Sunday, May 29, 2005

Second Sunday in Pentecost
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28
Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 [29-31]
Matthew 7:21-29

Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse…

In today's Gospel passage, Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven, which is Matthew's unique way of referring to the kingdom of God. What is this kingdom and how do we enter it? We tend to think of the kingdom of heaven as a place we will one day enter when we pass through death into life. We look forward to the beauty and peace we'll find in heaven that day when we will begin to live for eternity in God's presence.

In his book "Loving Jesus" Mark Allan Powell writes, "The Greek word that kingdom is suppose to translate (basileia) rarely refers to a place, but to 'the activity of someone ruling.' Thus, New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in saying that the phrase 'basileia tou theou' would be better translated with some expression that conveys the idea of action: "rule of God" or "reign of God" are frequent suggestions." So, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is better understood as not just a future dwelling place but also as living in Christ in today's world as God rules in our hearts.

In the Old Testament lesson, Moses is speaking to the people as they prepare to embark in the great wandering in the wilderness. God has given the people restored tablets with His commandments and Moses is about to proclaim the rule of Law over the people. Chapter eleven of Deuteronomy begins "Therefore thou shalt love Jehovah thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his ordinances, and his commandments, alway." He reminds them of the grace God had shown to them, by rescuing them out of Egypt and doing great things in their presence. His love for His people is great. He calls them to live out the love they have for Him in obedience and thanksgiving.

As a preschool teacher, I recognize the value and necessity of repetition in teaching small children. They rarely learn anything the first time, or everything is forgotten quickly. We sing simple songs over and over again until they are a part of the child. We say the alphabet together repeatedly and do the same kind of activities until it is known. It might be easy to remember that 1 + 1 = 2, but I still have to take a moment to remember that 6 x 7 = 42 despite the years of math fact practice.

We are in the middle of finals week at school, and my ninth grader has spent hours reviewing her work for the year. She has memorized lists of foreign language words, biology terms and geography facts. She has retyped her notes several times and hidden herself in her room to go over the work in a quiet setting without disruption. She feels confident that she will do well on her tests and end up with an excellent report card. She put her heart and her mind into the work and it will do her well in the end.

If only we would put as much time into learning God's Word. The Bible is a love letter from our Creator and Redeemer, a message of hope, grace and peace. He reaches out to His people and we find comfort in His words.

I have never been very good at memorizing scripture. I can find what I need in a heartbeat, when I have the Bible in front of me, particularly if I have a decent concordance. I am familiar enough with the scriptures that I can think of basic passages that might help with situations when I am faced with an opportunity to minister to someone in need, but I can't quote the words with confidence. All too often the passages get misquoted or quoted out of context and then twisted in a way that God did not intend. I suppose that this is one of the reasons why I have not pursued Bible memorization as I should. However, I don't always have a bible handy. Though I may be able to bring comfort to the one in need, my uncertainty has left me quiet at times when I should have been able to give God's word.

Memorization is the act of writing God's words on our hearts and minds. This is what God asks us to do in today's Old Testament lesson. "Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes." And we are to do this not only for ourselves, but also for our children, teaching them the ways of the LORD. "And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up." At every moment of every day we are to be meditating on the Word of God so that it is a part of our entire being and our life is governed by His words.

We won't be any more righteous if we know God's Word. We won't get to heaven faster or have a higher place in His kingdom. Our hard work won't earn us a special place in God's heart. However, we will find that great blessings come to those who live in God's grace with His Word written on their hearts and in their minds.

Moses lays it on the line for the Israelites as they prepared to move into the Promised Land. "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if ye shall hearken unto the commandments of Jehovah your God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if ye shall not hearken unto the commandments of Jehovah your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known."

Have you ever seen those commercials where they take an animal such as a dog and place him between two different types of food? They put before him the choice of one brand over another. He has to choose which way he will go. What we see in the commercial is how he has the good taste to choose the right one. What we don't see is that the dog has been trained to go in the right direction. He has been trained to seek after the right bowl. It is written on his heart and in his head that this is what his master would have him eat.

God sets before us a choice – to be blessed by living in His good and perfect Word or to be cursed by our disobedience. Disobedience always comes with consequences. We automatically read these words as if God is going to bless the one who obeys and punish the one that does not. However, what this says is that we are blessed in the obedience. Just as the consequence of sin is death, the blessing of obedience is life. It is life in the kingdom of God.

He does not just hope that we will go the right way. He gave us His Word, having guided the writing of the scriptures by His Spirit, so that it can become a part of our lives. He gave us His Son, the Living Word in flesh, so that we can see it in action and follow. Jesus spoke often of God's law and He expounded upon the scriptures in His sermons.

Take, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5-7. The words we hear in today's Gospel lesson are the closing words of that sermon. Jesus climbed to the top of a mountain, probably little more than a high hill so that He would be above the people. There may have been thousands present that day and sitting on the top of a mountain would have made it easier for all the people to see and hear Him. However, they may have recognized how Jesus' position paralleled that of Moses – their lawgiver.

They knew the Law because they had scribes, teachers who expounded on God's Word for the benefit of the people. They taught the people how to live in God's kingdom on earth, how to be an Israelite in heart and in mind. They focused on the law and often misunderstood or misrepresented what God intended. They made the Law a burden on the people; they did not have mercy or know grace. Righteousness was obedience to the Law according to the scribes and all who disobeyed would suffer. They had authority and they have sources to back up their authority.

The Jews in Jesus' day were doing just what they believed would earn them their place in God's kingdom. They were righteous according to the Law. They did everything according to the Book. They could not be judged as sinners because they upheld the Law. There may have even been those able to do amazing things, such as prophesy, cast out demons and perform deeds of power. Yet, they knew not God's mercy or His grace and they were unjust in God's eyes.

Certainly we have many today who do the same. As we hear the words of Jesus in this passage, it makes us wonder if we are the ones to whom He is speaking. We DO what we believe is true, right and good. Yet, Jesus very clearly says that He will not recognize all those who call out to Him. This leaves us with little confidence, particularly since we can't quite uphold the Law the way we would like.

The Gospel passage finishes the Sermon on the Mount, a long discourse about the Law and how to live in the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer are found in its midst, as well as many other passages with which we are familiar. In these chapters Jesus tells us that we should not only not do murder, but even anger can bring us to the gates of hell. He tells us that it is not only bad to commit adultery, but even if we lust in our hearts we have sinned. He tells us to love our enemies, to give our coat to those who try to steal it and never to worry. I don't know about you, but I don't see how I could ever live up to these expectations. I get angry, I have lusted, I have great difficulty loving my enemy. I most certainly am not willing to give up my stuff to someone who intends to steal it from me. Worst of all, I worry. A lot.

Then we get to the seventh chapter and we find Jesus telling us not to judge others! This is perhaps the hardest of all of His assertions in this sermon because we are so able to see the sin of another. We never recognize that the sin we see most clearly is the one that is our own sin reflected off others. We see the speck in our neighbor's eye when we should be looking at the log in our own. I can imagine the fidgeting that was happening in the pews on that mountain that day. How could Jesus expect us to live up to His expectations?

Then He hits us with the grace. "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." Then He compares the Father to an earthly father. He tells the listeners that if an earthly father, sinner that he might be can give good things to his children, how much more would God give to those He loves?

Then we find ourselves at this difficult passage where Jesus says some who call "Lord, Lord" will not enter the kingdom of heaven. How can this be? He answers this unasked question with a story of two men. One man builds his house on the foundation of rock and the other builds on sand. The rains fell and the flood came. One house stood and the other fell. The one that stood was the one built on the solid foundation.

Jesus answers those who called out to Him, "Yes, you have done all those great things, but you did not do them on the solid foundation. I don't know you because you don't know me. You don't know me because you don't know my Father's will." They were building on the foundation of sand – the Law – but they were not righteous in the eyes of God because true righteousness is founded upon faith.

This is what we hear from Paul in today's Epistle lesson. He tells us that the power of God is found in the Gospel message; this is where God's Kingdom comes to earth. The Gospel brings healing and peace, forgiveness and hope. The lives that are lived in faith are the lives that are blessed. They are the lives that stand through the rain and the flood because they are based on God's promises.

We can look at the words of God in the Old Testament lesson as a warning or a promise. It is a warning to those who think that righteousness comes from obedience to God's law. It is a promise to those who realize that righteousness comes from faith in God. If they go in the way God has commanded, they will receive the blessings that come from faithfulness – faith in the Word of God. It is only when they turn away that they will see the curse. "…if ye shall not hearken unto the commandments of Jehovah your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known." We can turn from Him.

But why would we want to turn from Him? The psalmist knew the joy of living in God's grace. The LORD is refuge. He is the rock, the foundation on which we can build a life of mercy and peace. He has redeemed us – as He first redeemed the Israelites and set them free from slavery in Egypt. The fulfillment of all God's love was given in the flesh and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Moses went to the top of a mountain and brought down the tablets of Law, law that became burdensome and impossible to keep according to the authorities of Jesus' day. Jesus climbed a different mountain and showed God's grace in the midst of the Law, calling His people to love God and follow Him.

Does that mean the law should be abolished? Paul says, "By no means!" Hearing Jesus' words means acting on them. We uphold the Law not because it will bring us the love and mercy of God, but rather because through the love and mercy of God He gives us the foundation on which we can build a life in the kingdom of God and receive the blessings of His grace.

When we build our foundation on the wrong authority, it will fall just as the house built on sand. We will also find that Jesus will not know us in that day. None of us can live up to the expectations found in the Sermon on the Mount. We will get angry and experience lust. We will worry and have trouble loving our enemies. We'll judge and refuse to give in to those who want to steal from us. However, we have faith in Christ Jesus – the foundation of true righteousness. Through faith we will know the blessings of God and He will know us. We will do His will, not by our own power but because He has given us the power to do so. We will stand firm forever with His word written in our hearts and on our minds, living in the kingdom of heaven in the here and now even while we wait for the kingdom of heaven to come to us eternally. We will experience the present blessings as we look forward to the blessings of living in God's presence forever. Thanks be to God.

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