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What If?

Scripture -

Matthew 7:7-12

On first impression, these verses seem to be extremely naïve. They seem to promise categorically that we can get anything we pray for as long as we pray with enough tenacity & intensity. Because of these sayings, radio & TV evangelists assure us that we can pray successfully for a million dollars if only we follow their recipe for prayer & “cooperate with the Lord” as we pursue our goal.

The NT makes it perfectly clear that prayer is not intended as a means of manipulating God into satisfying our selfish desires. In fact, even very unselfish prayers for healing may go unanswered. Paul tells us that he prayed 3 times that his thorn in his body, apparently some physical affliction that must have affected his work, should be removed, but the answer he received was simply: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed earnestly, “My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me.” But Jesus concluded, “However – not what I want but what you want.”

A first step toward a less naïve understanding of these verses can be made when we observe how Matthew has placed them. This little section concludes the long string of imperatives that make up the core of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21 – 7:6). We have been asked to forgo anger & retaliation, to love our enemies & forgive those who have injured us, & to control our criticism of others. How can we fulfill all these demands & manifest the higher righteousness of the kingdom of God? These verses remind us that for us it is impossible, but with God all things are possible. That is, only by persistently asking, seeking, & knocking at heaven’s door through prayer will we find grace to obey these impossible demands. Only through tenacious dependence on God’s graciousness can we deal graciously with those who provoke a negative reaction in us.

Encouragement is provided by an analogy with human fathers who, despite being evil, nevertheless deal generously with their children. If those whose goodness is mediocre at best are ready to take seriously the requests of their children, how much more will the heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. Where Matthew has good things, Luke wrote the Holy Spirit. Because of Luke’s special interest in the Holy Spirit, it is usually assumed that Matthew’s good things better represents what Jesus actually said. In view of his placement of the sayings, however, it is possible that Matthew’s understanding is close to Luke’s: both perceive the answer to Christian prayer as consisting of Christian graces, not material treasures. It is the Holy Spirit that makes possible a supernatural love of enemies.

When William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement, was about to leave for India, he preached a sermon that became a clear call to many: “Expect Great Things from God, Attempt Great Things for God.” These 2 imperatives communicate the essence of today’s reading. To take seriously the terrifying demands of the Sermon on the Mount is to take still more seriously God’s readiness to assist us in fulfilling them.

But do we believe it? Are we willing to take risks for the kingdom of God? Responding to the opioid crisis will take risk – great risk! But it is not enough for us to open our church doors & wait for the epidemic to end. We must leave our sanctuary & enter the battle.

The bulletin insert, Education, has a brief history of how we got to where we are today & what opioids are. The flip side, Devotion, explains what I am asking of all members of Shiloh Church, beginning today.

I am asking each of us to fast at least one meal each week. Then, when we feel a pang of hunger, we stop what we are doing & pray for those who are feeling the pangs of uncontrollable hunger for an opioid. As we long for the missed meal, I ask you to take the time to think about how the addicted person hungers every day for their drug, at the expense of their health, their family, & their future. If skipping a meal makes you angry & irritable, & you are tempted to cheat & eat something, consider how the addicted person feels similar feelings each & every day.

I am asking each of us to set aside time each day to pray to God for guidance. Honestly ask God your questions about addiction, & don’t be afraid to shout out your fears & frustrations over the addicted. I’m confident that if we ask God to make clear what our (mine & yours) calling is to this epidemic, God will faithfully answer. What is Shiloh Church being called to do? And I want us to intentionally pray for the healing of those who suffer from substance abuse disorder. Healing is needed not only by the addict, but by their families & our community.

I am asking each of us, for the next 7 weeks, to listen for God’s call on our lives. It may come in a loud booming voice. We may hear it in a still quiet voice. God’s guidance may come through a trusted friend. Or we may hear it in the voice of a stranger. I’m asking that we listen for God’s guidance in the crazy busy-ness of the day & in the quiet of our nightly dreams.

When God calls the body of Christ, everyone must respond. Now is the time. We all have a calling. Each of us has been blessed with specific gifts & grace to help end the opioid epidemic in western Davidson County. Is this scary? Yes, it is! Is this unfamiliar territory? Yes, it is! Is God with us? Absolutely!

It is not enough for us to open our church doors & wait for the epidemic to end. We must leave our sanctuary & enter the battle.

I’m sure many, if not most, of you are wondering what the motivation for this sermon series is. Have Dave & Sheryl suddenly been affected by the crisis? Is someone in their family, or in our church family, caught it the web of addiction? The answers are “no” & “I pray not.” I am motivated to do this series because of the leading of the Holy Spirit. God has laid the burden of this addiction crisis, & its affects on western Davidson County, heavy on my heart. I simply believe that Shiloh has a special calling in responding to this crisis. And that burden comes, in part, from the closing verse of today’s reading. You should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.

This verse deserves special attention not only because of the important role it has played in Christianity, although many people outside the church consider it the epitome of Jesus’ teaching, but more especially because of where Matthew has significantly located it.

It is now widely accepted that the Golden Rule was not original to Jesus. With slight variations, it is found in many authors, both Jewish & non-Jewish. In the pre-Christian apocryphal book of Tobit, 4:15, we read, “And what you hate, do not do to anyone.” Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, supposedly said to a Gentile inquirer, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah.” This formulation attributed to Jesus is positive rather than negative, but no great emphasis should be placed on this difference, since each formulation implies the other. “If it is hateful for you to starve, do not act in a way that your neighbor will starve” is not much different from “If you wish your neighbor would keep you from starving, you must feed your starving neighbor.” Sometimes the positive form may bring action, while the negative simply encourages inaction. At other times, the negative form may be more effective.

More serious than the question of originality is the challenge that the rule is secular rather than religious. That is, that it is grounded in human wisdom rather than in God’s relationship to human beings. Its detractors claim the individual can direct his or her behavior based on the world of feelings. The problem can be seen when specific applications are envisioned. If we treat people of another culture only as we would want to be treated, our behavior may be considered offensive. Another potential problem is a literal reading of the rule: “Don’t report illegal behavior if you don’t want anyone to report your illegal behavior.” Or “if you like to attend wild parties, you must give wild parties.” As an ethical principle, the Golden Rule is highly susceptible to unethical use!

Because of this, the Golden Rule is “golden” only when interpreted considering its Christian context, not in a secularized way. In Luke, it is a kind of summary in the middle of the section on loving enemies & forgoing retaliation. This context gives the rule an elevation it cannot have in isolation. Doing as you would be done to by now means far more than calculating self-interest, because its meaning is illustrated by love of enemies & nonretaliation. The rule is then followed by: If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. The ultimate clue for interpreting & applying the Golden Rule is provided in the section’s closing verse: Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

It is probable that Luke’s location of the Golden Rule more accurately reflects its setting than Matthew. The writer has moved the rule from the section on love of enemies to 7:12, where it follows sayings on prayer. It seems to fit the new location poorly, until we notice its place in the overall Sermon on the Mount. Here, we complete the long section on the better righteousness & begin the concluding end-times section. In its new location, the Golden Rule serves as a summary not merely to the sayings about love of enemies, but of all other ethical teaching as well. It becomes for Matthew a shorthand reference to all the material concerning righteousness in the kingdom of heaven.

An indicator of this function is Matthew’s addition, this is the Law & the Prophets. These words echo 5:17 & so bracket the entire Sermon on the Mount. The Golden Rule is to be understood & applied as a Christian principle. That is, as a summary of Jesus’ interpretation of the Law & the prophets. To treat it any other way is, for Matthew, to remove it from its proper context.

Also essential to its meaning is its relationship to Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the kingdom. As is the case with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule is a “therefore” ethic. The basis of obligation is not self-interest but the boundless grace of God, whose scope & breadth we are to imitate.

And surely that scope & breadth is grand enough to include those that suffer from the illness of addiction. We may abhor their actions & find ourselves unable to comprehend their thinking, but they, too, are created in the image of God & worthy of any of our efforts to rescue them from death. May we go forth from worship today with a message: God loves you & we do too, & there isn’t anything you can do about it!

It is not enough for us to open our church doors & wait for the epidemic to end. We must leave our sanctuary & enter the battle. Onward, Christian soldiers! Let’s go light up our world with the love of Christ!

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