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The Benefits of Challenge

Pastor Julie


It’s February, and that means that new year’s resolutions at the R-S household are now 6 weeks old. My husband started an exercise program with a personal trainer for the first time in his life. And so along with a lot more celery and carrot sticks around the house,

There are tough work outs: once/week with the trainer, two classes per week, plus his own stretching or cardio. Up to this point in his life, my husband has studied up and conducted his own exercise program. He is a DIY kind of person, and why pay someone for what you can do yourself? But this time, he felt he needed the accountability and the challenge of a trainer Someone who would keep pushing him to keep working on his fitness.

Health is a life long enterprise, and this exercise routine needs to be for the long haul.

There is a scientific basis for the kind of rigor that my husband is putting into his exercise program.

Studies show that the body acclimates to repeated workouts;

People plateau in their ability to get stronger, build stamina and increase their health.

If you are simply seeking to maintain your physical condition,

you don’t need to add as much challenge.

But if you want to increase your fitness, you have to mix up your workouts,

Change your exercises, add more weight or time to your routine.

The body has to be taxed to continue to build muscle and cardiovascular strength.

It seems to me that Jesus stepped into the role of personal trainer this week in our gospel lesson. We are in the middle of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

He has just stated that “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” and

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,

you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Jewish law was meant to be like a workout routine in the best sense—a way to healthy living as the people of God,

maintaining right relationships with God and neighbor. It contained practices that challenged people to be a holy people as God was holy.

As our passage from Deuteronomy states, “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today… Then you shall become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering. But if your hearts turn away and you do not hear [these commandments]…I declare to you today that you shall perish.” In the Sermon on the Mt, Jesus goes up the mountain like Moses and shares God’s law with the people, Jesus gives a new interpretation of the law—and it is a rigorous interpretation. Jesus goes a step further than Moses ever did, focusing on what is in a person’s heart in addition to external behavior. For Jesus, righteous living isn’t just obeying the commandment against murder

Unresolved anger toward another person can lead to insult and injury.

Jesus therefore teaches to reconcile with others quickly and often.

Likewise, adultery as Jesus defines it grows out of seeing someone else

As an object of self-gratification rather than an image of God.

Jesus’ teaching about swearing is about how people made oaths, legally binding commitments In Jesus’ eyes, these oaths were only necessary because people didn’t have the honesty to keep their word without the supervision of the legal system.

Have integrity, Jesus teaches, and do not swear oaths at all.

In each case Jesus deepens the law to reflect a righteousness of heart and mind,

In concert with his interpretation of the greatest commandment, which is also found in Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind,

And your neighbor as yourself,” It is a rigorous workout! Practicing forgiveness,

treating people as a fellow member of God’s family instead a means to an end,

continually working to be honest with oneself and others—this is life long spiritual work.

And we haven’t even gotten to the part yet about loving your enemies!

I think that one might just be the iron man contest of the spiritual life.

Jesus knew a thing or two about the spiritual life,

And one of the things he knew is that regular practice and challenge builds spiritual muscle.

Consider how he spent 40 days in the wilderness prior to his ministry.

He was tempted out there by Satan—but angels also waited on him.

He spent regular time alone to pray; he knew his scriptures inside and out.

He was challenged by people who wanted healing

like the Canaanite woman (Mt 15) and the Roman soldier (Mt 8)

And by his detractors who tried to discredit him in front of the crowds.

In each case, Jesus is an example to us of how challenge can broaden our understanding,

Increase our compassion, and strengthen our faith.

Our faith practices are indeed challenging. We have to keep working to keep the time for doing daily devotions in our schedules. Being a part of Christian community is challenging,

because a church is not a collection of like minded people,but rather a gathering of people made in the image of God, each one reflecting a unique facet of God’s character.

This diversity is beautiful, but it is also hard, because it means we don’t always agree.

If however, we stick with the discipline of hearing from our neighbors and speaking our own truth in love, we can learn more about the character of God. If we stick with our prayer practice, we grow closer to God and feed on God’s strength. In short, the very nature of the challenge of our faith practice helps us to grow spiritually. Nonetheless, often my honest reaction to challenge is resistance. I think that tough yoga teacher trying to kill me

When my muscles are shaking and I can’t see with all the sweat in my eyes, I want to quit.

But then the recovery pose comes. Endorphins kick in. I can go a little further.

I can get a little stronger, go a little deeper in the stretch. I remember my yoga teacher is pushing me because she believes this will help me on and off the mat. I stop resisting, and I learn I have capacity to change and grow. If I can believe that about my yoga teacher, how much more can we believe it about Jesus?

These words of today’s lesson may be hard to hear, but this same Jesus later says to us in ch 12, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, I will give you rest.”

This same Jesus who seems so demanding is also the Jesus who loves us as we are

And wants the best for us. In him we find the rest and safety and comfort we so badly need.

Jesus goes on to say “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” The yoke was a metaphor used for the law Jesus is inviting us to take on the yoke of the law because in it is fulness of life And not only that Yokes in Jesus day typically had space for two animals

That’s why Jesus could say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

If we take one position in the yoke, Jesus is in the other, pulling with us. In the end, Jesus wants us not only to have a place of comfort and safety, but also for us to grow.

Our spiritual practices are about both, Whether it is daily prayer, or reading scripture

Whether it is worshipping on Sunday morning Being a part of a diverse Christian community

or listening for God’s direction as we run, knit, or drive. Our daily living becomes a spiritual practice as we seek to grow in our compassion and kindness As we try to do right by our employees and coworkers, family members and friend. We find places of respite and places of challenge, All the while, looking to Jesus—The one who loves us, encourages us, and challenges us To be ever more a reflection of his light and his face in the world.



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