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Being Salt & Light

What would happen if Christ-followers were to permeate society as agents of redemption? Jesus told His followers they were to influence the kingdom of this world by leading it to the kingdom of Heaven.

Salt: A Hidden Influence

Up on the mount, Jesus said: "You are the salt of the earth." There are only a few situations where salt should be seen - french fries, pretzels, and a Virginia ham come to mind. Most of the time, salt is at its best when it is worked in. Worked in to food to add flavor. Worked in to food as a preservative (or stop decay). Worked in to the soil to add nutrients. So, maybe Jesus was saying the disciples were left here to stop the decay of the world, and/or help the world bring forth fruit to God.

Light: A Visible Influence

Jesus also said: "You are the light of the world." Lamps were best used in two ways. First, a lamp was useful as a guide. A tool to show the way. Second, a lamp was useful to reveal. A tool to show what is behind the darkness. So, maybe Jesus was saying the disciples were left here to point the way to the loving God; and maybe Jesus was saying the disciples were left here to reveal the destructiveness of sin and show a better way.

Silliness: Unsalty Salt & Hidden Lamps

Christ-followers who lose their savor are as silly as salt with no saltiness. Christ-followers who hide the Light are as silly as a hidden lamp. No, instead we have a purpose! We are to "let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." At times we are to be hidden, and at times we are to be visible, but at all times we are to make a difference - for good (and God's glory).

Reflecting God's Glory

What are some qualities and characteristics of a Christ-follower? If you were to hold a mirror up to your soul, what would you see? Boice wrote in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, that when we turn to the Beatitudes, "we find a portrait of Jesus." And when Jesus spoke these words, "He was telling the listeners how they could be deeply, spiritually, and profoundly happy and how they could maintain this happiness even in the midst of life's disappointments and hard times."

Instead of a selection of gifts (like the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians, or spiritual gifts found elsewhere in the New Testament), we are given a list of attributes. If you are a Christ-follower, then you are to be reflecting the Beatitudes.

I especially like what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: "So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord - who is the Spirit - makes us more and more like Him as we are changed into His glorious image." (2 Corinthians 3:18, NLT)

So, the question remains, are you deeply, spiritually, and profoundly happy? Even in the midst of life's disappointments?

Broken Bones and Wounded Hearts

When we pick up a book called, "The Blessed ____" (life, church, family, Christian) we're hoping it will show us how to gain God's "favor," right? We think of God pouring out blessings through health, or happiness, or riches, or friends, etc. We wouldn't sign up for the life of faith if it meant giving up a life of comfort, would we?

But Jesus said, "Those who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs."

Say what? The way of Christ isn't the easy way?

History tells us that the prophet Jeremiah was killed by stones. The prophet Ezekiel was killed. The prophet Amos was tortured and then killed. The prophet Isaiah was sawn in two.

Peter's upside down crucifixion. Depicted over a door at the Église St-Pierre, Aulnay, France.

Peter's upside down crucifixion. Depicted over a door at the Église St-Pierre, Aulnay, France.

John was the only apostle spared the martyr's death. Peter was crucified upside down. James was beheaded. Andrew was crucified on a diagonal cross. Philip was crucified. Bartholomew was flayed alive and then beheaded. Matthew was killed by a sword. Thomas was killed by a spear. Jude was clubbed to death and then beheaded. Simon the Zealot was sawn in half. Paul was beheaded.

Sign me up! Well, wait a minute . . .

But Jesus said, "You are blessed when they insult and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Doesn't make sense, does it? When persecuted . . . you should . . . rejoice? Really??

It's not that Christians are gluttons for punishment. Of course we would prefer a pat on the back to a slap on the face. But two things happen when we are persecuted because of our righteousness. First, we rejoice not in the pain, but in the future reward beyond the pain. Second, we rejoice because it is in persecution that we identify with Christ. We follow in His footsteps.

It may be large - as it is for many Christians around the world today who are literally dying for their faith. Or it may be small - as it is for many American Christians who are insulted for believing something so silly as the Bible. But persecution follows the true follower of Christ. And if Christ endured with joy, then so will we.

But one question remains: if persecution follows the true follower of Christ, are you experiencing persecution?

Sticks and Stones

Dale Carnegie wrote a classic book that's been a bestseller many times over. How to Win Friends and Influence People appeals to everything we desire. But what would we do with a book called How to Make Enemies and Receive Scorn? We might glance at it because of the title, we might buy it for the white elephant office party, but it's doubtful that we would make it the next book at our book club. After all, some of us don't need help making enemies!

But what if there's more joy in persecution than in ease? What if the tougher road leads to a beautiful vista, while the easy road is just a dead end? What if making enemies and receiving scorn is actually much more worthwhile in the end than winning friends and influencing people. Many years ago, John Calvin wrote:

Above all, it is  . . . the ordinary lot of Christians to be hated by the majority of men: for the flesh cannot endure the doctrine of the Gospel; none can endure to have their vices reproved.

The hearts of men and women will either be softened or hardened by the response of the Gospel. The message, "Love Wins," will either drive people further into hatred or drive people toward Christ who through His love for us enables us to love others.

When righteousness meets the immovable force of the evil in this world, there will be conflict. John Stott wrote, "Persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value systems." And so, there are only two responses to a righteous life: persecution or conversion. In fact, if you live like Jesus, you will be persecuted like Jesus.

I wish it weren't so.

I sometimes with people would respond with indifference. But it doesn't happen that way. History shows the world has not been kind to the prophets and apostles and disciples of Christ. The world has not been indifferent with them. The world has persecuted and martyred them. But that should not stop the Christ-follower from living a life of righteousness.

Even though sticks and stones may break my bones, I still want the world to know, "Love Wins!"

Bringing Peace Where There Is No Peace

A peaceful spirit arises from a pure heart. But it is not enough to be peaceful. The one who is blessed is one who seeks to bring peace. Especially where there is no peace. The peacemaker is one who looks for ways to reconcile those around him (or her). When the matter becomes particularly heated, the peacemaker steps in and suffers the blows as Christ stepped in for those He came to redeem.

But what about that sister . . . or boss . . . or roommate . . . or neighbor? The one you tried making things right with, and it just didn't work. I love how C.S. Lewis put it:

You know, in fact, that any attempt to talk things over with "X" will shipwreck on the old, fatal flaw of "X's" character . . . but when God looks into your home or factory or office, He sees one more person of the same kind - the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself. That is the next great step in wisdom - to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hope and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hope and plans have shipwrecked on theirs.
That is one way in which God's view must differ from mine. He sees all the characters: I see all except my own. But the second difference is this. He loves the people in spite of their faults. He goes on loving . . . The more we can imitate God in both these respects, the more progress we shall make. We must love "X" more; and we must learn to see ourselves as a person of exactly the same kind.

To be a peacemaker requires personal risk. It is to put one's own wellbeing, reputation, and life on the line to be a reconciler.

And when we put it on the line, we begin to reflect God's character!

Peacemakers Needed, Apply Within

Conflict is in our world. There is no getting around it. It is staggering to think that in the past four thousand years, there have only been less than three hundred years of peace. 300! Countries get mad, cities get invaded, and peace goes out the window.

Conflict is in our lives. There is no getting around it. Our nearest and dearest - whether they are neighbors, co-workers, classmates, friends, or family - eventually get under our skin. Even if we are a generally mellow soul. Feelings get hurt, words get said, and peace goes out the window.

Wouldn't it be great if there was a way beyond conflict? Wouldn't it be great if it didn't have to be this way? What would it take for us, for our families, for the world to leave conflict behind? Where can we find . . . peace?

We may strive for peace on earth. We may hope to achieve the end of wars. The Romans were known for conquering the world and establishing the Pax Romana, a centuries-long peace throughout the empire. But despite this great achievement, the war over the individual soul still waged.

The Gospel claims that God laid down arms against us. Think about that. He abandoned vengeance and retribution, poured it out on His Son, and offers peace for all who will likewise lay down their arms. And as we receive peace, we are told to be peacemakers.

I wish we had more peacemakers. I wish I was better at being a peacemaker. In the words of Francis of Assissi:

Seigneur, faites de moi un instrument de votre paix. Là où il y a de la haine, que je mette l'amour.    
(Lord, make us instruments of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

The Pure In Heart

When Jesus said, “The pure in heart are blessed,” it makes me wonder what does it mean to be “pure in heart?” Certainly, it could not mean minding a list of rules. It definitely does not mean having the appearance of perfection. Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 23:28 this way:

People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

So many church going folks think that’s the way to a pure heart. Holiness doesn’t just happen – you have to work for it. And so, they work for perfect (or very consistent) church attendance, they pray each day (sometimes several times), they fight for social justice, and on, and on, and on. We get busy working on our image.

There must be a different way to a pure heart. There must be a better way. Maybe the way is more in line with the thoughts of J.C. Ryle:

He means not those who do not aim merely at outward correctness, but at inward holiness. They are not satisfied with a mere external show of religion: they strive to have always a conscience void of offence, and to serve God with the spirit of the inner man.

Instead of working from the outside – in, being pure in heart means working from the inside – out. Purity cannot be achieved by human effort. Purity must come from within. And if it weren’t for the gospel, we would be in bad shape. But Jesus lived a life of purity and offers it freely to all who believe in Him. We can receive the clean slate that He earned, even though our hearts are a mess.

Freeing and Frightening

Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a huge debt. He couldn't pay up. So the king ordered the man, his wife, his children, and all his goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market. But the man threw himself at the king's feet and begged for mercy.

The king was moved. He showed mercy to the man and erased his debt.

Transient

No sooner than the man was out of the room, he came upon one of his fellow servants that owed him chump change. Grabbing him by the throat, he demanded swift payment. The other man begged for mercy, yet was thrown in jail until the debt was paid! The king found out.

And the king was furious! He sent for the man, told him of his outrageous hypocrisy, and threw him in jail until he could pay back the entire debt.

Jesus said, "So My heavenly Father will also do to you who doesn't forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy."

What we find is mercy is both freeing and frightening. Mercy is freeing in that each of us has accumulated a great spiritual debt that we cannot pay down. However, when the debt collector has arrived, we will find the debt has been paid. By trusting Jesus for salvation, we find that we no longer live with a debt weighing over our heads. We are freed! Remuneration is no longer expected!

On the other hand, mercy is frightening in that each of us must release claims that we might have on someone. If we forgive the debts of others, we cannot come back and remind them of their debt. It's been cleared. To be merciful is to say, "Any just claim I have against you - it never happened." We might lose some money, we might lose some emotional energy, we might lose some time - but we gain so much more. When we are merciful, we receive mercy!

Mercy

To be merciful is not natural. The world values retribution, not mercy. After all, the "mercy rule" is for little league players - not varsity sports! If a judge were to have mercy on a serial killer and give that person probation, people would be furious. The masses rejoiced when Saddam and Osama were killed. We love retribution, not mercy.

Mel Gibson gave us a great example in his movie, The Patriot. Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, is a veteran of the French and Indian Wars. Being a widowed father of seven, Martin was not interested in joining in with the militia to fight against the British. One of his sons goes off to fight in the Revolutionary War, but returns home wounded.

While Gabriel, the son, is recovering, the enemy arrives at the Martin's home. Gabriel is discovered, arrested, and taken as a prisoner of war. In protest, Benjamin's youngest son, Thomas, tries to free Gabriel, and he is shot on the spot.

Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in The Patriot

Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in The Patriot

The murder moves Benjamin Martin from pacifist to freedom fighter. He takes up arms against the British. Through guerrilla warfare, Benjamin frees his son and slaughters a host of British soldiers. Despite the fact that the movie is called "The Patriot," Benjamin is not portrayed as an individual that fights for his country. Instead, he is out for retribution - and we applaud.

We applaud because a great injustice is done. Benjamin Martin moved heaven and earth in order to right the wrong. He terrorized and slaughtered anyone in his path. There is no room for mercy; there is only cold hard justice.

And if they had murdered my son, I would have done the same!

I am not saying there is no place for justice. I am saying that our ideal is that justice be served, that we are awarded the retribution that we seek. If this is what we demand, and if this is what we seek, how can there be any hope for us?

Instead, Jesus told us the merciful are blessed, for they will receive mercy. Through the free gift of mercy that Jesus gave us, we can receive mercy - not the justice that we deserve!

Hunger and Thirst and Satisfaction

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled. There is a natural progression from spiritual bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3) to spiritual repentance (5:4) to spiritual humility (5:5) to spiritual desire (5:6). Spiritual bankruptcy leaves no room for pride, so "righteousness" can't mean "self-righteousness." Instead, it means living according to the will of God. This is what D. A. Carson wrote:

The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, then, hungers and thirsts for conformity to God's will. He is not drifting aimlessly in a sea of empty religiosity; still less is he puttering about distracted by inconsequential trivia . . . He wants to be righteous, not simply because he fears God, but because righteousness has become for him the most eminently desirable thing in the world.

And the promise is that as we desire righteousness, we will be filled. It reminds me of the woman at the well. Her life was a bit of a disaster, but she kept on. When she met Jesus at the well (in the middle of the day to avoid the town gossips), she heard words of life. He told her about a better water than the kind in the bottom of that well. He said, "Whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again - ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life."

Is Satisfaction Possible??

Billboards. Radio. Television. Internet. Friends. Everyday we are assaulted with the "bigger, better. stronger, faster" idea. My phone is two whole versions behind! My computer is (gasp) two years old! My clothes? Don't even look. My poor truck limps along like the aged 4 year old that it is. 

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sang it years ago:

When I'm drivin' in my car / and that man comes on the radio / he's tellin' more and more / about some useless information / supposed to fire my imagination . . . When I'm watchin' my T.V. / and that man come on to tell me / how white my shirts can be / but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke / the same cigarrettes as me . . . I can't get no satisfaction / I can't get no satisfaction / 'cause I try and I try and I try and I try / I can't get no, I can't get no satisfaction.

And as they sang, we joined in. We want to fight back against commercialism, but it doesn't work. We still buy the shirts, the cars, the computers, the phones, and whatever else they're peddling. Why? Because with each purchase we think we'll finally land on the elusive satisfaction that we want.

At our core, I believe we all desire spiritual satisfaction. We try to find it through various channels. But Jesus said, "Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be satisfied." Can that be possible? Can it be true? You bet. When we desire the righteousness of God more than we desire the very things we need to live (food and water), then He promises we will be satisfied. That is good news!

Meekness Under Provocation

Meekness is especially difficult when provoked and persecuted! Mirsolav Volf shares his experiences of interrogation in communist Yugoslavia and his ability to forgive those who harshly persecuted him. He recognizes that the Christian’s ability to meekly endure hardship and persecution is his understanding of divine vengeance. He writes in Exclusion and Embrace:

My thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance…My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West…But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit…Your point to them – we should not retaliate? Why not? I say, the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land – soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind…if God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

Our ability to endure suffering, forgive our persecutors, and bring the Gospel to them is founded in the understanding that God will one day right all wrongs. And since God will take up the sword, we should pray for and seek to bring reconciliation to anyone who risks encountering His justice. Vengeance is the Lord’s – meekness is the Christian’s.

Conquering Crowds Without A Sword

We have trouble with the idea of being meek. Probably because we think the word means to be powerless or weak. but it must not be confused with being wishy-washy. A meek person is not necessarily indecisive or timid. Nor is meekness to be confused with mere affability. Some people are just naturally nice and easy-going; but then again, so are some dogs! Meekness goes much deeper.

In the 2000 film, Gladiator, Russell Crowe plays the role of the loyal general Maximus Decimus Meridius. Maximus is betrayed by the Emperor’s son Commodus, who kills his own father for the throne. Maximus goes from prominence to despair, finding himself reduced to slavery and forced to fight as a gladiator in the arena.

Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridus in the movie Gladiator.

Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridus in the movie Gladiator.

As Maximus finds his way to the Coliseum, he is forced to fight against the undefeated gladiator Tigris. Having wounded Tigris, Commodus commands Maximus to execute the defeated gladiator. In an unprecedented move, Maximus refuses. He lays down his sword. Suddenly from the crowd comes a voice: “Maximus, Maximus, the merciful!” By restraining his power, Maximus exerted even more power over the emperor.

Although the Emperor sought to conquer through force and cruelty, he is defeated through an act of meekness. It is true that Maximus was skilled at war, but it was his meekness that conquered the crowds; it was his meekness that conquered Commodus.

Rising Above By Backing Down

Meekness is not weakness. Gentleness is not powerlessness. Meekness is submissiveness under provocation, the willingness rather to suffer than inflict injury. There are times when meekness is the strongest expression of determined resolve. One of the greatest civil rights activists was baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr. He is best known for advancing civil rights through the use of nonviolent civil disobedience during the 1950s-60s. Consider this quote from his Christmas sermon on December 24, 1967:

I've seen too much hate to want hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow, we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you . . . but be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

That's a powerful statement! "We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you." Martin Luther King was no coward. King was no wimp. But King found strength from a deeper well than most. For King (and for the Christian) strength to endure suffering is modeled in Christ's life and found in Christ's sacrifice.

Of that sacrifice, Peter wrote: He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when He was insulted, nor threaten revenge when He suffered. He left His case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. (1 Peter 2:22-23)

We need to rise above superficial Christianity! The simple platitudes and coffee-mug phrases won't do when suffering enters our lives. In order to endure the harshness of this world, we need to allow Christ to teach us the way of meekness and self-control.

The Strength Of Meekness

I just finished reading Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. She published the book in 1852 as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, and it became the second best-selling book in the 19th C behind only the Bible. The story is basically centered around two slaves sold off the Shelby Plantation - Elize (escapes to Canada) and Tom (killed by the whip of LeGree).

Hammet Billings' engraving in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Hammet Billings' engraving in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The book only makes sense when read through the lens of the 1850s. In her time, Stowe was able to humanize the ugly institution of slavery. The white man of the South looks harsh and inhumane. The white man of the North looks too willing to look the other way. And the occasional clergyman looks foolish. Two groups of heroes emerge through the Mennonite Friends of the North and the Canadians. 

Uncle Tom took me by surprise. I was expecting a subservient black man who mindlessly, and weakly followed the orders and wishes of the "superior" white slave owner. Totally wrong. While it's true that he followed orders (as a slave) he in no way checks his mind, and he never appears weak. It did not take long to realize that most public people who throw around the phrase "Uncle Tom" (see here and here) most likely have not read the book!

The most impressive characteristic of Tom was his meekness. Too many times we equate "weakness" with "meekness." Tom shows us the strength of meekness, especially in contrast to the "strength" of the white slave holder in the South, and the white law maker in the North. Throughout the book, the other characters are either drawn or repelled by Tom's meekness.

Jesus said: "The meek are blessed, for they will inherit the earth." This Sunday we are going to look at what it means to be meek and how to live a life of meekness. I can't wait!