Where are the poor at this hour? Are they filling churches all across our city and nation? Are they finding refuge among the Body of Christ? Are they carrying their heavy loads through the church doors and having their burdens lifted by God’s people? In their dismal destitution are they finding hope in the Gospel or are they merely drowning under the pall of desperation? Where are the poor at this hour?
Where are the needy? Are they serving as deacons, elders, and ushers, or are they singing in the choir? Are they serving on committees, volunteering in the children’s ministry, or teaching a Sunday school class? Are they even in church this morning or have they been left out in the cold? Oh, some may say, “Well, they have every opportunity that I have to come to church. If they really wanted to come they could.”
I’ve been reading God’s Word this past week and noticing that the poor and needy hold a special place in God’s heart. I’ve also been thinking about the Church in America today and wondering, “Do the poor hold a special place in our heart?” Before we answer that question with a quick “Amen,” let’s think about it for a minute. I’ve watched new churches being built all across our city over the past 22 years and I’ve noticed that they are almost always built where new houses are going up, where projected growth is expected to take place. I’ve not noticed an effort to build churches where the poor live. I’ve watched church services on T.V. and noticed that the big mega-churches are filled with the popular, the high profile, and the influential. Superstars fill the pulpit and nationally known recording artists sing the special music. Everything looks so polished and perfect. I’ve not noticed too many folks dressed in jeans and a dirty t-shirt. I’ve not noticed trash bags full of someone’s personal belongings sitting in the aisle beside their pew.
I have to wonder, “If the poor were so important to Jesus then why aren’t they important to the Church?” I know that many folks would say, “We do care for the poor. We send money to the City Rescue Mission, we support missionaries in the Sudan, and we help with the Angel Tree Project each Christmas.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking any of those wonderful efforts, but caring means much more than sending money to a cause–it means bringing them in, welcoming them as part of the family of faith, helping address their area of need, and welcoming them into the life of the church.
I will never forget an experience I had shortly after I arrived here at Britton Christian Church. I was paid a visit by another pastor who asked me what I would like to see happen at BCC. I was honest with him and told him that I hoped that God would make BCC a “Lighthouse of hope for all people.” His response was–“You can’t build a church in a poor neighborhood.” I’ve never forgotten those words because I think they stand in absolute contradiction to God’s Word. If you read Scripture then you will see that God is always reaching out to those in need and urging His people to follow in His steps.
If you were to go verse-by-verse throughout God’s Word you would find that God draws special attention to the poor. He calls His people to look out for those who are poor, He reassures the poor that He is their Defender and Protector, and He warns those people in society who would try to take advantage of the poor.
It’s interesting that when Jesus stood up to preach His very first public sermon He said that He had been anointed to “preach good news to the poor.” Take a look with me at Luke 4:16-21.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4:16-21 NIV)
This was not the last time that Jesus would address the situation of those who were poor and needy in Israel. He told parables about the poor. Jesus reached out to lepers who were the outcasts of society. You could always find the poor gathered together whenever Jesus would preach.
After Jesus’ resurrection His followers continued to exhibit concern and care for those who were poor. In Acts 6:1-6, the first Christians made sure that the poor widows would be taken care of. The Apostle Paul took up a love offering for the poor in Jerusalem. (Romans 15:26) James taught the early believers to never show favoritism towards the rich when they got together for worship.
We need to realize that the commitment of the early Christians was not simply a humanitarian cause–their passion to minister and care for those in need was deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible. They cared for the poor among them because they knew that God cared for the poor. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, we see God’s command to His people.
7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8 NIV)
In Leviticus 23, God gave His people instructions about harvesting their crops, making their offerings, and observing appointed feasts. It is interesting that God reminded His people of how to treat the poor. Read along with me in Leviticus 23:22.
22 “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:22 NIV)
Make no mistake about it my friends, God has a heart for the poor and He wants us to have a heart for the poor as well. Our study this morning is going to focus on two verses from Proverbs 14, but we’ve already seen that these two verses are echoed throughout God’s Word.
21 He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy. (Proverbs 14:21 NIV)
The Hebrew word for “despises” means to “hold as insignificant.” How prevalent is this mindset today? So many people, including Christians, look down upon those who are in need. They don’t believe they have anything to offer society. In fact, they are seen as a drain on society. We need to know that this mindset is sin. God says that we are to be kind to the needy. We are to treat the poor as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to refuse the temptation to stereotype the poor. Each of us has heard stories of poor people who have preyed upon the kindness of others. They lied and manipulated folks so that they could get what they wanted. Some of you may have been burned at some time by one of these people, but let me assure you that not all of those who are poor are dishonest. I know wealthy people who prey on folks, manipulate and lie to get what they want, and yet we don’t stereotype them. Our second Scripture drives the lesson home with even greater forcefulness. Solomon writes,
31 He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. (Proverbs 14:31 NIV)
What does it mean to “oppress” the poor? That’s a great question. The Hebrew word for “oppress” is “`ashaq” and the word means, “to press upon, oppress, violate, defraud, do violence, wrong, exploit, or to crush.” If we were to list the number of ways that the poor are taken advantage of in society, in the halls of government, or in the court system then we would be here for a long time. You and I can’t change the beliefs and practices of society, but we can allow the Lord to change the way that we live our lives and the way we see other people.
Solomon tells us that we honor God when we are kind to those who are needy. That’s an awesome thought isn’t? If you and I are kind to those in need we are honoring God. I don’t think there is anyone here this morning who does not want to honor God. Yet, if you ask most people how they can honor God they will say things like “live a good life,” “go to church,” “read the Bible,” etc. Those wouldn’t be wrong answers, but God’s Word tells us that there is another important way that we can honor God and it is by showing kindness to those in need.
We need the mindset of Mother Theresa when she said, “In the poor, we find Jesus in distressing disguise.” If we kept this thought at the forefront of our mind then I believe it would change the way that we look at those in need. When we see those in need we see God’s invitation to make a difference. When we see those in need we see God calling us to be a blessing. When we see those in need we see Jesus inviting us to serve Him. Some would think that is absurd, but that is what Jesus said in Matthew 25.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” 40 The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” 41 Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” 44 They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” 45 He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” 46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 NIV)
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” When we have an opportunity to help someone in need we are serving Jesus. When we have the opportunity to reach out to someone who has been cast aside we are serving Jesus. When we have the opportunity to lead the hopeless to the hope that only God can give, we are serving Jesus. Make no mistake about it–if we are kind and helpful to those in need, we are honoring God in a glorious way!
Today, I see two different brands of Christianity. There are those churches that focus on making sure that their understanding of God’s Word is correct. They are devoted to doctrine. They have more Bible studies than you can imagine. They sponsor seminars on theology and invite acclaimed Bible scholars to lecture on topics like Soteriology, Eschatology, and Epistemology.
On the other hand there are those churches that seem to be concerned with the disadvantaged, the outcast, and the destitute. They volunteer to work in AIDS ministries, they take mission trips to build houses with Habitat For Humanity, and they make sandwiches on a regular basis for the men and women at the homeless shelter.
These two types of churches believe wholeheartedly in what they are doing and they do what they do well, but they don’t share one another’s passion. As a matter of fact, you might hear talk about those “Liberal” churches or those “Fundamentalist” churches–labels that are used in a disparaging way.
Whenever we seek to determine what God is calling us to do we must ask what is on God’s heart? What is on God’s heart? Is it matters of doctrinal purity, making sure that our theology aligns with God’s word? You bet that’s on God’s heart. Paul wrote to Timothy and said,
13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 1:13 NIV)
In the very next chapter of Paul’s letter to Timothy he reiterated the importance of correctly teaching God’s Word.
1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:1-2 NIV)
Is it important for us to teach and preach God’s Word in its entirety? Absolutely. We should prayerfully consider God’s Word and seek to pass it on just as God intended, but this is not the whole story. We are to live out God’s Word.
Are those who are committed to social causes correct in their commitments? Should we give our time and attention to serving in the food pantry, volunteering at the King’s Klinic, reaching out to those who are hungry, suffering from AIDS, buried under a mountain of bills, unable to find employment, or homeless? Absolutely. The Apostle John wrote these words,
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18 NIV)
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to the believers in his day and challenged those who tried to separate faith from action. James wrote,
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17 NIV)
Is James suggesting that we earn our salvation? Is our faith dependent upon our good works? Is James saying that we must “do” something to be made right with God? Not at all. What James is saying is that the way we live this life is the fruit of our faith. If you have an apple tree in your backyard then you expect to gather apples because apple trees produce apples. Right? You would never expect to harvest apricots or oranges. So it is with the followers of Jesus. If we are followers of Jesus, growing in Christ, then the things that come from our lives should reflect Jesus’ heart. The world should see in us the things we see in Jesus.
I don’t know where we got off track. It is like one arm of the church is the keeper of the doctrine and the other arm of the church is the doer of good deeds. This shouldn’t be.
Doctrine and deeds are two sides of the same coin. Anyone who studies God’s Word will be moved to compassion for those in need. John Calvin is probably the greatest theologian who has ever lived. The man had an unbelievable grip on God’s Word. Calvin spent his life studying God’s Word so that he could teach God’s Word to others, but that wasn’t all he was concerned with in his ministry. Brian Fikkert writes,
Most people are aware of John Calvin’s profound theological contributions, but few are aware that he was instrumental in reviving the role of the deacons in developing an organized program for meeting the temporal needs of the poor. Among other things, Calvin’s deacons provided housing and emergency assistance to the poor; they ensured that the local hospital was helping all people regardless of their ability to pay; they assisted people with financial planning; they paid for the education of those who could not afford it; they provided job re-training for those who were out of work; and they offered loans and technical assistance to low-income persons so that they could start their own businesses. For Calvin, none of this was optional. Rather, it was what the scriptures mandated. Calvin went so far as to say: “Do we want to show that there is reformation among us? We must begin at this point, that is, there must be pastors who bare purely the doctrine of salvation, and then deacons who have care for the poor. (Brian Fikkert, Reforming Attitudes Towards The Poor.)
Calvin was right, we need pastors and Bible teachers who will rightly handle the Word of God and teach its truths with no compromise. We also must be diligent in caring for those in need. To neglect either one of these foundational pillars of our faith is to live in disobedience to God.
As we close this study let me share with you a few more examples of God’s concern for the needy and His promises for those who will bless those in need. In Proverbs 19:17 we read,
17 He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done. (Proverbs 19:17 NIV)
In Proverbs 21:13 we read,
13 If you stop your ears to the cries of the poor, your cries will go unheard, unanswered. (Proverbs 21:13 NIV)
In the very next chapter of Proverbs we read,
9 A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor. (Proverbs 22:9 NIV)
Last of all, take a look at Proverbs 22:22-23 with me.
22 Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, 23 for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them. (Proverbs 22:22-23 NIV)
God cares for those in need. Make no mistake about it. Society may look down upon those in need, they may see them as a drain on society, or stereotype them as lazy or incompetent, but God sees something much more. God sees His family–He has made us all.
The early Church was committed to carrying on the ministry of Jesus–beginning in Jerusalem, going on to Judea, Samaria, and across the planet. They were drawn to the needy and the needy were drawn to them because they weren’t looked down upon by Jesus’ people. A very interesting phenomenon took place because of the commitment of those early Christians. Look at Acts 4:32-35 with me.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35 NIV)
I pray that the Church will once again become a refuge for those who are in need. I pray that the poor will find rest, hope, and salvation in the Church once again. I pray that those in need, those who are hurting, full of fear, and feeling like life will never change will find peace and comfort in the care of this church. For this to happen we must see our brothers and sisters who are in need as family, part of God’s family. For this to take place we must see Jesus in the faces of those who come our way.
A few years ago a big, strong guy here in our church called me with a predicament. He worked with a guy who had just told him that he had AIDS and he didn’t know how to respond. He asked me if I would be willing to go to lunch with the two of them. When we arrived at the restaurant I met Troy and learned that he had almost died from complications related to AIDS. Troy was a piece of work. He said that he had kicked AIDS tail or something like that. Troy was the embodiment of what society believes about gay men. He was flamboyant. He was an interior decorator. He was way out of the closet.
I listened to Troy and my friend talk throughout our time together and as we were getting ready to leave I said, “Troy, I don’t know if you have a church home, but if you ever want to come to our church I would be honored to have you share with us.”
The next Sunday Troy came to BCC and you welcomed him. People here in the church welcomed Troy with open arms. Troy loved coming to church. He loved the diversity. He loved the music that lifted his soul.
One Sunday I announced that we needed to pray for a young man in our church who had AIDS and Troy was in my office the next day. He asked about the young guy and he began to weep. He said, “Please tell him that I am praying for him.”
As Troy’s strength began to fade he would teeter into worship on Sunday mornings. Sometimes he couldn’t sit through the whole service, but he had to be here. He struggled to get here each Sunday until he became bedfast. I was so blessed that after Troy became bedfast some of you followed him home. You took “church” to Troy as you prayed for him and loved him. I was at Troy’s house one day and his strength had faded. When I walked into his bedroom he saw me, threw back the covers, and said, “Mike, look at my legs–they are hideous!” They were so thin. He was dressed in a diaper.
Troy and I talked often and on one occasion he said, “Mike I know that I’m going to die and I was hoping that we could have my funeral at Britton Christian Church.” I said, “You better believe we can do that.” Troy knew what he wanted at his funeral and it was quite a production. It perfectly reflected Troy’s flamboyance. There were statues at each end of Troy’s casket, Governor Walters spoke because Troy was a huge fan of the Democrats, and there was a reception at the Waterford following the funeral.
I still have a picture of Troy on my desk. I will never forget how God used so many of you to touch Troy’s heart during the most difficult period of his life. I will never forget how the Lord taught me to see Jesus in the “least of these.”