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Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 6:1-15

Part 7 of our series on The Sermon on the Mount


I think every Christian knows someone in their life who is just a fantastic pray-er. You know who I’m talking about. They open their mouths and poetic verse oozes from their lips like honey. They quote scripture, they say exactly what you’re thinking, and they could talk for half an hour straight and not feel the least bit self-conscious. When the Bible Study teacher asks if anyone would like to lead the prayer, everyone in class looks directly at that person.

Do you know one of those prayer rock stars? You ever look at one of those folks and say to yourself, “I wish I could pray like that.”

I’ll be honest, I like when those folks say prayers with me, because I feel like something deeply spiritual is going on. I’ve been thinking about that this past week as I’ve read over the Gospel lesson for today where Jesus teaches us about prayer, and I’ve really been disappointed in myself. As it turns out, the little Pharisee inside of me is still alive and well.
Let me set the scene for you in Jesus’ day. Jews in that time had prescribed times for prayer, The most important being 3 times a day, morning, noon, and evening. The custom was to go to the synagogue to pray – in fact, some taught that only prayers offered at the synagogue would be heard by God. So three times a day, all of the Jewish people gathered at the synagogue. Which afforded the prayer rock stars three opportunities per day to stand on the synagogue steps and inflict their overly pious and exhaustive prayers upon all of the regular folks who passed by.

Can you imagine that sort of self-righteousness one of those guys would have to carry? Can you imagine the kind of resentment it would generate? In the minds of those folks going to synagogue there was a broad chasm between the “righteous” and the “regular” folks.

Of course, we know that God hears every prayer offered in faith, whether eloquent or simple. We know that, but deep down do we believe it? Or do we draw a line between the regular folks and the spiritual rock stars?

¬¬¬I will confess to you that I struggle in this area. I mean, when I come into worship, I expect a certain level of polish and professionalism in what I do here. When I pray up here, I try to make it sound a little fancier than I usually speak. When I preach, I try to be insightful and clever and occasionally funny. I am fairly concerned with how I look to you all. And as soon as I start worrying about how I look, I’ve already failed in the most important thing I can do on a Sunday; I’ve failed to worship God.

Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites.” We take that to be a pretty technical term which means something like, “someone who doesn’t practice what they preach.” That’s a pretty good definition, but I think we can do one better in this context. The word “hypocrite” is actually a Greek word that means “actor.” What the Pharisees are doing when they pray is not so much a failure to practice what they preach as it is simply play-acting. They are pretenders putting on a show. They are by no means engaging in spiritual communion with God.

Take for example Mr. Hugh Laurie. Mr. Laurie is an actor best known as doctor Gregory House. On TV he is an exceptional doctor, able to discover and treat the obscurest and deadliest diseases with ease and even contempt. Here’s the thing: Hugh Laurie’s job is not to be a doctor; it is to make all of the rest of us think he is. His goal isn’t to make sick people well; it’s to make us all think he’s making sick people well.

And that’s what was happening to worship in Jesus’ day. Prayers weren’t about talking with God. They were tradition and a status symbol. It was a way of letting everyone around know that you’re one of the “good” people.

God doesn’t want his people to pretend to pray. He desires a real, genuine connection; and we need it. Sure, if you come to worship to impress people with your religiosity, you probably will. And that’s all that you’ll get out of the experience. That’s what Jesus means when he says that the play-actors “have already received their reward in full.” But that is a vain, shallow, and inconsequential thing compared to the opportunity to actually speak with the God of the universe.

Well, after all of the warnings and prohibitions about how not to pray, Jesus follows up with a simple how-to for prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. I have to say that it is ironic that this prayer has become for some people a sort of incantation – a prayer that has power even if you don’t take the time to think about what it means. It can become one of those prayers that Christians pray as a cultural habit – which is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus was warning us against.

The Lord’s Prayer is short, uses plain language, and yet somehow wraps up the whole of Christian life, and it becomes with a fundamental reframing of our relationship to God in those two short words, “Our Father.” That’s the posture we ought to adopt in our worship.

God isn’t a far off, mean-spirited judge who delights in finding fault in you. He isn’t the type to play favorites. He doesn’t take days off. He is a Father in the truest and best sense of the word. We don’t have to earn his love – much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. God loves saint and sinner alike, which is handy since each of us is both of those. He blesses us with good things, and disciplines us when we need it. He is invested in helping us grow up to be mature, and good, and a blessing to other people. He has plans and dreams for us, but gives us the freedom to make our own mistakes. And when we fall down he picks us up and gives a fresh start. And never, ever loves us any less.

So when we pray, we aren’t trying to wear God down with babbling and repetition, like the child pestering their parent with an interminable series of “please, please, please.” We aren’t trying to impress God with a flowery poem or academic treatise. We are just kids, speaking to our Father with simplicity, honesty, and respect.

God doesn’t need you to be a rock star. He just wants you to be the person he made you to be. He loves you too much to ignore your prayers. He promises to hear wherever, and however you pray.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 22: 1-14

The first promise in Scripture was recorded in these words, pronounced by God upon Satan. “I will make you and the Seed of the woman enemies. You will bruise His heel, but He will crush your head.” (Gen 3:15) Satan had plenty of reason to tremble, even given the power he had as an archangel from creation. And Adam and Eve had plenty of reason to hope.

When Cain was born, Eve remembered the promise. She held her first-born son and marveled, “I have received a man, the Lord.”

But Cain wasn’t the Promised One. Neither was Abel.

Generations would come and go, LONG generations. Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Heber, Terah, Genesis 6, 10 and 11 tells the whole story, they all carried the Seed. Finally, on a starry night in the Land of Ur of the Chaldees, God chose Abraham as the one who would carry the Promise.

Abraham and Sarah moved on into Israel, and the years moved on, and on, and on, and still no Seed was born. A CHILD was finally born, to Abraham’s servant girl….but it wasn’t the child of the promise.

More years passed. In a time when God had put a limit on life-spans, Abraham neared the century mark and Sarah was 90. The promise, GOD’S promise, hung by a thread, or so it seemed. Until God came by one day and reminded Abraham…and Sarah… of His promise. The line, and the promise, would be continued!

Nothing is ever too hard for God!

In time the child was born; a son named Isaac, which means “laughter.” The name reflected Sarah’s incredulous response and, ultimately, the joy of both of them. Was THIS the One who would crush the Evil One?

Isaac grew: a toddler, a child, a teen, finally a young man.

Then came the time of testing. You know the story well; Genesis 22 is the text for today. God came to Abraham with a horrible request. The God of promises became the God of the dreadful command.

“CHOOSE, Abraham! Choose ME or choose Isaac!”

What would YOU have done?

Abraham had made his choice decades ago. He would serve the Living God.

The next morning he got out of bed without arousing his dear wife. He called Isaac and they left the tent, gathered wood and headed toward Mount Moriah……a 3 day walk.

It must have been long for both of them; Isaac wondering why his father was so quiet, Abraham wondering what he had done to offend God. But neither of them looked back until they arrived, tied up the donkey and went to the top of the hill. Isaac carried the wood. Abraham carried only a knife.

The legacy of Abel lived on……Isaac expected a LAMB to be the sacrifice, and there wasn’t one. “Where is the Lamb,” he asked his father.”

“God will provide, my son,” Abraham answered. Isaac laid the wood on the altar he had built and Abraham tied Isaac up and laid him on the wood. Scripture records no dialog. Abraham wasn’t going to argue with God as he had done several times earlier. He knew arguing with God wasn’t an option.

WHAT, Abraham must have wondered, would happen? What would become of the PROMISE? Who would crush Satan’s head? It all seemed to be coming to an end on the altar of Mt. Moriah.

Doesn’t your mind become cluttered with “what if’s” at this point? Mine has, quite often!
- What if Abraham offered his own substitute?
- What if Abraham had chosen his son and not his God?
- What if Isaac had taken off running?
- What if Abraham had told his son it was his idea, not Gods?
- What if Isaac had seen his father’s hand tremble, even for a second?

Would there be bargaining with God? No! There would be no “what if’s.” Faith came first and faith was foremost. Aware of the loneliness that would follow; aware of the ending of the promise, Abraham’s hand was poised for the blow.

“Abraham! Abraham!” An angel intervened at the very last opportunity.

Faithful no matter what…..Abraham passed His Lord’s test.

The angel pointed to the ram, the male sheep, caught by its horns in the brambles of the hilltop. Imagine Isaac’s relief as he helped his father tie the lamb onto the same firewood that still held his imprint? As he saw the flames leap and rejoiced he wasn’t in them?

When their worship was over, Abraham named the place, “Jehovah-Jireh; God will provide.” I’m sure Isaac didn’t argue with him.

Abraham is the father of all who are faithful to God; first of the Jewish tradition and finally of the Christian faith as well. His story has been told for millennia: his faithfulness has never been missed, the lamb has always been there……a substitute sacrifice provided by God for God’s people to go on living in God’s promise.

Last week we talked “TYPES,” shadows of things to come.
There is shadow…..then there is substance.
There is type……….then there is reality.

What are the lessons of the Lamb on the Mountain?

Let no man, ever in time, forget that God is perfect….and that we are sinners. One cannot abide the presence of the other: my sin, God’s righteousness…..they are mutually exclusive. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul would write to the Romans….and the Virginians.

Aren’t we all Isaacs…..doomed by the perfection of God and His demands that we too be perfect? Isn’t that what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount? (Matt 5: 48) Isn’t God as Good as His Word?

But there is a Lamb on the Mountain…..caught in the bushes. He has become entangled in the terrible arms of the wood of the cross; a substitute has been offered on the altar before God, crucified to carry my sins and your sins straight to hell.

Better them…… than us. Bet HIM than me…. or you.

The Lamb is bound by nails……offered in unending obedience; the Son’s offering to the Father……and as a result, we are set free. We are loosed from what binds US.

Some day some enterprising archeologist like Paul Maier may find the pillar of stones called Jehovah-Jireh. Until then, it will remain lost.

But the LAMB….. the LAMB that God provided, has NEVER been lost.

He is ours.

He is our Savior!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 5: 38-48

Part 6 in our study of the Sermon on the Mount


For Terry Anderson, a reporter in Lebanon back in 1985, it started right after a game of tennis. He was just leaving the court when a group of Shiite Muslim terrorists who were angry at America for helping Israel, kidnapped him. For nearly 7 years he was chained to a wall in a dark and dirty cage. He was beaten. He stayed sick for years. He was tortured. Amazingly…..a purely “God Thing,” he was allowed to have a Bible, which he read over and over. Finally, after spending 2,455 days in captivity, he was released. The media asked him, “Can you ever forgive them?” Anderson said that the words of the Lord’s Prayer flashed through his mind, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” His response? “As I Christian, I must forgive them and I will forgive them, no matter how hard that seems.”

In Lancaster County Pennsylvania, October 2006, a gunman barricaded himself into an Amish schoolhouse filled with schoolgirls. He shot 10 of them, killing 5, before committing suicide. The American media seemed quite confused when the Amish community responded by refusing to express hatred for the shooter and by expressing love for his family.

In these two sections of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages His hearers to move into the deeper waters of discipleship with one statement: LOVE YOUR ENEMIES!

Let’s start with a very simple illustration. You are talking with someone and they SMACK you in the face. There are two possible options for you at that point. What are they? A) You hit them back. B) You DON’T hit them back. If you DO hit them back, THEY can hit you again or THEY can stop, but because they started it, they aren’t inclined to DO that, so they may hit YOU harder. At which point you might decide to hit THEM even harder…… do we see where this is leading? It’s not going to go anyplace good, is it? It won’t be too long before this spiral of violence gets someone very hurt or very dead.

Is that they way we want it to end? Maybe I shouldn’t have asked!

In verse 38 Jesus quotes three different Old Testament passages that sum up the condition of God’s Law at the time of Moses: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This didn’t mean people exchanged body parts when someone else got hurt….. it was a system where each offense had a cash equivalent that had to be paid out to hold offenders accountable. So “an eye’s worth of hurt” would only be worth an “eye’s full of vengeance.” No more. No less. It was a system designed with two goals in mind: to LIMIT the amount of vengeance someone might want and to LET people know there was a price to be paid for violence.

It was also, and this is important to remember, designed to apply to the government, NOT to individuals. God has and still gives governments the authority to keep order in society by establishing both Laws and systems of retribution for the breaking of those laws. That is the responsibility of the “Kingdom of the Left Hand,” of the governments under which we live. But just like the previous sections we’ve discussed already, people, even GOD”S PEOPLE, who live also in the Kingdom of the RIGHT HAND, the Kingdom of God, had gone so far as to take matters into their own hands…..even when it came to violence and vengeance.

Now comes Jesus who quotes this “law of equal retaliation” and then says, “Do not resist an evil person.” Then He gives four different illustrations:
If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other one to him too!
If someone wants to take your shirt, give him your coat.
If a Roman soldier orders you to carry his pack a mile, carry it TWO!
If someone begs from you, don’t refuse him.
All of these things we would do in a heartbeat for a friend. All of these things would come naturally there. But for our enemies? For those who hate us?

What is Jesus saying here? Is He telling us we have to be spineless doormats who roll belly up at the first sign of struggle in our lives? Is He saying we should give away all we have and not protect our families and our property? Are we supposed to ignore sin….and sinful behavior? Certainly NOT.

Once again Jesus is speaking to the condition of our hearts. Once again He is reminding us of the two great summaries of the Law: Love the Lord God with all our heart, soul and mind; and, we are to Love our neighbors as ourselves.

Step back, says Jesus, and focus your hearts and lives on the bigger picture of life. My people are to be SALT and LIGHT. My people are supposed to be noticeably different, says Jesus, than those who don’t know me.

How did Jesus go about DESTROYING the power of Satan in this world? He did this by voluntarily allowing Himself to go to the cross. It was one of the most amazing demonstrations of strength the world has ever seen. It wasn’t through weakness, not for a moment. When He was being questioned by the high priest, a servant slapped Jesus on the cheek. He doesn’t hit the man back but simply says, “If I was wrong, say so. But if I was right, you don’t have any reason to hit me.” With those words Jesus stopped one particular cycle of violence, not with weakness, but with strength.

Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount is that our reply to hatred, envy, slander or persecution should not be more hatred, envy, slander or persecution, but instead, our help, our love, our prayers, and our blessings. Revenge might feel good for the moment, but does it point people to Jesus? Is it showing love for our neighbor?

The Pharisees were the masters of the fine print of Jewish Law. In Luke 10 one of them asked Jesus to define “neighbor.” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was the neighbor? It was the Samaritan, people despised by the Jews, looked down on by them as their traditional enemies. Martin Luther summarizes it this way: Our neighbor is any human being, especially one who needs our help, even one who has done (me) some sort of injury or harm. (AE27:58)

If “everyone” is our neighbor, who are our enemies? Who are YOUR enemies? Can you bring to mind right now the one person in your life who gives you the most trouble, the most grief, the one who has caused you the most stress? Hold that face in your mind for a moment as we consider Jesus’ words to us; that we are to LOVE them.

It’s a very specific word that Jesus uses here. It’s not a word that evokes EMOTION, rather, it speaks to ACTIONS and ATTITUDES we are to have about “our enemies.” We are, Jesus says, to:
- pray for them.
- to be fair towards them and respectful to them.
- to treat them as if we DO love them, despite what they do to us!
Imagine God holding OUR faces in His mind, God who IS perfect, God who cannot tolerate sin. God who removed Adam and Eve from His presence because of their sin in Eden. How does God act towards us? In love….

In Romans Paul says that while we were still sinners, while we were in active rebellion against God, Christ died for us. That is true love….and that, Jesus says, is what I want you to extend to your “neighbors” and your “enemies.”

Still have that one, special person’s face in your mind’s eye? Are you asking WHY you should show love to someone who has given you so much grief?

There are at lot of good things that come to us through loving and forgiving our enemies. The first is a PHYSICAL benefit. When we’re upset with someone, it’s like poison runs through our bodies. Scientists have found that chronic anger and bitterness can be far worse for us than even a high fat diet! Anger can shorten our lives. One researcher studying Jewish holocaust victims found that those who adopted an attitude of forgiveness lived much longer and better lives than those who lived in bitterness.

Second, there is a RELATIONAL benefit. Proverbs 23 says that we are what we think. People who are angry too often turn into angry people, and they are no fun for anyone to be around. When we make a decision to return GOOD for evil, it’s like dropping the end of a rope in a tug-of-war……it ends the tension. It short circuits the flow of hostility. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Love is the only power that can transform an enemy into a friend.”

There is also a SPIRITUAL benefit, and this is huge. Scripture says that our relationship with Jesus can be strengthened or weakened depending on our ability to love our enemies. It’s IMPOSSIBLE, dear friends in Christ, to allow the love of Jesus to flow into our lives when we stubbornly refuse to forgive someone. If your worship feels dull and empty; if you feel far from God this morning, you may wish to examine your attitude towards other people, especially that person I invited you to picture in your mind. By forgiving that person, you are freeing YOURSELF and closing the gap between yourself and God.

Finally there is a KINGDOM benefit to loving our enemies. What GOOD is it, Jesus says several times in this sermon, if you love your friends. BIG DEAL! Everybody does that….even unbelievers! There’s no salt there. There’s no light there. But when we, as people of the Kingdom of God, show love to those who hate us; when we offer forgiveness, people take notice.

NOBODY would have blamed Terry Anderson if he had wanted to bomb the terrorists. Nobody would have blamed the Pennsylvania Amish if they had withdrawn farther from society because an “outsider” murdered their girls. Nobody would have given that a second notice! But when God’s people offered grace, mercy and forgiveness, the world gasped……and asked WHY. They Asked HOW. This is what makes Christians different from other people. It’s doing what DOESN’T come naturally. It’s doing what isn’t EASY. It’s the quality of righteousness that outshines the false righteousness of the world.

It is this “above and beyond” kind of love that drove Jesus to the cross and drives us to love those who aren’t easy to love….and it is this kind of love that always points to Jesus. It always reflects God, whose very definition IS love (1 John 4).

Amen.

Jesus ends this section by raising the bar as high as it can be set….”Be perfect, just like God is perfect.”

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 4: 4-16

Ash Wednesday 2011

Dear Friends In Christ, Gathered together wearing the “mark of the ash.”

All things, except for God, have a beginning…..a ‘genesis.’ Only God is eternal. Only God has always existed. God’s WORD begins with some very majestic words, ”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He brought all things into existence, literally from nothing…..with a thought from His mind.
“Let there be light. Let there be heavens and the earth. Let there be the dry land and the seas. Let there be plants and swarms of living creatures.” God said it and it happened…..and, God looked at all of it and God saw that it was GOOD.

In this fantastic paradise God formed Adam and then Eve from the dust of the ground. He blew His breath into them and they became living souls; and it must have been incredible for them; walking with God in the Garden of Eden.

But there was also evil in the Garden, a fallen angel named Satan, intent on spoiling God’s creation and the lives of God’s created. He tempted them to doubt the authority of God and they “reached for the fruit” and fell into sin. God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness resulted in consequences: Satan was cursed, Adam and Eve were put out of the garden, and…..Good News…. God promised to right the wrong that had come into the world. In time, a Savior would be born.

A child WAS born, the first-born of Adam and Eve. They named him CAIN. Was he the One, the Savior? Adam and Eve wondered. Even Satan wondered; would this be his downfall? The one who would crush his head?

A second son was born…..and named ABEL. Cain tilled the soil. Abel tended the flocks. Can you imagine the boys listening to their parents’ stories of the Garden of Eden, of walking with God, of life in paradise? Cain and Abel must have LOVED those stories, but NOT the stories that led to their expulsion from the Garden. Those stories were not so easy to hear…..how would they play out? When would Satan meet his “head crusher?” Who would that be?

Abel grew up in the shadow of his older brother. He heard the same stories. He worked long hours taking care of the flocks, while Cain raised the crops. Both brothers worked hard and their labors produced wonderful results.

Whether God commanded them to bring thank-offerings or whether it was a spontaneous outpouring of their hearts we don’t know, but a day came when each brother brought some of the “fruit of their labor” to give thanks to God. It was the first act of worship in human history.

Cain gathered a basket of fruits from his trees and seeds from his fields.
Abel chose a lamb, the finest of his flock.

Both offerings were certainly fine. Both were likely equal in value. The difference wasn’t on the surface…..the difference was in the hearts of the givers.

Abel’s heart will filled with love for God. Abel was waiting and hoping for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Abel quietly laid his lamb on a simple altar, offered with prayers that the sins of his parents would be overcome by the love of their God in forgiveness. Prayers that God would fulfill His promise of redemption.

Cain brought his gifts with a different motivation, one that’s still common today: that God can be influenced by the gifts we bring to Him. Cain’s faith was surpassed by his pride and his self-importance. Cain’s faith was in himself.

God accepted Abel’s offerings……….but not Cain’s. It made Cain angry. His anger turned to hatred; his hatred hatched a plan; and the plan flowered into the killing of his brother. Cain became a metaphor for murder in the first degree; outcast and separated not only from his family but from his God.

The lamb in this story seems almost insignificant. After all, it wasn’t the content of the offerings that we remember, it was the content of the hearts. Abel holds the story for about 3 sentences; and then he’s gone. Cain’s story isn’t much longer. Neither of them will ever be mentioned again in the Old Testament; and only briefly in the New.

But the LAMB will play an ever-increasing role.

It was there, just outside the gate of the Garden of Eden, that the lamb was quietly placed on the first altar in the first recorded worship service. The LAMB will be in full focus when God brings his first prophecy into fulfillment. And the LAMB will be in full glory and splendor in the final pages of Scripture as St. John describes the climax of God’s creation.

That is the genesis of the lamb.

God uses “types” … another word for “symbols”…. In the Old Testament to foreshadow Christ, who would be the fulfillment of that Garden of Eden prophecy; the one to crush the head of Satan.

The brazen serpent of Moses, held high on the pole in the desert to save God’s people from the poison of the snakes, was a “Type” of Jesus.

So was Jonah, three days in the belly of the whale and then “rising again” to life.

It was the blood of thousands of lambs saved God’s people from the plague of death in Egypt. So the lamb was a “type” of Jesus, who was to come.

There came a day when John the Baptist DID come, telling people “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Then came that fateful night when the lamb of the Passover was placed on the table in the upper room, set before the Lamb of God Himself; the “type meeting the anti-type,” the shadow meeting the substance, the promise meeting the fulfillment.

And then, for Abel, for Cain, for Adam and Eve, Moses and Peter, for Caiphas and Pontius Pilate, for you and for me, came those hours on the cross when Christ, our Passover Lamb, offered HIMSELF up to God in sacrifice for our sins.

At the end of time we will be, if by grace we are still in the faith, a part of that great supper of “the Lamb and His Kingdom,” guests at His Feast of Victory!

Lent comes again this year, as quietly as that first lamb came to that first altar. And so Christ comes to us in this season as He came; quietly that first Christmas, in a stable outside Bethlehem. The Lamb came and continues to come, in His holy Word. The Lamb meets us in the waters of our Baptisms. And the Lamb feeds us in the Sacrament of the Altar.

We are “the people of the Lamb.” He created us…. ransomed us…. and will be OUR LAMB forever. Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matt 5: 33-37

Sermon on the Mount, part 5


Almost 300 years ago, in England, there lived a sea captain named Fudge. He became notorious for the amazing stories he told about his adventures on the seas, stories everyone KNEW were lies. Whenever his crew heard someone else tell a lie, they would yell “Fudge! Fudge!” Over time his name became the “dockside” word for, shall we say, “stretching the truth.” His fame spread to America, so that when someone heard a lie they would say, “You’re FUDGING!” And so it continues to be. Make a promise and go against it, what are you doing? Fudging! If you’ve made a budget with some “wiggle room,” what’s that called? (A Fudge factor!)

Let’s face it, right…..everybody ‘fudges’ once in a while, right? Everybody stretches or bends the truth, don’t they? Even if it’s just to make someone else feel good…..you know, the commercial where “Honest Abe’s wife asks him if the dress makes her look fat!” !) Even TIME magazine headlined an issue “Lying, Everybody does it!” In fact, just to level the playing field, if you have NEVER told a lie, never fibbed, never “fudged” or bent the truth even a tiny bit, raise your hand up high. Welcome to the Liar’s Club…..you won this one “hands down!”

In the Greatest Sermon ever preached, Jesus has been describing “life in the kingdom of heaven.” He’s pushed back all the “Pharisaical Fine Print” to emphasize the two great summaries of God’s Law: Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind; and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. “Life in MY kingdom,” Jesus said, “reflects the condition of the heart.”

In this section Jesus addresses ‘truth-telling’ and oath-taking,’ things which certainly seem to go together, don’t they? We “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” when we appear in court. If we insist on someone believing us we say stuff like “I swear I mean it!” which is supposed to more honest than just saying “I mean it!” We use expressions like “honest to goodness,” the ever-popular, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye,” and when we want to pull out ALL THE STOPS and make sure someone knows we are really telling the truth, we ”swear to God,” don’t we? Who would lie with that oath attached? “I SURE WOUDN’T, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

“Oath-taking” is mentioned 200 times in the Old Testament, going back as far as Abraham. It’s not that God’s people are forbidden from taking oaths; that’s certainly not the case in Scripture. The taking of oaths is nothing more than a simple admission that people tell lies! It’s a reflection of our sinful hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship page 152) says it this way: “The very existence of oaths is a proof that there is such a thing as lies. If lying were unknown there would be no need for oaths.”

Swearing oaths was as common in Jesus’ day as it is today. The intent has always been the same; to get people to tell the truth. But God also doesn’t want His name taken in vain, or used to back up a sin, so people, wisely, I believe, substituted other things in their oaths. They didn’t swear “by God,” they swore “by heaven” or “by Jerusalem” or “by the temple.” The closer the oath was related to God’s actual name, the more weight it had: kind of like the difference between swearing “on my mother’s grave” or swearing “on the grave of my third cousin, twice removed.” It’s obvious which has the weight…….and so once again, it became all about the fine print. If you swore “on the altar” it didn’t mean nearly as much as if you “swore by the gifts on the altar.”

In WC Field’s parlance, they were “looking for loopholes.” It was just another way to add “shades to the truth” while still appearing to actually TELL the truth.

How does Jesus address all this “fine print?” Just like He has with everything else in this sermon, but cutting to the chase and putting it all into one sentence: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no!” People in MY kingdom, Jesus says, are going to be people of honesty and integrity. If we live like this, there will never BE a need for oath taking, swearing, or promising on stacks of Bibles!

Do you know anyone who is as good as his or her word? Their yes is yes and their no is no! Those are people who STAND OUT from the crowds, don’t they?

It’s almost that joyous time when Little League begins, when boys and girls turn into baseball players and (some) parents turn into raving lunatics! The story is told about a 7 year old little leaguer named Tanner. He was known for telling the truth. (True story from S.I.) Tanner was playing shortstop one day. He scooped up a grounder, swiped his glove at the runner and the ump called “OUT!” Tanner stood still, looked at the ball, looked at the ump, and said, “I missed him.”
“What do you mean,” asked the ump? “I missed him,” said Tanner. “He’s safe!” So the ump called the runner safe. Imagine how THAT endeared Tanner to his own teammates.

Several weeks later; playoff game; same ump; same situation. Tanner scoops, tags, the ump calls the runner “Safe!” Tanner looked at the ball, looked at the ump, and then said quietly, “But I tagged him.” “What do you mean,” asked the ump? “I tagged him!” said Tanner. So the ump changed his call to OUT….and OUT stormed the coach of the other team, madder than a wet hornet, screaming, yelling, protesting…..you know how they get!

The ump told him what happened 2 weeks ago, and then said, “I know Tanner, and Tanner tells the truth.” Period. End of story. That’s what God wants His people to be like: people living in God’s LOVE and acting in love for each other. People of TRUTH. People of INTEGRITY. He wants us to be people who stand out from the crowd because of how we handle the truth in our lives.

How does this play out in our daily lives? We’re going to look at several different areas of living where the truth is prone to tampering; where our yes can take different meanings and our no might not be a no at all!

The first is in the area of regular, every-day relationships, the promises and commitments we make to our family and our friends. We may have the best intentions, but…..not always the best results. Ever said to someone “I’ll call you in a minute” and it took hours, if ever, for you to call them back? Ever said to your child, “I’ll play with you as soon as I get home” and it didn’t happen? What was the expression on those little faces when they realized you weren’t going to follow through on your promise? Ever said, “The check’s in the mail” and it was actually the truth???

It may not hurt when we’re on the “saying end,” but when we’re the one on the receiving end? When the nurse says ‘the doctor will be with you in just a moment’ and before he comes you’ve built Fort Knox out of tongue depressors? How many times have we been asked to pray for someone…..and said we would; and 2 weeks later when we see them across the Fellowship Hall we whisper, “God, please bless old Farquahr?” Ouch!

Every time we break even a casual commitment our credibility is diminished, trust is eroded, relationships are strained, and…..importantly, God is offended. And when we take it a step farther and begin to tell outright LIES, it gets even messier. Every time we tell a lie we have to keep score: to whom did I tell what lie, when I told it, who might know. So one lie is told, and then another, and another, until eventually we might not even be sure what the truth is ourselves! Sir Walter Scott said it this way, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Lying may seem “convenient” at the time; it might keep you out of trouble for a while, but it never, ever turns out well. Even spiders can get caught in their own webs!

The second area of “truth-telling” for us as Christians is our business lives, our workday world. When we commit ourselves to working for a company, we commit ourselves to doing all we can do to the very best of our God-given ability. We are, after all, God’s representatives in all those different places. It’s God who has given us the job. It’s God who is honored by the tithes and offerings that come from our paychecks. We may well be the one connection our employers can make to Christ! Are we giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay? Are we following through with commitments and promises we make? Are we “looking for loopholes” and sliding by with the bare minimum……or have we committed ourselves to honesty and integrity? It may not always be easy to take the “high road,” but it’s God’s way.

The third area of “truth-telling” for us as Christians is in the “Kingdom Commitments” that we have made to God in various ways.
Every person who joins this congregation (at least since I’ve been here) has pledged to do the following seven things:
1. Attend worship regularly.
2. Lead a Christian life while not living in a manner that is offensive to the witness and example of the Christian faith.
3. Develop a pattern of sacrificial tithing to the Lord’s work.
4. Grow (in faith) through regular personal study and by participating in our Christian educational programs.
5. Discover and use your spiritual gifts to extend God’s Kingdom (serve).
6. Allow yourself to be admonished when you have erred.
7. Accord honor and love to those in congregational leadership.
Some of these I have struggled with over the years! Perhaps you have also?

For every child who is baptized here at Hope (and in every church), those parents take an oath before God to raise their children in the faith, bring them to Sunday School and confirmation classes, and teach them God’s Word. I made those promises for each of my children, and in some areas, my performance may have been “less than stellar?”

For every person married at a Christian altar the promises are made to love each other to death do us part. I failed on this one once….doing much better today!

Those are our Kingdom Commitments, promises made to God and to each other with the best of intentions……and I’m not reeling off these lists to put any of us on a “guilt trip,” but instead, to remind us that God IS the one who remains faithful when we fail. God’s “Kingdom Commitment” to us took Jesus all the way to the cross and the grave. God’s Kingdom Commitment to Jesus was renewed in His resurrection and extended to us as well. It’s God’s commitment that comes to each of us in Isaiah 15:9, when He says, “Then you will call and I, the Lord, will answer.” God is faithful and He is as Good as His Word. His YES is YES and His NO is NO…… even when ours……..well……turns to FUDGE at times.

Jesus simply asks us to be people who live by His word and keep OUR word. I’ll close today’s message with a short parable from the great theologian, Dr. Seuss, in his noted discourse, “Horton Hatches the Egg.” Horton promised to sit on Lazy Mazie’s egg, since Lazie Mazie doesn’t want to work that hard. The weeks go by with Horton balancing on the nest up the tree. His friends, who used to encourage him, make fun of him. Remember his response? “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful, one hundred percent!”

Our God is. Our Savior Jesus is. It’s our challenge, our goal and our blessing!

Amen.

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The Heart is the Matter – Matt. 5:21-32
Pastor Cofer


Last week we spent some time talking about how Jesus really expanded the definition of the “Law” from a complex system of “do’s” and “don’ts” to the far simpler and infinitely more demanding mandate of love. This week, that theme gets elaborated upon in some pretty specific and uncomfortable degree.

After all, He pretty much called all of us murderers and adulterers. You know, I’m getting a little disgruntled with this Jesus. He isn’t playing very nice. I mean, I thought Jesus was supposed to be loving and accepting. This Jesus seems so judgmental and… mean.

Or maybe he’s just being a little over the top to prove a point. Surely he can’t mean that being angry with someone would actually be a sin? I mean, I can’t help getting angry sometimes, and some people deserve to be told off, because that’s being honest. And Jesus wants me to be honest, right?

We all know better than that, don’t we? Jesus meant it when he said that harsh words and even harboring anger and condescension are the same as murder in your heart. But we try to minimize or rationalize away from that idea, and I think I know why…

Inside of me there is this little Pharisee that just insists that I am ultimately a good person. That little Pharisee likes to tell me that at the end of the day God loves me because I’m a pretty decent person, who doesn’t murder or sleep around or steal. That little Pharisee inside of me has a hard time buying into what Jesus is saying here.

I used to make sense out of this text by thinking that Jesus is making the Law so hard to obey that no one could do it. And if no one could do it, then everybody would need a savior. I’ve come to realize that that’s a very backward way of looking at it.

Jesus isn’t actually making the Law harder. He isn’t actually raising the bar on righteousness. Rather he’s actually just explaining the way things have always been. If that’s true, it sheds some light on the whole business of cutting off your hands and gouging out eyes.

Some people would say that we shouldn’t take Jesus seriously about all of that gruesome stuff, otherwise we’d have a whole lot of blind, handless Christians walking around. But you know what? I take Jesus to be quite literal in this passage. If it were as simple as losing a hand or an eye to keep from sinning, it would totally be worth it.

The trouble is, it isn’t my eyes or my hands that cause me to sin. Those are the tools I use to sin, but the cause of sin is my heart.

That’s not to say that sin doesn’t have consequences in the real world. It definitely does. After all, if you have been harboring hatred in your heart, that’s just like murder right? Well, they are the same sin, but the consequences of each are different. You can’t say, “Well I’ve killed him in my heart already, why not go ahead and actually kill him?” But both the murderer and the one who hates are subject to judgment before God, and the penalty for each is the same.

Now, if you are the type of person who always thought of yourself as generally good (and certainly better than the more flagrant sinners and criminals of the world), this message comes across as bad news. If you think you’ve got it all together, then you’ve got another thing coming. But what if you are one of those folks who sees yourself as a mess? What if you don’t think too highly of yourself? What if you aren’t one of the “good people?” Then maybe the distance between you and the religious folks isn’t so far after all.

If sin resides principally in the heart, then who could possibly judge anyone but themselves? Who could say that the Pharisee is righteous or that the Tax Collector is wicked? Only God can see the hearts of men, so only God can judge.

Indeed, if sin resides in the heart, then I only have the ability to judge one person: myself. No wonder Jesus is so firm in his prohibition that even calling your neighbor a fool is as grave a sin as murder. It is no less than idolatry, because to do that means to put yourself in God’s place. Rather, the right thing to do is to seek reconciliation.

Think about it: Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Now, let’s say that today we were going to take Jesus at His word. How many of us would be able to put an envelope in the offering plate?

Jesus is making a strong point here: until you get your heart straight, until you let God be God, your worship will be strained. It doesn’t work to work on your relationship with God to the exclusion of the very people He is calling you to love.

It’s not about being a people-pleaser. Jesus certainly wasn’t that. It’s about being honest about our sinfulness – deeds, words, and even thoughts – and seeking reconciliation. We see a beautiful picture of that in action between Jesus and Peter.

You’ll recall that when Jesus was about to be arrested, Peter emphatically told Jesus that he would die before he ever denied Jesus. And yet, as soon as Jesus is handed over to trial Peter denies Him not once, but three times. Three times Peter publicly rejected the title of “Christian.” If I were in a place to judge Peter, I’d have said he had no faith and there’s no way he was going to be saved.

It’s a good thing I’m not the judge. Because Jesus (who had every right to turn his back on Peter) instead restored him to his place as a disciple – not once, but three times. That is the kind of attitude that we are called to. We are to be honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness, but we are also to be merciful with others who sin against us.

Sin and righteousness: they both begin in the heart. That’s what makes the cycle of repentance and forgiveness so transformative. Christ fulfills our pleas to “create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” That inside-out change is the gift we receive because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As for the little Pharisee living inside of me… well… I’m encouraging him to move out so Jesus can remodel my heart.

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Matt. 5:17-20

What do these phrases have in common? “Results not typical.” “Shipping and handling not included.” “Void where prohibited, restrictions apply.”

Yup, it’s your typical everyday fine print. Loved by lawyers, despised by the rest of us, fine print is just part of our lives. I mean, honestly, do you always read the “End User Agreement” or “terms of use” every time you update a program on your computer? Or do you just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree” without having read a thing? If so, don’t beat yourself up; very few people love reading all the restrictions and exceptions and legalese.

Now, I never took Jesus for the fine-print type of guy. The scribes and Pharisees were the kings of the fine print game, and generally Jesus is on the opposite side of the discussion from those guys. But in our passage today, we get something that at first is very strange. So strange, in fact, that some scholars make claims that Jesus couldn’t POSSIBLY have said what Matthew says he did. But, since I trust saint Matthew more than modern scholarship, I have to make sense of this section of scripture somehow.

As you know, we’ve just started working our way through the sermon on the mount, and up until now Jesus’ message has been one of inclusion… Like He’s bringing the kingdom of heaven to the regular folks. Not the holier than thou religious elite, but the meek, and the hungry, and the mourning. And as soon as he finishes up that beautiful series of blessings, he immediately jumps back into championing the law – the very sort of thing we’d expect a Pharisee to do.
I wonder what the people on the mountainside that day must have thought. Do you think they rolled their eyes and said, “I know there must be a catch,” or “I should have known he was just like all the other rabbis?”

But He isn’t like the other rabbis, is He? So, what then does it mean when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them?”

My first thought is Jesus is talking about being perfect and sinless. That’s definitely part of what’s going on here, and it’s a pretty important point. After all, what good is a savior who needs to be saved himself? But by the Pharisees’ standards, Jesus actually wasn’t perfect. He healed people on the Sabbath, his disciples didn’t always do the ritualistic washing before eating, He hung out with sinners and touched lepers. According to the Pharisees, Jesus hardly fulfilled the law.

But what makes this passage make sense is a simple, fundamental difference: what Jesus meant by “the Law” is vastly different then what the Pharisees called “the Law.” For the Pharisees, the Law was a compendium of rules that governed the most minute details of your life. It was a rigid prescription of the “right” thing to do an any situation.

But when Jesus talks about the law, he doesn’t need a library of books or the authority of rabbinical precedent to explain it. In fact, he distills all you need to know about the law into two commands, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Now, maybe Jesus didn’t keep all of the rabbinical rules and restrictions, but he never failed to love. That is at the heart of Jesus’ assertion that He has come to fulfill the law; He came to embody love.

To put it a different way, the Pharisees used the Law as a way to prove themselves right, and to hold down those who don’t measure up. Jesus, on the other hand, used the Law as the standard of righteousness.

There is a key difference between being right and being righteous. A man who is worried about being right is concerned with whether or not his fellow man sees how right he is. You know anyone who always needs to be right? Folks like that are prone to arguing, and often to regarding those who don’t agree as beneath them.

But a person interested in being righteous isn’t worried about what other people think about them, they are only interested in what God thinks about them. In some regards this is a much freer way to live, because he is more understanding and forgiving and loves you more than any person in your life can be. But in another regard, seeking righteousness is a much higher bar than just trying to be right. Seeking to be loving is a higher standard than simply trying not to sin.

That’s why Jesus says that even though he is “fulfilling” the law, it isn’t going to go away. However impossible it is for us, I think it would still be possible to imagine living a life that satisfied the literal, explicit demands of the 10 commandments. But I don’t think it’s possible to imagine living a life that doesn’t require us to love. Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans wrote this, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

I think sometimes we Lutherans give the Law a bit of a bad wrap, because we are so consumed by the gospel. But those two do not stand in opposition, you can – and should – embrace both as gifts from God. Indeed, it is from the gospel that we receive God’s love, and it is the law that motivates and instructs us how to love others, including God Himself.

So, I’m not disappointed when Jesus says that the Law will never go away, because it means there will always be cause for us to love one another.

Lord God, teach me to pursue Your righteousness, and give up my need to prove myself right. Conform my heart and mind to the demands of Your Law, that is the rule of Love, that I may be made ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the Law for my sake. Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 5: 6-16

Unless you’re living under a rock in the desert, you know that this is Super Bowl Sunday. Packer fans and Steeler fans have been preparing for what is probably going to be an excellent game (especially for Green Bay). But honestly, the rest of us watch the Super Bowl for what reason? The commercials! I know people who go to the bathroom during the game, but are glued to the TV just to see the latest and the greatest ads. You’ll have your favorites, I’ll have mine, all by what kind of an IMPACT they make on us when we watch and when we listen.

Last Sunday we started a teaching series on what is (arguably) the greatest of all sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus had an IMPACT on His audience, which was made up of everyday folk, from the very first word: Blessed. The word BLESSED can be translated different ways: Happy; Fortunate and my favorite CONGRATULATIONS. Congratulations to those of you who don’t think you’ll ever make it into God’s kingdom. Congratulations to those of you who are mourning. Congratulations to those of you who are humble and lowly. Congratulations to those of you who have a hunger and a thirst to be right with God. Congratulations, because you have come to the right place at the right time and you are placing your faith in me as your Savior: YOU WILL BE BLESSED!

In the first four “beatitudes” Jesus makes it clear that HE is the HOPE for the poor in spirit, He is the STRENGTH to those who are meek, He is the COMFORT for those who mourn, and HE is the one who provides righteousness to those who know that they have none on their own….those like me and those like you. “You,” Jesus says, “are not like the Scribes and the Pharisees who are so full of themselves and their self-righteousness” that they are literally blind to what God really wants…..which is hearts and minds yearning to be filled with HIM. These first four beatitudes remind us that life in this world is usually full of problems. They remind us that we often fall far short of God’s expectations, yet congratulations are in order because through faith, God has seen the needs we have and has fulfilled them.

We’re four sentences into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus already has His listeners eager for more, and He’s ready to give it to them. He describes three active, positive qualities of those who are God’s Saints….both then and now.

Congratulations to those who are merciful…..
Congratulations to those whose hearts are really about God…..
Congratulations to those who are peacemakers……

These are three significant virtues of those who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are ‘marks of Jesus’ disciples.’ They describe…..us.
At the end of this same sermon Jesus would say, “By their fruits you will know them. A good tree produces good fruit. A bad tree doesn’t. Good trees can ONLY produce good fruit. Bad trees can’t. And ultimately, unless there is change, they will get cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 7: 17-20, paraphrased)

What is Jesus describing? Whom is He describing? It’s God’s people living their faith in God’s ways; people who have a desire to serve, rather than to be served. He’s lifting up Kingdom People who have hearts for the lost and a willingness to reach them. He’s describing Kingdom People who are recognized by their desire to build up others and not to tear them down. He’s emphasizing Kingdom People who have hearts for healing the rifts between individuals, not exploiting them.

In his meaning of the Eighth Commandment (Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness) Martin Luther said it this way, “No matter what happens, put the best construction on it.”

Does that describe you? Do you “bless others” by living this way, or do you look for ways to “bless them out?” Are you eager to forgive…..as Christ has forgiven you? Do you help cover someone’s sins….or are you quick to expose them? Can you hold something in confidence, no matter what it is, or are you part of the “mass media” who can’t wait to Facebook the latest gossip about anyone and everyone?

“You’re a REAL WINNER,” Jesus says, “if MERCY wells up in you and pours out to people around you. If you live by KINGDOM PRINCIPLES you’re not only blessed yourself, you bless others too. If your heart is about ME and MY Kingdom, congratulations, you’re a part of it, forever. You’re like God’s son if you act to bring peace. If you’re a bridge-builder. If you’re willing to put yourself on the line to heal broken relationships. If you’re willing to let go and let God bring healing……that’s what makes you like me,” says Jesus.

“Yes,’ say the people, “Tell us more, Jesus….tell us more.” Jesus does, but in this last “BEATITUDE,” things change. Jesus catches the crowd at the peak of their excitement and gives them a bit of a shocker:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are YOU, when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you because of me. REJOICE and be GLAD….. because your reward will be great in heaven.

I bet the crowd gulped a bit at that, don’t you? After all, doesn’t “being blessed” mean having things easy? Doesn’t being a follower of Jesus mean He will protect us? Where’s that “lie down in green pastures” thing from Psalm 23? We’re already “reviled” by the Romans and the Pharisees…how much worse can it get?

If Jesus was looking to make an impact……He certainly got it with this one!

Jesus was reiterating what Christians experience every day: the value system of the Kingdom of Heaven is completely different from the value system of the world. They will ALWAYS be in conflict with each other. There has always been and there will always be conflict between God’s values and Man’s values, between God’s Ways and Man’s Ways. It started thousands of years ago…..a perfect example being Cain, who valued HIS possessions and wanted to keep them. He killed his brother Abel, who valued honoring God with the best.

In far fewer words, what Jesus was saying was this: if we live with Kingdom Values and Kingdom Principles and we LIVE what we believe, people are going to notice. That’s what we WANT! That’s how we will make an IMPACT.

Jesus moved on to two illustrations that people of His day probably understood even easier than we do today. He said,“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its taste, how can it be restored? It’s useless! It’s thrown out!”

Salt is a mineral. It’s a flavoring. It’s a preservative. It even kills germs. Roman soldiers used to be PAID with bags of salt, it was so valuable back then. But how do we know if WE are being SALTY? I googled “salt meter” to see how I would go about measuring whether we, as Christians, are truly “worth our salt.” There are thousands of kinds of meters that I could buy to measure salt in my food, salt in my aquarium, salt in my blood, salt in my yard, even salt in my tears, you name it, there’s a machine to measure it. I know when my food needs salt and I know when it’s got too much… that’s obvious to me! But how do I measure whether I am being “the salt of the earth?” Is there a “Salt of the Earth O Meter?” I don’t want to be thrown out……….do you?

Then Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nobody lights a lamp and puts it under a bushes (basket). What good is that? It only good when it BRINGS light to the darkness around it.”

Have you noticed that this room is “brighter” than it used to be? The old lights weren’t doing the job…..we all complained that it was too dark in here; so OUT with the old lights and IN with the new ones. Do you notice the difference? Have the new lights MADE AN IMPACT?

That’s Jesus point! If we aren’t LIVING kingdom values; if we aren’t LIVING our lives for Him and like Him…..NO ONE WILL NOTICE THE DIFFERENCE! And if no one notices the difference, then there IS no difference! And if there is no difference between we who claim to be a part of the kingdom of God and those who are not…..in all honesty, we aren’t a part of the kingdom either. We aren’t worth our salt and our lights have gone out. Neither is a good thing and in neither case does God receive ANY glory nor do we receive ANY blessing!

It’s not….we need to be reminded over and over…that we GAIN acceptance into heaven by our good works. We are justified, made right with God, by the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. It’s HIS righteousness that we wear, not our own, as the result of our salvation. It’s in the daily living-out of our faith that we draw the attention of others not to ourselves for our own sakes, but to God, for THEIR sakes, so that ultimately they too would give their hearts and lives over to Him and receive the Kingdom of Heaven as well.

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Sermon on the Mount, part 1
Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 5: 1-11

Once upon a time (about 1960) in a city far away (Milwaukee) I received a set of golf clubs for Christmas and when the snow finally melted, my father started to teach me how to play. By the time I got into high school I wasn’t too bad at it and played fairly regularly with a bunch of friends. Then one day dad took me to watch the Greater Milwaukee Open, where, for the first time ever I saw genuine professional golfers really play the game. I’d been happy when it only took me 4 or 5 shots to make the green…..these guys hit it 300 yards at a time. I had become great friends with the animals that lived at the edges of the course; these guys had never even met them! They were WAY out of my league, so far that I was about ready to hang the game up for good. Ever felt that way?

To make it worse, there are those people who are really good at something and they KNOW it and they want US to know it. Watching pros was tough enough, but just to make sure we were kept in our proper place, there were the ones who would hit the ball hugely and lean over to their caddies and say just loud enough so we could hear, “I really didn’t get the whole thing!”

There we have a genuine slice of life…..the average among us seem to be living in the shadows of the elite, and the elite seem to take a delight in making the average feel even less. Isn’t that the way life seems? And is that a good thing?

In first century Israel there was a small group of men (no women, only men) who were widely regarded as the religious superstars of the day. They set the spiritual bar SO high that the average person from Jerusalem or Capernaum felt the same way I did at the Greater Milwaukee Open: there was no way they could ever measure up to these Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees who obviously had God’s full attention….and God’s full respect……by the way they lived!

So there were lots of everyday people who had simply given up on trying to measure up to what God wanted. They wanted to be right with God but all they saw was the bar set so high that there was no WAY. And, as we know from reading the New Testament, the Scribes and Pharisees took pleasure in their spiritual elitism. They paraded around in their robes and positioned themselves in public places so when they were done praying they could say to the “rank and file,” See how righteous I am!!! In your face! You’ll never measure up!”

That’s the background against which Jesus began His ministry. Only a few weeks before today’s Gospel he was listening to John the Baptist calling Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and was baptized by John as a voice from heaven thundered, “This is my Son, listen to Him!”

Shortly after that, word got around that Jesus was doing miracles: sick people being healed, demons being exorcised, paralyzed people getting up and walking. That’s pretty powerful stuff in ANYone’s culture, so it’s no wonder that the crowds started coming, listening and following Jesus anywhere He went. And, according to Matthew chapter 4, wherever Jesus went He talked about the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase is used 100 times by Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke!

The people of Jesus’ day had been waiting for the KINGDOM ever since the Kingdom of David ended with the Babylonian captivity in 587 BC. After they returned they had been ruled over by the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Hasmoneans, and finally, worst of all, the Romans. The prophets spoke for centuries about the coming KING who would be even greater than David: the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah.

The people of Jesus’ day may not have been sure what “The Kingdom” would actually LOOK LIKE, but they were waiting…..watching…..and hoping to be in it, even though the Scribes and Pharisees had made it perfectly clear that only the very few who lived the way THEY did would ever make the cut. It would have been like high school seniors wishing to get into Virginia Tech when they have been told over and over they wouldn’t even make the cut for TCC.

So when Jesus started talking about the Kingdom, people came……with two questions in their minds and their hearts: 1) WHAT would the KINGDOM be like? and 2) WHO would QUALIFY to get in? I’ve asked those questions. Have you?

All of that sets up the Sermon on the Mount. We can visualize the crowd getting settled down and ready to listen. Finally the first word comes out of Jesus’ mouth: makarioi. In English we translate it blessed. We could also use: fortunate, happy, even lucky. Any of these would lift the hearts of the crowd on the mountain, and the crowd at Hope, and every other human being who has ever read these words. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I’d suggest another translation of makarios: congratulations! Congratulations to those of you who have come with empty hearts and heavy spirits, because today I am telling you that MY kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, is open to you!

Can you imagine how that felt to the people on that “mountain,” people who had been taught for their entire lives that they were spiritually “second-class?” The Pharisees just KNEW they were “rich in spirit” and they made sure everyone else knew how POOR they were in comparison, and here Jesus turns it all upside down. It’s hard to imagine the impact on the crowd; people suddenly realizing that Jesus, who had already demonstrated that He was so much more than their Jewish leaders, wanted them in His Kingdom. There was no dress code, no elitism, no economic requirements, no special privileges……..Jesus simply invited them to believe in Him!

In His first dozen words Jesus rocked the crowd as people, maybe for the first time in their lives began to think, “Me? Enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Is that possible?”

What Jesus proclaimed in the first words of the Sermon on the Mount was nothing less than the true, radical nature of God’s grace towards His people. These are words that St. Paul later would engrave on our hearts in his passage to the Ephesians, “By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” It’s what we express in songs like “Rock of Ages,” the verse that goes “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling.”

People who are POOR IN SPIRIT bring nothing to Jesus but sin-stained lives and aching hearts…..and Jesus pours out the Good News: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Obviously in a sermon that takes 3 complete chapters of Matthew, Jesus is only getting started. He’s got more good news in the second “beatitude,” His second blessing: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” You and I (and those around that mountain) have no lack of things in our lives that cause us tears of sorrow: every day we deal with the affects of sin, death and the power of the devil. It doesn’t matter whether our sorrow and mourning is over an earthly loss, over a broken relationship, over a debilitating sin, even a whole series of struggles, what Jesus is saying is this: Congratulations! If you’re someone who is mourning you’ve finally come to the right place: the Kingdom of Heaven is the ONLY place where you will find true comfort!

In Psalm 56:8 (RSV, Living Bible, a few others) there is an image of God being so moved by the suffering of His people that He collects their tears and keeps them in a bottle where He is reminded of them and is aware of them and can be with those who shed them in their times of need. I know stamp collectors, coin collectors, baseball card collectors and more, but I’ve never heard of God being a “tear collector” for the people He loves! Imagine how that felt to those on that mountainside whose lives were burdened down with the sorrows of life: not only were they welcomed into the Kingdom, but promised complete peace when they arrived. (And, parenthetically, it almost goes without saying that those who will be left OUT of the Kingdom of Heaven will ultimately experience not a single shred of peace, for all eternity!)

That promise and that invitation of Jesus still stands today, and it’s doubly good for us as New Testament Christians, as we not only mourn Jesus’ death for our sins, but celebrate His resurrection…..the ultimate victory over any mourning!

It’s taken me three pages to say what Jesus said in two sentences, and it’s only getting better. Jesus adds another piece of Good News that blesses especially a certain group in His audience…..and every audience since: those who are humble and meek. They haven’t pushed themselves to the front of the line so everyone can see where they are. They haven’t polished the tassels of their religiosity so others can recognize their importance. They’re the ones who are still marveling that Jesus even recognized that they were there: they KNOW they don’t stack up spiritually to the Pharisees; they know their not hot stuff and they’re fine with that. The third beatitude, almost word for word from Psalm 37:11, has Jesus looking these folks lovingly in the eyes and saying to them, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth! Congratulations to those of you who know

Three sentences into the Sermon on the Mount and the people are really starting to get a grasp of Jesus and His Kingdom. It’s not a place you scrape and claw to get yourself into. It’s not open to those who think they’re something special and let God…and everyone else know it. It’s “blessed are the humble-hearted, for God will see to their inheritance, and it will be good.”

I don’t know what this week will bring in my life….or yours, but in these three short verses, Jesus has already assured us that as we have received the gift of faith in Him as our Savior and our Lord:
- we will be blessed.
- we are already included in His Kingdom.
- we will receive comfort through His grace.
- and we will receive a wonderful and eternal inheritance.

Take some time this week to re-read Matthew 5…..so that as we finish the Beatitudes next Sunday you will be even more ready to be BLESSED.

Amen.

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Pastor Mike Cofer

One of the most pervasive, most primal themes in human thought is the conflict between light and darkness. It’s a theme that comes up in philosophy, art, literature, and movies. Whether you’re a fan of Plato and Socrates, or Obi Wan and Yoda, you have been exposed to battle between Light and Darkness.

It’s probably unsurprising that our Bible is jam-packed with talk about Light and Darkness. People often mistake them for equal opposites, perfect foils for one another, but that isn’t remotely true.

Before we get into our reading from Isaiah, let’s first acquaint ourselves with some of the basics of Darkness and Light. First, and probably most controversial, I would suggest that Darkness is the natural state of things. On the first day of creation God created light. Prior to that, there was no light – the very definition of darkness. It takes the movement of God to make Light; Light doesn’t simply happen on it’s own.

Which leads me into the next point: Light is something, and Darkness is nothing. Light actually exists. It has physical properties, it moves, it influences, it is. Darkness, on the other hand, is not a thing; it is only the absence of light. While Light is active, Darkness is purely passive. It is only identifiable because it has not been touched by the Light. In fact, every time that light and darkness meet, Light wins. Every single time.

What is even more fascinating, I think, is that objects that have no light of their own can be made bright by being struck by light. The sun, for example, generates light, but the moon does not. The moon is just a shiny rock. But when the light of the sun strikes the moon, the Moon becomes a light too. And on a clear night a full moon can yield enough light for folks to see without difficult.

You know what makes the difference between an object that is bright colored or dark colored? Bright colored objects reflect most of the light that hits them; dark objects absorb most of the light that hits them.

Now hold that in mind while you consider these two selections from Isaiah:
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
-Isaiah 9:1-2

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant , to restore the tribes of Jacob, and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
-Isaiah 49:6

I have walked in darkness. I mean literally. Last week, I got up out of bed to go check out a noise in the middle of the night, and I was trying to be careful not to wake Alisha. So I didn’t turn on the light. Wouldn’t you know, I didn’t even mke it out of the bedroom without stubbing my toe and (you guessed it) waking Alisha in the process.

Now, in the scheme of things a stubbed toe isn’t a huge deal, but think about if you had to go through life like that. I mean, I’m not blind. I have the capacity to see, but I simply avoided the light.

You and I have an incredible gift as children of God. We actually have Christ – the light of the world that will one day take over the sun’s job – living inside of us, guiding and directing our path. That is an incredible gift. And it makes us different than the rest of the world.

Granted, some people walk in darkness, but it seems like they’re doing okay. They aren’t in financial trouble, their relationships aren’t falling apart. And some of you all who are walking with the light of Christ are really struggling, because your path isn’t all smooth and easy. And maybe you’ve asked yourself, “What’s the point in walking in the light? All it does it make me more aware of how hard things are.”

Well, let me share this thought with you: the light isn’t just for seeing where you are, it’s also about knowing where you’re headed. Think about Jesus calling his disciples. Was he calling them to an easy life? Not at all, but I doubt any of them (except maybe Judas) had any regrets about following Jesus.

But, as Isaiah’s message also reminds us, it isn’t enough for us to hoard the light. It’s too small, too petty a thing for us to be content with simply being light receivers. We ought to be light reflectors. Isaiah, Matthew, and John call Jesus the Light, but Jesus calls us the Light of the World. He says that a lamp isn’t lit just so it’s light can be hidden. Its job is to let that light shine.

This isn’t a prideful thing. It isn’t meant to puff up our chests and give us big egos, because we aren’t what it’s all about. I’m not the source of light, I’m just a reflector. My job is to try to be moved by Christ to be like Christ – to love how he loves and to live how he lived.

Jesus shines His light on me without reservation or condition; he just gives it to me freely. It’s no good trying to catch that light, to tuck it away and store it up for the hard times because every day, every minute, every second that passes he is pouring out on me more life and love and grace than I can possibly take in.

How about you? Is the light that God gives you reflected outwards in your life? Does your gratitude to God extend beyond your prayers? Does the love Christ pours into you splash out and overflow on to the people around you? Or, are you happy to just soak it up and hold it in?

Lord make me lavish with your love. Thank you for invading this dark world with Your light. Teach me to reflect your light, to shine in this world that cannot understand the light that you give. In Your precious name, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.

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