What Does the Lord Require?

“What Does the Lord Require?”

Micah 6:1-8                 Matthew 5:1-12


          I was 14 years old when I first heard what we call the Beatitudes…the eight statements of blessings in the beginning of Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount.  My step-mother was teaching them to her 8 year old daughter…it’s better to say trying to get the child to memorize them.  My reaction at that time…and the transformation that followed over many years…is very much like the story told by Dr. Michael J. Wilkins…who is now the dean of the faculty and professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology in southern California.

It’s the story of a young man who had dropped his identification with Christianity.  The young man “had been told that the Beatitudes—with its list of the poor and the sad, the weak and the mild—were a picture of the ideal Christian.  He explained to his mother very simply: “That’s not me.  I can never be like that.”

Along with Dr. Wilkins, I understand this experience.  You might also understand it.  Dr. Wilkins writes…”In my teens I also renounced my Christian identity and church for similar reasons.  I clearly remember sitting in youth group meetings where the characteristics of the Beatitudes were held up as ideals for us to emulate.  I remember snickering in the back row with my buddies as the youth leaders cajoled us to cease being cocky and macho and become meek and mild.  The four of us were three-sport athletes in high school, and the picture of the Christian life that was held up for us from the Beatitudes seemed lamely pathetic.  As I think back, our youthful cockiness and machismo were probably just as pathetic, but the Christian life painted by that church had nothing to offer us as a viable, robust alternative.

Dr. Wilkins continues…”Not too many years after ruling out the Beatitudes for real life, I sat under the brilliant stars in a jungle in Vietnam and their significance overwhelmed me.  I was a member of a cocky airborne infantry combat battalion.  We were a well-trained, exceedingly efficient war machine.  One night as I sat on guard duty after one especially ravaging battle, I experienced the reality of what Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes.  I had killed gleefully that day.  I had ripped the life from other young men without a twinge of conscience.  I saw the bodies of my 19 and 20 year old squad members ravaged by other young men who were our hated enemies, yet probably none of us on either side could really offer any adequate explanation for our animosity.“

“That night I experienced brokenness.  I became poor in spirit as I recognized the depth of my depravity and shuddered as I considered the possibility of my fate before God, if he existed.  I mourned at the evil in me and at the evil that I saw emerge so quickly in all of us. For the first time in my young life, I understood that I was not the invincible captain of my ship.  I could be killed at any moment.  So from that very night I began to realize that there was indeed a very different way to live.  I did not articulate it that night in these words, but meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity and peacemaking all became so much more clearly preferable than the way that I had been pursuing significance and success….”

“I saw for the first time the horror of my life as a human apart from God.  I desperately needed something, but what it was, I had no clue.  I experienced the condemnation of my old cockiness and self-sufficiency, and above all, the condemnation of my arrogant abuse of people in my quest to satisfy my own lusts.  This transition in my life readied me and enabled me to accept Jesus’ invitation….”

That’s the story told by Dr. Wilkins.  Over the years I’ve lived the same transformation.  A couple weeks ago I was blessed to be with a group that stood on the mount where Jesus stood and I reflected…thinking it seems appropriate to look at these Beatitudes briefly…and restate them in more contemporary English so that we all might better understand…and more readily accept and live them.

Since most of us learned the Beatitudes from the King James Version that’s how I’ll state them.

Matthew 5:3   Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (KJV)

If a person has realized their own utter helplessness and put their whole trust in God…two things will enter into their lives.  That person will become detached from things…for that person will know that things cannot bring happiness or security.  Instead the person will become attached to God…for the person will know that God alone can bring help, hope and strength.  The person who is poor in spirit is the person who has realized that things mean nothing and God means everything.

Matthew 5:4    Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (KJV)

The very first word of Jesus’ preaching was ‘Repent!’  No person can repent without being sorrowful…in mourning…for their own sins.  The thing which really changes people is when they suddenly come up against something which opens their eyes to what sin truly is and how devastating to self and others sin can be.  With that eye-opening they are mournful people.

Matthew 5:5  Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (KJV)

The Greek word used in this beatitude means true humility which banishes all pride.  Without humility a person cannot learn…for the first step to learning is realizing our own ignorance.  Without humility there can be no such thing as love, for the very beginning of love is a sense of unworthiness.  Without humility there can be no true religion…for all true religion begins with realizing our own weakness and our need for God.  It’s this kind of meekness that Jesus says will be among those who will inherit the earth.

Matthew 5:6  Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (KJV)

This is like the hunger of the person who is starving for food and the thirst of the person who will die without a drink.  With that in mind…this beatitude is really a question and a challenge.  It asks…”how much do you want goodness?   Do you want it as much as a starving person wants food…and as much as a person dying of thirst wants water?  How intense is our desire for goodness?  The person who is blessed is not necessarily the person who has goodness…but the person who longs for it with their whole heart.

The challenge is that many people are content with partial righteousness.  But…this beatitude says that partial is not enough.

Matthew 5:7  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (KJV)

In Jesus Christ…in the most literal sense…God got inside the skin of humans.   He came as a man…he came seeing things with human eyes…feeling things with human feelings…thinking things with human minds.  God knows what life is like…because God came right inside life.  He was not some remote…detached…isolated…majestic God.  He was a human.  The supreme example of mercy is the coming of God in Jesus Christ…and the sacrifice that followed…the sacrifice made for all of us.

Matthew 5:8   Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (KJV)

This beatitude demands true and deep self-examination.  Are our deeds done from motives of service or from motives of pay…in whatever its form might be.  Is our service given from selfless motives or from motives of self-display?  Is the work we do in church and elsewhere done for Christ or for our own prestige?   Is it by God’s grace that we keep our hearts clean…or by human lust that we soil them…we are either fitting or unfitting ourselves someday to see God.

Matthew 5:9  Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (KJV)

The Jewish rabbis believed that the highest task that a person can perform is to establish right relationships between humans.  This is what Jesus is referencing.

There are people who are always storm centers of trouble…bitterness…strife…and chaos.  They are trouble-makers.  On the other hand…there are people in whose presence bitterness cannot live…people who bridge the gulfs and heal the breaches…and sweeten the bitterness.  Such people are doing a god-like work…for it is the great purpose of God to bring peace between people and God and between people and people.  The person who divides people is not doing this.

I don’t know whether that’s how you’ve grown to understand the Beatitudes…but like Dr. Wilkins…I’ve grown to understand them this way…as a guide…as a manual for living the life that Micah said God required…to act justly…to love mercy…and to walk humbly with God.

May we all be blessed to do so.

His Presence

“His Presence”


Isaiah 63:7-9                Matthew 2:13-23


There’s an old story that illustrates today’s message…a message based on today’s words from Isaiah and Matthew.

When Joseph, Mary and Jesus were on their way to Egypt, as evening approached, they were weary and took refuge in a cave along the roadway.  It was very cold…so cold that the ground was white with frost.  A little spider saw the little baby Jesus…and he wished so much that he could do something to keep him warm in the cold night.  He decided to do the only thing he could.  He spun a web across the cave entrance…to make a curtain there to help keep out the chill.

Along the roadway came a detachment of Herod’s soldiers seeking the boys that Herod wanted killed.  When the soldiers got to the cave they were about to burst in to search it…but…their captain noticed the spider’s web stretched across the entrance.  “Look”, he said…”at the spider’s web there.  It is quite unbroken and there cannot possibly be anyone in the cave…for anyone entering would certainly have torn the web.”

So…the soldiers passed on…and left the family in peace…just because a little spider had spun his web across the cave’s entrance.  Some say that is why today we put tinsel on our Christmas trees…for…the glittering tinsel streamers stand for the spider’s web…white with frost…stretched across the entrance of the cave on the way to Egypt.

Isaiah told the people….

“In all their distress He too was distressed, and the angel of His presence saved them.”

God was there for the people of Isaiah’s day.  God was there for Jesus, Joseph and Mary.  Though the story of the spider and the soldiers may not be true…the promise of God’s presence is true.  What Isaiah described as “angel of His presence” comes in many forms.

For the infant Jesus and Mary…it was Joseph.  Though Joseph was…in effect…Jesus’ adoptive parent…he was acting on the command of God’s angels…as seen in dreams.  Joseph married Mary…though the custom of his day would have made it quite right for him to quietly dispose of her…to end their engagement.  Joseph took Mary and Jesus out of their home to safety in Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod.   Joseph helped Mary raise Jesus through his youth and taught him carpentry skills.  Like God our Father…acting on behalf of God our Father…Joseph was present to protect the child…Jesus.

When Isaiah was telling the people that God was distressed and present Isaiah was referring to some of the more spectacular…better known stories…Noah and the great flood…the Exodus from Egypt.  He surely knew of the lesser stories.  He also knew how all too often we don’t recognize…or maybe even ignore God with us.  It still happens today….here’s another story that illustrates God’s presence in many different ways…in ordinary everyday people.

A terrible storm came into a town and local officials sent out an emergency warning that the riverbanks would soon overflow and flood the nearby homes. They ordered everyone in the town to evacuate immediately.

A faithful Christian man heard the warning and decided to stay, saying to himself, “I will trust God and if I am in danger, then God will send a divine miracle to save me.”

The neighbors came by his house and said to him, “We’re leaving and there is room for you in our car, please come with us!” But the man declined. “I have faith that God will save me.”

As the man stood on his porch watching the water rise up the steps, a man in a canoe paddled by and called to him, “Hurry and come into my canoe, the waters are rising quickly!” But the man again said, “No thanks, God will save me.”

The floodwaters rose higher pouring water into his living room and the man had to retreat to the second floor. A police motorboat came by and saw him at the window. “We will come up and rescue you!” they shouted. But the man refused, waving them off saying, “Use your time to save someone else! I have faith that God will save me!”

The flood waters rose higher and higher and the man had to climb up to his rooftop.

A helicopter spotted him and dropped a rope ladder. A rescue officer came down the ladder and pleaded with the man, “Grab my hand and I will pull you up!” But the man STILL refused, folding his arms tightly to his body. “No thank you! God will save me!”

Shortly after, the house broke up and the floodwaters swept the man away and he drowned.

When in Heaven, the man stood before God and asked, “I put all of my faith in You. Why didn’t You come and save me?”

And God said, “Son, I sent you a warning. I sent you a car. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”

Perhaps there has been a time…or more than one time…in your life…when it was God to whom you released something…and God found a way to take care of it.  The near loss of a child…loss of a job…economic calamity…days in combat…loss of an important relationship…serious illness.  Isaiah spoke clearly of God’s presence.  We call it the Holy Spirit.  Joseph experienced it…and became a participant in God’s work.  When you and I reflect there’s a good chance we can identify God’s presence… directly…or through another person.

Look at Walter Wangerin, Junior and his wife.  Wangerin is an author and professor at Valparaiso University.  He wrote these words after learning that one of his adoptive children wanted to locate and meet her real parents…those who abandoned her as an infant.

“In all our children’s faces is the image of the Creator.  When any parents, by loving God, love their children right; and when by following God, they lead their children out of the house, into adulthood and the purpose for which they were born, then in that fullness, they, too, will find the face of God the Father, who had lent them the children in the first place.”

As I reflect personally…I can attest God was there.

My parents divorced when I was eight years old.  I spent much of my time alone while my dad worked two jobs to earn almost enough to pay the rent…utilities and buy food.  God was there in the neighbors and community chest volunteers who checked on me…brought us food and clothes.

In my teens I was a good student…but constantly looked for activities that would lead me to trouble.  God was there in Ace…the Black man with whom I worked in the restaurant.  He was also a house preacher.  He didn’t preach to me…or judge…or scare me into thinking God would send a bolt of lightning to strike me.  Instead he gave me love and told me what he would do when I talked with him about the temptations I encountered. God…through Ace… was there to walk me away from those temptations.

God was there in Bob…the Congregational Church minister with whom I played racquetball and drank beer.  As we became closer friends…Bob began to encourage…encourage not push or threaten to walk away from our friendship… encouraged me to visit his church.  Eventually I did…and that’s where God strangely warmed my heart one Christmas Eve…starting me on a journey that 36 years later places me in your pulpit today.

Though there are still temptations…I now recognize that it is God’s presence in the Holy Spirit that keeps me at a distance from them.  Though there are losses and hurts…I now accept that it is God’s presence in the Holy Spirit that gives me comfort.  Though there are decisions that if made incorrectly could lead me down a wrong path….I believe it is God’s presence in the Holy Spirit that guides me to the right decision.

Instead of being like the Christian in the flood story who ignored or didn’t recognize God…or the Israelites who continually rebelled against God…or like yours truly in my teen and early adult years…let us accept…desire…and expect God’s presence…always…as a direct presence in our lives…often working through someone like Joseph…the Wangerin family…my childhood neighbors…Ace…and Bob.

We have temptations…God will keep them at a distance.

We have hurts and losses…God will bring comfort.

We have decisions to make.  Take them to God…and listen to his guidance…leading us to the right decisions.

And…by the way…look around around…not very far…God may be asking you to be His presence in someone else’s life.  Open your life to God’s leading to whomever that person might be… as you…together with the Holy Spirit…make your way on your Christian journey and walk with them on theirs.

The very next step on that journey is supper with the Lord…in the presence of God…this morning.