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Friday, January 13, 2017

Legalists, Rebels, and Worshippers

(As always, I got permission to use this story)

I remember well arguments with our daughter Hannah, now 27, when she was in her early teens. She often didn’t fight fairly. It was not unusual for her to take the literal words I used and throw them back at me or exaggerate them in a manner that hindered the conversation. For instance, if I said to her, “I don’t want you hanging out with so-and-so any longer. I don’t like the attitude I see in you after you have been with her for a while.” Then she might say, “You don’t want me to have any friends at all!” or, “You just want me to hang out with people who think like you!” It was a way of listening, but not listening, that blocked her from hearing what I actually meant and left us both frustrated. I’m fully aware that I also didn’t handle such conversations well on many occasions.

This behavior is serious enough in relationships, but is even more dangerous when we interpret the Bible in a way that causes us to miss its real purpose. For instance, when someone asks me, “Do you believe the Bible is literally true?” My answer to that is “yes”, depending on what you mean by ‘literal’.” What I don't mean is believing the sun revolves around the earth or that mountains literally skip like lambs. To read the Bible that way is to deliberately seek to avoid hearing the truth.

Obviously differences exist in the interpretation of many passages of scripture. Oddly, one of the most famous passages of all produces some of the most divergent opinions on how to interpret and apply it. The passage is the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Some streams of theology largely dismiss the text as not relevant for today, but rather for a future kingdom age. Others dismiss the specifics of the Sermon by thinking the instructions are not realistic. They think Instructions about lust, anger, retaliation, and praying for enemies in the Sermon, seem so outlandish that they are not realistic for most people. They think, perhaps, that maybe God has made some people who are just good at being good and able to obey such commands, but that He certainly didn’t make themselves that way.

Others can miss the point of the Sermon by treating it like a huge goal to achieve, like preparing to run a marathon. In a sense, they are saying to themselves that they need to get super disciplined and try to work these practices into their life. That’s closer to the truth, and maybe an even more dangerous distortion, because it can lead to a legalistic heart believing one has to achieve a level of goodness to be acceptable to God.

Both dismissing the Sermon. and seeking to achieve its standards, miss the point. Rather, this grand vision is meant to drive us to surrender to Jesus.  We need to recognize that His standards of holiness are beyond our ability so that we repent of rebelling by ignoring God’s instructions, or rebell by trying to manipulate God through obedience. Instead, we bow in worship before Him.

I don’t think the need for us to deeply immerse ourselves in Jesus’ words has ever been greater. Perhaps it will be just the tool the Holy Spirit will use to help us to see our need for a lifestyle of repentance. Our greatest spiritual danger is pride. Not the good kind of pride that leads us to do our best, but the arrogant flavor of pride that blocks us from allowing God’s word to challenge our values, attitudes, and lifestyles.

I can’t think of a greater need for us as individuals, as a church, a community and even a nation. So much of the political turmoil coming from all sides in this past year was fueled by arrogance. We can get caught up in that and dress it up in religious disguise that looks good, but is repulsive to people who are far from God and worse, repulsive to God himself. I need the medicine of Jesus’ Sermon. Don’t you?

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