Pure in Heart

Matthew 5:3-8

Grace, mercy, and peace are always for you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Our world is such a broken, imperfect place, filled with temptation, corrupted by attitudes and behaviors of the cultures in which we live. How could any of us keep a pure heart? Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus says concisely, powerfully. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” So my question is, How can any of us receive a pure heart?

Advertisers hustle their products as pure, claiming pure pleasure, pure satisfaction. Animal breeders produce purebred horses, pigs, dogs, cats. We desire pure silver or gold. We drink pure water. We want to wear clothing made from pure fabrics like silk, cotton, or wool because they are exquisite in their appearance, comfort, and endurance.

Pure! One hundred percent, undiluted, uncompromised, unmixed.

Hospitals around the world have infection-control departments. They have processes for sterilization of medical equipment because they need pure, germ-free environments so patients may gain health. Purity is important.

God seeks men and women with pure hearts. Hosea 6:6 says, “I delight not in sacrifice but in loyalty and obedience.” When the prophet Samuel came to Jesse’s house to anoint the next King of Israel in I Samuel 16, he looked at the older sons and thought they were the ones, but the Spirit said, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

How can I have a pure heart? Purity is being clean, free of contamination, free of immorality (especially sexual immorality), free from impurity, free from corruption, absolutely conforming to a standard of quality, flawless, faultless. This definition makes purity difficult to attain.

Acts 13 describes King David as a man after God’s own heart. Yet he had great moral failings in his life. We especially remember him sleeping with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and then, when she was found to be pregnant, having Uriah murdered. When he was confronted with his sin, David wrote these powerful words of Psalm 51: “You desire truth in my inward parts. Purify me, and I will be clean, O Lord. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” David was far from perfect, but he was purely devoted to seek, serve, love, and honor God.

Have you ever been in a restaurant where they served you an entrée that was less than perfect? The proverbial fly in the soup. Sometimes I think we offer God a fly in the soup. We think, God understands I’m not perfect. The liturgy confession says, “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.” We also sin in attitudes and motives. We offer God a fly in the soup.

Fredrik Wisloff, in his devotional book, “Rest a While,” says, “Every human is by nature desiring honor. Who doesn’t like to be well spoken of? We dismiss kind words, proud of our own modesty, but in our hearts we’re really agreeing with the person who praised us, feeling it is well deserved. To feed on the praise of others is the danger of making ourselves small. We can become slaves of other people’s approval. We desire honor and recognition from others in a way that might hinder or cripple our faith. Faith’s one goal should be to honor Christ. The true believer has no ulterior motives, desires nothing for himself but all for Christ. Where faith lives, the desire for honor dies.”

Purity of heart, though, is more than just the removal of dirt. It’s also the way our minds and our hearts think and feel. It’s more than vacuuming our living room or washing a car. Who can help us?

Ezekiel 36:25 says this: “God promises, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you. You will be clean.” God has to wash our hearts. I will cleanse you from all your filthiness, from all your idols. Moreover, I’ll go even beyond that. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. It’s beautiful! It is the power of God that gives every believer a pure heart. It’s the gift of Jesus Himself – a pure gift. Not only is the pure heart a gift – not earned – it is given to us even in the face of our defiant rebellion and immorality. The pure love of Jesus cleanses us. The blood of the pure Son of God gives us a pure heart. Our response to Jesus is, I belong to you, Lord.

When I was an undergraduate at Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the campus pastor was the late Rev. Mark Jerstad. He told the story of when he was in college at St. Olaf and fell madly in love with a young lady named Sandy. It was the spring semester of the year, and he was so wild about her that he proposed marriage. But she didn’t give him an immediate verbal answer.

She still hadn’t responded as they waited for a bus to take Sandy home for the summer. When the bus pulled up, she placed a card in his hand, gave him a kiss, and boarded the bus. As the bus pulled away, Mark opened the card like a crazy man to read the words Sandy had penned: “Yours with a will to love.”

That’s how we respond to God’s gift of Jesus to us. Yours with a will to love.

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian and writer, once said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing. We must extract from our hearts all the elements contrary to the singular purpose of loving God. The only way to have a pure heart is to have a heart cleansed by divine love.”

John MacArthur, preacher of Grace to You Ministries, offers a perspective on purity that I find helpful. “First of all, a pure heart is an imputed purity.” So when Paul writes in Philippians 3 – not having a righteousness of my own but that which is given to me through Jesus Christ – MacArthur is saying God imputes a purity to us. It’s a conferred purity in Jesus’ name. God looks at us through Christ’s purity.

Second, MacArthur also says it is a regenerational purity. The Holy Spirit, working within us, gives a new birth to our soul. Our desires change. We have holy aspirations, holy longings. We now have a holy love for the Word of God. We have a spontaneous love of worship for God, a love of gathering in fellowship with other Christians in the body of Christ, a joy in serving God in daily life, and a hope of the glory of heaven and seeing Christ’s face in glory someday.

Third, MacArthur says, God gives us a practical purity. This is a conscious purging – cleansing ourselves from filthiness and fleshly desires. It is similar to the fearless moral inventory participants must do at AA. We need to honestly look at our lives in light of the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and ask ourselves what needs to be cleaned. What patterns of behavior need to stop? What attitudes are not appropriate for the person who wants his life to reflect the love of Jesus Christ?

Do you remember singing this song in Sunday school:
“Oh, be careful little eyes what you see . . .
Oh, be careful little ears what should you hear . . .
Oh, be careful little feet where you go . . .
For the Father up above is looking down in love.
Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.”

It is similar to what Paul writes, “Whatever is good or excellent, beautiful or pure, think on these things, and God’s peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8).

What are the signs of a pure heart? The first would be  a  sincere integrity of faith that is lived authentically. In the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego, the book of Daniel speaks of this kind of integrity of faith. When King Nebuchadnezzar demanded that they bow down to the golden image statue he had set up, they knew it would be wrong and unfaithful to Yahweh. So they declined. They stood bold and tall when everyone else fell down as the music played.

King Nebuchadnezzar was informed of Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego’s refusal to bow down. He called them and said with anger, I’ll give you another chance. When the music plays, you better bow down. Otherwise, I’ll throw you in the fiery furnace!

Listen to what Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego said to King Nebuchadnezzar: “O King. We do not need to deliberate. We will not bow down to your image. Our God is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace. But even if he does not deliver us and we die, we will not bow down to your image.”

You see, Shadrach, Meshak and Abednego already had a preeminent loyalty of their pure hearts where they trusted Yahweh above all else.

The second aspect or sign of a pure heart is a continued hunger for our hearts to be purged, a longing to be holy, belonging to God. We participate in the continual confession to God of the areas of our life that need to be purified. We surrender those areas of our life to the Spirit’s work.

The third sign of a pure heart is a hatred of sin. Our hearts are broken and contrite before a holy God whom we love with gratitude. Therefore, we repent of our sin. We loathe our old behavior patterns, hurtful words spoken, and wrong attitudes that hurt God, diminish our vibrancy of faith, and hurt the people around us. We hate sin. Scripture tells us, “Flee immorality” (I Cor. 6:18).

The fourth is a passion for God’s mission. We are excited and committed to invite other people to experience Jesus’ grace with us.

The fifth sign of a pure heart is living with a heart full of awe. This means having a conscious awareness that we live in the presence of the holy One. We worship God every day and see Him at work in life realities. King David recognized that the only good in him was God in him. All great godly leaders are people who are willing to step aside from their own ego building and self-confidence to humble themselves before Almighty God.

President Theodore Roosevelt often went outdoors at night and looked up into the sky simply to remind himself of his humanity compared to the vastness of the universe.

This is good counsel for us as believers of Christ. As we look into the glory of creation, we also look into the glory of Jesus Christ – crucified for us on the cross and raised from the dead – and we realize God’s gift to us is a pure heart. In response, we devote ourselves in loyalty and commitment to Christ. Lou Holtz once said, “The Japanese Kamikaze pilot who flew ten missions was involved, but never committed.”

Do you have a pure heart in faith? Are you totally devoted to Jesus? Are you not only grateful for forgiveness, but also loyal to Him alone?

How can we have a pure heart? It is a gift from God, and we gladly receive it in faith. We trust that the Spirit of Jesus purifies and cleanses our heart, and we are pure.

But then we join David in his words. They become the prayer words of our soul, “O God, purify me, and I will be clean. Wash me and I will be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Lord, I give you my heart. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Distinct in Integrity

Bible Reference:  Matthew 5:33-37

Life is filled with many promises both made and received. As receivers, we desire people around us to keep their promises and to be truthful with us.

I really appreciate the person whose word is their bond. As citizens, for instance, we want our government leaders and politicians to be trustworthy and to keep their promises. As customers, we want the products we purchase to work just as promised. As married couples, we want our spouse to be faithful to their promise and truthful, even in the little things of life. If a volunteer said yes to performing a duty for us in our church, we like to know they will be reliable and do the job.

Unfortunately, though, we live in a world where many times that does not happen. Promises are easily made and easily broken on a regular basis. Truthfulness gets set aside, and people get hurt. Jesus addresses this subject in today’s text from His Sermon on the Mount.

Just by way of review, it’s important for us to remember that the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to kingdom-of-heaven citizens. It is given to those who have received the righteousness of God into their lives, received new birth, and then, filled with the Holy Spirit, live a new life as members of His kingdom with a sincere desire to show grateful love to God and to do life His way.

Jesus has been teaching about the deeper righteousness of the kingdom-of-heaven citizen, and what it looks like in life situations. He talks of such subjects as murder, adultery, divorce and relates them to matters of the heart. Six times in chapter 5, Jesus says, “You have heard it said . . .” about a particular commandment. Then He would say, “but I say to you . . .” and He would challenge the religious establishment’s shallow interpretation of the commands of God.

Today we see Jesus doing this again. He addresses the subject of giving your word – making oaths and vows. He states, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

A couple things jump out at us in this teaching of Jesus. First of all, Jesus seems to be challenging the shady practices of religious authorities like the scribes and Pharisees. They had devised a system around making oaths, which actually ended up promoting lying and gave people permission to not keep their promises.

Jesus tells them they were playing word games here, because the religious experts were tinkering with the formula. Making an oath in the Old Testament was important to God, but they were changing the formula of these oaths. They were changing some of the wording in order to not use the name of the Lord in it, saying they did not want to profane the name of the Lord. Instead they would make promises and swear by heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem, or by their very life – their head. Then they would reason that, since these oaths weren’t made in the name of God, they weren’t necessarily binding or important to keep.

It reminds me of keeping our fingers crossed behind our back when we make a promise to someone. They were being totally dishonest, and Jesus points this out. He says these kinds of word games are ridiculous and harmful, and far from our heavenly Father’s will.

The next point Jesus makes is the bottom line. He says, Here is how the-kingdom-of-God people – my followers — are to operate. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything more than this comes from evil.

God wants His people to be honest with their words and promises. They should never, ever have to preface anything with an oath or a statement such as, This is really true. I cross my heart and hope to die, or I swear on a stack of Bibles. He wants us to simply work at being trustworthy in this crooked world of ours. That will make you distinct. Your faithfulness will stand out. Be true to your word and conduct yourself with integrity. Say what you mean; mean what you say. That’s what Jesus is telling us.

Kingdom-of-God people are rock solid in keeping promises. Even when circumstances change, they still keep their word. The psalmist says “Blessed is the man who keeps his word, even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:4).

I think Jesus is also saying that being a person of your word means being careful with your words when you make promises. Sometimes we can be a little fast and loose with the promises we make to people. It can be all too easy to make those promises when you’re emotionally involved. You just want to make things right, or you’re trying to please somebody. You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or you might see it as a mere formality just to get the transaction closed and the deal done. Perhaps you are afraid, or are protecting yourself, or trying to impress someone. Jesus seems to be saying that it seems wise and faithful to stop and ask yourself, Will I and can I keep these promises? And if I can’t, am I willing to say no. We sometimes need to learn to discipline ourselves and say, No. I can’t promise that, or to at least say I can’t promise that, but we’ll see.

Jesus is being very clear though. His people – those who follow Him – are called to be promise keepers in every area of our lives. Just think of all the areas of our lives where we make promises. Some of them are major promises, such as promising our lives to a spouse. Vows were made before God at an altar. You give your word to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, till death do you part. You promise yourself for the long run.

Some of us have promised God at the baptism of our children to do everything in our power to make sure this child comes to know and grow in Jesus Christ. We raise them in the faith, take them to His church and make sure that they learn about Jesus.

Many of you have joined a church congregation. You made a promise to the community of faith to be a regular worshiper, to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed, to serve others following the example of Jesus, and to support your local ministry.

How about on the job? When you sign on the dotted line with an employer, you promise to work hard, do your job as well as you possibly can, and be a team player – honest, loyal, trustworthy.

You promise your banker or your loan institution to pay back the money they loaned you so you could purchase the home you want for your family.

You’re on the stand in a courtroom perhaps. You promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. You’ve promise to deliver the truth to the justice process.

Ordinary daily promises are important, too. You promise to meet someone at a certain time. Or you promise to have a work project completed at a certain date. You make a bid on a project or job for someone saying, I’ll do it for this much and get it done at this time. Perhaps you promised to do a favor for a fellow employee, friend, relative, or child. You can count on me! you said.

A favorite among Christians is our promise to pray for one another. It is important for us to keep that promise as well, for following through on it reflects on our trustworthiness in everyday matters. Not keeping these promises can actually develop into bad habits, which can lead to becoming calloused inside and eventually being dishonest in the bigger things of life as well. Then it becomes easier to not be a person of our word.

Jesus, in saying, Let your yes be yes and your no be no, is telling us to KEEP YOUR WORD in everything. Be careful as you make promises to keep them so you can be a person who is dependable, reliable, and trustworthy.

A story comes to mind about a missionary and explorer, David Livingstone. He wanted to find a route across Africa from the east to the west. So he used many of the local folks in Africa to come with him and help. These locals put their lives on the line as they hacked their way through the jungles.

When they finally reached the other coast, an English steamer was sitting in the harbor. The captain of this steamer called Livingstone a hero and offered him a free ride back home to England. “We need to take you back so you can you tell what you’ve done!” But Livingstone replied, “I promised these men who helped me that I would lead them back to their homes. They need me.” While the captain and others tried to reason with him – You’re an important man, now. They’ll understand. They can take care of themselves – Livingstone refused. “No. I gave them my word.” At the risk of his own life, he led those people back to their homes. He was a man of his word. This is what Jesus is talking about today.

Why is integrity so important to God? He wants your relationships to be healthy and to glorify Him, because He loves you. He wants your life to work well. Integrity makes for healthier relationships as well as a healthier society. It’s an action of love for neighbor.

But even more importantly, it makes you credible to those with whom you are sharing the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe you have heard the statement: What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say. When you think about it, we really shouldn’t be surprised that God would desire this from us as His citizens, for He is the greatest promise keeper of all! God promised Abraham to make his descendants a blessing to the nations, and that promise was fulfilled. Matthew chapter one gives the family tree and proves how God in Christ fulfilled His promise to Abraham as He sent Jesus to die for the sins and forgiveness of the world.

Therefore, if integrity and faithfulness to His promises are what God’s all about, as ambassadors of His Kingdom representing Him in this world, it brings Him glory when we are people of our word.

Jesus’ appeal to us this day is to be a person of integrity. Keep your word. Be a promise keeper.

Someone might ask how they can grow in that ability, because it’s sometimes tough to follow through or even to remember promises. First, it begins with making a commitment to the God who loves you that you want to be a person of integrity for His cause. You commit to being a person who says what you mean and means what you say.

It also involves claiming His promise to you. When you ask Jesus Christ into your life, you belong to Him, and you have the powerful, transforming Spirit of God residing in you to help you become a person of integrity. Jesus called the Spirit of God our Helper, our Counselor, one who can get us healthy and follow through on integrity.

Pray daily for His help along the way, for Him to convict you when you’re straying from the honesty plan God has for you and to give you courage to follow through on your promises, no matter how painful.

Find a Christian brother or sister to be accountable to, someone you know who is trustworthy, someone with whom you can be transparent, and seek their guidance and encouragement.

Finally, keep the faith. Keep believing that God loves you and wants the best for your life. When His word says telling the truth and keeping promises is the healthiest way to conduct yourself in relationships, put your faith in that word. Although it may be painful and costly at times, believe in the promise that God will not desert you. He will take care of you as you act in faith.

I want to finish this message on a note of grace. If you have stumbled in this area of life, let me share a very important message with you today. There is One who died upon a cross to pay for your sin. Forgiveness is offered to us as we trust Christ and ask for cleansing and help. “If we confess our sins (to God), he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). A new start in life is yours for the receiving.

Don’t give up! Don’t give up the battle! This is a promise God gives us to build our new life upon. Now, may our faithful God and Father bless you and help you to be a distinct person of integrity in a world that so desperately longs for people who can be trusted. To God be the glory. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Distinct in My Sexual Life

Matthew 5:27-30

Does God really care about your sex life as a Christian? Of course He does! He is interested in every area of your life! After all, He created you, and He bought you with a price through His Son Jesus Christ. He gave this particular gift to you as a beautiful gift for procreation and as a means of expressing intimacy between you and your spouse in marriage. But, like all gifts God has given, this gift is meant to be treated responsibly. If you are a citizen of His kingdom through your trust in Jesus Christ, He wants you to live a life of sexual purity, to be distinct in this overly sexual-saturated society in which we live.

Jesus talks about this in today’s passage, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Adultery, of course, is voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person – married or not – other than his or her spouse. This statement – You shall not commit adultery – is part of the Ten Commandments. Adultery is sharply condemned by God from the beginning of Scripture to the end. It is considered totally out of bounds.

We see in this command how highly God honors and glorifies the married life, and how He wants us to honor and maintain it, cherish it and protect it. Martin Luther says, This commandment requires everyone to not only live chastely in thought, word, and deed in marriage, but to also love and cherish the wife or husband whom God has given. For marital chastity to be maintained, it is above all things essential that husband and wife live together in love and harmony, cherishing each other wholeheartedly and with perfect fidelity. Sex is to be only between a husband and a wife who have totally committed themselves to one another at the altar.

Jesus takes this command a little deeper though, beyond the physical to the heart. The heart is our control center. It’s where our will resides. This command is also about the heart! Listen to these authoritative words of Jesus: “You’ve heard that you shall not commit adultery, but I say if you look at a woman with lust (or if you’re a woman – look at a man), you have already committed adultery in your heart. Just as the prohibition of murder included angry thoughts and insulting words, so the prohibition of adultery includes lustful looks and imagination. As we can commit murder with our words, we can commit adultery with our minds.

It’s important to note a couple things here. Jesus, first of all, is not saying it is wrong to simply look at a woman, but to lustfully look at her is wrong. You know the difference between looking and lusting. To lust after something is to gaze longingly at it. To covet it, to desire it, wanting to possess it, letting your imagination run wild and imagine having sexual relations with this person if you could.

This also refers to all forms of sexual immorality being displeasing to God, to let our minds and our eyes go there. But do note the relationship between our eyes and our control center – the heart – that Jesus makes here. Heart adultery is a result of eye adultery. It is stimulated by the eyes of the flesh. Typically deeds of shame are preceded by fantasies of shame and the inflaming of the imagination, which comes by the undisciplined look of the eyes. It is highly doubtful if any human being falls victim to immorality who has not first opened the gates of passion through their eyes. Then the fantasizing begins and trouble follows.

Therefore, the only way to deal with the problem, it appears, is at its beginning, which are our eyes. Jesus talks about that in the following verses. He gives a kingdom principle for maintaining sexual purity in our heart and flesh. “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”

This seems to be a favorite saying of Jesus. He quoted it more than once. Later in the Gospel, He added the foot to the list as He talks about overcoming the temptation to sin.

Jesus paints a very startling, dramatic picture here, doesn’t He. Pluck out an offending eye? Cut off a hand? What in the world is He talking about?

A few Christians in the past have unfortunately taken this saying literally and mutilated their bodies. It’s too bad, because this command is an example of our Lord’s use of dramatic figures of speech called hyperbole. He’s making a point. He’s trying to get our attention. He is not advocating maiming of the body, but is advocating moral self denial. It is what some would call the mortification of the flesh, a willingness to take up the cross and reject sinful practices so resolutely that we do whatever it takes to put them to death in us.

What Jesus appears to be saying in this passage is if your eye causes you to sin (because temptation comes to you through your eyes), then don’t look. And if temptation comes to you through your hands (the things you do), then don’t do that. And if it comes to you through your feet going where they should not be going, then don’t go there. Don’t put yourself in the position to be tested and maybe conquered by this sin.

We live in an overly sex-saturated society today. Look at billboards and TV advertising, for instance. We know sex sells. It is used to market everything from beverages to cars to vacations. When you watch the TV set, surf the Internet, watch movies, read various magazines, you find a lot of moral sexual filth in this world of ours. Pornography, for instance, is taking over many people’s lives as an addiction. It is wrecking so many marriages and lives these days. As a pastor, I have seen this firsthand in my counseling of married couples.

This stuff works across the generations. I recently came across an article that startled me. The article was called “Retired and Looking at Pornography.” It talked about grandmas and grandparents getting hooked on this stuff, talking in chat rooms, and so forth.

When Jesus talks of watching your eyes and hands, He is issuing a call to be on guard. Like the Old Testament verse says, “Guard your heart; it’s the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23). He is saying that it is, first of all, important for you and me to recognize we’re in a battle. A war is going on for our souls. Paul talks about it in Ephesians 6 where he describes the battle tactics of Satan who wants to pull you away from life with Christ and destroy you. He’ll use this in that way.

In the military, the posting of sentries is a common military tactic. Likewise, moral sentry duty at the perimeters of your life is equally vital. We need to be on guard. To obey this command of Jesus, then, involves eliminating the source of temptation from our lives. We have to be willing to take extreme measures to control where our eyes see and our hands take hold because some of these things can cause us to fall. It means declining to read certain literature or watch certain movies or visit questionable Web sites. What you feed your mind and imagination really does matter, Jesus is telling us, and it’s better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next.

The Apostle Paul would tell us to instead, fill your mind with good healthy, uplifting things. Healthy hearts need a healthy diet. So we take His words to heart, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Feed your mind good stuff.

Remember the old gospel hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus”. I was reminded of it when I read this article by John Piper, a pastor who has recently retired. “We must not give a sexual image or impulse more than five seconds before we mount a violent counterattack with the mind. Five seconds. In the first two seconds we shout, ‘NO! Get out of my head!’ In the next two seconds, we cry out, ‘O God, in the name of Jesus, help me! Save me, now. I am Yours.’

“Good beginning. But then the real battle begins. This is a mind war. The absolute necessity is to get the image and the impulse out of our mind. How? Get a counter-image into the mind. Fight. Push. Strike. Don’t ease up. It must be an image so powerful that the other image cannot survive. There are lust-destroying images and thoughts.

“For example,” Piper says, “have you ever in the first five seconds of temptation, demanded of your mind that it looked steadfastly at the crucified form of Jesus Christ? Picture this. You have just seen a peekaboo blouse inviting further fantasy. You have five seconds. ‘No! Get out of my mind! God help me!’

“Now, immediately, demand of your mind – you can do this by the Spirit (Romans 8:13) –  to fix its gaze on Christ on the cross. Use all your fantasizing power to see His lacerated back. Thirty-nine lashes left little flesh intact. He heaves with His breath up and down against the rough vertical beam of the cross. Each breath puts splinters into the lacerations. The Lord gasps. From time to time, He screams out with intolerable pain. He tries to pull from the wood and the massive spikes through His wrist rip into the nerve endings, and He screams again with agony and pushes up with His feet to give some relief to His wrists. But the bones and nerves in His pierced feet crush against each other with anguish, and He screams again. There is no relief. His throat is raw from screaming and thirst. He loses His breath and thinks He is suffocating, and suddenly His body involuntary gasps for air and all the injuries unite in pain.

“Now I am not thinking about the blouse anymore. I am at Calvary.”

Turn your eyes to the crucified Jesus. And stand firm. Be resolute. This is an imperative Jesus gives us.

You must keep in mind, this kind of thinking runs counter to our present-day standards of permissiveness. It might make you an object of ridicule amongst your peers who call your attitude prudish. My response to that is, So what? Jesus talked about carrying a cross and denying Himself for us, didn’t He? Jesus’ instructions are based on the principle that eternity is more important than anything else this world has to offer. You and I have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next. Whether to follow the crowd or follow Jesus Christ. Christ is unveiling for us a whole new way of being human in the kingdom of God. It might look strange to this world, but Jesus Himself pioneered it and invites us to follow.

I want to conclude this message, though, on a note of grace. If you have fallen prey to this kind of sin, if you are struggling with today’s message from Jesus, I have some hopeful good news for you. You have a Savior. His name is Jesus Christ, and He went to the cross to pay for all your sins. He rose from that grave, and forgiveness is yours for the receiving. A new, clean slate awaits you. It’s a matter of repentance, leaving behind the old and moving toward Him. It’s a matter of faith. Trusting in what Jesus Christ did for you at the cross and that He, as your Lord, knows what makes life work best for you – doing life His way. Forgiveness and rescue await those who turn to Jesus Christ for rescue. That is good news!

You have a promise about the faithfulness of God to help you along the way. Paul says, “No testing has overtaken you except that which is common to everyone. God is faithful; He will not let you be tested beyond your strength. But with the testing, he will provide a way out so you may be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13). You are not alone in this!

Finally, if you’re struggling with an addiction in this area of your life, with Christ’s help you can be free of this. In Christ the Holy Spirit resides in you. The power of God is available that changes people. So pray, fill your heart with His Word, and find someone to whom you can be accountable.

I recommend another step to take as well. It is wise to seek out a Christian counselor and a support group to help you get on the road to healing and then keep you on a healthy trajectory.

These are life-changing tools that God has provided for you to live distinctly in this area of your life for Jesus Christ. May you fight the good fight and run the good race for Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Distinct in My Approach to Conflict

Biblical Reference: Matthew 5:17-26

A question has been posed to me in the past: Do the Commandments of the Old Testament still apply for the Christian? Is the Old Testament still legitimate for the follower of Jesus? Some people might say no. What do you think?

Jesus answers that question in today’s passage as He talks about righteousness in the life of a follower of Christ. He said, “Do you think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets? I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”

First, we need to look at what are the Law and Prophets Jesus is speaking about. He is talking about the entire Old Testament – the Commandments, the first five books, the prophetic writings like Jeremiah and Malachi, and the wisdom writings.

When He says, “Do you think . . . “, He is answering the Jewish religious authorities’ accusations that He was repealing the Old Testament teachings. They didn’t like His attitudes toward Old Testament laws on issues such as Sabbath-keeping. He trampled all over the rules and traditions they had set up around this commandment, and it irritated them to no end. Who does he think he is trying to repeal our commandments?

People also noticed that Jesus taught as One with great authority. He didn’t quote other rabbis or experts. He just spoke His Word based upon Himself. People would comment about this new teaching with such authority. The religious authorities wondered if Jesus was abandoning the Old Testament and setting aside Moses’ laws from God.

Well, Jesus emphatically says in this passage, Anyone who thinks the Commandments in the Old Testament aren’t important to me, you’ve got me all wrong. “I have come not to set them aside but to fulfill them,” which means to fill them.

How does Jesus fulfill the Old Testament?

First of all, we have the doctrinal teachings in the Old Testament where we learn about God and man, and God’s plan to rescue this broken world. But it is only a partial revelation. Jesus is the One who completes God’s plans in the New Testament.

Then we have the prophecies that look forward to the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Jesus comes in and announces the time is fulfilled with His ministry. The climax was His death on the cross in which the perfect fulfillment of sacrifice for sin was made.

Now the ceremonial, sacrificial system is no longer needed. It is abolished in that way. But its significance is much more meaningful as we look at the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, once and for all, for humankind’s sin.

The Old Testament also contains the moral laws of God, the ethical precepts which were often misunderstood and disobeyed. Jesus is here to explain their intentions, why God gave them to the people. He fulfilled them by His perfect obedience. He followed them to the max.

He rejects the crazy interpretation of God’s Commandments the Pharisees and scribes had placed upon the Laws with all their cumbersome, man-made rules, regulations, and traditions that were burdening people. He came to give us the straight scoop on God’s intentions for His Commandments. He came, not to annul God’s Law, but to reveal the full depth of its meaning.

The Law still applies to Christ’s followers, according to Jesus, for living a responsive, righteous life before our God of grace whom we love. Jesus expects His followers to live by them. These laws will not pass away. And He wants His followers to teach them to others. In fact, He wants our righteousness and obedience to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes, which must have seemed shocking for people to hear then and makes us uncomfortable as well.

But Jesus was talking about a different kind of righteousness. The Pharisees and scribes had an external righteousness and obedience. They were living by the rules in order to get right with God. Jesus was saying this is way off base from God’s intentions. It’s not why He gave the law. With all their traditions and special rules, they had built a fence around the Commandments and were doing nothing but leading people to a dead end. This legalism was just burdening people, and God never intended for it to be that way when He gave the Commandments.

In fact, that’s why later on Jesus said to those who were struggling under this legalistic interpretation of God’s Law, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden (who are under this legalistic system), and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke (my yoke), is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

Jesus is telling us that God is interested in loyalty to Him and love for Him, not the legalism people were being taught. For those of us who trust Him and follow Him, Jesus is describing a call to a deeper righteousness than the rule keeping of the Pharisees and scribes. It is more than external. It is an internal thing, a heart thing. It is a righteousness of the heart, an inward righteousness of our mind and our motives. It is a wholehearted obedience that stems from a grateful heart, which just can’t say I love you, Lord enough.

The Prophets of the Old Testament actually talked of the promised day when God would write the Law upon His people’s hearts, and He would put His Spirit within them and cause them to walk in His ways. Well, that day has come in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to save us from our sins and bring us into His kingdom. This deeper righteousness and obedience He is calling us to as His followers is now made possible through the working of God’s Spirit, which dwells within those of us who have been born again in Christ.

We have to remember, now, who Jesus is addressing in this passage. He is speaking to His followers who have received Him and will soon receive the Holy Spirit. It is also addressed to those of us who will receive Him and receive His Holy Spirit later on.

So Jesus is telling us, Yes! The Commandments really do matter. They matter to Him, and He wants them to matter to us, His followers, as well. Follow them not to save yourself, but to express your love for the God who loves you.

Jesus then moves on to give us a concrete example of what He means when He talks about a righteousness that exceeds, a deeper righteousness. He uses the fifth commandment, Thou shalt not murder. “You have heard it said to those of old (meaning the scribes and Pharisees), ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment . . .’”

By the way, the scribes and Pharisees added on the last part of that Commandment. It’s not even in the Ten Commandments.

For most of us though, we might think this is an easy command to follow. I’ve never murdered anyone. I don’t think I would ever do that. But listen to this: Jesus takes it deeper, right to the heart of the matter and traces murder to a dark hiding place in the human heart – hatred. With authority like God, He says, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you that everybody who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable . . . ; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell.”

Anger. The word used here means to harbor and nurture hatred in the heart toward someone else, to nurture resentment, to want revenge. Jesus says It has no place in My kingdom among My followers, and it will face the judgment of God in the end. He gets to the root of murder as He points to anger and talks about words and the power of words to kill. We know the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Jesus takes that one away from us. He says,
• Whoever insults his brother . . . The word used here is “Raca” which means calling him stupid, challenging him or looking with contempt upon his intellect.
• Whoever says You fool . . . , which means moron. The Old Testament meaning is one who is looked upon as having very poor or questionable character and doesn’t respect God.
• Whoever insults his brother . . . One who casts contempt on a person’s intellect and character has committed murder, which has consequences.

If you are a member of Christ’s kingdom, if you’ve tasted His grace in your life and you love Him for all He has done for you, then you are to avoid these things like the plague! As people of the new birth in Christ, we can avoid these things and instead act in love toward our brothers and sisters because we are powered by the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in us! We can move toward love as we have been loved by Christ.

Jesus continues. Now let’s say you have gotten into a conflict with someone. You’ve committed an offense like what I just described against someone and are wondering what to do next. To put this in our modern-day terms: If you are in church in the middle of a service of worship, and you suddenly remember your brother has a grievance against you, leave church at once and put it right. Ask for forgiveness from that person, and then come and offer your worship to God. First things first. Reconcile with that person. We are to be reconciling in our relationships with one another.

Reconciliation is a favorite word for the Christian. It’s a grace word for us. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. God was taking steps to fix the broken relationship between Himself and humankind. It was a gracious act on God’s part because we’re the ones who offended Him with our sin. Yet, He took the step of reconciliation toward us through His Son Jesus Christ while we were still His enemies by offering us forgiveness.

So Jesus is telling us we are to be reconcilers. If you have done something that has offended, you’ve gotten into a conflict with someone or maybe someone has even hurt you, hurtful words have been spoken or actions taken that have wounded, Jesus tells us to go – and go right away – and say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Do it even before you worship God. Don’t hide behind your piety. Make things right.

As I read this passage, I’m reminded of the ninth step in the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step program, which says that after you have made a list of the people you’ve hurt along the way (step eight), go and make amends with them (step nine).

Well, there you have it! That is Christ’s plan for people like you and me who trust and follow Him. We are to be stand outs in this unrighteous world with a distinct, deeper righteousness and obedience as we live out our relationships with God and other people. We are to be people committed to doing things God’s way out of gratitude and devotion for all He has done for us. And with the Spirit’s help, we are to be people who are aware of the anger and the junk residing within us – the hatred, ego, pride – and deal with it in the name of Christ.

Finally, we are to be reconciling people who go and ask for forgiveness right away when we are failing at love.

Are there any relationships in your life that need your attention? Is there someone you have wounded along the way and need to reconcile with? Turn off this service now, and go! Or pick up the phone, put it right in Christ’s name. Do it out of love for Jesus Christ who first loved you at His cross. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Distinct in Character

Biblical Reference: Matthew 5:1-12

I remember being asked as a kid, What do you want to be when you grow up? Maybe you were asked that question too. I gave a variety of answers: fireman, ballplayer, actor, teacher. One time I even said I’d like to be a pastor. When our little girl Martha was asked that question one day, she replied, “I want to be the President of the United States!”

Imagine asking Jesus, What do you want us to be when we grow up? Jesus points out the answer to that question in today’s biblical text. He holds up a character portrait of what He has in mind for us. However, Jesus focuses not on careers but on character.

The portion of Scripture I read earlier is referred to as the Beatitudes. I like to refer to them as the “Be-Distinct Attitudes.” In order to better understand them, we need to examine the context and what has transpired so far in Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus has begun His ministry. He has come into this world proclaiming the Kingdom that had long been promised throughout the Old Testament. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He’s called disciples to follow Him. The crowds are starting to move in His direction as they take notice of Him through His miracles and different sorts of teachings.

At this point in the story, Jesus takes His disciples to a mountain and begins to teach them about what kingdom-of-heaven people look like as far as character is concerned. This talk from Jesus in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 has been referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s important to understand that the Beatitudes are not a recipe on how to gain salvation. It’s being spoken to those who have said yes to Jesus Christ, have received salvation, and are now wondering what God has in mind for them. How can I live my life in a way that expresses my gratitude and love to God for all He has done for me?

Notice, each of these statements begins with the word “blessed.”Over the years, people have pointed out that it means happy. Some translations of Scripture even replace the word blessed with happy.

Blessed does mean happy, but not in the way we think of happiness. It’s not a prescription for happiness. The word blessed is not so much about how we feel but about what God thinks of us, what has His approval, which, of course, leads to happiness because God knows what makes our life work best. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it. Instead of “blessed are . . .” it says “God blesses those who are poor in spirit, . . .”

The first four Beatitudes describe what our relationship with God is to look like. It begins by saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Those who, in other words, know they need God. It means a humble dependence upon God, and an acknowledgment of our spiritual bankruptcy before God. We really need Him, and we’re sunk without Him. It’s like the old gospel song – Rock of Ages – says, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress; helpless look to thee for grace; Foul I to the fountain fly; wash me Savior or I die.”

Each Beatitude has a promise attached to it. When Jesus says, “for they shall receive the kingdom of heaven,” it means we will step into a meaningful relationship with God and be a citizen of His kingdom.

Blessed are those who mourn. Jesus is not talking about those who are grieving over personal loss. He is talking about those who lament over sin in their life. As we take an honest inventory of how we fall short, tears of deep contrition for sin fall. Godly grief and sorrow.

When we look at the world around us, we begin to mourn over the evil and sin in this world God created. Jesus says those who mourn will be comforted with forgiveness. A vision of a new heaven and a new earth will be ours to enjoy with no more sorrow and no more tears, as the book of Revelation tells us.

Blessed are the meek. He’s talking about those who are gentle, God controlled, free from malice and a vengeful spirit. Being calm and peaceful. We understand that we’re not even close to being perfect. We humbly know ourselves quite well and provide a soothing effect on those who are angry around us.

Jesus promises the meek shall inherit the earth. We will see the big picture, as Psalm 37 says. We are as “having nothing, but possessing everything (in Christ),” as Paul tells us in II Cor. 6:10.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We want our character and conduct to please God. This means a life where we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. We want to be right in God’s sight and conduct ourselves in a way that pleases Him.

We also want to see the right thing being done. We have a longing for justice and righteousness. We want God’s will to be done in the world around us. Jesus says those kinds of people will be satisfied. The picture here is one of contentment, walking hand-in-hand with God.

After describing what our relationship with God is to look like, Jesus then moves us toward looking at our relationship with others.

Blessed are the merciful. He is talking about having compassion and showing forgiveness to those who are hurting or have hurt us. Those who do so will receive mercy. God replaces the mercy we give away with His own mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart. Those who are utterly sincere, transparent, have integrity, and are free from falsehood. They have no devious hidden motives, do not wear a mask, are not hypocrites like the Pharisees and the Scribes. Jesus says they shall see God. There is an awareness of God’s presence as He draws close. They will find strength in their lives, and then see Him face-to-face in His heaven.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus was called the Prince of Peace, wasn’t He? Blessed are those who then – like Jesus – bring peace and reconciliation into relationships and work at preserving unity in the church and in the world. He says they will be called children of God because they’ll look like children of God. They’ll look like Jesus.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. This describes those who strive to do the right thing in God’s sight, who stand up for Jesus Christ and the Gospel in this world. Blessed are those who do the right thing in the name of Christ.

Blessed are you when men revile you on account of me. Jesus is telling us to rejoice when this happens, and be glad when you are mistreated for His sake. Consider it a badge of honor. You are in good company when you suffer on His account. Jesus promises a great reward in heaven.

This is the comprehensive portrait of what Jesus has in mind for us when we say yes to Him and become His disciple and a citizen of the Kingdom of heaven. It makes us stand out in the crowd instead of blending in. Why? Because these values are the absolute opposites of the world in which we live. They fly in the face of the world’s values. They challenge the non-Christian world with its perspectives and values.

Years ago I ran across this alteration of the Beatitudes according to the world by J. B. Phillips:

Happy are the pushers: for they get on in the world.
Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are those who complain: for they get their own way in the end.
Happy are the blasé: for they never worry over their sins.
Happy are the slave drivers: for they get results.
Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.
Happy are the troublemakers: for people have to take notice of them.

Jesus is telling His followers that He wants us to let go of those values and attitudes and take hold of His values instead. He has something totally different in mind. “Anybody who enters into fellowship with Jesus must undergo a transvaluation of values,” according to Helmut Thielicke, a theologian from the last century. What the world pities and rejects, God labels blessed, approved.

The Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who termed these sayings of Jesus as “The Extraordinariness of the Christian Life,” wrote, “With every beatitude the gulf is widened between the disciples and the people, and their call to come forth from the people becomes increasingly manifest.” You stand out!

Jesus is saying that God puts His stamp of blessing upon the life that refuses to be in tune with the world or accommodate itself to the standards of the world, but instead chooses to abide by kingdom standards, to follow Christ and His ways.

It’s a beautiful picture. But I can’t help but feel that it sounds a little overwhelming, for a lot of change needs to happen in one’s life.

The good news is, my dear brothers and sisters, the preacher of this sermon, Jesus, has all authority in heaven and on earth. He not only knows what He’s talking about, but He promises to be with us in all of this. We are not left to do this on our own. Those of us who have said yes to Christ have experienced a new birth. We have been born again. The Spirit of God resides within us and enables us and shapes us to be the distinctive people Christ is describing in the Beatitudes and allows us to shine for the kingdom of God.

I know many in frustration and disappointment are inclined to say you can’t change human nature. And it is true – we cannot change human nature. But Christ can! Look at those first disciples who heard these words of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, and the change that took place in them when they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit after the resurrection of Christ. Cowardice gave way to courage as they were reviled and rejected on account of Christ, and they kept at it. Self-interest was killed and became ministry and service to others. Jealousy became mercy toward others. And the same Holy Spirit who worked in their lives is available to you and to me today! God can still do great things for you, in you, and through you. He is ready, waiting and able.

What about you and me? Do we desire a change? Scripture tells us we are like lumps of clay. And if we are clay, then let’s remember there is a Potter and His wheel. The Gospel song has it right –

Have Thine Own Way, Lord; Have thine own way.
Thou art the potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me, after thy will.
While I am waiting, yielded and still.

That’s it! We have only to be yielded, willing, surrendered to Him. God will make us according to the pattern His love designed for us. He will make us poor in spirit, pure in heart, merciful, striving for righteousness, willing to take one on the chin for Jesus Christ. He is willing to make us into the person Jesus describes in the Beatitudes, and it will be for our good, and for His glory. And, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we will be distinct, and we will make a difference for the cause of Jesus Christ.

Have Thine Own Way, Lord. Have thine own way. Make us to be like what Jesus described today. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer