Matthew 18:6-9 – Say “No” to Temptation

“If you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

What sorrow awaits the world because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (New Living Translation)

It’s probably a good idea not to get on the wrong side of Jesus.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus utilized a variety of teaching methods to communicate his message. In today’s Gospel lesson, Christ used the language of hyperbole to arrest attention and get his point across.

A universal truism of this world is that sin exists. In Holy Scripture, sin is anything people do or say – or fail to do and say – which damages or destroys another’s or one self’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual wellbeing.

Greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, anger, lust, and pride abound no matter where one goes on this planet. Sin is downright awful. It causes people to stumble, and, when unchecked, leads to personal and corporate chaos, unrest, and destruction. 

Whenever sin is viewed merely as a character flaw, or simply part of the fabric of organizations and institutions, then hellfire is not far off. Hell exists because of sin. 

We get the flavor that Jesus took sin quite serious. Christ considers sin so terrible and heinous that he deliberately used the height of hyperbole to communicate that radical, drastic, and decisive action must unequivocally be taken to get rid of it. 

The Lord Jesus wanted there to be no mistake in his communication: Sin is not something to dabble in or take a shallow approach; rather, sin must be eradicated, at all costs. The language is severe: If your hand, foot, or eye causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter life crippled or blind rather than be thrown into a suffering hell.

Temptations will inevitably come. Yet, how we handle those temptations and what we do with them is of eternal significance. 

We must get to the root of the sin – which happens through succumbing to temptation – and re-arrange our lives, alter our schedules, and change our lives in a radical way to remove putting ourselves in a position to sin. 

Solid daily spiritual habits of Scripture reading and prayer; time for sleep and rest; attention to Sabbath; and a regular exercise regimen are all ways to help ensure that temptation will not win the day.

And God forbid that we cause another to sin because we are hangry, tired, and out of shape because we’ve neglected ourselves for far too long. Self-care isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Other people get hurt when we hurt ourselves.

Your self-care is always a valid excuse to say “no.”

If we take the words of Jesus to heart, perhaps we will gain awareness of the ways we need to metaphorically cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. For many people, this means learning to say “no.”

There doesn’t always need to be an explanation for assertively and courteously saying the word “no.” If an explanation is warranted, it should be brief. The word “no” doesn’t mean we are selfish pricks trying to wriggle out of responsibility. “No” simply realizes we are finite creatures with limited time, energy, and resources. Unlike God, we cannot do it all.

Setting personal boundaries is both wise and necessary. Without them, we let others chain us in bondage to their agendas. A lack of personal boundaries also typically means that the boundary-less person continually violates others’ boundaries. Since there are no fences in their own lives, they feel they can hop anybody else’s fence in front of them.

Violating someone’s space through mental or emotional manipulation, spiritual abuse, or bodily harm is sin. Jesus wants radical action to deal with such offense of others.

For the Christian, priority must be given to saying “yes” to Jesus, which then allows a “no” to come when there are competing priorities. A person unclear on their values and priorities will chronically violate others. If you have a specific plan of doing the will of God before being confronted with another person’s request, you’re more likely to stick to your original plan.

Jesus continually said “yes” to the Father. This framed and formed his earthly life so that he crossed social boundaries to speak to a Samaritan woman, a tax collector, and a leper – while maintaining the respect of another’s personal boundary by asking if they want to be helped and healed.

Sin is horrible – which is why Jesus went to the ultimate length to deal with it. He sacrificed himself and suffered an ignominious death so that sin’s power would be crushed, so that you and I could say “no” to temptation.

Holy God, you sent your Son to this earth to deal decisively with the world’s sin.  I choose today to walk in the forgiveness you offer through Jesus, and to avail myself of the Spirit’s power to forsake temptation in all its forms.  Amen.

Luke 6:27-31 – Love Your Enemies

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” NIV)

“Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying to yourself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to harm you: not by angrily lashing out at you, lusting over you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you.’”

–Frederick Dale Bruner

Here are a few rhetorical questions, considering the astounding words from Jesus to love enemies: Have you ever had someone not like you?  Offend you? Purposely say or do things that upset you? I once had a next-door neighbor who was plain mean. Once, when my dog accidentally strayed into her yard and left a package, she picked it up and placed the package directly in front of my backdoor. 

When such things happen, it is tempting to respond in kind with the same behavior as the obnoxious person.  Many of us have sly passive aggressive tendencies of getting back at others when they do or say offensive things, and we consider them an enemy.

The situation with my neighbor was frustrating, yet quite benign. It is an entirely different matter trying to love someone who has deeply hurt us. Their words of malice or actions of abuse are evil, and we naturally seek to defend and respond by hurting them back. This is no trite saying of Jesus to proclaim that we are to love the enemy. It will be hard to love a villain apart from the grace of God, and Jesus knew what he was asking of us.  He does not ask of us anything that he himself has not already done.

We are often pleased with ourselves if we love our family and friends, because even that is a struggle for us, at times. We need to treat all people with respect and kindness, even active love, because that is what God does.

Jesus did not say anything new in calling for neighbor love. The Old Testament clearly says to do so: 

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18, CEB)

Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say to hate your enemy. However, over time, the idea became popular that if we are told to love our neighbor, then we must hate our enemy (who is not our neighbor). Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion to that parable is that everyone I encounter is my neighbor, and so must be shown mercy when they are in need. (Luke 10:25-37)

Jesus let us know that when we walk in the way of love, we will sometimes be treated harshly by the world (Matthew 5:10-12).  When that happens, Christ says we must not exact revenge or retaliate. Even more, we are to respond with overt gestures of love, rather than simply ignoring them.

We are to pray for our enemies. It is hard to hate someone or a group of people when we are devoted to praying for them. Pray the Spirit would open their eyes so they can see the error of their way. Make sure to leave the judgment to God, for that is divine business, not ours.

We are to love because God loves. To love those who offend us emulates God’s benevolence. When we love our enemies, without expecting anything in return, we imitate God’s character as children of God:

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He did not love to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. (Ephesians 5:1-2, MSG)

If we have no love for our enemies, then we are no different from them. Christians are to be distinctive because of the way they treat others, especially outside the faith. We are to model our lives after God’s love, not by the standard of niceness to those who are nice to us. God does not expect us to live as followers of Jesus by only showing reciprocity, that is, just giving back to those who already have given something to us. Instead, we give even when we are persecuted. We do this because God shows no distinction in the distribution of sunshine and rain. Showing basic respect and goodness to all people, no matter who they are, can be God’s rain and sun toward others.

“To return evil for good is devilish. To return good for good is human. To return good for evil is divine. To love as God loves is moral perfection.” Alfred Plummer

Grace, undeserved kindness, is not something we can just conjure up, as if we might will ourselves to love our enemies. It is not natural – it is supernatural, and so must come from a supernatural Being. 

During World War II, a Lutheran pastor, imprisoned in a German concentration camp, was tortured by an S.S. officer who wanted to force him to a confession.  The pastor did not respond to the torture.  His silence only enraged the officer to such a degree that he hit the pastor harder and harder until he finally exploded and shouted at him, “don’t you know that I can kill you!?”  The pastor looked him the eye and said, “Yes, I know – do what you want – but I have already died.”  At that point, the officer lost power over the pastor.  All of the officer’s cruelty had been based on the idea that the pastor would hold onto his life as his most valuable property and would be willing to give a confession in exchange for his life.  But with the grounds for his violence gone, torture had become a ridiculous and futile activity.

Our human relationships may easily become subject to verbal violence, bitterness, and destruction, when we make enemies of each other and treat people as properties to be defended or conquered instead of precious gifts to be received. If we have nothing to defend, then we have no enemies who can harm us.

Jesus, Prince of Peace,
you have asked us to love our enemies 
and pray for those who persecute us.
We pray for our enemies and those who oppose us.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, 
may all people learn to work together 
for the justice which brings true and lasting peace.
Holy Spirit of God, we ask you for the strength and the grace to love those who harm us, that we may shine as beacons of Christian light in a world of revenge, retaliation, and darkness.

We pray for those who have hurt us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who hate us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who insult us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have stolen from us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who will not hear us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have hurt our church.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.  Amen.

Malachi 2:10-3:1 – Remain Faithful

An Eastern Orthodox icon of the prophet Malachi

Don’t we all come from one Father? Aren’t we all created by the same God? So why can’t we get along? Why do we desecrate the covenant of our ancestors that binds us together?

Judah has cheated on God—a sickening violation of trust in Israel and Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the holiness of God by falling in love and running off with foreign women, women who worship alien gods. God’s curse on those who do this! Drive them out of house and home! They’re no longer fit to be part of the community no matter how many offerings they bring to God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

And here’s a second offense: You fill the place of worship with your whining and sniveling because you don’t get what you want from God. Do you know why? Simple. Because God was there as a witness when you spoke your marriage vows to your young bride, and now you’ve broken those vows, broken the faith-bond with your vowed companion, your covenant wife. God, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage. And what does he want from marriage? Children of God, that’s what. So, guard the spirit of marriage within you. Don’t cheat on your spouse.

“I hate divorce,” says the God of Israel. God-of-the-Angel-Armies says, “I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.” So, watch yourselves. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t cheat.

You make God tired with all your talk.

“How do we tire him out?” you ask.

By saying, “God loves sinners and sin alike. God loves all.” And, by saying, “Judgment? God’s too nice to judge.”

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies. (MSG)

Any reader of Holy Scripture must come to grips with sections of it which are difficult, harsh, and scathing. Since the Bible covers a complete range of the human condition, not all we find within it are bunnies and butterflies. The prophets of the Lord held back no punches when it came to delivering their message.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Malachi squarely addressed the people’s issue of unfaithfulness. They were faithless to one another; faithless to their spouses; and, faithless to God.  God is described by the prophet as weary and exasperated with a lot of talk with no faithful presence and action. 

God hates divorce simply because it is so damaging for those involved. This is not a divine decree that divorce should never exist any more than God’s hatred for the people’s worship means that worship should never exist.

Both marriage and worship are to be meaningful experiences of devotion and dedication to the significant human and divine relationships in our lives.

God has no tolerance for half-hearted commitments which either opens another to violence or having verbal or physical violence perpetrated outright by the one who ought to be protecting and loving.

The solution to the two-faced problem of the people with their milquetoast obedience is that a messenger will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  He is coming, and it will be soon.

Keeping the end of our lives and of history in mind helps bring greater clarity and purpose to the present. The season of Advent reminds the faithful that since Jesus is coming soon, we must hold fast to our Christian allegiance. 

Faithfulness toward God also means having a faithful presence (albeit perhaps virtually) to the people close to us and near us.

Malachi exhorted the people to guard their spirits because a lack of personal awareness within causes a dearth of awareness without in simply seeing others but not really seeing them. Spousal abuse is not okay, and the God who sees all will rouse and act on behalf of the one stuck in a situation and pattern of neglect and/or exploitation.

It is necessary to monitor the condition of our souls and be in touch with the state of our spirits so that we remain faithful. We are to nurture our inner selves so that outward actions reflect faithful commitment without harming those closest to us.

Vulnerability with oneself and submission to basic accountability structures are important so that we are aware to strengthen the inner person.  Rather than embrace a rabid individualism, communal dedication is a primary way of pleasing God, serving others, and realizing divine blessing. It also is a necessary preventative to domestic abuse.

Everyone deserves healthy relationships.

If you or someone you know is the victim of spousal abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at https://www.thehotline.org/

Sovereign God, the One who sees and knows all, help me guard my spirit so that I will be faithful in all I do and in all my relationships with others, especially my own family and spouse.  Strengthen my soul to remain dedicated to seeing the coming of Jesus in all his glory.  Amen.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – An Embodied Spirituality

divine dance

One final word, friends. We ask you—urge is more like it—that you keep on doing what we told you to do to please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines we laid out for you from the Master Jesus. God wants you to live a pure life.

Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity.

Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it, as is so common among those who know nothing of God.

Don’t run roughshod over the concerns of your brothers and sisters. Their concerns are God’s concerns, and he will take care of them. We’ve warned you about this before. God hasn’t invited us into a disorderly, unkempt life but into something holy and beautiful—as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

If you disregard this advice, you’re not offending your neighbors; you’re rejecting God, who is making you a gift of his Holy Spirit. (MSG) 

Consider for a moment some of the things you have done today… For me, I arose early, had a workout, ate breakfast, showered, went to work, etc. Yeah, typical stuff we are familiar with. These things I just mentioned all had to do with the body. What is more, all of them are good and holy. Sometimes we may get a misguided notion that purity and holiness only has to do with activities that take place in a church building; or special works like serving at a homeless shelter; or, that the meeting of physical needs is merely a means to reach the soul. Yet, in today’s verses from Thessalonians, as well as the whole of Scripture, there is neither a secular/sacred dichotomy nor a dualism of body and soul.

We in the western world have inherited a long tradition of Platonic thinking. It underlies a lot about how we think of the body. Plato (c.427-327 B.C.E.) embraced a dual nature of people – an existence of body and soul in which the spirit is trapped within physical flesh. Plato considered the soul to be the true nature of a person and tended to denigrate the body as an earthen vessel which will eventually be discarded. Our physical existence was nothing more than a necessary evil for Plato.

Greek Dualism

The problem with Plato’s anthropology is that it fails to discern the holistic nature of body and soul and the need for integrity with these human dimensions. Historically, Plato’s view has tended to come out sideways through lack of care for the body and seeing bodily actions as insignificant.

Thus, sexual immorality is common in dualism because our physical selves are less significant, temporary, and disposable. In all fairness to Plato, he did not encourage misuse of the body or sexual immorality, yet, his philosophy opened-up generations of people neglecting their own bodies and inflicting harm on other bodies. In many ways, Greek dualism is the shadow philosophy behind much sexual abuse today.

When we exalt the soul as supreme over the body, we are living out platonic thought, not biblical teaching. All of life is sacramental – the body is sacred, and, so, ought to be treated as holy – with great care and careful attention to breath, movement, exercise, eating, sleeping, playing, and, yes, even sex. The body is to be celebrated as our means of glorifying God on this earth. And, at the end of the age when Christ returns, we will be reunited with our bodies to live forever as embodied creatures. What we do with our bodies now matters to God.

Inattention and/or disregard for the body God has given us will inevitably lead to a lack of boundaries in which others are open to violate us and we are unaware of violating others. We end up running roughshod over each other, spiritually and physically. An embodied and grounded spirituality helps us clarify what holiness and sanctification looks like in relationships and everyday life.

boundaries

God has not called us to impurity but to holiness in all of life, in every physical activity we do. We have not been designed by our Creator to live in any old way we want; we have been set apart and called by God to walk along the road of purity and peace.  The way in which we use our minds, wills, emotions, and bodies – aligned and in agreement with the whole person – are of much interest and great concern to God Almighty.

God cares about food and whether I eat to his glory and give thanks; or, whether I have no interest in those that are hungry but just stuff as many groceries as I can in my distended stomach.  God cares about whether I take time for rest and Sabbath and whether I isolate myself in mindless TV watching for hours.  God cares about the content of my conversations with my family and friends – whether I am using my vocal cords for encouraging and building-up others, or whether they are forming slanderous, gossipy, and unhelpful words.

Everything in all creation belongs to God – including me, you, and everything we do.  God cares about all of life’s activities and leisure time.  Whether tying our shoes or teaching a Sunday School class, it is all to be done with a sense of holiness and connection to the God that makes it all possible. Christian spirituality is embodied spirituality. So, let us engage in all kinds of good works for the benefit of the body, whether little or large, with the time and talents God has graciously given us.

Lord God, I belong to you – set apart and sanctified so that I may always walk in holiness and please you in everything I do.  Help my life today to reflect the purity you have given me through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May he be glorified through me now and always.  Amen.