The Beatitudes: Giving Mercy

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Consider the Illinois man who left the snow filled streets of Chicago for a vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and was planning to meet him the next day. When he reached his hotel he decided to send his wife a quick e-mail. Unable to find the scrap of paper on which he had written her e-mail address, he did his best to type it in from memory. Unfortunately, he missed one letter and his note was directed instead, to an elderly preacher’s wife, whose husband had passed away only the day before. When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at he monitor, let out a piercing scream, fell to the floor in faint. “Dearest Wife, Just checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow. P.S. Sure is hot down here.”

I find that most believers don’t understand the difference between “grace” and “mercy.” If you looked up grace and mercy in the dictionary you would find very little difference. That is not true in the Bible, there is a difference between the two words. Mercy refers to God’s willingness to remain in covenant with disobedient and rebellious Israel. Mercy therefore is God’s ability to continue to work with us in spite of our sinfulness and unworthiness. Rarely does mercy refer to forgiveness of sins, that is grace. Mercy tolerates, grace forgives!

This mercy is evident in Jesus’ ministry. In the model prayer, Jesus teaches us, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” In other words, to the degree that we are willing to forgive others who have wronged us, is the degree that we ourselves will be forgiven. We must be merciful or tolerant of the shortcomings of others if God is to be merciful or tolerant of our shortcomings. Tolerant does not mean “condoning” or “accepting” of the actions. The wife who’s husband has been unfaithful shows mercy to save the marriage and the family.

Jesus tells a parable about mercy. “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.
Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him.
‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:23-35)

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
When Jesus accepted Matthew (tax collector) as a disciple, it upset the religious leaders. The religious leaders have a good point, the man is a tax collector! Most of them were friends with the Romans. Many of them were thieves. Those who put pity into action can expect similar mercy both from people and God.

The same sentiment is found in other places in God’s Word. Matt 10:42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” Nowhere do we imitate God more than in showing mercy. All the blessings we enjoy are proofs of God’s mercy. If we, then, show mercy to the poor, the wretched, the guilty, it shows that we are like God.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy;” “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven”. Simple Bible, clear and direct.

A messenger was once sent by his king to deliver vital information to a distant city in the kingdom. Since the messenger bore the king’s authority, he was rehearsed over and over to be sure he had the message right and could deliver it without error. At the appointed time, the messenger set out upon his journey of many days. The first day went well, with good speed and few distractions. At the end of it the messenger again rehearsed the information in his care, to keep it fresh and accurate. On the second day the messenger met a lost child who begged to be restored to her family, and though not without anxiety about the cost of time and concentration, he took the child along a different route to find her home. That night he rehearsed the message with greater difficulty and the beginnings of concern that he might have lost small parts of it. The third day brought the messenger into a village whose well had gone dry, leaving its inhabitants too weak even to send for help. They begged him to take word to the next town, lest they all perish of thirst and disease, and the messenger reluctantly agreed to do so. That night the message was in parts unclear and his worry increased. Each day thereafter found the messenger more distracted, more interrupted. People talked to him, beseeched him, clutched at him, and in his decency he responded as best he could. But each evening, when he rehearsed the king’s message, it became less accurate, less clear. When he finally reached his destination, he was in agony, for he knew that he could not deliver what he had been sent to say, and he knew too that the penalty for his carelessness would be severe. To the governor of the distant town he presented himself and told his tale, reciting in succession the agonies that had distracted him, beating his breast in repentance for getting himself so misled from his sworn duty as agent of the king, and ending with his confession that he could not now say the vital words he had so carefully rehearsed in the king’s presence. The governor reached out to the by now trembling messenger and bade him rise from where he had fallen in his shame and fear. “You were not the only messenger, my son,” he said. “Our king, on the day of your departure dispatched yet another servant, unskilled in memory or perception but carrying in written form the same message entrusted to you. My Dear Governor: There is great suffering in the land, but our people’s hearts are hardened. I must find someone with eyes to see, a will to respond, and the courage to share the pain that lies about us to act as my vicar. Pray, tell me if you have such a person, and send him to me at all speed, for the time is short and the responsibility heavy. The messenger looked up in confusion; his understanding grew as the governor said, “Until you came, I had no such person to send, but now it is clear that you are he. Return to the royal service of your king, for you have brought the message ten times over and more clearly than ever you rehearsed it.”

Philemon: Making Deals

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They were both in college and had been dating for a while. He asked her to go to a basketball game with him. This was her first game, so he was telling her about the team. While explaining, he pointed to a tall player on the bench and identified him by name. “He is only a freshman this year, but next year, about this time, he will be our best man.” She was stunned at his boldness:
“He’ll be our best man! Oh darling, this is so sudden!”

In our scripture text, Paul is making a deal with Philemon. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Ever make a deal with God? I find that most Christians do barter with God.
“Lord, if you will get me past this heart-attack, I will never miss church again.” We even have it in our music, The Charlie Daniels Band wrote a song about the devil going down to Georgia to steal a soul. He made a deal with Johnnie who was the best fiddle player. Johnnie would get a gold fiddle, the devil would get his soul.

We know that one of the most heart breaking deals made in the Bible was the deal made with Judas. Then one of the Twelve– the one called Judas Iscariot– went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. That was a deal!

Does God make deals with His people? Yes! We call them covenants! With Noah and all people, God made a covenant. Gen 9:13I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
It was a promise that He would never again destroy the whole earth with water.

God made a “deal” with Abraham. The condition of this covenant was that Abraham was to leave his home and follow the Lord into the land that He would show him. The promise was a fourfold blessing from God to Abraham: increase into a numerous people; material and spiritual prosperity– “I will bless you”; the exaltation of Abraham’s name– “make your name great;” Abraham was not only to be blessed by God, but to be a blessing to others, implicitly by the coming of the Messiah through his descendants. In return Abraham had three parts: Circumcision, Obedience to God and worship God and God only!

In scripture, deals were always special. Never frivolous but always serious. In the Psalms “to deal” always means “to confer benefit,” “to deal bountifully.”

Does God make deals today? The answer is yes, but it comes with a warning!
Jesus taught, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

“Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms.” LET YOUR YES BE YES AND YOUR NO, NO! Everyone, even God, is known by their word. You keep it, you have value. You break it, you don’t.

Steve McQueen was a top billing actor who lead a life as tough as the ones he portrayed on the screen. Success filled his life until alcohol and a failed marriage left him empty. In his despair he attended a crusade led by one of Billy Graham’s associates. McQueen made a confession of faith and requested an opportunity to speak with Billy Graham. A connecting flight in Los Angeles allowed Dr. Graham to spend a couple of hours with Mr. McQueen in the actor’s limousine. The evangelist shared numerous scriptures in his quest to give spiritual hope and confidence. Steve McQueen struggled with the thought of God giving eternal life to a man who had such a checkered past. In Titus 1:2, Steve McQueen found his hope -“the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised ages ago.” He requested something to write down the verse but Billy Graham gave McQueen his Bible instead. Later, Steve McQueen died in Mexico while seeking experimental treatment for his terminal cancer. He passed into eternal life with his Bible opened to Titus 1 and his finger resting on verse 2. Regardless of our past, we have the hope of God’s eternal promise.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first to discover the magnetic meridian of the North Pole and to discover the South Pole. On one of his trips, Amundsen took a homing pigeon with him. When he had finally reached the top of the world, he opened the bird’s cage and set it free. Imagine the delight of Amundsen’s wife, back in Norway, when she looked up from the doorway of her home and saw the pigeon circling in the sky above. No doubt she exclaimed, “He’s alive! My husband is still alive!”

So it was when Jesus ascended. He was gone, but the disciples clung to his promise to send them the Holy Spirit. What joy, then, when the dovelike Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost. The disciples had with them the continual reminder that Jesus was alive and victorious at the right hand of the Father. This continues to be the Spirit’s message.

Dried Bones And Lost Hope

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There was a man who was troubled with dizzy spells. He went from one doctor to another and none could tell him what the problem was. He tried everything, it seemed. Finally, it was bothering him so much he started to lose weight and couldn’t sleep at night. He became a nervous wreck and his health began to deteriorate. He had lost hope that he would ever recover. So he decided to prepare for the worst. He made out his will, bought a cemetery plot and even made arrangements with the local undertaker. He even decided to buy a new suit of clothes to be buried in. When he went into the tailor’s he was measured for everything and picked out shoes, socks, coat, pants — and he asked for a size 15 shirt as well. The clerk said — “But sir, you need a size 16 1/2 shirt, not 15.” But the man insisted we wore a size 15. Finally, in exasperation the clerk said: “But if you wear a size 15 you’ll get dizzy spells.”

Many people hope to be elected to heaven who are not even running for the office. The world sometimes takes our hope away! It doesn’t have too. But we let it take away our hope. From my office window it was easy for me to watch the congregation arriving this morning to church. Almost all came by car, a few walked up the sidewalk. Everyone dressed as nice as they could be taking special precautions not to bump against the car or let the wind blow our bonnets away. None of the rushing and running that we find at the first Easter in the New Testament! Mary Magdalene came and seeing the stone rolled away started running. On her run back to Jerusalem she meets Peter and he breaks into a run to the empty tomb. There was a lot of running and rushing with excitement!

Death always brings a lot of excitement, and so does life! In November of 1995 lotus seeds were found in a dry lake bed in China. They were 1,288 years old! Seven of them were obtained by the University of California at Los Angeles. The seeds were germinated, sprouted, and a plant grew from them. They are thought to be the oldest seeds ever germinated. If a seed can hold life for 1,288 years, who can doubt the possibility of a bodily resurrection?

That sounds almost scriptural doesn’t it? I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

Ezekiel was the son of a priest named Buzi, and one of the four greater prophets. Ezekiel was taken captive in the captivity of Jehoiachin, eleven years before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was a member of a community of Jewish exiles who settled on the banks of the Chebar, a “river” or canal of Babylonia. It was by this river, “in the land of the Chaldeans,” that God’s message first reached him (Ezek. 1:3). We learn from him that he was married and had a house in his place of exile and lost his wife by a sudden and unforeseen stroke. His mission extended over twenty-two years.

We are nearing the end of Ezekiel’s life and God’s people are still in Babylonia in exile. Life has not been easy for the Jewish people, nor has it been for Ezekiel. God doesn’t want Ezekiel to lose hope.

This past week as I stood at my wife’s grave watching the breeze blow the green Kentucky Bluegrass. There wasn’t sadness or sorrow but only the words of the angel in the empty tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”

He set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” Jesus said, I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! There was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.

What is the lesson that God has for us? No matter how bad it gets, it’s always better on the other side of worse. God never leads you to a place where he will not provide a way out. No matter what the devil hurls at us, God will never let the devil put more on us than what we are able to stand.

For the Christian, the future is always brighter! Paul said, For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. You can’t lose! That is the real story of every Christian. The issue isn’t whether God can bring someone back from the dead. The reality isn’t even whether we believe in our own resurrection. For all of these have and will continue to happen. The issue is, DO YOU BELIEVE?

What Do We Do With The Shell?

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A minister in a small town was having trouble with his collections. So one Sunday he announced from the pulpit: “Before we pass the collection plate, I would like to request that the person who stole the chickens from Brother Harvey’s henhouse to please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. The Lord doesn’t want money from a thief.” The collection plate was passed around, and for the first time in many months, everybody gave.

What is that old saying, “Two things are certain, death and taxes.” We probably prepare better for the taxes than we do for the death. Yet, one of the major issues of scripture is to prepare us for our death.

After attending Brooks’ high school commencement I came to the conclusion that the commencement speaker is like the body at an Irish wake. They need you in order to have a party, but nobody expects you to say very much.

As ministers, our role is to prepare the congregation for the party! But unlike the commencement speaker, what I have to say is very important. For the believer and the non-believer, there are two certainties – we will either die one day or we will be raptured before our death. Paul writes: Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

In scripture the style of burial wasn’t as important as the preparation for death. The believers lived their lives as if today was the last day. How sudden that change can come; …but we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye….It is a loving act to prepare for death, but many live in fear and are afraid of tomorrow. When and where possible, make funeral arrangements. At the very least have a living will. When Vickie was battling her cancer, it became necessary to put into writing what we had often talked about not having heroic measures taken to prolong life. I remember how angry she got with the doctor when she was admitted to the hospital that last time and he asked for her “living will.” For her, it seemed he was giving up. Perhaps that is why many of us avoid “living wills,” we feel it forces the doctor to give up hope.

When we are prepared for death, we make the task of dying easier for ourselves and for those whom we love.

Traditions around the world dictate the different styles of burial. In some places because of space and tradition, cremation is the option used in death. Most places choose to bury their dead. By far most of those bury in the ground. Some by tradition like the American Indian, buried above ground. Others like in southern Louisiana bury above ground because of the high water table. In the middle east burial was the preferred style. The wealthy were buried in caves or tombs dug in the sides of hills. The poor were buried in the ground in no special fashion.

Why this fashion of burial? Early Jewish tradition dictated that at the resurrection the graves would open and the bodies would come forth. Job writes, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; The body of Moses is retrieved from death by Michael and given to God. Even in the New Testament we find evidence of this: The graves in Jerusalem breaking open following the crucifixion of Christ. It was Jewish belief that no dead person should be embalmed or cremated. The body came from the ground and to the ground it must return. Nothing was to interfere with the deterioration of the body as it prepares for the resurrection. Our American traditions come from this background.

As a Christian, what shall be do with this earthen vessel when our life has ended? What comes of this body, this earthen vessel, is of little importance. You hear the minister standing at the grave, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the spirit has returned to God who gave it….For the Christian, the body has served its purpose, it is the spirit that goes on and never dies. In death the body and soul separate. The body decays and the soul returns to God who created it.

Is it acceptable for the Christian to be cremated? Yes! Burning the body does not destroy the soul. Paul in the great love chapter writes, If I surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Paul held no fear of how he died or what happened to the body.

Whether we are buried at sea, give our bodies to science, or consumed in an atomic bomb, the spirit returns to God. Paul says, “with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. What will rise? I don’t know, but it will be spiritual not physical. John says, I Jn 3:2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Paul writes to the Church at Rome and saying nothing can separate us! Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Not even death!

Did you hear about the classified ad that read something like this: “Lost – One dog. Brown hair with several mange spots. Right leg broken due to auto accident. Rear left hip hurt. Right eye missing. Left ear bitten off in dog fight. Answers to name ‘lucky.'” Lucky? Of course! That was a lucky dog. He was lucky because, with all those things wrong with him, somebody still wanted him and was willing to pay to get him back. Isn’t that the story of the gospel? With all of our sin and rebellion, God still loved us enough to pay the ultimate price to win us back to Himself.