Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 27

Based on the Beatitudes...

First, thanks to Betsy McGeorge for sharing a bit about the group’s mission trip to Mississippi. It’s such an encouragement to me as a pastor to see people using the gifts God has given them to touch the world.
In the spirit of what Betsy shared about her time in Mississippi, I want to share a bit about what I’ve been doing in ministry recently, and that was the youth retreat last weekend. As many of you know, last weekend eighteen kids and five leaders representing Exton and Pughtown Baptist Church met in the Poconos for a retreat. And we had a great time as we usually do on this retreat. We played games, played in the snow, listened to music, told stories, hung out and laughed. And between all of that, we did some spiritual searching.
Mostly, our time together focused on the passions God has given us and how he wants us to use those passions to touch the world with his love. I started by sharing how God has put certain passions in me ever since I was a little boy. One passion was communication. Ever since I have been a little boy, I have loved to talk. My parents especially will attest to this: talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Another passion I have always had is truth. When something just isn’t right, something inside me burns to point it out and help it become corrected. I told them a story of when I was in third grade; I was in Mrs. Clarke’s class. And Mrs. Clarke gave us a science test one day and there was a question I got wrong that I just knew was right. And I argued and I argued and I argued with her until finally, I made her cry and she admitted that I was right and she was wrong. (Hey, I was in third grade; I didn’t always know when to lay off the gas.) But that passion for finding the truth has always been part of me.
Another passion is teaching. As an older brother, I was always aware that I was teaching my younger siblings. I knew they watched me and learned from me; sometimes they learned good things, sometimes they learned bad things. But they were always learning from me. And my last passion I mentioned was worship. Ever since I have been a kid, worship has been important to me; it has always touched me deeply. Sometimes it has made me cry, sometimes it has made me angry, sometimes it has made me happy, but it always has been important to me.
And having shared these passions that have always been important to me, I talked about how I get to use these passions in the job I have. My job involves worship, teaching and communication, and perhaps most importantly, it involves truth-telling. If your pastor doesn’t tell you the truth, who will? Part of the reason I feel like being a pastor is God’s call in my life is because it uses so much of the passions that he put in my heart in the first place.
After I talked about this, Amanda, one of the leaders from Pughtown, talked about how her passion was summed up in loving. And even though her paid employment didn’t exactly match her passion like mine does, she is able to live out that passion to touch the world with God’s love in her way. And then Betsy talked a bit about her passion, her spiritual gift, which is mercy. And she talked about the many different ways in which she is able to live out her passion by exercising mercy; this was including the trip to Mississippi, which was an excellent example of a person using her spiritual gift to touch the world with God’s love. Between the three of us, God had made people passionate about truth, love and mercy; and using the three of us together, God could do an awful lot, if we were willing to follow the passions he had put inside of us.
If you’ve been a Christian for a long time, you probably know that the passage Andrew read this morning is commonly referred to as the Beatitudes. I picked up the Beatitudes again this week and let me tell you what I found surprising in them. I was surprised as I re-read the Beatitudes that they are not about doing anything. When we hear a figure like Jesus start saying, “Blessed are…” something in our anxious suburban hearts just expects to hear him say, “Blessed are those who do something.” “Blessed are those who serve the poor.” “Blessed are those who get up on Sunday morning to come to church.” “Blessed are those who win souls to Christ.” “Blessed are those who go on retreats with teenagers.”
But much to the surprise of our wayward and tired hearts, this is not what Jesus says at all. He does not say that people are blessed for what they do, but for who they are. Jesus doesn’t bless verbs, he blesses adjectives. “Blessed are the poor…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the hungry and thirsty for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers...” Even the one verb he uses, “Blessed are those who mourn,” is more a situation you have thrust upon you, than something you choose to do.
And you wonder why Jesus says this exactly. After all, if you know anything about Jesus, you know that he doesn’t like it when people’s ideals don’t match up with their behavior. He has little patience for the Pharisees who lay heavy burdens on other people but fail to live up to those burdens themselves. He has little patience for those who would stone adulterers but do not manifest godly marriages themselves. So Jesus seems to be very concerned with what we do.
And yet here, he says that people are blessed not for what they do, but for who they are. Perhaps there is a message in this for us if we are listening. Perhaps the point of the beatitudes is that the first task of the Christian life is not to set out and do something great for the Lord. The first task of the Christian life is to cultivate a certain way of being; in essence the first thing we must do as Christians is to become new people, to be born again. Before we go off to save the world, there is a certain type of person that God wants us to become: God wants us to cultivate meekness; God wants us to cultivate a spiritual poverty (that often goes hand-in-hand with physical poverty). God wants us to cultivate a hunger and a thirst for righteous. God wants us to cultivate mercy, purity of heart and a desire for peace. If we are not serious about changing our hearts, then our efforts to change the world will fall flat.
In essence, this is why we talked to the kids about the passions God has put in them. Because when we try to do something before we know who we are, we run the risk of doing the wrong thing. Even before we know what God needs to do in the world, we have to know what we are capable of doing. For instance, God needs doctors. Jill’s dad is a medical doctor and for him it is a natural outgrowth of his Christian faith. He has a skill for it, given by God and he uses that skill to heal the world and touch them with God’s love. That’s not my skill. If you were to ask me if God needs doctors, I would say yes. But does God need me to be a doctor? Absolutely not. And I can say so without any worries, because I know this is not who I am. Before we leap to do something for God, we must know who we are.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus blesses people for their being instead of their doing. And he does this because he knows that a heart that is seeking to be right is a heart that will do right. Jesus doesn’t give his disciples a 1-2-3 list of things to do; instead, he tells them to become a certain kind of person, and if they become that kind of person, they will more naturally do the right things. We often wonder why the Bible doesn’t tell us about modern questions we face today. What does the Bible tell us about abortion? What about human cloning? What about Internet pornography? What about the role of government in reducing poverty ? Why does it not tell us about these things? The simple answer is that the faith is less concerned with giving you every single answer to every single question; instead, the Christian faith is concerned with making you into a certain kind of person who will be able to faithfully answer those questions with other Christians around the world. Betsy discovering her gift of mercy leads her to practice mercy. Me discovering my gift of truth telling leads me to tell the truth. Who we are precedes and shapes what we do, and knowing who we are shapes us to do the right things.
Now, I must close the sermon but I close it with a warning. This sounds simple: first you must know yourself, and then you must be true to yourself. But it is not always so easy to know who you really are. We live in a world that has an identity crisis, and in a world with an identity crisis we constantly hear lies about who we are. We hear the lie that we are our appetites, that our desire for food, sex, or money defines who we are. We hear the lie that we are our status in the community; we hear the lie that we are the money we make. We hear the lie that we are what others think of us. We hear the lie that we are what we produce, how much we make; we hear the lie of the advertisers that we are what we buy, that purchasing something will make us into a different person. In a world like this, which is constantly cobbling out identities for us, we must know that we are not any of those things, but instead, we are what God has called us to be. We are his. We belong to him, flesh and soul, body and mind, heart and spirit. All of us belong to him. If we learn this, we will learn who we are; and if we learn who we are, we will learn what we must do. I’m pleased to see that in Betsy and the others who went on this trip; and I’m pleased to see that in the kids who wrestled with this question in the Poconos; and I pray this reality defines as a church this year. Let’s pray.