The Angry God & the Sermon on the Mount

I maintain friendships with folks who don’t follow my faith.  We frequently get into discussions of religious belief.  It is very common for them to say they like Jesus, but they cannot abide what they describe as the “angry god” of the Old Testament.  In fact, they use their distaste for the acts of Yahweh to utterly reject the Bible.

These same friends usually cite the Sermon on the Mount as the pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings.  I thought it would be useful to look at this sermon to see what Jesus says about God in it.  The Sermon on the Mount is found in the Gospel of Matthew in chapters 5, 6 and 7.

The context of this sermon must not be missed.  When Jesus mentions the “Father”, he is referring to the God of the Old Testament.

Be children of God

A consistent theme in the sermon is to become children of God.  For example, Jesus ties the pursuit of good qualities to a reward of relationship:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  (Matthew 5:9)

Perhaps a stronger statement is made a little later.  When Jesus discusses loving one’s enemies, he makes a remarkable statement:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus says that the reason we love our enemies is not to “be a good person”, but rather to “be sons of your Father who is in heaven”.  In fact, we are told to love our enemies specifically so that we will be like God.  Here, Jesus is revealing part of the nature of God: that he loves those who don’t love him back.  Jesus points out that this same God expresses goodness toward a world that reviles him, by giving each person days to live and sustenance (“rain”).

Serve for God

Service to others is a high calling.  We all recognize we live in a world filled with needs, and serving others is commanded in the Scriptures.  Yet, what is the core reason to perform these “good works”?  Jesus answers it:

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Jesus clearly says our motivation ought to be to motivate others to glorify God the Father.  Jesus makes a similar statement a little later:

“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3)

Trust God

Above, we saw Jesus allude to the nature of God–that he is good and sends kindness even to those who revile him.  Jesus also says that he is an attentive God.  Unlike the god of the Deist, who set the world in motion and then walked away from it, leaving it in the (incompetent) hands of humanity, God is quite near, and quite attentive.  For example, when giving us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus points out that God knows the details of our lives:

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

Not everyone has had the experience of loving parents who care about us and the details of our lives.  Yet, Jesus describes God as a good father:

“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9)

Honor God

Does the Old Testament God deserve honor?  My friends I described at the beginning of this post would answer with a resounding “no!”.  Yet, what does Jesus say?  When Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer, he starts it with:

“Pray then like this:  ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'” (Matthew 6:9-10)

Jesus says here with a resounding “yes!” that God deserves honor.  He goes even further and says that we should specifically seek God’s kingdom to be manifest in our world and that we should pray for his will to be done.

The Sum of the Matter

Reading through the Sermon on the Mount, it is evident that Jesus doesn’t only give us suggestions for a good life and good relationships with other people.  He commands us repeatedly to structure our lives so as to honor, trust and serve for the purposes of God the Father–the God of the Old Testament.  Near the end of the sermon, Jesus gives a sobering warning to those who think they follow Jesus but fail to honor God the Father:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Thoughts on Christmas

I have to admit, I normally have mixed feelings as Christmas approaches each year.

There are certain things I like about the holiday. There’s the special music that is only played a month or so each year. I enjoy the beautiful lights that bedazzle homes and businesses. And permission to gorge on large meals shared with family and friends is always welcomed.

But there are many things I dislike about the season as well.

Every year people are injured as stores kick-off the shopping season with “Black Friday”. This year, there were reports of people being punched, pepper sprayed and even shot over toys, trinkets and TVs.

There’s also the “culture wars”. Do we say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? I’ve watched on Facebook as people grapple with the issue, and are blasted by folks on either side for their choice. It’s wearying to worry about two words so much.

Christianity’s critics declare open season this time of year, too.

Invariably, channels like PBS and National Geographic run shows that cover biblical events and persons like the Great Flood and Jesus. These “documentaries” cloak themselves as thoughtful discussions of the faith, but in reality they interview far more critics than Christians.

The atheist “Freedom from Religion Foundation” runs an anti-religion billboard campaign around Christmastime. A couple of years ago they bought sign space near my office. The background had a stained glass appearance, over which were lyrics from a popular John Lennon song: “Imagine No Religion”. So much for tolerance and quiet respect for the beliefs of others.

Bloggers take to social media to skewer the faith and attack believers. They knock the holiday and blast adherents as being uninformed dupes who don’t realize that Christmas trees and other traditions have their roots in paganism.

So what to do with all this?

For me, I take the parts of the season I like and I leave the rest behind. It’s not a biblically mandated holiday. Christians are only commanded to observe two rites that focus on Jesus’s death and resurrection–baptism and Lord’s Supper. We are not commanded to observe Christ’s birth.

Building memories and spending time together means a lot to me, and I value that over gifts. In recent years I have requested that in lieu of a gift, my family make a donation in my name to Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision or Compassion International. Some children are blessed if they have one small meal a day, let alone toys or even basic medical care. It’s meaningful to me that someone’s child have such basics, rather than for me to receive an extravagant gift. But gift-giving is such a cultural hallmark that it’s hard to get folks to change.

As for the culture wars, I have moderated over the years. I still won’t patronize any business that purposely blocks the word “Christmas”, but otherwise I don’t worry too much about where I shop. I also don’t fret over saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. I live around and work with people of different religions, and saying Merry Christmas to them is about as meaningful as a Muslim wishing me to have a Happy Ramadan. I would rather my daily life testimony lead them to Christ.

However, I’m not willing to yield Christmas.

This is the one time of year that the word “Jesus” isn’t only used as part of cussing in the popular culture. People are primed to think of spiritual things, and many folks who never attend church will yield to prodding spouses or parents. It’s a great opportunity to share faith.

And what is that faith? It is the “gospel”, which means “good news”. The bad news is clear to us all. Death, disease, discord and disaster surround us every day. We see beauty, but it is punctuated by evil.

The good news offered by Jesus Christ–and by extension His Church–is this: there will be an end to this mess we live in. There is a sovereign God who watches over our world. At his appointed time, he will draw it to a conclusion and give us the world we hope for. For now, it is our lot to trust God by faith in Jesus Christ as his one and only son, born into the world to suffer just as we do, and to offer us salvation and a hope for the future. He offers us guidance and strength in the temporal while we wait for the eternal.

And so, as we observe the birth of Christ on December 25, it doesn’t matter if this is the actual day he was born or not. What matters is the he was born. That event split our very reckoning of time and more than 2000 years later still shakes up the world.

I sincerely hope that all of you reading this will see through the trappings of the season, and will see some vestige of Jesus Christ. In that way, may you have a Merry Christmas.

Of Shells and Suffering

I recently returned from our annual family holiday to the beach.  I’m a country boy and I’ve spent many vacations in the mountains, but my wife has taught me to love the sand and the surf.  One reason I’ve come to love the beach is that I’m always inspired to think of God there.  The vast expanse of the sea by day and the starry sky at night, all set against the aural backdrop of relentless waves, remind me of the power and omnipresence of our Creator.

This year, we visited the beach a week after Tropical Storm Lee had plowed through the area.  Vestiges of the storm remained.  The strong surf simultaneously tried to suck us out to sea and send us back to shore.

I enjoy shell hunting, and in recent years I’ve taken to snorkeling to find the real gems.   Lee’s rough water pushed in some great finds this year. Unfortunately, the shells collect where the waves break, and Lee’s strong tide made snorkeling in this region almost impossible.  Often, I’d be floating on the surface, head down in the water, and I’d see an intact specimen of my favorite shell, the netted olive.  Just as I would begin to push under to reach it, a wave would wash over me, filling my snorkel and stirring the sand, taking my treasure away and rolling me back to shore.

After one such session, I stood on the shore, hunched over and dripping, looking at the collection of netted olives in my dive bag.  For some reason, it struck me that my simple and innocent experience was a picture of suffering.

A few years ago I spent a long time contending with the issue of suffering.  It started not as a result of some life experience, but rather from a reading of Psalm 44. At that time my personal Bible study was reading through all the psalms, and on the day I read Psalm 44, I hit a brick wall.  It was this verse that troubled me:

Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
(Psalm 44:22)

Reading the full psalm, you can see the author recounting God’s activity with Israel in the past, that he drove away their enemies; now, the author feels that God has abandoned them.

It struck me for the first time that following God, being on the “winning team” so to speak, doesn’t spare one from trouble and suffering.  Indeed, if you have this fact in mind and read through the New Testament, you will see in sharp focus the suffering of the saints;  Stephen, for example, was stoned to death.  Church history, down to this very day, is replete with God-followers being slaughtered for their faith.

As a result of this troubling read, I began a study of suffering.  You can’t research suffering in a biblical context and not come across the account of Joseph, as recorded in Genesis chapters 37, 39-48 and 50.

God allowed Joseph to be hated by his brothers, then nearly murdered by them.  If not for his brother Reuben he would have been killed, but his brothers’ dark hearts instead led them to sell Joseph into slavery.  Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he found some success as chief of Potiphar’s home.  Sadly, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of rape, and Joseph was sent to prison.  There, he again rose to the position of overseer, yet he was forgotten in prison for years.  Joseph was not only innocent but also intelligent and successful, yet freedom eluded him.  I imagine it was demoralizing to him, to edge toward freedom and then watch it slip away, time and time again.  These experiences lasted 13 years.

Yet those difficult experiences molded him into a wise, strong leader, and most importantly, a man who submitted himself to God.  The cultivation of these qualities was completed at just the right time.  Seven years of bounty were to be followed by seven years of great famine.  Joseph was chosen by Pharaoh to supervise preparations during the seven years of plenty, in order that Egypt might survive the seven years of famine.

This position also brought him back into contact with his brothers.  In his reunion with them, Joseph gives a speech of reconciliation and explains the reality of what happened:

Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…Now therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:5, 8)

Later, after their father Jacob (aka Israel) dies, the brothers become afraid that Joseph will kill them, as retribution for their evil treatment of him.  Joseph then utters what I think are some of the most powerful words in all Scripture:

But Joseph said to [his brothers], “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph recognized that God had used his suffering to help many people.  Joseph himself was a ruler as a result of it.  In other words, God had redeemed his suffering.  It had meaning and purpose.  Joseph’s accurate view of what happened to him protected his heart from bitterness or despair, a state that is often the result of suffering.

So there I was, hunched over and dripping on the beach, looking at my netted olives after being pounded by the waves.  For some reason I thought of suffering.  I thought about my God–the God who uses a storm to bring in beautiful shells, the God who redeems all our pain.