righteousness

Good to Great


Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel,”


which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a close look at Jesus’ earthly parents. Matthew focuses on the good Jew Joseph; Luke spends more time examining Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary’s perspective. Let’s start with Dad.

Joseph was a righteous man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in the story we have heard today. By “righteous,” the author of Matthew is implying Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone Joseph believed had wronged him terribly. He was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond good behavior to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on the tasks given him as soon as he awoke. He also would receive other instructions from God (head to Egypt, now go home) in a similar manner, and again act without hesitation, despite how odd they might have seemed.

I’m certainly not God, but I’m going to ask Joseph to do something else today. I’m going to ask him to serve as an example of what is possible when we move from good to great. By that, I mean when we move in our lives from laudable righteousness to radical obedience, regardless of what obedience may cost us in this world.

Note that Joseph’s righteousness is described as an ongoing state; certainly he was considered righteous by those around him before he learned Mary was pregnant, and before God began to speak to him through angels and dreams.

We can assume saving Mary cost Joseph a great deal in terms of how he appeared to others, who watched the situation without angelic guidance. To call already pregnant Mary his wife, he had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that almost certainly would begin in a small village: “Joseph could not control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

If Joseph had been about being righteous before human beings, he actually would have chosen to ignore God. Instead, he followed the difficult path, acting as if God’s will is all that matters.

Most of us gathered here today have achieved some appearance of righteousness in the eyes of other people. Success in worldly matters can make us seem righteous. We are perceived by others as “blessed.”

Even without financial success, we can take on roles in life that carry with them the veneer of righteousness. People in what we might call the “helping” professions certainly have it: Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and maybe even clergy seem to have some  sort of special status akin to righteousness, at least until doing something to lose it.

Dedicated churchgoers certainly can have an air of righteousness about them, particularly if they are known for giving and service to others.

Don’t get me wrong. That’s all good, quite worthy of notice.

But what about that next level? What about that radical obedience Joseph demonstrated? What does it take to work on God’s behalf as God alters the world for the better?

Well, first of all, we have to be careful not to get too comfortable in our situations. Biblically, we know contentment is a good thing, but we don’t want to settle into a righteous-looking life as if it were a big, comfy couch.

We miss so many opportunities when we are content to the point of being complacent. I would note the danger of such complacency increases as we get older, when we should have more time and freedom to explore radical responses to God’s call on us.

Beyond getting up off the big, comfy couch, we also have to be alert, listening to what God says to us. Joseph heard from God and recognized God’s truth for what it was. Our righteous praying and use of Scripture should have a result: We should hear from God from time to time, in ways that challenge us.

And of course, we need courage. We often simply need to regain that old-fashioned idea that this life, while precious, may even be shortened or put at risk when we really go to work for God—and that even losing our lives while working for God is not that big a deal, if we really have faith in what comes next.

Buck up, little Christians!

I do not know what each of you might be called to do. I do not know what I might be called to do, or what we as a church might be called to do. I just know there is much more to do as we await Christ’s return.

I pray I have just afflicted the comfortable so we, with Christ as our message and the Holy Spirit as our guide, will do the work of God in radical ways. That’s where the story of Joseph takes me, anyway.

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The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.


The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.

This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.

This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.

And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.

If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.

We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.

There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.


The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.

The James Series: Just Do It

James 1:17-27

We are launching into a five-week sermon series on the book of James. I have done versions of this series twice before at other churches. Even on the third try, I go into this effort with just a little fear.

Here’s the basic problem: We’re going to spend a lot of time hearing from James about how to behave. The danger is that you will process all of this as a lesson in what you have to do to get into heaven.

Please do not hear this series that way. In fact, this first sermon mostly is about how not to hear the other sermons.

We are saved by grace and grace alone. In other words, when Jesus Christ went to the cross and died for our sins, he gave us a gift, the gift of eternity. All we have to do to gain eternity is believe and accept the gift.

When we begin talking about Christian behavior, we’re always talking about it as a proper response to grace. God acts first, loving us and saving us, and we respond joyously and thankfully. That response often is delivered in the form of righteous living and good works.

The author of James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He also likely was the brother of Jesus, coming to a belief in Jesus as the Christ after the resurrection. His one letter that made it into the Christian canon has long been controversial; some church leaders—the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for example—wondered if it should be in the Bible at all, concerned that its emphasis on works caused too much confusion in a grace-based religion.

I personally don’t find James’ words as confusing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. We simply have to keep events in their proper order.

Consider this:

The vine precedes the grapes. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our faith in Christ makes us his branches, but there is no point to being his branches in this metaphor unless we bear fruit, the good works that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom.

Doesn’t a new life in Christ imply new ways of acting? James is telling us that if our new life in Christ doesn’t result in new ways of thinking and relating to others, then we may be mistaken about our relationship with Christ. This seems to go along with Jesus’ words about the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. Yes, we are saved because of our belief in Christ’s work on the cross to defeat sin, but our behaviors seem to be a prime indicator of how strongly we hold that belief.

For years, Nike has used the trademarked phrase, “Just Do It.” To me, it references that need for athletes to reach down inside themselves and find the willpower to make themselves what they want to be.

The Christian twist on the phrase would be that God reached down in us and put something new there when we accepted Jesus as Savior. The good works we do actually are part of the gift of salvation. If we trust that truth—if we let God work in us—the change can be astonishing.

The next few weeks will be about seeing what change is possible, trusting that even miraculous healing of the body and soul can occur.

Really Good Folk

There’s the right thing to do, and then there’s the really right thing to do. Usually, God has to show us the latter.

The Bible calls us to remember the different roles faithful human beings played in the arrival and upbringing of Jesus Christ on earth. The stories of Joseph and Mary have a particular twist to them that we should keep in mind whenever we’re trying to discern God’s will.

Joseph was a righteous or “just” man. We know this because the fact is stated flatly in his story as found in Matthew 1:18-25. By “just,” the author of Matthew is saying that Joseph is more than a simple keeper of the law; he has what we might call a good heart.

Most Christians know the basics of the story. Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, found herself to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. This meant very real trouble for Mary. In her day, an engagement carried with it all the legal and moral requirements of a full marriage, even though the couple had not yet consummated the relationship.

Upon discovering Mary was pregnant by another, Joseph under the law had every right to have her publicly shamed and even stoned to death. Instead, he resolved to let her escape what he believed to be her sin, “planning to dismiss her quietly.”

It was very much the right thing to do, a gracious, loving and noble act, abundant in mercy toward someone he believed had wronged him terribly. Joseph was truly a good-hearted man.

Our righteousness can never match God’s holiness, however, and sometimes we are called to go beyond even high standards of goodness to follow God’s will. When an angel later came to Joseph in a dream, he learned the truly spectacular facts surrounding the child in Mary’s womb.

To follow God’s will, Joseph had to do several difficult things. He had to trust that his relationship with God was strong enough to let him hear God correctly. He had to risk his honor, exposing himself to the whispers that may have happened in his village: “Joseph cannot control himself,” or another possible rumor, “Joseph is foolish enough to raise another man’s child.”

And most of all, he had to take on a challenge few people would feel equipped to handle, the protection and rearing of the Savior.

Joseph proved to be the kind of man God sought. Apparently without hesitation, he took on this task as soon as he awoke.

In Luke, which focuses more on Mary’s story, we see a similar ability to go beyond the human definition of what is right and dwell in God’s holy plan. When Mary prophetically utters what we now know as the “Magnificat,” we see a mind open to God’s extraordinary plan to turn the world topsy-turvy through Christ.

I believe we still experience Joseph and Mary moments today. There are decisions we face where there are at least two answers, one demonstrably good to the world, the second riskier but even more in tune with something new that God seems to be doing.

Maybe the decision lies in how we deal with our spouses or raise our children. Maybe it has to do with the work of our church. Perhaps it is in the very calling God has placed on our lives.

The key is to stay in tune with God through prayer, study and worship, and then watch for God’s guidance in such moments. We’re left then to ask ourselves, “Can I respond as bravely as Joseph  and Mary?”

It’s not hard to get to “yes” if we keep in mind the lesson of the coming Christmas season. God is with us, and as the angels tell us repeatedly, we have nothing to fear.

Beatitudes II: Kingdom Desires

Matthew 5:1-12

Let’s continue with our series on the Beatitudes.

Remember a couple of key points: First, we’re seeing characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Second, these aren’t really characteristics we can strive for; instead, we simply open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s work, what Methodists call his “sanctifying grace,” and we find ourselves more like those whom Jesus calls blessed.

The verses we’ll look at today have a lot to do with holy desires. What do citizens of the kingdom truly want?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Righteousness” isn’t too hard to understand. If something is righteous, it is aligned with God, approved by God. In understanding this verse, what the modern world has is a problem of context.

Jesus is describing a kind of hunger and thirst we seldom experience in developed nations. In his day, the typical worker was seldom getting enough calories. Clean water was scarce, too, and it was easy to end up in a situation where you could be without one or both for days.

He’s talking about desiring righteousness the way a dying man might want food or water. Nothing else takes precedence.

This understanding helps us grasp another difficult teaching, the “camel through the eye of a needle” story found in Matthew 19:23-26. It’s likely the rich young man’s possessions, which sheltered him from the typical experience of others, kept him from feeling the desire he really needed to feel to be a disciple of Jesus.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

To understand the concept of mercy, you also have to understand the underlying concepts for the Greek and associated Hebrew words. To show mercy, a person had to also have a deep sympathy for the motivations and situation of the person receiving mercy.

A science fiction example would be Counselor Troi on Star Trek, whose telepathic abilities let her actually feel another person’s emotions and motivations. The Bible isn’t science fiction, however. We don’t have telepathy, but we do have the Holy Spirit binding us together and enhancing our compassion for one another.

Again, we have to let the Holy Spirit work. We have to be patient; we have to listen, even when we’re really angry with someone. Showing mercy takes time.

And of course, we need to remember we are all recipients of mercy. Because God took on flesh and dwelled among us, even suffering like us, we are forgiven the sins that should result in eternal separation from God. We’re given eternity and asked to show a little temporal mercy to others in return.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The idea of purity here is rooted in the concept of something unmixed: William Barclay uses examples of grain sifted of all its chaff, an army purged of the discontented and the cowardly, milk or wine unmixed with water, or a metal like gold with no “tinge of alloy.”

We of course are being called to be fully holy, our sin refined out of us. And of course, we cannot do it ourselves. Self-examination through prayer, study, worship and participation in the sacraments opens new aspects of our being to God.

Again, we’re talking about sanctification, God’s continuing work after we are saved, a concept Methodists love to emphasize.

The reward is particularly enticing. We see God now. We’re reminded again the kingdom is present now, that we live in eternity now, its joy available to us in this life.

The Lovers

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (And really, the whole book)

Preachers, theologians, and lots of other Christians have struggled through the centuries with how to interpret Song of Solomon, sometimes called Song of Songs. Why is the book even in the Bible?

If you read it in a straightforward manner, there is very little instruction about God or humanity’s relationship to God. Traditionally, preachers have “allegorized” Song of Solomon, reading it as if it is all symbolic of God’s love for humanity and humanity’s pursuit of God.

Some modern preachers, myself included, struggle with that approach, however. While I respect my predecessors’ efforts, I find it a huge leap to reduce the elaborate and even overt imagery to such a generalized concept.

And then there are all those other unanswered questions. Who are these lovers speaking so boldly of their passionate desire for each other? (Traditionally, one of them is King Solomon, but that seems a bit of a stretch, too, as we’ll see shortly.) Did they or didn’t they? (I’m talking about sex here.) And if they did, were they married? (There’s no clear evidence in the text.)

I’m going to offer you my conclusion about how to read Song of Solomon. It’s an opinion I formed after marking the text up, making some observations about speakers, characters, and the nature of Hebrew poetry, and then consulting the writings of a lot of scholars I respect. Your eternal salvation is not dependent on your agreeing with me—I just want to share with you what I think.

First of all, I doubt Song of Solomon was ever intended to be read as a cohesive story. Instead, it’s a collection of sexually charged love poems. Think of Song of Solomon like a box of snapshots from a relationship. The pictures tell us much about the relationship, but they’re likely not in chronological order, and there are lots of details missing.

That’s not a radical idea; it simply makes Song of Solomon more like the collections of psalms, proverbs and other wisdom literature preceding it in the Bible.

We can glean a few interesting-if-vague details. In at least some of the poems, the woman is a working girl. She makes it clear her family has forced her to work in the fields, the sun tanning her so deeply that she describes herself as very dark. Her beloved is fairer-skinned and described as her “king-lover,” but that may just be poetic language, a deliberate effort to juxtapose him with King Solomon rather than make him out to be King Solomon.

Of course, all that said, I still haven’t made it clear why Song of Solomon belongs in the Bible. Again, I’m having to trust the research of better-trained scholars.

What’s particularly helpful is that in modern times, researchers have found that Song of Solomon is not unique. There were lots of similar collections of sexually charged love poetry in the cultures that surrounded the Israelites. The major difference is the polytheistic approach to sex these cultures took. (Polytheists worship many gods; monotheists, like the Israelites, worship one all-powerful God.)

Sex in polytheistic cultures tended to be about control. All sorts of sexual rituals evolved in these cultures to encourage the rain to fall, the crops to grow, and the livestock to multiply. Sex often was ritualized at temples with prostitutes in some of these cultures, and it certainly served as a way for men to control women.

The Israelites were radically different from their neighbors because they officially followed the One True God. Song of Solomon is a good indicator of how the Israelites’ understanding of God over time affected their attitudes about sex.

The Song of Solomon poems consistently talk about passionate, long-term love between one man and one woman seeking each other not for control, but for mutual satisfaction and ultimately, procreation. (The woman speaks of mandrakes in 7:13, a plant associated with fertility.) Sex is not to control a god; sex is a gift from God.

Marriage may not be an easily definable event in these poems, but it is easily assumed considering the deep commitments the lovers are making to each other. Their love takes us back to the creation story in Genesis, where one man and one woman are depicted as dependent on each other, inseparable.

King Solomon may even appear in these poems now and then as a kind of literary foil, there to make the lovers’ commitment to each other more commendable. We cannot forget what ultimately was King Solomon’s downfall in the eyes of God. In 1 Kings 11, Solomon is condemned for his many foreign wives and his willingness to introduce their polytheistic worship to the Israelites.

Why is Song of Solomon in the Bible? Because it reminds us that proper worship of the One True God changes our relationships for the better. This includes our sexual relationships, the most joyous physical gift God has given us, a gift that is celebrated in Jewish tradition and now Christian tradition.

And there are lessons here for today. When Song of Solomon was written, the Israelites were moving toward a deeper understanding of their monotheism. We read Song of Solomon today as a people who in many ways are moving toward polytheism. The wooden and silver idols and other trappings of the Ancient Near East may not be there, but our many ideas about possessions, wealth and power distract us from God and serve as idols.

We chase what is unimportant. We pursue what lacks true power. The frustration of such a lifestyle spills over into our sex lives, which become just one more avenue to instant gratification.

Yes, the lessons from Song of Solomon do result in very traditional Christian values. We end up affirming fidelity in marriage. In singleness, we understand that if we’re going to pursue a sexual relationship, it should be with someone who wants to enter that relationship through the lifetime commitment of marriage.

Sex is right when it reveals our righteousness.