Sermon: Meekness

My family and I are in the middle of a move – as in, this time last week we were scrambling to find boxes holding church-appropriate clothes. My daughter showed up in a tank top and rainbow shorts, so we only partially succeeded. As of Tuesday morning when it was time to leave for preaching team, we had one house key and one garage opener. I asked my husband for the key – he was standing right in front of me with it – and he said, “Will you take the garage opener? I’ll need the key when I come back this afternoon.” That would’ve been fine if the garage opener had worked. As fate would have it, he had driven away by the time I discovered the door wouldn’t shut, with our open garage housing literally all our things. And already I was running late because I couldn’t find anything I needed. I did what any reasonable spouse would do and laid into him over text before driving to preaching team, seething.

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

Since “meek” is a word used to describe Christ, it pretty clearly doesn’t mean “weak” or “spineless” or “impotent” because that is not our God. In fact, the Greek word is praus, a military term denoting horses trained for battle. Without robbing them of their strength or power – since these qualities are vital in warfare – trainers prepared them to unflinchingly face weaponry, torches, and exploding cannons. They were taught to use their strength in response to their rider. They controlled their power. They were called praus, meek.

These horses exhibited a balance between aggression and passivity: they used their full power at the rider’s command. They submitted their strength. They didn’t get hot under the collar or act based on what they saw. They employed the extent of their might at the will of the one in control. They were secure in their role in relation to the rider; they were meek.

One way to look at biblical meekness is that it is power under control. It characterizes those of might, strength, and influence. So as citizens of the wealthiest country in the history of humanity, meekness is a relevant topic for everyone in the room.

Jesus responds to the Father the same way throughout the Gospels. Jesus – who turns over tables the Temple, constantly befuddles church authorities, heals every kind of physical and spiritual ailment, and speaks to crowds of thousands – obviously lacks no power. But in John 5:19, Jesus makes clear how he uses it: “The Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” And another example: his heart-wrenching prayer prior to his betrayal and consequent death sentence: “If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Matthew 26:39). He controls his power, using it at the will of the Father. He doesn’t defend himself or get angry during his supremely unfair trial. As he awaits his punishment from the high priest and Pontius Pilate, he is pelted with insult after insult – from a mob, no less. He’s accused of what he hasn’t done, and misunderstood for what he has. But he remains silent, feeling no need to defend himself because he trusts the Father. He is gentle; he refuses to retaliate because he is meek. His power is under control. That takes a kind of courage unfamiliar to most of us.

This is not natural human behavior. Jesus’s course of action runs in the opposite direction of contemporary American culture. Corporate culture, in particular, writes us off as “weak” if we behave submissively, gently, and preferentially to others. As a result, most of us have learned that you really can get ahead by controlling, manipulating and scheming your way to the top. It seems that it’s not the meek inheriting the earth; it’s the aggressive, it’s those attempting to take advantage of other people before they can do the same us. And this is all reinforced by a zeitgeist that constantly asks us, “Have you received what you earned? Have you achieved enough? Are you enough?” It is exhausting.

I think Jesus’ heart is breaking for us when he says, as we sing every Sunday, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…Let me teach you, because I am meek and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-30). We will find rest in meekness, in trusting our strength to God, in finding our security not in our own power but in our identity as his so deeply loved children that we’ve been promised we’ll inherit the earth.

And the secret is the meek are already inheriting the earth. The ones who trust God’s goodness enjoy every gift he sends, rather than trying to leverage it for something always beyond reach. The ones who use their power at the command of their God are guaranteed victory, rather than having to scheme and hustle for it. The ones who wait for God to act on their behalf can rest in his wisdom and his sloshing-over-the-sides-of-the-bucket love, rather than taking matters into their own hands.

And so, after showing up at preaching team last Tuesday morning infuriated at my husband for a broken garage opener – sitting there self-righteously miserable in my anger – I was administered a discussion about how we’re secure in God and are therefore released to be meek. Using my strength to push against my husband wasn’t necessary or even helpful. Relinquishing it meant being able to trust that God’s plan of me preaching today couldn’t be foiled by a garage door that wouldn’t shut. I decided, after two hours’ worth meekness talk that it was the best route. Instead of spouting off at each other all day, when I backed off and chose not to keep defending myself and trying to exert my rights, my husband and I were back to being a team.

Meekness requires a posture of peaceful obedience coupled with ultimate trust in God’s wisdom and strength. In your everyday routines, what causes you to react with quick anger? Where do you feel inferior? Where do you feel misunderstood? Where do you feel a need to prove yourself or justify your actions? Where, ultimately, do you find your peace? These answers might show you where there’s work to be done toward increased meekness.

It’s so hard to choose this path, but so worth it. A weight is finally lifted, and we are set free. Our meekness comes from from the Holy Spirit, the very essence of God that God promises to all who come to Jesus. So, Mission Chattanooga, come to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, our love, our worth and value, our holiness…and our meekness. Come to Jesus! Amen.

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Adventure.

One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers – Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew – throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him (Matthew 4:20, NLT).

I wish I had that kind of pull with my toddler. “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to thoroughly clean up your own messes.” And she would leave Elsa’s ice castle at once and follow me.

Ahh, a mama can dream.

But in fact, when I invite her away from what she’s invested in to do something different, she’s usually dubious. “I just want five minutes longer,” she says. (She comes by negotiation honestly. I’ve seen my man haggle over prices at Walmart.)

She also says a lot of, “Why?” No surprise there; she’s three. And human. “Make it worth my while” is a refrain we’re probably all familiar with, regardless of age. Why should we drop what we love for something we’re not sure about?

It’s hard to get too frustrated with her in situations like this. (Actually, no, it’s not. Because TODDLERS, MAN.) I do exactly the same thing when God asks me to do something I’m unsure about. It’s been happening since last July. He’s asking me to take what feels like a running leap from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other and just trust that he’ll be there.

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I’m all like, “I just want five minutes longer.”

But look at the model of Peter and Andrew. They hear the voice and Christ and, boom! In the next sentence, they’re dropping their nets “at once” to follow him. No hesitation, no questions, no “Did he say what I think he said?” is in the text.

They didn’t negotiate with him. “We’ll leave if you’ll prove we’re going to be successful.” “We’ll leave if you promise it won’t cost our safety.” “We’ll leave if you pay our wages to our families while we’re away.” “We’ll leave if you let us secure our boat in the marina first [or whatever is the culturally appropriate version of a marina].”

They didn’t try to take the lead. “Okay, but let us show you the best spots.”

They didn’t try to get Jesus to join them instead. “Hey, if you want to hang, you’re welcome out here on the boat. We’ve got plenty to eat.”

Without any assurance from Jesus of anything, they let the Holy Spirit whisper in their hearts that he wasn’t fooling around, that he meant business, and that he wanted them in on it if they could be bothered to join. And they dropped the nets and went after the Stranger.

I bet they didn’t look back.

Will I?

For that is what God is like. He is our God forever and ever, and he will guide us until we die (Psalm 48:14, NLT).

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grace > ice cream

She’s just so crazy about her dad that I said, “How about I take the baby on home while you guys finish up here?” I knew she’d love to be alone with him for a while, her princess status unshared with mom and sister. I was right: she glowed at the suggestion and gleefully laced her fingers with his as they took off to collect the rest of the groceries.

What surprised me was when I put her to bed that night and asked, “What was your favorite part about your date with Dadoo?” (That’s what she calls him, Dadoo.) I expected to hear “When we had ice cream” or “We sang the whole ride home” or, as she once said with a sigh, “He’s just so beautiful.”

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Instead, she beamed and said, “He told me it was 100% not a big deal.”

Intrigued, I asked, “What was 100% not a big deal?”

She said, “I thought he’d be mad, but he wasn’t!”

Still I had no idea what we were talking about, so I tried again: “What happened right before he said that?”

She replied, “The thing that wasn’t a big deal!”

I know better than to attempt to pull something from a three-year-old – odd, ultimately frustrating verbal judo inevitably results – so I asked her dad later. “She says her favorite part of tonight was when you said, ‘it was 100% not a big deal.’ What happened?” He looked a bit mystified and told me about something gross she did that he corrected. When her eyes filled and chin wobbled, he said, “Don’t worry. It’s 100% not a big deal. Just don’t do it next time.”

Her favorite part of the night was grace.

During this Lent season that we just finished, I felt strongly as if God were dealing with my pride. An occupational hazard as a counseling graduate student is hearing stories of some of the worst things people do to each other, especially to children. I ended up developing this righteous anger that somewhere became unrighteous, thinking, “If I could just get ahold of those child abusers / rapists / neglectful parents / the ones who inflict fates worse than death, I’d fix them once and for all.” I had no trouble imagining them at the Good Friday scene: throwing stones at Jesus, screaming for his death. Bad, bad people. I’ll show them.

Here’s the problem. As a sinner, I was there too. Also throwing stones. Also screaming for his death. Also committing sinful acts that nailed that perfect man to the cross. Because that is what sin does (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8-10). We are the same, the “bad people” and me. We are all bad people without Christ.

If I want him to show me grace, I can’t keep it from them. If I don’t want him to give me what I deserve, how can I turn on them, hoping they get what they deserve?

And my favorite part of my story with my Father is grace. When they make their way to him, I bet theirs will be too.

My daughter already knows this, even though she’s only lived three and a half years. In Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God,” she always replaces the second word with “grace.” You can correct her all you want, but she stands her ground. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)

But there’s something that rings very true when you hear a toddler singing her lungs out:

How grace is our God!
Sing with me, how grace is our God!
And all will see how grace, how grace, is our God!

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What devotion looks like.

Having grown up in church, I’m sometimes guilty of parroting words and expressions I haven’t thought through. “Surrender to Jesus,” and “Put God first,” are excellent examples. I know they’re true, I just don’t know what they look like in practice. But true to God’s nature, when you ask for understanding, you get it (see Luke 8:10).

My most recent “Aha!” came with the word “devotion,” which has largely come to mean “time spent reading the Bible and praying,” an unfortunate reduction of a strong term originally derived from “to consecrate,” or “to make sacred.” What does “making oneself sacred” mean exactly? We’re instructed in Titus 2:12 to do just that in order to live in an evil world, so how do we do it? I found a simple, beautiful picture of devotion in Mark 16, a picture that’s worth hanging onto.

On Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome (the disciple, not the scary one) famously went to Jesus’s tomb to anoint and care for his body. On the way, they discuss a problem: an enormous stone bars them from Jesus. They even ask each other as they walk, “Who will roll away the stone for us at the entrance to the tomb?” (Mark 16:3, NLT).

Get this: three women – Jesus’s mother, at least, would be in her forties by now; I’m not sure about the others – encumbered with spices and oils, are headed out to anoint a corpse blocked by a huge stone.

empty-tomb

They know there’s an obstacle. They know they’re physically incapable of the task they set out to accomplish. In case we’re missing it, verse 4 epithetically points out, the stone “was very large.” But nothing was going to keep them from their Lord. They physically can’t do what they’ve set out to do and they know it, but they packed up their oils and spices and hit the road anyway. And their devotion to Jesus affords them the greatest blessing in all of history: they’re the first to witness the fact that he rose from the dead. When they make it to the tomb, the stone is already off to the side. An angel is waiting for them and says, “He’s alive! Here’s proof!”

Devotion results when nothing keeps you from loving Jesus. It doesn’t matter to you if showing your love for him sometimes seems useless or even laughable. It doesn’t matter to you when obstacles are in your way. It doesn’t matter to you if it’s just you and a couple other people who seem as weak or broken as you are, you’ll do whatever it takes to get to him. Devotion doesn’t care about drawbacks and impediments. Devotion says, “I’m on my way, and I’m trusting you to move the stone when I get there.” Devotion remembers that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).

The faith these three women showed is what gets us through our evil-occupied world (Titus 2:12). When matched with enormous stones that can keep us from Christ – stones like addiction and other sinful patterns, dubious track records, pain you’ve caused, pain you’ve experienced, or any other thing that worries you or brings you shame – devotion says, “I’m coming anyway, Lord.” That’s the kind of devotion I want.

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Sex Scandals Got Jesus Here.

In my Human Sexuality course last spring, I wrote a paper outlining my personal theology of sex. In it, I discussed the mysterious beauty of the act and how it reflects a unified, three-in-one God by unifying a two-in-one marital relationship. But I also spent one paragraph’s worth of space on its misuses because of the clarity and severity with which the Bible condemns certain sexual practices. Spoiler alert: it is grave. First Corinthians 6:18 implies the disease associated with sexual laxness. Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 5:5, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 warn that it precludes inheriting the Kingdom of God. Mark 7:20-23 labels it a “defiler” of the heart and mind. Hebrews 13:4 cautions that it ushers in the judgment of God. Revelation 21:8 identifies death as its natural consequence. God is relentless on this point: misuses of sex will never create joy for you. It will bring pain, destruction, and perhaps disease, but never joy.

But this is not an essay on poor sexual choices. This is about how big God’s grace must be because three kinds of sexual immorality are in his own genealogy. If stronger evidence of John 3:17 – that God came into the world not to condemn it but to save it – exists, I certainly don’t know where it is.

The first woman listed in the genealogy of Jesus is Tamar (Matthew 1:3), whose story is found in Genesis 38. She needed to produce an heir for her in-laws but found it impossible. Her first husband died, her second husband was deceitful and died as a result, and the third husband she was promised was never given to her. With a ticking biological clock, she dressed as a prostitute, knowing her father-in-law would proposition her. It happened, she got pregnant, and that boy ended up in the genealogy of Jesus.

The second woman listed in the genealogy of Jesus is Rahab (Matthew 1:5), whose story is in Joshua 2. She was an actual prostitute, not just for Halloween, who hid two of God’s men and saved them from certain death. After talking with them on the roof while they hid at her house, she declared her faith in Israel’s God. Her son is also an ancestor of Jesus.

The fourth woman listed is Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6), whose story is in 2 Samuel 11. By far, she has the most soap-operatic story of them all. King David sees her bathing and wants her immediately. They end up pregnant, which is a problem because Bathsheba is married. So David arranges for her husband to be killed in battle. A child resulting from their union, Solomon, is also in the messianic line.

Even more interesting: women just weren’t included in Jewish genealogies. Inspired by God, the author of Matthew went out of his way to make sure you know about Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba and their place in the line of Jesus.

So it’s true that sinful uses of sexuality are some of the evilest, gravest sins a person can engage with. But in Jesus’s own line, there is incest mixed with deceit; prostitution; and adultery mixed with murder. This is how God chose to get Jesus to us. There’s no way around the fact that sexual immorality leads to death. But when given to Jesus, even sexual immorality can result in life and hope and grace.

Furthermore, as serious as all sins are, God’s grace is even more serious about rescuing you and cleaning you out. God’s grace is serious about setting you free and filling you up with joy. That’s a force to carry you through anything, even the pain of turning to him after sin.

May you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. — Ephesians 3:18-19

Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 8:38-39

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I Quit Forever.

I made a New Summer’s Resolution. I am quitting all diets forever, and I mean forever.

This isn’t a new idea. “It’s not a diet; it’s a lifestyle” has become cliché in our age of dietry. So I want to be clear: when I say I am quitting all diets forever, I don’t mean I’m adopting a certain diet as my new way of life. I am not a new Paleo convert. I literally mean I am quitting. All diets. Forever.

It occurred to me one day that I have spent a ton of time being afraid of and simultaneously drawn to a few “bad” foods; namely, cookies, sweet tea, and French fries. These are my heroin, my security blankets, and my antidepressants (that seriously don’t work). But these foods have no inherent value; they are not “bad.” They are inanimate, valueless. My method of consumption is what determines the wisdom of eating them.

Well, here’s the thing: I don’t want my daughter to end up waging the same war I have for 30½ years. I want to win it and end it, perhaps for us both at once. I’d rather my daughter know that some foods are everyday, all-you can eat foods; some foods are treats; and some foods are just for parties. I want her to see food as sustenance and occasionally a social enhancement and definitely a gift from God (as evidenced by the existence of taste buds, according to my pastor). What food is not is an emotional anesthetic or a substitute for affection. I want her to know that fruits and vegetables have superpowers, and that’s why God made them so bright and colorful. I want her to know that singing and dancing and laughing and playing all make for better journeys than Oreos do.

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I don’t want her to be scared of food. I definitely don’t want her to be scared of being fat.

So I’m not quitting health. I’m actually kind of finding it, now that I’m exiting the diet funhouse with all its mirrors that distort and lie and frighten. It’s a hard place to leave, because as restrictive and hateful as diets can be, they’re also seductive. They tell you sexiness and happiness and all your dreams-come-true are in following their simple regime.

It’s a lie.

Instead, we walk together, my daughter and I. We have Bath-Time Dance Parties. We snack on grapes and avocados when we’re hungry. We point to different parts of our bodies and say, “Anna has pretty arms; Mama has pretty arms! Anna has pretty feet; Mama has pretty feet!” And we remind each other that strong is more important than gorgeous, but gorgeous is a given.

A really beautiful memoir I read earlier this year included the line, “Contentment doesn’t double by the serving.” Very true: more potato chips have never led me to more joy. But I’ve learned that you don’t have to diet to eat fewer potato chips. You can just choose an alternative ending. Sure, you’ve always eaten the whole bag. See what happens if you don’t this time. I’ve been practicing. The skill sharpens with repeated success. And it definitely keeps proving the point that more food never equals more contentment.

When I get to the end of my life, my daughter with me in my room, I sure hope she doesn’t say, “Mom, you taught me how to diet.” I hope she says, “Mom, you had soul. You knew how to fight and win. You knew how to dance.” If that’s the story I want to tell, I’d better stop the dieting, choose something greater than the cookies, and just for the love of God get started dancing like she does:

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The Title-Loan Disciple.

By some cruel twist of fate, my family had to pay the IRS this year. It’s not yet been explained to me in a way I find satisfactory. Even so, it’s nice that the IRS isn’t an evil oligarchy running the show and illegally making money off the poor in order to oppress them further. From what I’ve read, that was the case in the Roman Empire a couple millennia ago. Tax collectors took not only the requisite income tax but also outrageously more in illegal funds to keep for themselves. Worse, they were abusing their own people: the brutal Romans hired them as Jews to steal from the Jews. The profession, of course, attracted the greediest, most dishonest thieves alive. They were so sinful that Jesus lumped them together with pagans (Matthew 18:17).

So it’s odd that in Luke 5:27, Jesus stops at one of these booths and asks the guy inside to be a disciple, in Jesus’s most intimate circle of friends. I think this would be kind of like Jesus stopping into a title loan shop and inviting the manager to become a disciple.

But not only did Jesus choose that kind of person, he also gave the invitation while the sinner was in the middle of sinning. Matthew’s at work, stealing from everyone, generally being abusive and awful, when Jesus says, “Wanna get away?”

Jesus saw this terrible man not as he was but as he would become. Jesus knew the strength and goodness seeded in Matthew’s heart. It caused Jesus to push past the sin in the guy’s story to get to the real man underneath.

And look what it does to Matthew: the immediately following verse tells us he threw a huge party at his house (Luke 5:29). He went from being swallowed up by greed, hatred, and abuse to utter generosity. He was willing to pay to feed everyone so they’d come over and meet Jesus too. That’s what Jesus can do: when he calls you away from your junk and starts whispering to you about who you really are, it changes you. Whatever ensnared you the most forcefully can be completely reversed. You simply can’t look at both options – the sinful you and the freed you – and want to stay where you are.

No one

There is one thing that can keep people from Christ though, it seems. He says to the religious bigots, “I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:32). A person who “thinks he/she is righteous” is pride-full, and that’s what apparently keeps Jesus away. In order to receive the grace of the Messiah, you have to know you need it.

But why choose greed and pride over Jesus? He is kind, protective, loving, and holds all power. He has sustained me with joy in my very darkest moments. He has surrounded me with a community of people who, because they love him, hold me up and cherish me as he does. He has not stopped giving me the desires of my heart since I trusted my life to him. And even if none of those things were true, he is still all we need on this earth. He literally provides everything from food to healing to comfort. There is no one like my Jesus. And even though I started out as selfish and sinful as Matthew, Jesus is fulfilling his promise to accomplish inside of me all he promised to accomplish since the beginning (Psalm 138:8). Since it’s a promise made to everyone, that promise goes for you too.

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