Text: Isaiah 58:6-12 — “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am. ‘If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Introduction: This is the last message in our series Neighboring 101. I thought I’d spend our time together this morning focusing on loving the poor. The passage I just read to you from Isaiah tells us plainly that God cares for the impoverished among us and wants us to as well. And I would venture to say that most of us do and try to lend a hand whenever possible. However, if your experience is anywhere near mine, not every opportunity to help the poor has left you feeling like you did something good. I remember delivering Christmas presents to families in the area some years ago when I called a woman and told her that I would be dropping by with a bunch of gifts. About fifteen minutes later, I knocked on the door of her home, which by the way, seemed to be in pretty good condition. I could see a man sitting on a sofa watching a large screen television, but he made no effort to respond, so I knocked a little harder. Finally, a young child of about five opened the front door. I told him that I had some Christmas presents for the family. He ran and got his mother, who motioned for me to put them in the living room. There were several, so the process took a few minutes. All the while, the man on the couch never made a move to help me. When I was done, I let myself out of the house after saying loud enough for everyone to hear that I was finished and then wishing them the Lord’s blessing as they celebrated the birth of His Son. On my thirty minute ride home, I did some soul searching about what I’d just experienced. To be honest, it didn’t sit well with me. And I don’t think the fellow on the couch considered it much of a blessing either. I felt a little insulted at the lack of help or gratitude on display and he was probably embarrassed because his family made the list of those who needed some charity. Have you ever had a similar experience trying to do the “Christian thing” and lend a hand to someone less fortunate than yourself? If it didn’t turn out the way you expected, then perhaps you have battled some of the same frustrations. Perhaps the people you served did not appear to be poor at all, at least the way we tend to imagine poverty, or while many accepted your help, they didn’t seem to be grateful and certainly wouldn’t have seen it as a blessing from the Lord. These kind of experiences for Christians lead us to ask an important question when it comes to caring for the poor: How can we really help them and, at the same time, display true righteousness and the glory of the Lord?
In their book “When Helping Hurts,” Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, present a different and better understanding of how believers can care for the poor. It involves an understanding of poverty that few of us probably have considered. It goes something like this:.
The CREATION before Poverty (Genesis 1 and 2). When God first created man, He established four foundational relationships for each person.
- Relationship with Self. Adam and Eve were made in the image of God. Together they found lasting value in this reality (Genesis 1:27 — God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them). While the Bible doesn’t say what it means to be made in the image of God, it likely has to do with our ability to exercise self-will, enjoy relationships, to rule over the earth (as God rules over the universe).
- Relationship with God. Adam and Eve enjoyed warm fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden and soaked up the benefits of an unbroken relationship with Him. They basked in His love as God provided for their every need and gave them real purpose for their lives.
- Relationship with Others. Adam and Eve loved each other the way God loved them…unconditionally. This idea is contained in the phrase, “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” They were totally exposed (mentally, emotionally and physically) to each other and felt each other’s complete love and acceptance.
- Relationship with Creation (Remember God gave them dominion over the earth.) Adam and Eve carefully tended the garden and reaped a bountiful harvest as a result. The work they engaged in was not burdensome, but fulfilling.
The CAUSE of Poverty. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God by disobeying Him, each of these relationships (with self, God, others and creation) was corrupted, bringing all kinds of poverty into the world.
- Personal Poverty. Once the image of God in them was distorted by sin, both became aware of feelings of insecurity that were not present before. While they did not understand all the implications of what had occurred as the result of their sin, they knew that something wasn’t right and so Adam and Eve covered themselves in an attempt to hide their shame (Genesis 3:7 — Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves).
- Spiritual Poverty. They hid from each other and then they hid from God among the trees of the garden. When God asked why they were hiding, Adam said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked…” They had never had cause to fear anything prior to the fall, but once they rebelled, it became a motivating factor in almost every decision.
- Relational Poverty. Adam turned on Eve and they both turned on God. Neither accepted responsibility for their sin. Sadly, their relationships with each other and the children that came after were corrupted by sin.
- Material Poverty. God cursed the world and announced that it would now give up its fruit only after much labor and toil (Genesis 3:17-18 — God said — Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field).
The CURE for Poverty. Through the cross of Christ we have been reconciled to God, ourselves, one another and the created order.
- Having been alienated from God, man must be reconciled to Him through Christ (Colossians 1:21-22 — And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him).
- Having had the image of God in us corrupted by sin, man’s perspective of himself must now be radically altered by the renewing of his mind (Romans 12:2 — Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will).
- Having experienced the damaging effect of sin on his relationships with others, man must now learn to how to love in a brand new way (John 13:34 — A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another).
- Having felt the effect of sin on a world that’s been cursed, man must now seek to be a better steward of God’s creation (1 Corinthians 4:2 — Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful). This means that we must work with the poor and teach them how to exercise godly dominion over the earth.
COMPASSION for Those in Poverty. Our mission is to glorify God and advance His kingdom by loving others to Him. Here are four points to consider if we are to take seriously God’s mandate for loving the poor.
- Stop seeing the materially poor as the only impoverished people. All of us are suffering from some form of poverty (personal, spiritual, relational or material), and as a result, have been humbled in this life. Don’t forget that humility is having a realistic understanding of who we are in light of who God is. He alone is perfect in every way! We are not.
- Learn to distinguish the real needs of the poor.
- Do they need relief? This is the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering. Illustration: At my former church a couple showed up for worship several years ago, and when I asked where they lived, they told me “behind the new Wal-Mart”. As I pressed them for more details, I discovered that they had been living in a makeshift shelter with their new baby behind the Wal-Mart in Antioch. When I brought this need to the church, they responded very quickly with food, shelter and clothing. In fact, enough to fill a car and a truck. To have responded in any other way, would have been ungodly. James 2:15-16 says, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food (i.e. living in the midst of a crisis). 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?
- Do they need rehabilitation? When you rehab something, you restore it to its normal condition. In our ministry to the poor, rehabilitation means working with them to eliminate their poverty. In this stage it is vital that they take an active role in this process whenever possible. We must think in terms of partnering with the poor, not providing for them. We cannot force this on someone who does not want it. Illustration: In the case of the impoverished family I just mentioned, once we had cared for their immediate needs of food and temporary shelter, the church then began to help the couple find a permanent place to live and a job for the husband so that he could begin to support his family. To his credit, he was willing to work which greatly improved their chances of success.
- Do they need reconciliation? This is a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved (the helpers and those being helped) closer to being in right relationship with self, God, others and the material world. Illustration: After helping the family of three get situation into an apartment and assisting the dad in finding employment, we then located a church near their apartment that was willing to oversee their continued progress. This included establishing new patterns of living, and cultivating a relationship with God. We were very grateful for this congregation that graciously picked up the baton and continued to shepherd the young couple for months on end. Application: The easiest thing to do is to give relief. It demands only a short-term commitment and little if any participation on the part of the poor. Rehabilitation takes more effort and occasionally lends itself to disappointing results as the poor fail to live up to their commitments. Reconciliation requires the most work on the part of everyone, yet can also provide the most reward as all the parties involved grow in their relationships with God, themselves, others and the created order. (Summary: Stop seeing the materially poor as the only impoverished people; learn to distinguish the real needs of the poor; and finally…)
- Understand that no one has the power to alleviate poverty, but God Himself. This is precisely what He has done by providing the power to transform people (Ezekiel 36:26 — I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh). And listen to this…when you impact enough people, entire cultures can be changed!
- Get on board and begin to actively engage with the poor for the purpose of bringing relief, rehabilitation and reconciliation. This doesn’t mean you have to do it all. In fact, I doubt that you can. All you we need to do is to be willing to be one link in the chain that God creates to minister to the poor and needy. Illustration: This is what a friend of mine did when he and his wife joined FCS Urban Ministries. Chris and Rebecca Gray were both graduates of the United States Air Force Academy. They felt called of God to move into an apartment in one of the most dangerous housing developments in all of Atlanta. They did this so they could build relationships with the people. It didn’t take long before they started inviting families into their apartment. At first the children would sit on the floor. When asked “why?” they responded that they were taught to do so by their parents so as not to be a target for anyone who might want to pick one of them off.
Well, we’ve talked about a lot of subjects when it comes to the art of neighboring. Let me wrap up this series with a simple strategy that can guide us as we seek to love the people around us.
Invest some time getting to know the people God has purposefully brought into your lives. Have them over for dinner, take them to a show or help them paint their houses. Whatever … the only thing that matters is that you show genuine interest in getting to know and serve them.
Invite them to share with you some of their beliefs about life and God. Listen to their responses and don’t make it into a debate. Just ask good questions. Demonstrate that you really care what they think. If they seem interested, you can also invite them to attend church, a connection group or even a Christian movie like “I Can Only Imagine” with you.
Include them in your prayers. Pray that God will penetrate their hearts and reveal Himself and the truth of the Gospel. Keep in mind the words of John 6:44 — (Jesus speaking) — No man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.
Conclusion: This past week my sister called to tell me that she has a condition that makes her blood vessels and arteries very narrow. This means that not much blood is able to flow through her body. The doctor told Joy that she could die at any moment from a heart attack or stroke. Because I love her, I asked Joy about her spiritual life. She readily confessed that she believes in Jesus as her Savior and Lord. We talked for a while and the more she shared, the more convinced I was of her faith. I sent her a link to a daily devotional that I get that blesses my soul. She didn’t hesitate to download it for herself. Only God knows how much longer she has to live, but I know this, until He calls her home, I will continue to invest in my relationship with her, invite her to talk about her faith and include her in my prayers. Everything else in the hands of the Lord.