to let the worship leader and team sing and worship once a week, so we don't have to sing and praise God on our own.

It's just easier to let church be our walk, and we wait until next week for another chance to sing and learn.  

But Jesus is looking into acts of piety (giving to the needy and prayer) and now fasting, and He is not just concerned with the ones who are active in carrying on with those who watch. 

He says, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matt. 6:16-18)

OK.  First, let's listen in on the Guy Faking the Grade: 

Oh, woe is me.  I am soooo hungry.  But I must endure.  I must show others I am a good person, who obeys the Law and does all that is required of me.  But how will others know I am fasting?  I know!  I walk around downcast, depressed, even put a bit of ash under my eyes to look exhausted and wan.  People will see me coming and admire me for my piety.  I will be on stage, as it were, modelling how to be righteous, and those who look upon me will sigh and think, "Wow.  I wish I were as pious as that guy!  He is such a spiritual giant."  I am looking forward to being admired.  Sometimes I don't even know what God thinks of me.  I feel I let Him down all the time.  But if others think well of me, (even if I am faking it) what harm can it do?  I will inspire others!

OK, Let's listen in on the Guy Who Thinks He Ain't Making the Grade:

Oh, woe is me.  I am soooo not like that guy!  He's fasting, long and hard (just look at his appearance!) and he is modelling what I'd like to be, but will never make it: a righteous person.  I see guys like him, whose hearts are so pure and wonder, what is wrong with me?  I fast and it lasts only about an hour.  I then go find something to eat, and feel such shame.  I can't even last an hour.  But this guy!  It looks like he's been fasting for days!  Well, maybe one day, but still!  It's way better than I can do.  How does he do it? Why can't I be like him?

Now, let's go back to the mountainside and watch these two as they listen to Jesus.

OK.  First, let's listen in on the Guy Faking the Grade: 

Uh-oh.  This Rabbi Jesus is trying to steal my thunder.  He's calling me an actor--someone who is acting out a role, one that does not reflect the real person.  But the mask I wear is good for others.  It's shows them how to be pious, even if I, under the mask, am not. What?  No?  The Rabbi is now saying that the admiration of others is the only reward I'll get.  Well, that's good, but where's God in all of this?  The admiration of others is a funny thing, that's for sure. One day, you're the top of the pops and the next day, down with the dogs. Oh, wait a minute.  The Rabbi is now saying that we are to look no different on those days we fast--same bright face, same combed hair.  Oh, now He's mentioning God!  We are not to seek to gain the admiration of others, but to earnestly seek time with our Father, alone and in sincerity about what we are doing. Hmmm.  That is more freeing, I must admit. I guess God will accept me, if I am honest with Him and with others.  Even if I am not the most pious person around, I need to be real with others, and share my struggles.  I guess if you try to be up on a pedestal, then no one can join you.  It's lonely at the top.

OK.  Let's listen to Guy Who Thinks He Ain't Making the Grade:

Wow. Are you saying, Rabbi Jesus, that if I sit with our Father, one on one, He will reward me?  But I feel so worthless.  Well, I guess a lot of that comes from comparing myself to other people, especially those I admire.  I can't compare myself to anyone if I am seated in my closet and talking to God.  I guess I wear a mask, too.  It's the mask of someone who acts happy, but deep inside, I feel worthless.  Yet, if I enter that closet, you, Rabbi Jesus, promise me God will be there with me.  I guess He'd rather have an honest sinner than a fake saint. 

You got it, gentlemen. 

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Prayer 101

Rabbi Jesus, I am so overwhelmed by Your teachings, and yet I find myself stirred in my heart.  I have heard so many amazing things from You, I cannot take it all in, but I am trying.

This Kingdom of God seems to be a kind of upside world from the one I know.  All these people, sitting here on this hillside, have come to hear You teach on what we have heard from the Law and the Prophets. We have heard that, and more.  You say that You are not abolishing the Law, but fulfilling it-- using Your words. We didn't know that the Law needed fulfilling and yet we did.  Our Law had become a series of just rules and regulations, yet it also provided us with a community--a community of people, sustained by traditions, waiting for the Messiah, and trying to get meaning out of every day life's routine. 

Then You come along and tell us there is more. More to life.  More to loving our heavenly Father. More to loving one another. 

Yes, it is true...we often do the minimum to get by--we feel poor in spirit, but we relished retaliating against others and reviling those who we consider our enemies, or at least those who anger us.   

We want to be peacemakers, but it's far too easy to lash back--to stay angry.  The, with our hardened heart, we go and make offerings, all the while harboring hatred--this is not an acceptable thing in Your kingdom.  

We tell ourselves that marital fidelity is enough.  Lust is what other people do.  Looking is what I do.  You say that infidelity begins in the mind and that sin isn't worth being cast into hell over; we must get rid of whatever causes us to sin.

You want us to stay married and honor our wives; just sending her away due to disappointment is not reason enough; how often have I disappointed my wife?  She should have sent me away a long time ago.

You tell us to say "yes" or "no" to whatever we are swearing to do--no fancy words and no using God's name as a kind of seal to the deal--God is to be honored, not used as insurance. 

Love my enemies. Whew. That is a tough one.  But if the Kingdom opens its door to others--our enemies--then we must love them as well as those who are easy to love.  Go the extra mile.  Turn our cheeks when they lash out. Show, by our love, how God loves. 

Then, whatever we do on behalf of this Kingdom, we do it for God and for Him alone, and not for the praise from others.  If we give or we pray, it's in front of the Father, in a quiet place and in adoration of who He is and what He has done for us. 

Now You are telling us how to pray.  Oh, Rabbi, we know how to do that--yet, I guess we don't. We babble on and on, assuming that the more we say, the more the Father will listen.  We would hate to have our wives and children to prattle on and on, and yet we think the heavenly Father is honored by this seemingly pious behavior.  

You are giving us a model, aren't You?  It zeroes in very quickly to the essentials.  I guess I spend a lot of time distracted, trying to get my bearings before the Lord, but You, Rabbi, have given us a way in: quickly, reverentially and adoringly.

Thank you for not just saying how we are not to pray; thank you for showing us.

"Our Father in heaven"--Yes, that is where He is and we, even if we think mightily of ourselves, we dwell here. We are divine dirt. We are molded clay.  It was only God's breath that brought us to life.   

"Hallowed be Your name"--Yes, His name is above all others. We recite the Shema, declaring every day, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." His name is above all, mighty and merciful, ruling over His creation with truth and justice.

"Your kingdom come"--Yes, may it be so.  We so look to the day when there will be no more tears, sorrow or suffering. In fact, I wonder if this Kingdom of God You are teaching us about is that day already beginning...

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"--Yes, I want to see God's will be done, for it is righteous and has our best interests at heart. The earth needs Your touch, God.  Is Rabbi Jesus doing this?

"Give us this day our daily bread"--Yes.  Just as the children of Israel gathered manna in the desert each day and double for the Sabbath, we must humbly ask for Your provision and trust You not only hear us, but You will act on it. God wants us to ask, not because He doesn't know, (or, perish the thought!) He doesn't care, but because He wants to commune with us.  Isn't that the meaning of prayer, after all?

"Forgive us our debts"--Yes!  Please do!  They are many and we need forgiveness every day!

"As we also have forgiven our debtors"--Uh-oh...You mean I have to forgive to be forgiven?  Whoa.  That's that "love your enemy" thing again, isn't it?  I know God desires to forgive us, but a lot of the time our sin is in response to someone else. So, it's a kind of yoke, isn't it?  One part of the yoke is over the shoulders of the transgressor, and one part is over the shoulders of the transgressee.  Hmmm.  But together, we can face the challenge and make something beautiful come out of it. Hmmm. 

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one"--Yes!  I don't want to be tested, like our brother Job, but if that happens, I trust You will deliver me, and then I have some forgiving to do,  right, Rabbi?  I must forgive myself, and anyone who is involved. 

You are now repeating the point that our forgiveness comes from our Father based on our forgiveness of others. I know when rabbis repeat something, it's really important. 

I guess this while kingdom thing is not just another way to do life--it's a world turned upside down, with love and forgiveness being the air we breathe, and our love for God is as joyful as a child running down a hill.  Maybe the Kingdom of God is for the children of God--who laugh, smile, forgive and adore.

I like this, Rabbi.  But, it's a challenge.  I guess it not just another man-made system of piety, but a parting of the Red Sea, where the former slaves walk on dry ground, with heads held high and hearts filled with joy.

Wow. I am glad I am sitting on this hillside today. 

I am glad You are here on this hillside as well. 

Friday, April 26, 2024

Prayer or Performance? Matthew 6:5-8

Prayer is a tricky subject. When people are called to pray in public, suddenly prayer takes on a whole new dimension.  If we are praying in private, and no one is listening but our heavenly Father, we feel safe.  God doesn't care if you are eloquent or halting in speech; He just wants to hear from you.

In the same way, when we are called to sing in public, suddenly music takes on a whole new dimension.  If we are singing in private, and no one is listening but our heavenly Father, we feel safe to belt it out, freely and unencumbered. It matters not at all if we hit the right notes.  If we singing from our heart, regardless of how it sounds, the Father is delighted.

God is not about performance.  When our acts of devotion become something other than a free expression of our love for Him, He is not delighted.  In the Kingdom of God, prayer is a lovely dialogue between Father and son, Father and daughter.  It is not for public consumption, even if it's done in public. Jesus is very clear about how it should be done and the motivation behind it:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." (Matt. 6:5-8)

OK, Rabbi Jesus.  I am beginning to think You are against us doing anything in public on behalf of our faith.  Well, I guess I am being hasty.  You just don't want us making a big deal when we give to the poor.  I supposed if I am handing some coins to a beggar and I make a big noise so everyone will look at me, they are also looking at the beggar, which surely would be embarrassing to him.  No one, who is down and out, wants people staring at them and us making a big deal will do just that.  I guess the Father sees everything, and we don't need approval of our piety from anyone but Him, so it makes sense that we don't do everything as if we are on stage. 

Yeah, those big and loud prayers gushing from someone is annoying.  Their flowery words, their "look at me, I am so pious!" is nauseating.  I get it why you call them "hypocrites"--that's the word the Greeks use for their actors. They're people who put on masks and pretend to be an old woman, or a servant or a rich man, and yet underneath they just regular folks, willing to say and do whatever it takes to have the audience like them. No depth, just a mask.  No substance, just lines uttered.  No sincerity: just memorized words and emotions to entertain. 

Yes, I see how that would be offensive to our Father. 

Jesus wanted those who enter the Kingdom of God to be sincere sons and daughters of God, not because of lineage and history, but because of love. Lineage and history are important for sure, but they are no replacement for words spoken from a heart that wants to love mercy and justice and walk humbly with God, as the prophet Micah entreated the people of Israel long ago to do.

More piety, more reward?  What a terrible formula to operate under as a son or daughter of God.  Jesus is adamant that any reward such people are seeking, for having made their relationship with God so public and formulaic, will be only what they receive from others. How shallow is that?  People only admire you for so long, then they will conspire to bring you down.  

Admired one day, despised the next.

Jesus offers the solution for public acclamation:  Go right to your closet, shut the door and pray to God.  Unhindered. Unrehearsed.  Unadmired.  That will bring a smile to God's face, as He watches you prayerfully talking to Him, and only Him.  The reward will come to you and the answer will be given to you, not because you are all that and a bag of chips, but because you prayed with love in your heart.

But be careful.  Even sincere people can fall into a trap of asking over and over, heaping words upon words and a sense that God isn't listening, because nothing is happening. Wrong.  Jesus is adamant that God hears you and already knows your need. He wants to commune with you and hear your heart. Going on and on, repetitiously, isn't the kind of prayer God delights in--you and I do not want to be talked to over and over, with the same idea with the same words being spoken.  God is no different.

But why does then God want us to pray if He already knows what we need.  I know my children need dinner, but when they ask me, "Hey, Mom!  When's dinner?" we make a connection.  We talk, we share and we may even veer off the subject of dinner and talk about other things.

Our Father is no different.  He wants to make a connection with us, share with us, and talk about many things. 

His lack of action is not a lack of love--many things must go into place for a prayer to be answered.

Let me finish with an analogy, which I think will get the point across.  

I have two English springer spaniels, and meal time is a big deal for them.  We will ask, "Do you want dinner?" and they get so excited, they can hardly contain themselves. I scoop a cup of dog food into their respective bowls, and they chow down without hesitation.

I answered their "prayer" (a sincere desire) about having dinner.  

But do they have any idea what it took to get that scoop of dog food? I had to go to the store and buy a bag, and load it into my car and bring it home.

I have spent many years working, so I could buy a car.  I had to spent many years working to buy a house.  I have to spend my money wisely so I have enough money to pay the house and car payments and then enough to afford the dog food.

It's not just any dog food.  It's a specific brand, recommended to me by their breeders.  I can't give them just any old amount; too much and they get porky, too little and they get too thin. 

I have gone to many stores searching out this brand and the right size of the kibble bits. I only buy a certain size bag, because the really big bags are too heavy for me to lift. 

But if you were to ask my dogs, they would say, "We are praying Mommy feeds us.  She only answers us twice a day, and only gives us a small (in our opinion) amount. Sometimes, she is gone and comes home late (in our opinion) and we eat later than usual.  We bark and bark to remind her, but she tells us to settle down. We try. We just wish Mommy would feed us way more often, and give us way more food.  We don't always understand her, but we know she loves us."

God must do many things to bring about an answer to prayer.  His seemingly tardiness is putting everything in place (most of which we do not see nor understand) and giving us His best--not just any old answer, but His brand, filled with good things and His love.

We can bark to remind Him again and again, but He'd rather have our love, even if we don't understand it all.

That's why it's called faith--we trust God knows what's best for us, even if we disagree with Him.  Just as my dogs cannot begin to understand the complexities surrounding that scoop of food, we as finite beings cannot understand the workings of our divine Father.  Jesus is showing us how the Kingdom operates: on God's love. 

It's a beautiful basis for this Kingdom, but it takes our faith to keep standing on His promises. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Who Gets the Glory? No, Really...

How often have you driven past a guy holding a cardboard sign and turned away/glared/felt guilty or handed him some money, all the while wondering if you did the right thing.

I tend to help women over men. I will stop for a woman stranded on the road.  Having grown up in LA during the time when serial killers were making the news nightly, I will not just drive by someone who is vulnerable.  

But sadly, women are used to lure people to help them, while an abusive man is standing by, knowing people's compassion will win the day and he will grab whatever she brings in. 

Sometimes, you feel it's a no-win situation.  What will they spend the money on? Drugs, alcohol and whatever they are using to numb themselves--are we contributing to their demise?   Once, I offered to take a woman grocery shopping.  She stayed outside with her son, and I went and bought groceries. I brought them to her and I gave her son a little stuffed animal. I felt I had done the right thing--but the doubt always remains.

I have brought water to people stranded in their cars on a hot day; I talked with an anxious motorist until she was calm enough to drive away, and I bought water and bread to a mentally ill man who was wearing a sweater on a hot summer day and who was attempting to walk along the highway that was going into the mountains. 

This list is not untended to impress you; it's my way of saying I just don't drive by with a guilty conscience every time nor do I help every single person I see. 

When I do, I pray it's the right and safe thing to do.

When I encounter someone, I ask over and over, "Spirit, is this what You want me to do?"  If I don't get a clear directive, I pray for the person and keep driving.  The Spirit is very clear; my niggling doubts are not from Him, and I also don't want to act from guilt.

Guilt is a powerful tool to get people to act in ways they might not otherwise consider.  The people who stand begging for a "job" have many things going for them: (1) a torn piece of cardboard indicating they are so down and out they had to scrounge in a dumpster just to get a sign (2) the sign says "God bless," indicating you are serving God if you give them money and they are really grateful for it (3) they are desperate for any show of human kindness, so they will wave and smile at you (4) the goal isn't a job but money, but their "willingness" to work means they want you to know that they aren't just begging (5) they are there "spontaneously," being as desperate as they are, despite picking locations that are strategic--such as intersections where you can't talk to them, get their story and find out if they have sought out services (6) have they actually applied for a job, or are they implying that no one will hire them so they have to beg?

Not a flattering picture, is it?  And yet, it must work, for there is no shortage of people every day out there, sign in hand and asking for money. 

As Christians, how are we to handle the "giving to the poor" thing?

Jesus is not asking us to give everything we have to the poor; He is not advocating indiscriminately giving them money, for we may be assisting the person to pursue sin. He isn't asking us to ignore the plight of the poor or have distain for them. He is asking us in these verses form Matthew 6:1-4, to have the right motivation as we give. The right posture.  The right heart.

What does He say? 

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matt. 6:1-4)

Hmmm.  So these verses seem to indicate that there were those who made a big show of their philanthropy.  Hmmm.  Why would people do that?

Wait a minute, Rabbi Jesus!  You said earlier that we are to be salt and light, and that we should shine our light, so others will see what we are doing, and praise God because of that!  Oh.  The praise and focus is on our Father, not in us.  We are just the candle.  God is to be praised because of the light. Oh.  Got it now.

Is there a modern equivalent?  


Instead of looking at our big church with all of its programs, and admiring it, it is better to ask:  What is God doing in my church?

Instead of putting a teacher or pastor on a pedestal and admiring him or her, it is better to ask:  What is God doing through this person?

Good deeds are good deeds, and benefit the recipients, but in the Kingdom of God, good deeds should point to God.

We, Christian or not, grow prideful when people focus on us or on our church--its programs, its worship team, its influence in the culture--but we forget one important thing when our eyes are on the tangible:  Who gave us the resources, talents and knowledge to do these things in the first place?  

In the parable of the talents, it was the master who gave the men the money--although the amounts were different, the master expected the men to use the talents to benefit the master. 

Instead of, "Wow!  Look at what those men did with the talents!" our response should be, "What a wonderful master who knew his servants so well that he empowered them to go out and increase what he gave them!"

Jesus is asking His listeners to remember who gave them the resources in the first place and the opportunities to disburse them:  God.  So, trumpeting your giving and making a big show of your generosity is contrary to the silent but sure working of a person in the Kingdom of God.  If you don't get any acknowledge or praise, so what?  Your Father will reward you, and that's way better than anything man has to offer.

God reminds the children of Israel, before they enter the Promised Land, how easy it will be for them to forget Who provided for them to enter in the first place, and how He made all this abundance possible:

"When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today." (Deut. 8:10-18)

"When you are satisfied..." That is the key element here.  No longer were the people faced with insurmountable challenges: being enslaved, wandering in the wilderness with its poisonous denizens, lacking food and water, and just surviving day to day. Now, the people are settled in, with prosperity and creature comforts all around them.  But, beware when arrogance begins to settle in:  Look at what we've done!  We are so amazing that we were not only given this land but we made it into what it is today!  Go us!

Humans are not very good at taking God's blessings in the good times and turning them into praises.  We are satisfied, thinking that our prosperity and satisfaction comes from something we did, forgetting way too quickly that it is God Who gives us the abilities and the resources in the first place. Oh, we are very quick to call on God to rescue us from things we cannot do, but once we can do something, our focus narrows down to us. 

Giving to the needy is a noble thing.  Looking and praying for opportunities to help others is a part of God's kingdom. 

But we must first praise God for giving us the resources to give away.  

We need to praise God for inspiring us to give and the wisdom to know who to give to and how much. 

At the center of the Kingdom of God is God, not us.  We are happy servants, wanting our Master alone to receive the glory and praise. 

His joy about our obedience is reward enough.  

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